Edward Said on Tarzan and Johnny Weismuller

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Aug 19 18:22:44 MDT 2003


(Last week somebody told me that he appreciated my "Quiet American" review
and asked for some advice on how to write, not that I am any expert. I told
him that I try to learn from my favorite writers, including Edward Said,
who is on the payroll with me at Columbia University. I see less of Said
nowadays, probably because he has been weakened by leukemia, but 10 years
ago I always used to enjoy watching him striding down Broadway--a tall,
handsome, always stylishly dressed man with an aristocratic bearing. When I
got the idea to write about "Lawrence of Arabia", I bought a copy of Said's
latest collection of articles titled "Reflections on Exile". To come to the
point, this 617 page tome is not only some of the best writing I've seen in
years, it is also *entertaining*. These are the concluding paragraphs of an
essay titled "Jungle Calling: On Johnny Weismuller's Tarzan".)

Whereas Burroughs clearly had a worked-out theory about the hierarchy of
races, the film Tarzan as represented by Weissmuller was actually more
complex in his racial attitudes. Everyone who has seen the films remembers
that the treatment of blacks is in the main very hostile. Tarzan spends
considerable time fighting native tribes who worship strange gods, kidnap,
torture, and cannibalize other human beings, and who generally do not
observe the assumed norms of human behavior. Several of these groups, such
as the Leopard men (Tarzan and the Leopard Woman, 1946), are animal
worshipers and deviants; others, like the Ganelonis in Tarzan Escapes
(1936), are emanations of an almost gratuitous evil. Yet Tarzan's
relationships with whites, especially those who visit Africa, are uniformly
poor. Most often Tarzan suspects them on sight. He regularly confiscates
and destroys their cameras and guns, totally distrusts their schemes (even
when Jane intercedes on their behalf), and is routinely the victim or their
nefarious designs. White men are hunters, they are slave dealers, they
traffic in contraband, and, by the time World War II has rolled around,
they are Nazi agents. Weissmuller signifies his disapproval or them most
basically when he immediately refuses to help them capture wild animals,
not only for exhibition but for scientific purposes. In the one film whose
main action is set in the Western (and white) world Tarzan's New York
Adventure, Tarzan is shown to be completely odds with the "normal" world:
he cannot wear a suit; he is upset by civilized justice and creates mayhem
in a courtroom. He finally eludes the police by diving off the Brooklyn Bridge.

Weissmuller's taciturn opposition to any white outsider does not exactly
balance his savagery when dealing with blacks, but at least it is
consistent with his general attitude toward the jungle. Although I cannot
absolutely vouch for it, I feel practically certain in saying that Tarzan
does not actively provoke even the most menacing and appalling of his black
antagonists. He encounters them only when for one reason or another he must
stray into their territory, and I can recall him saying on one occasion
that he would prefer not to do even that. In other words, Weissmuller's
position is that of the jungle inhabitant who understands and accepts the
system, even when it conflicts with his values or threatens his life. Any
intruders or over-reachers are to be opposed and fought because they
destroy the finely tuned ecological zero state from which Tarzan himself
springs, and which he defends earnestly. So that while Burroughs and the
various directors and writers who made the films expressed essentially
racist views about "inferior" people, there is an unresolved contradiction
between those views and Weismuller's behavior, which is irreducibly hostile
not just to unfriendly (but unjustifiably provoked) blacks but to anything
that might introduce change into the ensemble of jungle balance.

One of the strangest and most unlikely partial confirmations of my theory
comes from Frantz Fanon, the brilliant anti-imperialist author who was born
in Martinique, became a psychiatrist, and then joined the Algerian FLN as
one of its leading theoreticians of struggle against French colonialism. He
died of leukemia in 1961, one year before Algerian independence was
achieved, at just about the time his last book, The Wretched of the Earth
(with a famous preface by Jean-Paul Sartre), was published. In an earlier
book, Black Skins, White Masks (1952), Fanon spoke about Tarzan in a
footnote, noting that when one of the films was seen in Martinique everyone
in the audience tended to side with Tarzan against the blacks; the same
people seeing the film in France feel their black identity much more
acutely and are consequently upset by the sight of a white abusing a lot of
natives. Tarzan appears as the racial enemy in one setting, whereas in
another he is interpreted as a hero who fights to preserve a natural order
against those who disturb it.

This is not to deny that Tarzan's world or rather the world of Weissmuller
is uncomplicated and dangerous, but to say that Tarzan's powers are always
adequate to it. It comes as a small surprise to recall that Weissmuller was
preceded by a few other screen competitors, none of whom lasted as long as
he did or are remembered with anything like his aura. He was the natural
hero in an age of heroes with supernatural or extra-human powers, men like
Captain Marvel Superman, Spiderman, whose relatively boring attraction was
that they could do things only dreamed of by ordinary men and women.
Weissmuller embodied the man whose entirely human powers allowed him to
exist in the jungle with dignity and prestige. This was a matter not just
of killing lions and giant snakes (he did that brilliantly) but also of
flying through trees like a wonderfully resourceful trapeze artist, or
swimming in beautiful lakes (constructed on a back lot in Hollywood) faster
than the fastest crocodile, or climbing tremendous heights in bare feet and
a loincloth. Surrounded by danger and challenge, Weissmuller was never
armed with anything more than a large hunting knife and, on occasion, a
lariat plus bow and arrows. In one of the rare ecstatic moments of my early
adolescence--I must have been about ten--I recall saying to an older male
relative that once in the trees or on his escarpment Weissmuller-Tarzan
could hold off twenty or thirty, or maybe even fifty, men on the ground.

Juxtaposed with the wall-to-wall elaborate tackiness of the contemporary
world there is an irrelevant beauty to the whole idea of Weissmuller's
self-sufficiency and relative silence. Yet I still find it attractively
compelling. Remember that Weissmuller seemed to have no life except in the
Tarzan films. This was before the days of talk shows, of massive television
hype, of academic analyses of popular culture. When I saw him in the late
1940s and early 1950s as Jungle Jim--an older, chubbier, and fully clothed
man who actually spoke, and seemed to reason, like everyone
else--Weissmuller in a sense had already happened and was over. He belonged
to the world of Hollywood's fantasy lands: the Orient that was peopled with
Jon Hall, Maria Montez, and Sabu (in which Genghis Khan was referred to as
"Genghiz Kaahan"); Betty Grable's Hawaii; the roads that led Bob Hope and
Bing Crosby to places like Morocco; and Carmen Miranda's Latin America.
Weissrnuller's African jungle was never filmed on location, but it had
modest integrity, unlike the primitive and mischievous hyperrealism of
Schwarzenegger's Conan films, whose relationship (and debt) to Tarzan is
similar to the way plastic toys resemble, but are somehow inferior to,
wooden toys.

Weissmuller's life after his career as Tarzan was like a grotesque parody
of his jungle life--Tarzan lost in civilization, or Tarzan from riches to
rags. Four of his five marriages ended in divorce. Most of the money he
made was squandered on high living (his drinking problems were notorious),
and until his death he was plagued by the IRS. For a rime he worked at
Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, but he moved to Fort Lauderdale, where he was
honorary curator of the International Swimming Hall of Fame until a series
of strokes in the 19705 left him an invalid. In 1984 he died in Acapulco, a
short distance from the beach where his last Tarzan movie, the only one
shot outside Hollywood, Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948), was filmed.

Certainly the Tarzan films and novels readily lend themselves to the
disenchantments of Freudian and Marxist analysis. Tarzan is an infantilized
"lord of the jungle," a man whose apparent adult authority is actually
undermined by his activities as an overgrown child running around in a
bathing suit, escaping grown-up responsibility more or less forever. Tarzan
is the embodiment of an unresolved (avoided?) Oedipal tension; this is
especially true in the films, where Weissmuller's parentage is not even
referred to, leading one to suspect that he did away with both father and
mother. Nor does Tarzan's jungle world, with its superficially Utopian
atmosphere of what Marx called "primitive communism," bear up under
scrutiny. He exploits everyone--blacks, animals, women--and does precious
little besides. Lolling about in the trees is not the same thing as
productive work.

Yet before we throw Tarzan completely away as a useless degenerate without
either social or aesthetic value, he ought to be given a chance as what in
fact he is, an immigrant. Yes, he belongs to the same epoch that produced
traveling imperialists like Lawrence of Arabia, Kurtz in Conrad's Heart of
Darkness, and of course Cecil Rhodes, but despite Hollywood and Burroughs
himself, Tarzan is much less of a dominant figure than any of those white
men. He is vulnerable, disadvantaged, and because of his lonely silence in
the movies, pathetic. Weissmuller's face tells a story of stoic
deprivation. In a world full of danger this orphan without upward mobility
or social advancement as alternatives is, I've always felt, a forlorn
survivor. Quite clearly that is not what Hollywood intended to convey. But
it is what still comes through: Tarzan the he diverted from worldly success
and with no hope of rehabilitation ' permanent exile. More unusual still is
the fact that Weissmuller's performances as Tarzan are both better and more
uncompromising than the novelistic original. Time for a Weissmuller revival.


Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org




More information about the Marxism mailing list