Following ERB's death in 1950, the Tarzan industry continued
apace. After 16 years, the now rotund Weissmuller had passed the loincloth
on to others as the Tarzan movie franchise embraced colour, African location
shooting and even internationalism as the ape-man visited foreign climes.
Burroughs's books had not continued to be part of that industry: maladroit
administration of his literary estate had seen them largely fall out of
print. However, that all changed in 1961 when a Californian parent complained
(incorrectly) to a school library that Tarzan and Jane were living in sin.
The tsunami of publicity created when ape-man tomes were briefly removed
from shelves saw a Burroughs boom. Worldwide book sales between 1962 and
1968 exceeded sales in all the previous years combined -- and this despite
him having been one of the biggest-selling English language authors of
the first half of the 20th century.
In 1966, the ape-man made the move to television in one of the first
action series shot in colour. Ron Ely's Tarzan patrolled a generic jungle
with adopted son Jai. The all-American Ely was hardly what Burroughs had
had in mind and jungle beasts were so little seen that at time Tarzan could
just have been a cop without trousers, but it was highly popular.
The end of the Ely series marked the beginning of the end of the ape-man's
dominance of popular culture. Relatively clean-cut characters like Tarzan
had begun to seem out of place in the insurrectionary '60s, something which
the occasional racism toward natives in Burroughs's work didn't help. Additionally,
Africa was less mysterious and therefore less interesting than it had been.
There were still Tarzan comic books, graphic novels and the never-ending
comic strip, a Tarzan pseudo biography by science fiction writer Philip
Jose Farmer, a book series positing an adopted son of Tarzan named Bunduki
by JT Edson and in 1976 a Saturday morning animated series from Filmation
that was surprisingly faithful in parts to the Burroughs template. However,
the only Tarzan cinema releases in the '70s were a pair of spliced Ely
two-part TV shows and a brace of Spanish-Italian productions of questionable
In 1981, the value of the property was dealt a further blow by Tarzan
The Ape Man. A Tarzan film seen through the eyes of Jane (Bo Derek)
was not necessarily a bad idea, but the script was appalling and the direction
laughable. Wasted (and silent) in this farce was Miles O'Keeffe, by common
consensus the best-looking cinema Tarzan of all. Matters were redeemed
a little by Hugh Hudosn's epic Greystoke (1984) which, though flawed,
was the most conscientious attempt yet to film the story as Burroughs wrote
There was sporadic activity -- another movie, two TV shows (Tarzan:
The Epic Adventures took the character into the realm of sword and
sorcery), digital games and more comic books -- before in 1999 Disney brought
the ape-man back to the big-time with the large-budget animated feature
film Tarzan. Its quality and success meant that even Burroughs fans
could forgive the liberties it took (Tarzan is raised by gorillas). A spin-off
animated TV series and a 2006 broadway show -- also from Disney -- consolidated
Despite such occasional spikes in his popularity, it must be admitted
that the ape-man can never again attain the cultural supremacy he occupied
in more innocent and less technological times, when swinging on a pretend
vine while emitting Weissmuller's holler was a universal worldwide rite
of passage. As oldest surviving Tarzan actor Denny Miller says of today's
fantasy heroes, "They're astornauts and spaceship guys. The youth of today
are no longer [into] cowboys or Tarzans." There have also been massive
changes in attitudes of Africa, race, hereditary peers and conservation
that may well pose greater threats to the ape-man's existence than lions,
sinister safaris or homicidal high priests. However, the word "Tarzan"
remains a byword for 'storng-man' seven decades after Webster's dictionaries
first included it; tracts Burroughs sold off from his Californian ranch
Tarzana grew into a town of that name that continues to thrive; in this
centenary year, Andy Briggs continues his series of YA Tarzan novels; a
Jane-oriented retelling of the Tarzan legend by historical author Robin
Maxwell is on the schedules (Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan);
and there's talk of new films to be directed by Craig Brewer.
Can you hear that unearthly cry emanating from the depths of the African
jungle? Battered, scarred and less visible he may be, but for a long time
yet, Tarzan will be placing his right foot upon the necks of his conquered
adversaries and unleashing the victory cry of the bull ape.
Sean Egan is the author of
Ape-Man: An Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to 100 Years of
published by Telos.