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Fiction merges with historical fact in Tarzan reboot


“Your Majesty’s Government has been, and is now, guilty of waging unjust and cruel wars against natives, with the hope of securing slaves and women, to minister to the behests of the officers of your government.”

—from George Washington Williams’ letter to King Leopold II of Belgium, July 18, 1890.

The problem with depicting actual characters is the inevitability of pesky history buffs pointing out all the factual inaccuracies. In “The Legend of Tarzan,” Samuel L. Jackson steps into the role of intrepid sidekick along side “True Blood’s” Alexander Skarsgård in the latest incarnation of the King of the Jungle. This time however, Jackson’s character is an actual person of considerable accomplishment.

George Washington Williams (1849-1891) was, by turns, a soldier, ordained minister, member of Ohio’s State Legislature, and a prolific writer. He was not, as the film suggests, a diplomat, but then again, Tarzan was not a real person, even if his persona has had more cultural impact than most living people. Ample proof of this is evident by the 200-odd movies (evolved from the original 24 novels by creator Edgar Rice Burroughs) featuring him since 1918, and the San Fernando Valley neighborhood where his early exploits were filmed named in his honor.

Williams did, however, gain an audience of King Leopold and went to Mother Africa on a fact-

finding tour to document the atrocities perpetrated by that monarch in the Congo (which is the bases upon which this tale is hinged). Jackson’s portrayal of the venerated man is (given his tendency for impassioned performances) relatively subdued; the script has him basically shadow Skarsgård during the course of the latter’s heroics. In the time honored tradition of typecast second banana, he does emerge to save the hero in the film’s denouement.

As for Skarsgård, he proves adept at transitioning from civilized Lord Greystoke (a member of Parliament no less!) to physically (and intellectually) superior African savior, with dominion over all the animals and people therein.

To be fair, most of the cast is one-dimensional as well, with the exception of Christoph Waltz, by now the villain of choice in millennium cinema. The plot hinges on him, Leopold’s envoy Léon Rom (another real historical figure) luring Greystroke back to Africa in the first stage of a convoluted scheme to neogotiate a trove of diamonds from a tribal chief (Djimon Hounsou) to save the Belgian government from bankruptcy.

Margot Robbie as “Jane” struggles to live up to the contemporary ideal of a “strong female character” who predictably demonstrates her feisty nature by refusing to languish at their plush Victorian estate, then helps drive the plot by getting herself captured by Waltz so that Tarzan/Greystoke may rescue her from his clutches.

Supporting them is a consortium of talented actors; some of them British stage veterans with nothing to do. They include Academy Award winner Jim Broadbent as the British Prime Minister, and “Penny Dreadful’s” Simon Russell Beale.

On a positive note, “The Legend of Tarzan” is a handsomely mounted production, due to the efforts of production designer Stuart Craig, cinematographer Henry Braham and director David Yates. The sweeping panoramas and visuals are in no small part due to Yate’s background in helming four of the films in the “Harry Potter” franchise. The interaction between the physical actors and the Computer Generated Images of the jungle creatures are among the most convincing in recent memory.

Alas, “The Legend of Tarzan” never transcends beyond its intriguing premise of blending fiction with historical events. Tarzan is a character seeped in the tradition of European-American imperialism, and thusly remains a problematic for reincarnation in these enlightened times (Disney solved this problem in its 1999 animated version of the saga by simply omitting any Black characters in a tale set on the African continent). Co-script writer Craig Brewer is a seasoned filmmaker with a track record for weaving stories featuring provocative (and potentially offensive) characters of African descent (television’s “Empire,” and motion pictures “Hustle and Flow” and “Black Snake Moan” also starring Jackson).

In the final analysis, however, all of it’s attempts to infuse this iconic character with modern sensibilities wind up as a collection of standardized depictions repackaged for the millennium.

“The Legend of Tarzan” (PG-13) opened July 1, and is in wide release citywide.