Tarzan 101 Movie Review | Tarzan of the Apes (1918)

Scott Tracy Griffin covers the Tarzan movies in Tarzan: The Centennial Celebration, but unlike the novels, he doesn’t talk about them one by one. Instead he separates them into eras: silent films, MGM, etc. That’s understandable, but I’d like to dig into them more deeply than that, so I’m going to include some Tarzan movie reviews in Tarzan 101 as a supplement to walking through Griffin’s book.

The first Tarzan film was the silent Tarzan of the Apes in 1918. It was apparently a two-hour film, but half of the footage is lost. What’s left appears as a special feature on Al Bohl’s documentary about the making of it: Tarzan, Lord of the Louisiana Jungle. It’s probably not fair to judge the film on half its footage, but that’s what we got and there’s enough there to get a feel for what the filmmaker’s were after.

It’s a pretty faithful adaptation. It opens in London with Lord Greystoke’s appointment to stop the Arab slave trading in British Africa. I’m cynical enough to suspect that the parts of that sentence that most trouble the characters are “Arab” and “British,” not “slave trading,” but that’s not explicit in the movie. We can pretend that the British were morally opposed to slave trading in general if we want. What I like about the scene though is Lady Greystoke’s insistence on going with her husband. The men don’t want to let her and her reply is something like, “Can only men have courage?” She knows it’s going to be dangerous and inconvenient, but she doesn’t care, because she’s brave. Though that’s right out of the novel, the film’s Lady Alice isn’t as weak as Burroughs’, who’s so fragile that she goes insane after an animal attack.
As in Burroughs’ novel, there’s a mutiny on the ship to Africa and the Greystokes are put on shore. In the film, their ally amongst the mutineers is a man named Binns, who plays a much larger role than his counterpart in the novel. Binns escapes the ship in order to continue looking out for the Greystokes, but he’s captured by those Arab slave traders and tortured for years. He comes in and out of the story at key times, eventually teaching young Tarzan to read before going back to England to let Tarzan’s relatives know that an heir of Greystoke is still alive. It’s a major change from the novel – and an unnecessary one, I think – but I can see why the screenwriters wanted to help explain some of the more incredible and coincidental parts of Burroughs’ plot.
The Greystokes’ life in the jungle is an accurate, though abbreviated version of what’s in the novel, as is Tarzan’s early life among the apes. Young Tarzan is played by 11-year-old Gordon Griffith, who does an amazing job of communicating the various emotions Tarzan goes through as a boy: mischievous playfulness with the apes, careless curiosity in his parents’ cabin, concern over how different he looks from the apes, and joy at finally figuring out why that is. He’s a fine actor and a great Boyhood Tarzan. It’s no wonder that he was asked back to play young versions of Tarzan and Korak in a few other films following this one.

Adult Tarzan is played by Elmo Lincoln, an enormous actor with an unfortunate wig and headband. At first look, Lincoln appears to be a bad actor, hamming up his performance with over-exuberant gestures and chest-thumping like a professional wrestler. Some of that’s to be expected in silent acting, but Lincoln goes overboard. After a while though, I realized what he was doing.
His performance started to remind me of Griffith’s as Young Tarzan and I figured out that Lincoln was playing his character as a child in the body of a grown man. Instead of crazy, his gestures are meant to make him look innocent and uninhibited. That reading is supported by the way he acts when he meets Jane. The literary Tarzan is curious and attracted to Jane, but he’s also noble and polite. Lincoln’s Tarzan woos Jane like a kid on a playground. He’s shy and uncomfortable and inappropriate around her, and she has to teach him how to behave around women.
It’s not my Tarzan, but it’s as valid a choice I guess as Johnny Weissmuller’s monosyllabic grunts. But where Weissmuller’s version still manages to hold onto Tarzan’s dignity, Lincoln’s doesn’t. The juxtaposition of how childish he’s acting with how large he is makes him look uncomfortable and silly.

Even the two-hour version of the film only covers the first half of the novel it’s named after. The movie ends weirdly, with Jane’s party out in the jungle looking for her when Tarzan – who’s rescued her from cannibals – returns her to the cabin. As I said before, the romance between the two of them has been awkward up to that point, so the audience is supposed to be uncertain about Jane’s feelings for Tarzan. He hasn’t completely repulsed her, but she also hasn’t warmed up to him as obviously as she does in the book. The film ends with her calling out to him as he’s about to return to the jungle and then they run into each other’s arms. If the movie had just been about the romance, that would be a fine ending, but there’s a lot more going on and plot threads are dangling all over the place. It feels very unfinished.
The plan of course was to complete the story in the sequel. It was a shady thing to do since National Film Corporation had only bought the rights to the one book and were milking two movies out of it, but the scheme worked and they made Romance of Tarzan out of the second half. Unfortunately, that movie is lost.
There was some drama around the release of Romance because it caused problems with the adaptation of Burroughs’ second novel that he was trying to get going. That movie is also lost, so since I won’t be reviewing it, I think I’ll wait and cover it when we get to that section of Griffin’s Centennial Celebration.

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