Tarzan of the Apes (1918)

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Watching Tarzan of the Apes is, I imagine, a bit like being an actual movie goer in 1918. And I mean being a movie goer in some store-front movie house on the Western prairies, not worshiping at one of the temple-to-cinema movie palaces of urban centers. Which is to say, Tarzan of the Apes is pretty standard stuff, designed to be thrilling and to put butts in the seats.

tarzan-of-the-apes-1918-elmo-lincolnDirected by Scott Sidney, Tarzan of the Apes is the first film adaptation of the wildly popular novel Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Though this film version of Tarzan of the Apes really only adapts the first half of the novel, saving the second for the sequel for the Romance of Tarzan, it’s still considered to be the most faithful of the many film adaptations (and that’s a long list!). But yep, what we have here is an early instance of the movie industry looking to leverage the extraordinary popularity of something into ticket $ale$.

The story is straightforward. Some stuffy British folk fall victim to a maritime mutiny and find themselves stranded in an African jungle. A series of tragedies leaves an orphaned baby who is adopted by some friendly apes and raised as their own. Eventually, some other stuffy British folk make their way to Africa to look for the lost English lad and adventures ensue. The visiting English rose Jane falls in love with wild-man Tarzan and… well this is where the story of Tarzan of the Apes leaves off. You’ll need to catch the sequel for the rest.

tarzan-of-the-apes-1918-elmo-lincolnNow on to the star of the movie, the super buff Elmo Lincoln. Mr. Lincoln is strong, manly,  mostly naked through out Tarzan of the Apes. We’re all familiar with the “Me Tarzan, You Jane” dynamic of the Tarzan character and this movie fulfills that to the utmost. First, Tarzan exists in counterpoint to Jane’s (Enid Markey) sleazy fiancee who tries to molest her in a cabin with the perennial male excuse for poor behavior, “But baby, we’re going to get married soon.” When wee, feminine, and helpless Jane is kidnapped by the natives, mostly naked Tarzan comes to the rescue. There’s a lot of lady-tossed-over-shoulder and vine swinging excitement, and there’s even some “Take her as his own” title card action. Even in 1918, sex sells. But it is 1918, and Jane counters with some “But Tarzan is a man, and men do not force the love of women” moral instruction.

There’s a little bit of nature-nuture tug of war going on in the script and some very nebulous Darwinism. There’s a couple of Darwin cracks, and a weird distinction made between the Arab slave traders and the natives. Though our erstwhile Brits despise the Arabs and regard them as “savage” and disapprove of human slave trafficking, they also view the natives, i.e. the not white guys, as less than human. Head scratchingly enough, so does Tarzan, the guy raised by apes. In fact, the natives are Tarzan’s bitter enemies, having killed his ape mom Kala. The movie does point out that Tarzan didn’t see his own image for a long time, at least glancing at an explanation of why the human boy would identify with apes rather than the only other humans around.

There’s some odd English and jolly-good-chap stuff going on as well. The script goes to pains to tell us that though Tarzan was raised by apes, he still has an inner English man. He desires clothes, he trusts the only other white dude he’s ever met, the faithful sailor Binns (George B. French), to escape and get British help, and he of course learns a bit of reading and writing from an old picture book left by his parents. You can take the boy out of England, but you apparently cannot take England out of the boy.

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All of this is a bit nit-picky on my part, for sure. The point of Tarzan of the Apes is not to parse the soci0-political mores of 1918. The point is adventure and excitement, and the movie serves it up in spades for an audience that might never have gotten further than 20 miles from whatever rail stop they lived at. Tarzan of the Apes has lions and tigers and bears, oh my. It also has the crunkiest gorilla suit I’ve even had the pleasure of seeing and the scrawniest, mangiest lion ever. But while the movie was not filmed on location in African, it was filmed in the sticky Louisiana swamps, which if you’ve ever had the privilege of visiting, seems pretty damn close. So despite the early production date and the bad monkey suit, Tarzan of the Apes has a certain authenticity that later, house-plant dotted Tarzan sets do not not achieve.

Tarzan of the Apes is not the best movie you’ll ever see. It’s not even the best silent movie you’ll ever see. But it is a great barometer of the kind of movies audiences did see on any given Saturday in 1918. And Elmo Lincoln is kind of hot.

I saw Tarzan of the Apes on dvd due to an extraordinary generous loan from my Tweep @tpjost. If you’re not following Trevor on Twitter, you should. He’s awesome and very passionate about silent movies. If you can’t convince Trevor to loan you a Tarzan movie, you can score your own copy of Tarzan of the Apes from Amazon.

Further Reading:

Watch Tarzan of the Apes in 6 parts on YouTube

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About prettycleverfilmgal

Social media consultant, blogger for hire, and lover of classic movies and silent films. I often watch, consider, and write about movies when I should really be doing other things.

Posted on March 1, 2012, in Action/Adventure, Genre, My Reviews, Silent Film and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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