Tarzan, King of the Jungle, swings into his centennial

OCTOBER, 2012: The King of the Jungle turns 100 this autumn—a birthday celebrated by the U.S. Postal Service with a new “Forever” commeorative stamp. In addition to millions of fans around the world, Tarzan also is celebrated by leading scientists and environmentalists, including Jane Goodall, who credits Tarzan with awakening interest in studying and protecting African wildlife.

Goodall is such a fan that she regularly talks about how Tarzan stories first sparked her own fascination with Africa and apes. As a girl, she said in one newspaper interview, “I took whichever book I was reading at the time up to the top of my favorite tree in the garden, a beech tree. There, I imagined myself living in the forest, living with and helping Tarzan. The more I read, the more passionately I fell in love with Tarzan.”

In another interview, Goodall admitted with a smile that she was a bit jealous of her namesake in the novels: “I thought she was a real wimp and that I would have made a better mate for Tarzan.”

When the first Disney animated Tarzan movie debuted in 1999, Chicago film critic Roger Ebert called Tarzan “the most durable movie character in history” and wrote: “Something deep within the Tarzan myth speaks to us. … Maybe it’s the notion that we can all inhabit this planet together, man and beast, and get along.”


Even the official Edgar Rice Burroughs biography, published online by the family-owned company that still controls his licenses, says that Burroughs was a flat-out failure at almost every career he tried—before he started writing fiction. As a young man, he had served with the U.S. Seventh Cavalry in Arizona, then later worked as a cowboy, shopkeeper, railroad policeman and even tried his hand at gold mining. At one low point in his career, he tried to sell pencil sharpeners. Desperate to succeed at something, he wrote up a fanciful story that he sent to the editor of All-Story Magazine. The manuscript was the first part of a novel that today is considered a landmark in the history of the science-fiction genre, titled Under the Moons of Mars in All-Story’s February 1912 issue.

Of course, Burroughs’ Martian science-fiction tales about John Carter aren’t so popular today. In fact, the Disney studios’ huge production of a live-action version of John Carter was released earlier this year and turned into a boxoffice bomb, so bad that it forced Disney to reshuffle its corporate leadership. The John Carter Martian stories were hugely successful throughout most of Burroughs’ life—but even his official biography admits that his literary instincts weren’t infallible. After the success of the Maritan tale in All-Story, he was eager to write a historical series set in the swashbuckling age of England’s greatest kings. Fortunately for millions of fans today, the All-Story editor rejected that idea out of hand and told Burroughs that he’d do much better if he stuck to “the damphool stuff”!

TARZAN SWINGS INTO POPULAR CULTURE: At left is the October, 1912, cover of All-Story magazine, followed in 1914 by the first book-length publication of a Tarzan tale, at right.Burroughs went back to his desk and began dreaming up fanciful tales, once again. In October 1912, the same year that Burroughs kicked off the blockbuster Martian series, he was back on the cover of All-Story with his first Tarzan yarn. Today, that creative output in 1912 is stunning. He had created two groundbreaking, genre-founding series in less than a year. That’s a record of literary innovation that few other writers could hope to claim. The first book-length Tarzan publication came two years later in 1914.

Want to read Tarzan and John Carter for free?

While the Burroughs’ family company still licenses some of the author’s creations, the bulk of his novels now are in public domain and are freely shared on the Project Gutenberg website. If you’ve never used that site, look around the indexes and you’ll find multiple e-editions of most books that can be uploaded into various e-readers. Or, if you prefer to go through the Amazon Kindle store, you’ll find several huge collections of his stories priced at just a few dollars that are one click away from your device.

To give you a feel for Burroughs’ prose, here are the early lines in his first Tarzan novel in which he describes Tarzan’s parents—British aristocrats—disappearing into Africa on their fateful journey into the jungles, where young Tarzan later would emerge:

We know only that on a bright May morning in 1888, John, Lord Greystoke, and Lady Alice sailed from Dover on their way to Africa. A month later they arrived at Freetown where they chartered a small sailing vessel, the Fuwalda, which was to bear them to their final destination. And here John, Lord Greystoke, and Lady Alice, his wife, vanished from the eyes and from the knowledge of men.


Want to stump friends with a Tarzan movie trivia question? Ask, “Who was the first movie Tarzan?” One answer is that we don’t know for sure. Back in 1912, movie production was a Wild West of independent short silent films, so it is likely that early knock offs of Burroughs’ creation were made with unknown actors. The best answer is: Elmo Lincoln, a shaggy haired, barrel-chested strong man who appeared in a number of D.W. Griffith silent epics before playing Tarzan in 1918. He was such a hit that he made a sequel, then also played the King of the Jungle in a serial—a series of short movie cliffhangers that were used in movie theaters to keep the audience coming back week after week.

Olympic Hero Johnny Weissmuller takes over

CLICK THE COVER TO VISIT THE AMAZON PAGE.The most celebrated movie Tarzan was Johnny Weissmuller, who had racked up five Olympic medals for swimming and one for water polo before taking on the role of the first talking Tarzan in the 1932 feature film that made him an international celebrity. Burroughs, still actively working at that time, said publicly that he liked Weissmuller in the role—but the author strongly disliked a key feature of the movie script: Tarzan suddenly became barely articulate. Burroughs’ character was an brilliant, literate figure who could move back and forth between civilized and natural worlds. In fact, Burroughs got so disgusted as one Weissmuller movie after another rolled out of Hollywood that he personally supported the creation of the Herman Brix Tarzan series with a far more articulate hero. Care to read more? Wikipedia has an extensive Johnny Weissmuller overview, plus an article on Herman Brix (actually Bruce Bennett) that describes the creation of his Tarzan films. And, if you’re really fascinated by this part of our story—you’ll want to check out Wikipedia’s very detailed overview of Tarzan in film and other non-print media.

Want to relive the greatest of Weismuller’s performances? Today, the best available DVD set of the Weissmuller films starts with The Tarzan Collection Starring Johnny Weissmuller, a six-film collection now available from Amazon. WARNING: The early Tarzan movies are rough stuff to watch today, quite literally. Many Baby Boomers and older adults fondly remember these black-and-white movies from endless television reruns. But, if you’re thinking of showing these films to your kids today—think twice. The early Weissmuller films involve many jarring scenes of humans killing the very animals that, today, Jane Goodall and other Tarzan fans are trying to save. Even Tarzan himself, an overall defender of his wild domain, is shown wiping out one fierce creature after another. Plus, the racial attitudes of the 1930s seem ridiculously biased, today.


It’s impossible to overemphasize Tarzan’s impact on global culture over the past century. Not only did Burroughs’ tales awaken a new appreciation of ecology and cross-cultural conflict—but the actual production of books and movies about Tarzan over the past 100 years charts our ever-changing values about nature, morals, religion and the environment.

One thing that’s great about the six-film DVD set (shown above) is that Turner decided to restore the nude scenes to the 1934 sequel Tarzan and His Mate. This film was a milestone in the tangled and controversial history of the creation of a Hollywood Production Code in 1934. Religious leaders across the United States, especially Catholic leaders, built such a persuasive campaign against Hollywood values that studio bosses agreed to meet with their critics and hammer out a code of self censorship to avoid the potential of federal legislation.

The first movie to run afoul of the Production Code was Tarzan and His Mate. Maureen O’Sullivan, Weissmuller’s costar, declined to shoot a long swimming sequence in which Tarzan and Jane were to demonstrate their ultimate back-to-nature relationship by skinny dipping in a deep river. Instead, Weissmuller and the producers turned to another Olympic swimming medalist, Josephine McKim, who agreed to double for O’Sullivan and shoot three versions of the swimming sequence: partially clothed, topless and nude. The studio planned to distribute three versions of the film to appropriate regions of the country, but the Production Code enforced a re-cut of the main negative to block any nudity.

In preparing the films for DVD release (and occasional theatrical revivals around the country), Turner has restored the original nude footage. As retored, it is an eye-popping scene when it shows up in a vintage black and white film, but today it would likely earn only a PG rating.


Today, Tarzan fans can pick almost any chapter in Tarzan’s long and complex media history and explore cross-cultural themes. For example, Prince Valiant creator Hal Foster—widely regarded as one of the greatest comic storytellers in history—took the helm of the Tarzan comic strip for a remarkable run that is highly sought-after by collectors of comics to this day. Hal Foster immediately headed Tarzan into adventurous relationships with the French—borrowing on Burroughs’ own stories, which gave a key role to French influence on Tarzan’s development. Most American fans today have no idea how extensively Tarzan pioneered cross-cultural relationships.

One of the biggest religous questions involving Tarzan focuses on Johnny Weissmuller’s ethnic and religious origins. The Wikipedia version of Weissmuller’s biography lists various ways in which his family (originally from the region that today is Romania-Hungary) can be considered fully Christian, including baptismal records. Nevertheless, a widespread belief that Weissmuller’s family was at least partially Jewish persists to this day—and, more importantly, was widely believed by Jews early in the 20th century.

Dr. Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, recently published a lengthy overview of the important impact of Tarzan—Weissmuller himself, the Tarzan myth and even one Tarzan movie producer—on Jewish aspirations. Whatever the accurate history might be about Weissmuller’s origins, his Tarzan persona was widely regarded as a heroic Jewish figure. Medoff’s lengthy article in the Algemeiner online newspaper points out that Weissmuller’s Tarzan was so popular among Jews in the 1930s and 1940s that many top Jewish writers produced their own Tarzan fan fiction in which Tarzan played a role in helping Jewish refugees.


This is one centennial celebration that’s not merely looking into the distant past—because Tarzan clearly has a lively future ahead of him. Just as the iconic man-beast has been swinging through cross-cultural conflicts for 100 years—he will continue shaping our hopes and fears in the future.

Right now, the Hollywood Reporter says Spike TV is shooting episodes for “UrbanTarzan,” a show featuring extreme animal handler John Brennan that will premiere in the spring of 2013. Spike TV feels this is a perfect fit for its “male-oriented” audience. No, this series doesn’t head into the jungles. This real-life show will feature Brennan tracking down and removing potentially dangerous animals from American neighborhoods—an escaped python one week, an escaped lion the next, and so on.

Tarzan’s history in comic strips and comic books is as fascinating and full of quirky cultural turns as his history in print, TV and movies. Some great—and some not-so-great—comic artists tackled the Lord of the Jungle over the past century. For true fans of comic history, the bombs are almost as interesting as the crowning moments in Tarzan’s comic history. Overall, the gems—like Hal Foster’s original run with the comic strip—are highly collectible to this day. Looking ahead, a pair of talented comic book creators, Arvid Nelson and Robert Castro, are huge Burroughs fans. They’ve created Martian comics, based on Burroughs’ science-fiction tales, but their most popular new collaboration is Lord of the Jungle, coming out in January 2013 in a collection available from Amazon. Nelson and Castro claim that they are trying to produce the closest pulp version of Burroughs’ original stories that we’ve seen for many years. Their original single-issue comic books, which will be reproduced in the January collection, certainly are full of rip-roaring, muscle-bulging action.

Twilight fans also may recognize Tarzan’s latest portrayer in the upcoming 3-D take on the century-old series, as Kellan Lutz (aka Emmett Cullen) just received the starring role in the newest live-action Tarzan movie.

Want ideas for kids? Try these ideas for classroom activities, courtesy of eHow. If your child really wants to take a walk on the wild side, craft a Tarzan Halloween costume, with instructions at Disney’s FamilyFun.

Got your own Tarzan story to share? Please, email us at [email protected]

Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.


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