TARZAN AND THE LEOPARD MEN
Review contributed by Doc
Hermes ERB Reviews
First published in BLUE BOOK from August 1932 to January 1933. This
one was a real chore to slog through. If you are a pulp or adventure fan
who had never read a Tarzan book before and happened upon TARZAN AND THE
LEOPARD MEN, you might think, "Hey, that's not bad. Wonder if there's any
more in this series?" But if you had enjoyed the earlier books (some of
which are just excellent in the genre, like TARZAN THE TERRIBLE or TARZAN
AND THE JEWELS OF OPAR), by the time you got to this eighteenth episode,
serious deja vu will have swamped you.
Actually, it has a fine premise to base an adventure on. Instead of
finding another pair of warring cities originally founded in Africa somehow
by Olmecs or Picts, Tarzan tackles the cult of Leopard Men. So much could
be done with this. A dreaded secret society of African tribesmen (living
unsuspected in their various villages) who don leopard robes and steel
claws to carry out missions of murder and cannibalism... how could you
ask for better villains? And the actual plot of the book uses this idea
(in a lukewarm way), as the Apeman joins forces with Orando of the Utengi,
the only chief brave enugh to stand up to the cult.
There could be savage battles with the killers, our heroes trying
to find out which tribesmen are loyal and which belong the cult, having
a young native forced into the society and struggling between his loyalty
to his family or to the cult. And at the end, one hundred Waziri led by
Muviro would come charging down for a big slaughter. It could have been
a great yarn.
But no. By this time, Burroughs was grudgingly cranking out stories
about a character he had long since grown tired of. I personally felt the
series peaked around TARZAN AND THE ANT MEN and then twisted its ankle
and tumbled downhill fast (with an occasional flash of the old spark here
and there.) There are large stretches in this book that I half suspect
were pasted out of earlier epics with new names pencilled in.
At the very beginning, Tarzan is in a tree in a storm, when a tornado
(a TORNADO? In the jungle?) sends him crashing down and leaves him pinned
helplessly under a huge branch. Once again, a concussion has left him able
to speak and reason but has wiped away all memory of his identity. (Just
once, I would like to see a head injury leave Tarzan talking like a duck
or seeing everything upside down for a while, instead of just this selective
amnesia.) Or course, later on, a second sharp smack to the cranium instantly
restores all his memories and he's not any worse for all the head trauma.
I really don't see the narrative purpose of this particular session
of "Who am I?" Tarzan is taken to be a spirit by Orando and is renamed
Muzimo (and little N'Kima the kvetching monkey is now believed to be the
ghost of the slain warrior Nyamwegi). What's the point of all this? If
I didn't know better, I'd suspect Burroughs was trying to fill up page
after page with Tarzan trying half-heartedly to remember his real name
and Orando speculating on muzimo theology.
And frankly, it would be a lot more exciting if Tarzan found evidence
that the Leopard Men were active again, that they were terrorizing tribes
who were under his protection and were defying his law. Imagine the Apeman
standing up after searching for life in the victims of a massacred village,
growling "Leopard Men....again!" and then hurtling up into the trees to
begin his war. It would have made him seem genuinely heroic, Lord of the
Jungle in more than nickname.
The other half of the story involves three white Americans who keep
running into each other, being captured and rescued, escaping one pickle
after another and in general carrying on like the exact same characters
in half a dozen earlier books. There's the Playboy centerfold candidate
called Kali Bwana, who is looking for her lost brother; there are two ivory
hunters, Old Timer and the Kid. (Wait, wait... don't tell me who the kid
really is, I think I can guess.) Almost inevitably, Old Timer and Kali
Bwana get off on the wrong foot, hold unreasonable grudges against each
other throughout all their adventures together and stubbornly resist the
instant True Love that boings up between them like a stepped-on rake. Huh,
did I doze off? Is it 11:45 already... what page was I on?
Anyway, there are a few moments where we get a glimpse of the old magic
that made Edgar Rice Burroughs in his prime such a major pulp writer. The
scenes in the Leopard Man temple hidden on an island guarded by crocodiles
are lurid and ominous enough (a hand falls out of the merrily bubbling
stew pot). And there is a moment when Kali Bwana lies trembling as a leopard
crouches and is ready to spring at her... and hurtling up silently behind
the cat silently a huge bronzed giant. This was one of the few scenes where
I got a clear visual snapshot.
Some of the racial snarks are a bit more blatant than usual ("He saw
that religious and alcoholic drunknness were rapidly robbing them of what
few brains and little self-control Nature had vouchsafed them") and we
don't see enough of the noble Utengi tribe to counter-balance that impression.
Also, it's disquieting to see Burroughs ragging on Pygmies the way he does.
I read a couple of books years ago by a man named Jean-Pierre Hallet (CONGO
KITABU and PYGMY KITABU*) who lived among these people for years (and in
fact grew up with them until he was six). He never mentioned that they
were cannibals, filed their yellow teeth to points or beat their captives,
and other reference or travel books also gave a different impression than
Burroughs did. Maybe Kali Bwana just fell in with a particularly riff-raff
Pygmy (more correctly called Khoi-San?) tribe, I guess.
Finally, a couple of Mangani make a belated appearance and it's worth
noting that they are definitely a unique species. "It was evident that
they were not gorillas, and that they were more man-like than any apes
he had seen." I'd like to see the next Tarzan movie or TV show dwell on
this and show the Mangani as sort of Bigfoot or hominid creatures, contrasting
them with a actual live gorillas to make the point.
is a eulogy page for Hallet. As you can tell, he was an interesting guy
who led a more exciting life than most of us. Hallet had good observational
skills and a clear writing style, but he also had a strong political bias
and some of his speculation about African anthropology was, well, imaginative.
(As I recall, he thought all the world's religions had their source in
Pygmy beliefs.) Great material for thrillers, though -- it's too bad Robert
E Howard couldn't somehow have been sent back copies of Hallet's books...
think of the plots he might have spun from some of those incidents!