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Tomgram: Adam Hochschild, Letting Tarzan Swing Through History

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Even TD knows when it's beat. Thursday is clearly a media day reserved for pure Trumpery. There's no point in fighting it, so this site is taking it off. The next post will be on Sunday, July 24th. Tom]

At almost 72, I recently went to The Legend of Tarzan, the IMAX version, with a screen so big I almost stepped inside it and a soundscape so all-enveloping that my already pathetic hearing might have been blown away for good. Still, however "immersive" the experience was meant to be, I found it so much less thrilling than the 3-D of my childhood. I'll never forget watching Fort Ti in 1953 at age nine and hitting the floor the moment the first flaming arrow headed directly for me.

As for Tarzan, what were they thinking in Hollywood? I watched bemused as the Ape Man flexed his creaking joints, swung from vine to vine, and fought all manner of friend and foe in an effort to be up-to-date. If you want to see a white savior film that's more of our moment, check out The Free State of Jones, set in the "jungles" of southern Mississippi in the Civil War era, with plenty of Tarzan-style vines to go around. All I can say is that, as far as I was concerned, only the animated great apes -- Tarzan's buddies and rivals -- showed a spark of real life.

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Still, I wouldn't have missed the film for the world. After all, it's the first action movie that -- as you'll see from TomDispatch regular Adam Hochschild's piece today -- has ever based itself in any way on a book I edited, in this case his classic King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa. As a result, I left the theater filled with wild fantasies. (Even editors can dream, can't they?) I began to imagine Who Rules the World?, Noam Chomsky's latest book, absorbed into a future X-Men: Apocalypse America. Or the late Chalmers Johnson's Dismantling the Empire as the basis for the next Jason Bourne romp. Or Ann Jones's They Were Soldiers at the grim heart of American Sniper: The Next Generation. Or, in Tarzan-style, Andrew Bacevich's writing on America's twenty-first-century Middle Eastern wars as part of a reboot of Lawrence of Arabia -- perhaps King David of Iraq: The Surge to Nowhere.

Now, let me dream on while you read about Adam Hochschild's encounter with what might be thought of as the latest version of Planet of the Apes. Tom

Me Tarzan, You Adam
How I Met the Ghosts of My Own Work in a Local Multiplex
By Adam Hochschild

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Some time ago I wrote a book about one of the great crimes of the last 150 years: the conquest and exploitation of the Congo by King Leopold II of Belgium. When King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa was published, I thought I had found all the major characters in that brutal patch of history. But a few weeks ago I realized that I had left one out: Tarzan.

Let me explain. Although a documentary film based on my book did appear, I often imagined what Hollywood might do with such a story. It would, of course, have featured the avaricious King Leopold, who imposed a slave labor system on his colony to extract its vast wealth in ivory and wild rubber, with millions dying in the process. And it would surely have included the remarkable array of heroic figures who resisted or exposed his misdeeds. Among them were African rebel leaders like Chief Mulume Niama, who fought to the death trying to preserve the independence of his Sanga people; an Irishman, Roger Casement, whose exposure to the Congo made him realize that his own country was an exploited colony and who was later hanged by the British; two black Americans who courageously managed to get information to the outside world; and the Nigerian-born Hezekiah Andrew Shanu, a small businessman who secretly leaked documents to a British journalist and was hounded to death for doing so. Into the middle of this horror show, traveling up the Congo River as a steamboat officer in training, came a young seaman profoundly shocked by what he saw. When he finally got his impressions onto the page, he would produce the most widely read short novel in English, Heart of Darkness.

How could all of this not make a great film?

I found myself thinking about how to structure it and which actors might play what roles. Perhaps the filmmakers would offer me a bit part. At the very least, they would undoubtedly seek my advice. And so I pictured myself on location with the cast, a voice for good politics and historical accuracy, correcting a detail here, adding another there, making sure the film didn't stint in evoking the full brutality of that era. The movie, I was certain, would make viewers in multiplexes across the world realize at last that colonialism in Africa deserved to be ranked with Nazism and Soviet communism as one of the great totalitarian systems of modern times.

In case you hadn't noticed, that film has yet to be made. And so imagine my surprise, when, a few weeks ago, in a theater in a giant mall, I encountered two characters I had written about in King Leopold's Ghost. And who was onscreen with them? A veteran of nearly a century of movies -- silent and talking, in black and white as well as color, animated as well as live action (not to speak of TV shows and video games): Tarzan.

The Legend of Tarzan, an attempt to jumpstart that ancient, creaking franchise for the twenty-first century, has made the most modest of bows to changing times by inserting a little more politics and history than dozens of the ape man's previous adventures found necessary. It starts by informing us that, at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, the European powers began dividing up the colonial spoils of Africa, and that King Leopold II now holds the Congo as his privately owned colony.

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Tarzan, however, is no longer in the jungle where he was born and where, after his parents' early deaths, he was raised by apes. Instead, married to Jane, he has taken over his ancestral title, Lord Greystoke, and has occupied his palatial manor in England. (Somewhere along the line he evidently took a crash course that brought him from "Me Tarzan, you Jane" to the manners and speech of a proper earl.)

But you won't be surprised to learn that Africa needs him badly. There's a diamond scandal, a slave labor system, and other skullduggery afoot in Leopold's Congo. A bold, sassy black American, George Washington Williams, persuades him to head back to the continent to investigate, and comes along as his sidekick. The villain of the story, Leopold's top dog in the Congo, scheming to steal those African diamonds, is Belgian Captain Leon Rom, who promptly kidnaps Tarzan and Jane. And from there the plot only thickens, even if it never deepens. Gorillas and crocodiles, cliff-leaping, heroic rescues, battles with man and beast abound, and in the movie's grand finale, Tarzan uses his friends, the lions, to mobilize thousands of wildebeest to storm out of the jungle and wreak havoc on the colony's capital, Boma.

With Jane watching admiringly, Tarzan and Williams then sink the steamboat on which the evil Rom is trying to spirit the diamonds away, while thousands of Africans lining the hills wave their spears and cheer their white savior. Tarzan and Jane soon have a baby, and seem destined to live happily ever after -- at least until The Legend of Tarzan II comes along.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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