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Some time ago I wrote a book about one of the great crimes of the last 150 years: the conquest and exploitation of the Congo by King Leopold II of Belgium. When King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa was published, I thought I had found all the major characters in that brutal patch of history. But a few weeks ago I realized that I had left one out: Tarzan.

Let me explain. Although a documentary film based on my book did appear, I often imagined what Hollywood might do with such a story. It would, of course, have featured the avaricious King Leopold, who imposed a slave labor system on his colony to extract its vast wealth in ivory and wild rubber, with millions dying in the process. And it would surely have included the remarkable array of heroic figures who resisted or exposed his misdeeds. Among them were African rebel leaders like Chief Mulume Niama, who fought to the death trying to preserve the independence of his Sanga people; an Irishman, Roger Casement, whose exposure to the Congo made him realize that his own country was an exploited colony and who was later hanged by the British; two black Americans who courageously managed to get information to the outside world; and the Nigerian-born Hezekiah Andrew Shanu, a small businessman who secretly leaked documents to a British journalist and was hounded to death for doing so. Into the middle of this horror show, traveling up the Congo River as a steamboat officer in training, came a young seaman profoundly shocked by what he saw. When he finally got his impressions onto the page, he would produce the most widely read short novel in English, Heart of Darkness.

How could all of this not make a great film?

I found myself thinking about how to structure it and which actors might play what roles. Perhaps the filmmakers would offer me a bit part. At the very least, they would undoubtedly seek my advice. And so I pictured myself on location with the cast, a voice for good politics and historical accuracy, correcting a detail here, adding another there, making sure the film didn’t stint in evoking the full brutality of that era. The movie, I was certain, would make viewers in multiplexes across the world realize at last that colonialism in Africa deserved to be ranked with Nazism and Soviet communism as one of the great totalitarian systems of modern times.

In case you hadn’t noticed, that film has yet to be made. And so imagine my surprise, when, a few weeks ago, in a theater in a giant mall, I encountered two characters I had written about in King Leopold’s Ghost. And who was onscreen with them? A veteran of nearly a century of movies — silent and talking, in black and white as well as color, animated as well as live action (not to speak of TV shows and video games): Tarzan.

The Legend of Tarzan, an attempt to jumpstart that ancient, creaking franchise for the twenty-first century, has made the most modest of bows to changing times by inserting a little more politics and history than dozens of the ape man’s previous adventures found necessary. It starts by informing us that, at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, the European powers began dividing up the colonial spoils of Africa, and that King Leopold II now holds the Congo as his privately owned colony.

Tarzan, however, is no longer in the jungle where he was born and where, after his parents’ early deaths, he was raised by apes. Instead, married to Jane, he has taken over his ancestral title, Lord Greystoke, and has occupied his palatial manor in England. (Somewhere along the line he evidently took a crash course that brought him from “Me Tarzan, you Jane” to the manners and speech of a proper earl.)

But you won’t be surprised to learn that Africa needs him badly. There’s a diamond scandal, a slave labor system, and other skullduggery afoot in Leopold’s Congo. A bold, sassy black American, George Washington Williams, persuades him to head back to the continent to investigate, and comes along as his sidekick. The villain of the story, Leopold’s top dog in the Congo, scheming to steal those African diamonds, is Belgian Captain Léon Rom, who promptly kidnaps Tarzan and Jane. And from there the plot only thickens, even if it never deepens. Gorillas and crocodiles, cliff-leaping, heroic rescues, battles with man and beast abound, and in the movie’s grand finale, Tarzan uses his friends, the lions, to mobilize thousands of wildebeest to storm out of the jungle and wreak havoc on the colony’s capital, Boma.

With Jane watching admiringly, Tarzan and Williams then sink the steamboat on which the evil Rom is trying to spirit the diamonds away, while thousandsof Africans lining the hills wave their spears and cheer their white savior. Tarzan and Jane soon have a baby, and seem destined to live happily ever after — at least until The Legend of Tarzan II comes along.

History Provides the Characters, Tarzan the Vines

Both Williams and Rom were, in fact, perfectly real people and, although I wasn’t the first to notice them, it’s clear enough where Hollywood’s scriptwriters found them. There’s even a photo of Alexander Skarsgård, the muscular Swede who plays Tarzan, with a copy of King Leopold’s Ghost in hand. Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Williams with considerable brio, has told the press that the director, David Yates, sent him the book in preparation for his role.

A version of Batman in Africa was not quite the film I previewed so many times in my fantasies. Yet I have to admit that, despite the context, it was strangely satisfying to see those two historical figures brought more or less to life onscreen, even if to prop up the vine swinger created by novelist Edgar Rice Burroughs and played most famously by Johnny Weissmuller. Williams, in particular, was a remarkable man. An American Civil War veteran, lawyer, journalist, historian, Baptist minister, and the first black member of the Ohio state legislature, he went to Africa expecting to find, in the benevolent colony that King Leopold II advertised to the world, a place where his fellow black Americans could get the skilled jobs denied them at home. Instead he discovered what he called “the Siberia of the African Continent” — a hellhole of racism, land theft, and a spreading slave labor system enforced by the whip, gun, and chains.

From the Congo, he wrote an extraordinary “open letter” to Leopold, published in European and American newspapers and quoted briefly at the end of the movie. It was the first comprehensive exposé of a colony that would soon become the subject of a worldwide human rights campaign. Sadly, he died of tuberculosis on his way home from Africa before he could write the Congo book for which he had gathered so much material. As New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis observed, “Williams deserves a grand cinematic adventure of his own.”

By contrast, in real life as in the film (where he is played with panache by Christoph Waltz), Léon Rom was a consummate villain. An officer in the private army Leopold used to control the territory, Rom is elevated onscreen to a position vastly more important than any he ever held. Nonetheless, he was an appropriate choice to represent that ruthless regime. A British explorer once observed the severed heads of 21 Africans placed as a border around the garden of Rom’s house. He also kept a gallows permanently erected in front of the nearby headquarters from which he directed the post of Stanley Falls. Rom appears to have crossed paths briefly with Joseph Conrad and to have been one of the models for Mr. Kurtz, the head-collecting central figure of Heart of Darkness.

The Legend of Tarzan is essentially a superhero movie, Spiderman in Africa (even if you know that the footage of African landscapes was blended by computer with actors on a sound stage in England). Skarsgård (or his double or his electronic avatar) swoops through the jungle on hanging vines in classic Tarzan style. Also classic, alas, is the making of yet another movie about Africa whose hero and heroine are white. No Africans speak more than a few lines and, when they do, it’s usually to voice praise or friendship for Tarzan or Jane. From The African Queen to Out of Africa, that’s nothing new for Hollywood.

Nonetheless, there are, at odd moments, a few authentic touches of the real Congo: the railway cars of elephant tusks bound for the coast and shipment to Europe (the first great natural resource to be plundered); Leopold’s private army, the much-hated Force Publique; and African slave laborers in chains — Tarzan frees them, of course.

While some small details are reasonably accurate, from the design of a steamboat to the fact that white Congo officials like Rom indeed did favor white suits, you won’t be shocked to learn that the film takes liberties with history. Of course, all novels and films do that, but The Legend of Tarzandoes so in a curious way: it brings Leopold’s rapacious regime to a spectacular halt in 1890, the year in which it’s set — thank you, Tarzan! That, however, was the moment when the worst of the horror the king had unleashed was just getting underway.

It was in 1890 that workers started constructing a railroad around the long stretch of rapids near the Congo River’s mouth; Joseph Conrad sailed to Africa on the ship that carried the first batch of rails and ties. Eight years later, that vast construction project, now finished, would accelerate the transport of soldiers, arms, disassembled steamboats, and other supplies that would turn much of the inland territory’s population into slave laborers. Leopold was by then hungry for another natural resource: rubber. Millions of Congolese would die to satisfy his lust for wealth.

Tarzan in Vietnam

Here’s the good news: I think I’m finally getting the hang of Hollywood-style filmmaking. Tarzan’s remarkable foresight in vanquishing the Belgian evildoers before the worst of Leopold’s reign of terror opens the door for his future films, which I’ve started to plan — and this time, on the film set, I expect one of those canvas-backed chairs with my name on it. Naturally, our hero wouldn’t stop historical catastrophes before they begin – there’s no drama in that — but always in their early stages.

For example, I just published a book about the Spanish Civil War, another perfect place and time for Tarzan to work his wonders. In the fall of 1936, he could swing his way through the plane and acacia trees of Madrid’s grand boulevards to mobilize the animals in that city’s zoo and deal a stunning defeat to Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s attacking Nationalist troops. Sent fleeing at that early moment, Franco’s soldiers would, of course, lose the war, leaving the Spanish Republic triumphant and the Generalissimo’s long, grim dictatorship excised from history.

In World War II, soon after Hitler and Stalin had divided Eastern Europe between them, Tarzan could have a twofer if he stormed down from the Carpathian mountains in late 1939, leading a vast pack of that region’s legendary wolves. He could deal smashing blows to both armies, and then, just as he freed slaves in the Congo, throw open the gates of concentration camps in both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. And why stop there? If, after all this, the Japanese still had the temerity to attack Pearl Harbor, Tarzan could surely mobilize the dolphins, sharks, and whales of the Pacific Ocean to cripple the Japanese fleet as easily as he sunk Léon Rom’s steamboat in a Congo harbor.

In Vietnam — if Tarzan made it there before the defoliant Agent Orange denuded its jungles — there would be vines aplenty to swing from and water buffalo he could enlist to help rout the foreign armies, first French, then American, before they got a foothold in the country.

Some more recent wartime interventions might, however, be problematic. In whose favor, for example, should he intervene in Iraq in 2003? Saddam Hussein or the invading troops of George W. Bush? Far better to unleash him on targets closer to home: Wall Street bankers, hedge-fund managers, select Supreme Court justices, a certain New York real estate mogul. And how about global warming? Around the world, coal-fired power plants, fracking rigs, and tar sands mining pits await destruction by Tarzan and his thundering herd of elephants.

If The Legend of Tarzan turns out to have the usual set of sequels, take note ,David Yates: since you obviously took some characters and events from my book for the first installment, I’m expecting you to come to me for more ideas. All I ask in return is that Tarzan teach me to swing from the nearest vines in any studio of your choice, and let me pick the next battle to win.

Adam Hochschild, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of eight books, most recently Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, and teaches at the Graduate School of Journalism, University of California, Berkeley.

(Republished from TomDispatch by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: History • Tags: Africa, Colonialism, TomDispatch Archives 
19 Comments to "Me Tarzan, You Adam"
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  1. Jtgw says: • Website

    I often hear the complaint that oppressed blacks always get white heroes. But are there black heroes of comparable stature?

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  2. Well, there’s always Tarzana to retreat to, when creating your own reality doesn’t work out so well after all.

    The towering inanity of it all boggles the mind.

    Read More
  3. anonymous says: • Disclaimer

    Why “a certain New York real estate mogul.” Did he vote for the Iraq aggression or destabilize Libya? He’s expressed misgivings about all these actions in contrast to Clinton who played a leading role in them. Yet Tarzan is not to be unleashed against her and the rest of her crowd? Why? Reflexive left-wing politics always create huge blind spots in people.

    Read More
  4. vinteuil says:

    “The movie, I was certain, would make viewers in multiplexes across the world realize at last that colonialism in Africa deserved to be ranked with Nazism and Soviet communism as one of the great totalitarian systems of modern times.”

    So you were certain that the movie would convince people of something that isn’t true?

    What happened in the Belgian Congo was pretty small potatoes, and very much an outlier, in the history of colonialism.

    Read More
    • Replies: @Anonymous
    I agree. Genocide, slavery, torture and rape by good Christian shareholders can never be compared to the collectivist, centrally-planned variety. That kind is evil. You know, evil evil, as opposed to good evil, like we do in 'merika.

    If it's any consolation to the author, The Legend of Tarzan looks certain to get its very own Rifftrax soon. There ought to be at least one joke about "$180 million and they couldn't even be bothered to GO to freaking Africa."

    By the way, as awful as you make it sound, this movie can't possibly hold a candle to Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, in the "giving your history of racist exploitation a white-superhero makeover." Oh, and the vampires made us do it. Really.
    , @Anonymous
    Hitler actually viewed German expansion eastwards against the Slavs as an extension of earlier colonial projects against Indians and others.
    , @Logan
    What happened in the Congo was not small potatoes. It was one of the great crimes of history. However, it was definitely an outlier.
  5. Also classic, alas, is the making of yet another movie about Africa whose hero and heroine are white.

    White heroes and heroines are the only reason non-fetishists watch movies about Africa in the first place.

    Read More
  6. ” … leaving the Spanish Republic triumphant and the Generalissimo’s long, grim dictatorship excised from history …”

    To be replaced, of course. , by a Stalinist dictatorship, like that whose aborted nascence, Orwell describes so well in “Homage to Catalonia”. IMHO, supported by prior and subsequent history, e,g, the thankfully brief reign of Bela Kun in Hungary and the many later commie dictatorships all across eastern Europe and parts of Asia, the Spanish got a far better deal with Franco than the would have with the Republicans.

    Read More
    • Replies: @Anonymous
    Stalinism seems to have done much less damage if you consider Russia and eastern Europe today versus how insanely socially liberal Spain is now.
  7. Anonymous says: • Disclaimer
    @vinteuil
    "The movie, I was certain, would make viewers in multiplexes across the world realize at last that colonialism in Africa deserved to be ranked with Nazism and Soviet communism as one of the great totalitarian systems of modern times."

    So you were certain that the movie would convince people of something that isn't true?

    What happened in the Belgian Congo was pretty small potatoes, and very much an outlier, in the history of colonialism.

    I agree. Genocide, slavery, torture and rape by good Christian shareholders can never be compared to the collectivist, centrally-planned variety. That kind is evil. You know, evil evil, as opposed to good evil, like we do in ‘merika.

    If it’s any consolation to the author, The Legend of Tarzan looks certain to get its very own Rifftrax soon. There ought to be at least one joke about “$180 million and they couldn’t even be bothered to GO to freaking Africa.”

    By the way, as awful as you make it sound, this movie can’t possibly hold a candle to Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, in the “giving your history of racist exploitation a white-superhero makeover.” Oh, and the vampires made us do it. Really.

    Read More
  8. fnn says:

    “$180 million and they couldn’t even be bothered to GO to freaking Africa.”

    When was the last movie made in the African jungles? Movies are made in South Africa, but there are no jungles there.

    Read More
  9. Durruti says:

    Hochschild,

    You fail to add, Tarzan coming to the aid of the Palestinians in 1947.

    Or Kennedy and the American Republic, in Dallas, on November 22, 1963.

    You cannot identify the foreign imperialist invaders of Iraq?

    You got the Vietnam comparison – right.

    Understood:

    You have that Graduate School of Journalism Job (to hold on to), so I understand your reluctance to have Tarzan aid the Palestinian People.

    Read More
  10. SPMoore8 says:

    Not only Casement, but Mark Twain laid into King Leopold as well.

    Another thing that Casement and other authors were involved with was the state of prostitution and including child prostitution in the later Victorian age. That’s another subject worth exploring. I think Pinocchio flows out of that.

    As to whether there’s some continuity with the excesses of colonialism and the Nazis and Soviets, that’s mixed. For the Germans, I think, pretty clearly; some of them had experience in the German colonies and had that on their minds in the Nazi period. The Russians on the other hand only had contiguous colonies.

    In all of this we are talking about taking patterns from one context to help explain patterns in another context. And such genealogical considerations are certainly worth exploring.

    Read More
  11. “Here’s the good news: I think I’m finally getting the hang of Hollywood-style filmmaking. Tarzan’s remarkable foresight in vanquishing the Belgian evildoers before the worst of Leopold’s reign of terror opens the door for his future films, which I’ve started to plan — and this time, on the film set, I expect one of those canvas-backed chairs with my name on it. Naturally, our hero wouldn’t stop historical catastrophes before they begin – there’s no drama in that — but always in their early stages”

    You forgot about Genghis Khan and his relatives. It is estimated that he was responsible for the death of tens of millions. BTW you can do a search about other mass murderers through history and compile a much better list. Why pick on just a few. Yes I know Tarzan was born sometime in early 1900′s but at the same time Hercules was born 3000 BC but that did not prevent him from rescuing/saving Poland from the Mongol horde. “Hercules against the Barbarians” 1964. “The 12th century… Failing to overrun Cracow, Genghis Khan kidnaps the beautiful heir to the throne. But Hercules saves her and defeats Khan’s throne”.
    Have fun. There’s a lot of stuff to cover through out history but only so much time.

    Read More
  12. Anonymous says: • Disclaimer
    @Jus' Sayin'...

    " ... leaving the Spanish Republic triumphant and the Generalissimo’s long, grim dictatorship excised from history ..."
     
    To be replaced, of course. , by a Stalinist dictatorship, like that whose aborted nascence, Orwell describes so well in "Homage to Catalonia". IMHO, supported by prior and subsequent history, e,g, the thankfully brief reign of Bela Kun in Hungary and the many later commie dictatorships all across eastern Europe and parts of Asia, the Spanish got a far better deal with Franco than the would have with the Republicans.

    Stalinism seems to have done much less damage if you consider Russia and eastern Europe today versus how insanely socially liberal Spain is now.

    Read More
  13. Anonymous says: • Disclaimer
    @vinteuil
    "The movie, I was certain, would make viewers in multiplexes across the world realize at last that colonialism in Africa deserved to be ranked with Nazism and Soviet communism as one of the great totalitarian systems of modern times."

    So you were certain that the movie would convince people of something that isn't true?

    What happened in the Belgian Congo was pretty small potatoes, and very much an outlier, in the history of colonialism.

    Hitler actually viewed German expansion eastwards against the Slavs as an extension of earlier colonial projects against Indians and others.

    Read More
  14. Anonymous says: • Disclaimer

    good old boy Tarzan could fight against the Americans who in WW1 and WW2 came to Europe to distroy the European nations and to let the soviets take control of half of Europe (a simple repartition of Europe between the URSS and the USA). How many dozens of millions of Europeans would have survived if Tarzan had anihilated the American imperialists

    Read More
  15. SEK says:

    “Some time ago I wrote a book about one of the great crimes of the last 150 years: the conquest and exploitation of the Congo by King Leopold II of Belgium. When King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa was published, I thought I had found all the major characters in that brutal patch of history. But a few weeks ago I realized that I had left one out: Tarzan. Let me explain. Although a documentary film based on my book did appear, I often imagined what Hollywood might do with such a story.

    That’s the source of the butt-hurt, isn’t it, Hochschild? Nobody paid you for using an historical event, did they? I purchased and read your book several years ago. Why? Because of Conrad, but also because of Drake’s “Than Curse the Darkness” and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

    ERB was quite aware of the Belgian atrocities. The movie is not only “anachronistic” in regard to what happened in the Congo, but also in the timeline established by Burroughs. It was Tarzan’s father in Tarzan of the Apes who was going to investigate crimes in the African interior. Tarzan would later fight against exploitative Europeans and Americans. Of course, you don’t know that.

    Before you drag your intersectional bullshit and narcissistic whining into the discussion, you might want to research a few things yourself.

    The Black Man’s Burden

    [MORE]

    Take up the white man’s burden,
    The yoke ye sought to spurn;
    And spurn your father’s customs;
    Your father’s temples burn.
    O learn to love and honor
    The white God’s favored sons.
    Forget the white-haired fathers
    Fast lashed to mouths of guns
    Take up the white man’s burden,
    Your own was not enough;
    He’ll burden you with taxes;
    But though the road be rough,
    “To him who waits,” remember,
    “All things in time shall come;”
    The white man’s culture brings you
    The white man’s God, and rum.
    Take up the white man’s burden;
    ‘Tis called “protectorate,”
    And lift your voice in thanks to
    The God ye well might hate.
    Forget your exiled brothers;
    Forget your boundless lands;
    In acres that they gave for
    The blood upon their hands.
    Take up the white man’s burden;
    Poor simple folk and free;
    Abandon nature’s freedom,
    Embrace his “Liberty;”
    The goddess of the white man
    Who makes you free in name;
    But in her heart your color
    Will brand you “slave” the same.
    Take up the white man’s burden;
    ‘And learn by what you’ve lost
    That white men called as counsel
    Means black men pays the cost.
    Your right to fertile acres
    Their priests will teach you well
    Have gained your fathers only
    A desert claim in hell.
    Take up the white man’s burden;
    Take it because you must;
    Burden of making money;
    Burden of greed and lust;
    Burden of points strategic,
    Burden of harbors deep,
    Burden of greatest burdens;
    Burden, these burdens to keep
    Take up the white man’s burden;
    His papers take, and read;
    ‘Tis all for your salvation;
    The white man knows not greed.
    For you he’s spending millions —
    To him, more than his God —
    To make you learned, and happy,
    Enlightened, cultured, broad.
    Take up the white man’s burden
    While he makes laws for you,
    That show your fathers taught you
    The things you should not do.
    Cast off your foolish feathers,
    Your necklace, beads, and paint;
    Buy raiment for your mother,
    Lest fairer sisters faint.
    Take up the white man’s burden;
    Go learn to wear his clothes;
    You may look like the devil;
    But nobody cares who knows.
    Peruse a work of Darwin —
    Thank gods that you’re alive —
    And learn the reason clearly: —
    The fittest alone survive.
    — Edgar Rice Burroughs

    Read More
  16. anon says: • Disclaimer

    I have heard of comparing oranges and apples. Some people compare oranges and planets.

    Read More
  17. Logan says:
    @vinteuil
    "The movie, I was certain, would make viewers in multiplexes across the world realize at last that colonialism in Africa deserved to be ranked with Nazism and Soviet communism as one of the great totalitarian systems of modern times."

    So you were certain that the movie would convince people of something that isn't true?

    What happened in the Belgian Congo was pretty small potatoes, and very much an outlier, in the history of colonialism.

    What happened in the Congo was not small potatoes. It was one of the great crimes of history. However, it was definitely an outlier.

    Read More
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