Tarzan and "The Foreign Legion"
By Edgar Rice Burroughs
A Review by Ryan
Burroughs needs no excuse for discussion in a magazine dedicated to
heroic fantasy and planetary romance. Adventure literature as we know it
springs from the influence of Burroughs in the early twentieth century.
Although pulp magazines existed before Burroughs published Under the Moons
of Mars and Tarzan of the Apes, this double-punch in 1912 changed the style
of this publishing medium for the remainder of its lifetime, and the influence
continued into the paperback revolution and on into our era. Burroughs
looms as one of the Titans of genre literature. But the true question is:
Why am I re-reading so much of his work right now, in concentrated doses
that I usually reserve for no author?
One answer is that I enjoy writing about Burroughs almost as much as
I enjoy reading him. For an author who supposedly crafted straightforward
entertainment, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s novels contain a remarkable breadth
of ideas for debate and consideration. But a deeper reason for such current
copious reading of Burroughs is that his work always gives me a unique
uplift. In times of uncertainty and concern, I find that no author can
temporarily re-energize me than ERB. Even a violent and embittered book,
such as the one I’m about to discuss, provides an energy boost like a literary
vodka with Red Bull. Burroughs knows how to make life seem wild, colorful,
and far removed from the petty concerns of the every day. It isn’t strictly
“escapism,” a word I dislike, but a form of romantic empowerment. Burroughs’s
daydreams on paper enhance our yearning for that which is beyond what we
have to struggle with in day-to-day life.
End of psychological exegesis. The curtain now rises on today’s Tuesday
Topic: one of Burroughs’s most unusual books, one that few have read because—let’s
face the facts—how many but the most dedicated fans manage to reach Book
#22 in a long-running series?
The Tarzan saga comes to its end with Tarzan and “The Foreign Legion”.
Although two more Tarzan books would appear posthumously, Tarzan and the
Madman and the compilation Tarzan and the Castaways, Burroughs had written
both previous to “The Foreign Legion.” He wrote this final Tarzan adventure
in April–June 1944 in Honolulu during his service as a war correspondent.
His own publishing company, Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. (he was the first
writer to incorporate himself), released the novel in 1947 with a cover
from his son John Coleman Burroughs. It was the last Tarzan book published
in the author’s lifetime. Only one more novel would appear before Burroughs’s
death in 1950, Llana of Gathol, and that contained four previously published
The Tarzan novels, which made their creator’s fame beginning with Tarzan
of the Apes in 1912, limped through an interminable number of volumes and
appeared creatively spent by the mid-1930s. The early Tarzan books contain
some of Burroughs’s finest writing—the original is an uncontested American
classic, and would make my short list of favorite novels—but the repetition
among the last ten or so turns maddening. Only hardcore ERB completists
can drag themselves through more than one of these late books consecutively.
I found Tarzan and the Leopard Man almost impossible to complete, making
it the only time I considered tossing aside a Burroughs novel unfinished.
But Tarzan and “The Foreign Legion”, the twenty-second published Tarzan
novel, shows Burroughs throwing off his formula for a last creative blast,
and it’s one of the best entries in the long series. Apparently, Burroughs
had also wearied of the continual parade of lost cities in the African
jungles, Tarzan getting amnesia, Tarzan impostors, dueling vanished civilizations,
and Jane under threat. Or perhaps the inspiration of war action convinced
him to turn his writing toward a military adventure starring his most famous
creation. Whatever the reason, the author pulled himself out of his slump
for a strong final season.
Tarzan had gotten involved in world war before. In the seventh novel,
Tarzan the Untamed (1919), set during the Great War, Tarzan fights German
invaders who burned down his African estate and kidnapped Jane. The novel
still depends on the standard jungle adventuring, only with bloodthirsty
German villains as an opening sally. But Tarzan and “The Foreign Legion”
puts Tarzan into a World War II movie and casts him alongside a motley
bunch of American soldiers right out of Hollywood Central Casting—comic
relief included. Trapped on the Japanese-occupied island of Sumatra, they
form an ersatz “Foreign Legion”—hence the quotation marks in the title,
so readers won’t expect Tarzan to go to Algeria to join the cast of Beau
Geste. (John Clayton does speak fluent French, however. It might have worked.)
The story opens brutally when a Dutch family flees the Japanese invasion
of Sumatra. The parents both die, leaving their daughter Corrie van der
Meer in hiding for two years. Eventually, the Japanese Captain Matsuo and
Lieutenant Sokabe find her and carry her off as a prize.
The remainder of the set-up gets taken care of in the next chapter.
An American Liberator plane, while on an unarmed reconnaissance mission,
gets shot down over the Sumatran wilds. Four of the crew manage to bail
out and land safely. British observer Col. John Clayton hits the ground
and immediately strips to a loincloth and starts swinging through the trees,
right at home in the jungle. It doesn’t take much for Clayton to revert
to his true personality of Tarzan of the Apes. As Burroughs has reminded
us many times, Clayton feels himself closer to Tarzan than British nobility.
But Tarzan is not alone this time: he’s ready to lead the rag-tag band
of soldiers in their deadly exile in enemy territory. His three companions
are Capt. Jerry Lucas of Oklahoma, Sgt. Tony “Shrimp” Rosetti from Chicago,
and Sgt. Joe “Datbum” Bubonovitch, a Brooklynite with a flair for zoology
and big words served with a thickly rendered accent. In the repartee between
the group, readers can often catch echoes of service comedies and sometimes
the interplay between Monk and Ham from the Doc Savage novels. However,
most of the characterization probably derives from Burroughs’s own experience
with meeting enlisted men during his time as a war correspondent. His phonetic
rendering of Bubonovitch’s and Rosetti’s accents in prose tends toward
the annoying, but this was standard way of rendering argot during the time.
The humorous exchanges are sometimes witty and other times overplayed,
but it’s definitely not Tarzan business-as-usual.
When Tarzan and his “Foreign Legion” learn about the kidnapped Dutch
girl in the vicinity, they move immediately to save her. Tarzan executes
a clever rescue, but the Japanese pursue the band. Jerry Lucas professes
a strong dislike for Corrie—actually for any woman—which immediately means
the two will fall for each other hard. We know the rules. A love triangle
of sorts develops when the Dutch guerilla fighter Tak van der Bos enters
the action, but after a few chapters of doubt, the novel dismisses this
conflict with a sentence. Jerry’s own stated “misogyny” and the constant
dangers he and Corrie face put up much greater obstacles to their happiness
than the love triangle detour. Another romance develops for the team’s
other avowed “woman-hater,” Shrimp, when he starts to fall for the Eurasian
beauty Sarina, who comes to Corrie’s aid when she least expects it. (This
is one of the few moments where Burroughs reverses the expectations of
how the Asian characters will act, an event that surprises even Corrie.)
The adventures of Tarzan and his companions on Sumatra puts them up
against not only the Japanese occupiers, but also Sumatran collaborators,
Dutch pirates, and nature’s own menaces. The heroes get separated, kidnapped,
rescued, and reunited through a string of escapades. They eventually join
Dutch guerilla fighters to take the combat to the Japanese in some thrilling
jungle warfare. The climax features a breathless ocean pursuit, sharks
and submarines included.
But Burroughs doesn’t forget his hero’s connection to nature and the
animal fantasy aspect of Tarzan’s legacy. Tarzan discovers he can communicate
with the orangutans on the island as well as he can the apes of Africa.
He gets in a classic “fight for supremacy” with one of bulls of an orangutan
tribe, Oju. Later, Tarzan has to face Oju again after the furious bull
ape kidnaps Corrie.
Much of this sounds like a standard Tarzan actioner, but it doesn’t
read that way. Tarzan serves as a superhero who gets people out of jams
and uses his jungle-lore when needed, but his companions are the true protagonists.
This shift toward the supporting cast gives readers an outside perspective
on the famous hero that rarely appears in the other books. Tarzan vanishes
for extended periods, and the war action stays with the hardy and good-naturedly
bickering American soldiers and the resourceful Corrie.
The inclusion of these additional heroes allows the story to develop
more character interaction, and even some philosophical discussions. In
one section, the Foreign Legionnaires debate the nature of war—and what
hatred does for and to a person in conflict. “Hatred” forms the most important
theme of the novel, which the characters revisit many times between the
action. Burroughs approaches the idea of hated in an ambivalent way. Sometimes
characters speak about the way hate twists people, such as what it has
done to change Corrie, but at other times hatred seems the only logical
response. In a talk with Corrie, Jerry makes the point that “Tarzan says
that it does no good to hate, and I know he’s right. But I do hate—not
the poor dumb things that shoot at us and whom we shoot at, but those who
are responsible for making wars.” And Corrie responds that she feels she
does not hate enough: “You never saw your mother hounded to death and your
father bayoneted…. If you had and didn’t hate them you wouldn’t be fit
to call yourself a man.” These moments add a layer of moral complexity
to the novel that is rare in Burroughs later writing.
One philosophy that Burroughs spends scant time on is patriotism. This
will strike many as odd, considering that Tarzan and “The Foreign Legion”
is a wartime adventure with American soldiers battling the Japanese. But
Burroughs creates a world of chaos where the only true motivation that
makes sense is hatred for the declared enemy. This is a social as well
as physical jungle, and operates under the jungle’s law. The story makes
the enemy clear, but it rarely waves the flag for freedom and democratic
ideals. Is this an embittered Burroughs speaking? Or does the story merely
have no place for this philosophy, choosing instead to highlight the individual’s
struggle over the nation’s? “I don’t think any of us know what we are fighting
for except to kill Japs, get the war over, and get home,” Jerry says during
one interlude. “After we have done that, the goddam politicians will mess
things all up again.”
But Burroughs’s cynicism about warfare doesn’t mean he treats the established
enemy with any sensitivity. There’s no point in belaboring the way the
he describes the Japanese. It’s ugly and in synch with the “power of hate”
theme. Burroughs wrote the book during the height of the war in the Pacific,
so don’t expect an even-handed Letters from Iwo Jima treatment. In fact,
expect the treatment of the enemy to get quite brutal, with the Japanese
described as “monkeys” of low intelligence and undiluted savagery. (The
exception is the character of Lt. Tada, who is vicious, but has an excellent,
even witty grasp of colloquial English. I wish he appeared in more of the
book, since he makes a multi-faceted villain.) Burroughs probably based
a lot of the racial insults on what he had heard from the soldiers he knew
during his time as a war reporter.
However, and this the pulp scholar and objective academic in me speaking,
I find the xenophobia and racism on display one of the book’s fascinating
aspects; while reprehensible, they shed light on World War II attitudes
without the prism of modern sensibilities. No writer would approach this
material in the same way today. However, O Casual Reader, you have been
warned. Not that I imagine casual readers will pick up this novel, and
pulp fans and Burroughs enthusiasts will know what to expect from the time
The most refreshing character in the story is Corrie, who proves herself
a capable shot with a rifle and a skilled archer in her jungle adventures.
It feels as if Burroughs is trying to create a semblance of a 1940s woman,
far removed from the types he had once written at the start of his career.
Corrie still gets kidnapped and seized a lot, however. Burroughs wasn’t
ready to totally break his formula into pieces.
The author treats his famous hero in some unusual ways. The name “Tarzan”
doesn’t even appear until a quarter of the way through the page count.
Tarzan’s companions finally realize Colonel Clayton’s identity when they
watch him wrestle and kill a tiger with his bare hands. Burroughs can’t
resist a referential joke in this heroic moment:
…raising his face to the heavens, [he] voiced a horrid cry—the
victory cry of the bull ape. Corrie was suddenly terrified of this man
who had always seemed so civilized and cultured. Even the men were shocked.
No Shrimp, this fellow can speak in complete English sentences.
Suddenly recognition lighted the eyes of Jerry Lucas. “John Clayton,”
he said, “Lord Greystoke—Tarzan of the Apes!”
Shrimp’s jaw dropped. “Is dat Johnny Weismuller?” he demanded.
There is another instance in the book where it appears that people know
Tarzan from popular culture: they know who he is and about his previous
adventures. Since Burroughs often wrote his stories from the perspective
of a fictional version of himself, a reader might assume that the pseudo-Burroughs
documents have made it to the rest of the world, and apparently made it
into the movies.
In another intriguing detour late in the story, Tarzan suggests that
he has achieved longevity, perhaps even immortality, from an African witchdoctor.
This explains how he has appeared as a young, virile man in adventures
stretching back to before World War I. In another meta-reference, Jerry
comments after hearing this: “I never gave a thought to your age, Colonel….
but I remember now that my father said he read about you when he was a
boy. And I was brought up on you. You influenced my life more than any
Tarzan further elaborates on his opinion of his possible immortality:
“Would you want to live forever?” asked van der Bos.
“Of course—if I never had to suffer the infirmities of old age”
“But all your friends would be gone.”
“One misses the old friends, but one constantly makes new ones. But
really my chances of living forever are very slight. Any day, I may stop
a bullet; or a tiger may get me, or a python. If I live to get back to
my Africa, I may find a lion waiting for me, or a buffalo. Death has many
tricks up his sleeve beside old age. One may outplay him for a while, but
he always wins in the end.”
Two ideas come to mind when I read this passage. One is that Jane, Tarzan’s
wife, receives no mention anywhere in this novel. Has she perhaps died,
or aged beyond Tarzan’s young years and left him? The second is that Burroughs,
nearing his seventieth birthday when he wrote the novel, knew his own mortality
was approaching. The elegiac power of this section is surprising.
But readers can safely answer the debate about Tarzan’s immortality:
yes, he will live forever. Heroic icons such as he can never truly die.
It is rare for an author to create an enduring popular culture immortal:
Arthur Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes, Bram Stoker with Dracula, Ian
Fleming with 007. Burroughs achieved it with Tarzan. And this last adventure—a
powerful surge of action, characterization, comedy, fury, hatred, and rumination—proves
why Tarzan at the last towers as, truly, Tarzan the Invincible.