Most of us have varied memories of Tarzan, the fictional character about an orphaned feral child raised by great apes in the Congo.
Some might remember Tarzan from the classic silent movies while others associate the character with Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller’s portrayal of the vine swinging ape-man in a series of movies from 1932 to1948.
But who could ever forget the epic 1984 retelling of Greystoke: The Legend Of Tarzan, Lord Of The Apes, featuring Christopher Lambert as the titular character, who trades the jungle for the aristocratic life in London.
While there may be many movie versions of Tarzan – created by author Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1912 – it’s always welcome when a director pushes the envelope to reintroduce the legendary character, be it in a civilised setting or lush jungles of Africa.
When British filmmaker David Yates was tasked with directing The Legend Of Tarzan, he jumped at the chance as it enabled him to provide a fresh take on the iconic figure.
“I found the script for the movie appealing, especially with romance, excitement and action – all set in Africa. Plus, past movies of Tarzan (over 100 of them) were considered B-grade movies and I felt it was time to bring the character back to life. Thanks to CGI, we were able to map out the movie to make it magical,” said Yates during a press interview in Los Angeles recently.
The Legend Of Tarzan features spectacular landscapes and wild inhabitants of Africa that were actually brought to life through CGI. Yates shot the entire film at Leavesden studios in Britain.
The movie revolves around Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard), who leaves the jungles of the Congo for a posh life as John Clayton, third Viscount Greystoke, with wife Jane Porter (Margot Robbie).
After a decade in London, he is invited back to the Congo as a trade emissary for Parliament, oblivious to the fact that he is actually a pawn in a deadly plot of greed, masterminded by the King of Belgium’s representative Captain Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz). John is unaware that Chief Mbonga (Djimon Honsou), leader of a tribal clan, wants him captured, too.
Yates, who is best known for directing the final four Harry Potter films, was drawn to the script as it features a historical context surrounding Belgium’s King Leopold II’s occupation of the Congo and the atrocities that happened under his iron-fisted rule.
“The story plays out within the historical context of what was happening there at that time, which I found very compelling. It was a remarkable piece of history and it was interesting to include those elements in the storyline,” said the 53-year-old director, who is also helming the upcoming Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, reuniting him with Harry Potter author JK Rowling, who wrote the screenplay.
Scriptwriters Craig Brewer and Adam Cozad also included the real-life character George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), a courageous soldier turned humanitarian, who fought for the rights of Congolese suffering under King Leopold II.
Jackson deemed it an honour to play Williams, a 19th-century historian famous for his volumes History Of The Negro Race In America From 1619 To 1880, and an open letter to King Leopold II, criticising his treatment of indigenous people in the Congo.
Jackson admits his childhood affinity for Tarzan was what attracted him to the project.
“Tarzan was exciting and adventurous. I liked the story of a character living in the jungle where he could do anything he wished. As I got older, I viewed Tarzan as the jungle police who keeps people in line. He lives in a tree house with Jane and in some movies, has a chimpanzee companion called Cheetah and a child named Boy,” stated Jackson.
Swedish actor Skarsgard couldn’t contain his excitement as he spoke about his childhood dream to portray Tarzan on the big screen.
“I’ve pretended to be Tarzan since young, climbing rooftops in Stockholm when I was six years old (laughs). When I was a child, my father (actor Stellan Skarsgard) and I used to watch Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller. When I heard David (Yates) was helming the production, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse,” enthused the friendly 39-year-old actor, who rose to fame in the vampire series True Blood.
As the movie magnifies the action hero’s strength and senses, Skarsgard had to bulk up to ensure he looked muscular for the scenes in the jungle. For nine months leading up to the start of filming, the actor underwent intense training (swimming, running, boxing and martial arts … the works, really) and lived on a high-protein diet.
“It comprised lots of weightlifting, no carbs, no sugar … basically ‘no’ to all the good stuff. My day started at 4am where I had to hit the gym at 5am, way before production commenced. In between shoots, I would work out at the gym, too,” said the actor.
While the ripped body is all his, Skarsgard did admit that he didn’t shoot some of the scenes in the movie: A Cirque du Soleil trapeze expert was roped in to serve as a model for the CGI stunts of swinging through trees and diving off cliffs.
Skarsgard also liked the aspect of human relationships between the characters, land, tribes and animals in the movie.
“The dichotomy between man and beast has always been fascinating to me. When you take up a character like John, that dichotomy is extreme. You start with him as the buttoned-up British Lord and then, slowly peel off the layers to become Tarzan again.”
Yates says there were certain reasons he knew Skarsgard was the right actor for the film’s central role. “He’s a gifted actor. He has the size and could portray Tarzan’s heroic attributes but also, (he’s) able to dig deep to convey his fragility and vulnerability. The combination made him perfect, because our Tarzan is quite a layered, complicated human being, and Alex could deliver it all.”
Yates points to Robbie’s innate strength as a reason why he wanted her to play Jane: “Jane has to be feisty and passionate. Margot made Jane a formidable and contemporary woman who can kick some a$$.”
For Robbie, it was important to portray a character far from a damsel in distress. “Jane is emotionally stronger and fiery in character. Instead of someone who’s weak and timid, she is capable of fighting back, which creates a strong dynamic with Christoph’s character,” said the Australian actress, whose credits include The Wolf Of Wall Street, Z For Zachariah and Suicide Squad.
With such strong characters and beautiful cinematography, Yates’ take on Tarzan is a worthy addition to Burroughs’ legacy.