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Volume 4199

Part II
Continued from Part I: ERBzine 4198
Sean Egan dons his loincloth and swings his way
into the African jungle to celebrate a century of Tarzan.
Thanks to Bill Hillman and

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 legality.

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 it.

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 that success.

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 'strong-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 Tarzan
published by Telos.

By Sean Egan
with thanks to Bill Hillman and Danton Burroughs (Danton's last interview)
Reprinted from SFX Magazine ~ June 2008
Copyright SFX Magazine 2008

John Carter, The Land that Time Forgot, Tarzan --
Sean Egan remembers
the many creations of the larger-than-life adventurer and writer. . .
Volume 3739

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