Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

This is the first live-action version of Tarzan that I watched. I'm not sure how historically accurate this is but it was the apt movie choice after the discussion I had at brunch on Sunday with Nikos, Denis, and Hélène.

See, as we were eating, our discussion led to colonisation. The Philippines, Senegal, and Peru were all colonies of European nations at one point or the other. Peru (1) gained independence from Spain in 1824. Spain ceded the Philippines (which had declared independence) to the United States of America in 1898. The Philippines gained independence from the USA in 1946 (2). Senegal (3) is the youngest nation represented at the breakfast table because it became independent from France in 1960. In contrast, Greece is one of the world's oldest civilisations. But it also had its share of colonisers before it became recognised as a state in the 1830s (4).

And so as Denis, Nikos, and I took our seats at the cinema, I found it serendipitous that we chose to watch The Legend of Tarzan. It began with a bit of trivia: The Congo was split between Belgium and the United Kingdom, thanks to the Berlin Conference (which reminded me of Spain and Portugal dividing the unknown world between them at the Treaty of Tordecillas, 5). The movie said that King Leopold II of Belgium was at the brink of bankruptcy and was desperate to find treasure to finance the kingdom's infrastructure projects. His envoy, Léon Rom, was unsuccessful in getting the diamonds in a mountain guarded by a savage tribe; in exchange for the diamonds, the tribal leader wanted Rom to give him Tarzan.

Then I saw the Congo, creeping through the black, cutting through the forest with a golden track.
Then along the riverbank, a thousand miles, tattooed cannibals danced in files;
Then I heard the boom of the blood-lust song and a thigh bone beating on a tin-pan gong.

In the UK, a man called John Clayton III had taken his rightful place in society, and was married to Jane. He didn't want to go back to Africa upon the invitation of Belgium but was convinced to visit when the American delegate told him of his suspicions: the Congolese were being sold to slavery by the Belgians. So off John, Jane, and the American went. Turned out that the invitation was a ruse; it was designed to lure Tarzan (John) to the tribal leader who wanted revenge for the death of his son. His son had been killed by Tarzan when the kid, who just had just come of age, went to kill a gorilla as part of the tribe's ritual. Of course, it had to be Tarzan's gorilla mother that got killed. Anyway, Tarzan escaped but Jane didn't; and Tarzan had to save Jane from the evil clutches of the Belgian diamond hunter and the savage tribal leader. The animals of the jungle recognised Tarzan and helped him rescue Jane from the Belgian camp. The tribes, including the one that wanted to exact revenge on Tarzan, helped him out too. Tarzan and Jane eventually settled in the village where Jane used to live and their eldest child was born there.

Listen to the yell of Leopold's ghost, burning in hell for his hand-maimed host.
Hear how the demons chuckle and yell, cutting his hands off down in hell.

And what of the American delegate? He went back to the United Kingdom to show evidence to the Prime Minister that the slave trade was going on in the Congo. I suppose, in real life, that Leopold II was criticised severely for this by the international community, by his government, and by his fellow monarchs. He must have been most unpopular. But the movie never showed what consequences he faced.

Redeemed were the forests, the beasts, and the men, and only the vulture dared again, 
By the far, lone mountains of the moon to cry, in the silence, the Congo tune:
"Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you, Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you."

The movie injected some historical perspective into the plot but I don't know how accurate this imaginary take on history is. I mean, I could easily refer to the Disney royal bloodline theory because it is fictitious... but embedding Tarzan's story in a narrative of greed by the Belgian king, I'm not sure. It did give meat to the story, I'd admit to that. 

And the movie reminded me of one of my favourite poems, The Congo: A Study of the Negro Race (6) by Vachel Lindsay (select lines in italics in this post). I first heard this poem performed by a a speech choir when I was in high school and I was in awe with the power behind the cadence of the words, the onomatopeia, the rhythm. When I had received some more literature education (in college), I understood a bit more and I was just flabbergasted at how racist this poem could be taken... but then, this poem was written in the early 20th century. And Martin Luther King's civil rights movement didn't take form until the 1950s. Now that I've read it again, after watching The Legend of Tarzan, I understand a bit more about the context. I didn't know who Leopold was until I've seen the movie, for instance. In fact, now that I've read it again many years after I first heard it, I see that Lindsay must be onto something important with this poem. And this Tarzan movie showed it in the sidelines, but not in the main plot. To me (now), The Congo doesn't sound so racist as before because I interpret it (now) as a poem about finding one's identity; it is malleable but the roots will always be there to come back to. 

We never know; I might go back to this poem someday and see it in a different light yet again.

Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM.