Stand at the edge of a cliff or tree branch, take a rope in your hands, inhale a deep breath, and then leap out, shouting out a big ululating “Ah AW EEEH AW AW EEEH AWWWW!” You probably know where I’m going with this, but just in case, you’ve just completed the Tarzan yell. You don’t need the cliff or the rope (Tarzan does), but just about everyone I know has mimicked this joyful exclamation while preparing to jump down from something, often beating their chests with their fists while shouting.
There are few characters of the golden age of pulp fiction with the range and longevity of Tarzan. Hell, there are few characters at all with Tarzan’s ubiquity.
A creation of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan has been around for over 100 years, and yet film-makers and writers are still mining it for new material, including last year’s The Legend of Tarzan starring True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgard and Suicide Squad’s Margot Robbie.1 And who could forget the (almost 20-year-old) Disney cartoon with the really catchy score from Genesis drummer/lead singer Phil Collins?
But it was Johnny Weissmuller, an Olympic-swimmer-turned-actor, who put perhaps the most iconic stamp on the Burroughs character, at least in the realm of film. From 1932 to 1948, Weissmuller was the definitive Tarzan, starring in 12 films. He created the iconic yell, although there’s a big dispute over who actually performed the yell itself in the first film, Tarzan, the Ape Man. And his “Me Tarzan, you Jane” line2 has been used, abused, lampooned, and embraced by movie creators ever since it first showed up in 1932.
Of course none of this would have been possible if Burroughs hadn’t created the character in 1912. Tarzan first showed up in All-Story Magazine in a serialized novel later collected in 1914 as Tarzan of the Apes. Over the next 40 years, Burroughs produced 23 more novels of Tarzan and his adventures. Admittedly, most of them are derivative, formulaic, and even sometimes hackneyed, but fans kept clamoring for more so Burroughs kept writing them.
Tarzan is considered the archetypal man raised in the woods, but he’s pre-dated by Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli and, much, much earlier, the mythological founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. That said, Tarzan is certainly the best known character of the trope, and is, in a large sense, one of the most widely recognized characters in world history.
I’m not going to go into the Tarzan story, as if you don’t know the basics then I’d have to ask you which planet you were born on. Instead, I’ll just note I fell in love with Tarzan as a kid. I’ve mentioned before that my parents were Turner Classic Movies fans pretty much from the moment they first got cable in the mid-80s, and my first exposure was definitely the Weissmuller movies.
I believe my next exposure was the 1984 (though I most definitely didn’t watch it until the early 1990s) Christopher Lambert film, Greystoke, notable mainly for being closer to the sophisticated noble lord of Burroughs’ original stories rather than the broken-English-speaking wild man of the early film series. It is possible I read the book first, but I can’t swear under oath. The film is sort of laughable now3 and quite slow, but it was nominated for Academy Awards and had a pretty decent critical reception. I’ll still watch it from time-to-time.
Then came the Disney cartoon in 1999. I was in college, quite jaded and wholly unprepared to like the film (especially after the abomination called Hercules), but it is charming in its way. It’s not fantastic the way some of the more recent non-Tarzan Disney and Pixar movies have been, but the soundtrack is quite good, and since I’ve now written about it, I can’t get the damn song, “You’ll Be in My Heart” out of my head.
Tarzan is so iconic even other authors have tackled him in print, including Fritz Leiber (of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser fame4), Philip José Farmer (whose fictional biography Tarzan Alive is the foundation of the Wold Newton universe), and even R.A. Salvatore (the creator of Forgotten Realms fantasy phenomenon Drizzt Do’Urden).
If you haven’t read the work that started it all, you have no real excuse, as the original book (and several of its sequels) are in the public domain. So beat your chest while shouting the “victory cry of the bull ape” and then get reading. I promise you it’s better than any film version you’ve seen.
1 Even the incomparable Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t save this film from a future in bargain bins.
2 This is a gross misquote, and the actual sequence is much funnier, as Tarzan gets progressively more excited, eventually pretty much punching Jane in the chest.
3 Lambert’s French accent is so grossly out of character that it’s only worse in one other role, Connor MacLeod of Highlander.
4 Explored in an earlier Pulp Appeal article.