PrintE-mail Written by Martin Unsworth

Edgar Rice Burrough’s character of Tarzan, the English lord brought up in the jungle and raised by apes, has spawned over fifty films and seven TV series, has captured the imagination of fans since the stories were first published in 1912. This oversized coffee table book takes a look at all the various incarnations of the loin-cloth wearing, muscle-bound hero.

From the very first cinematic adaptation - Tarzan of the Apes in 1918 - to the very latest (flop) blockbuster, there are enough glorious entries to satiate any fan. They are all, naturally, wonderfully illustrated with film posters and stills from the movies and shows, too. That first film sets the tone perfectly for the wealth of information that is included, from the deal that Burrough’s struck for the film rights to the fact that there are only five reels left in existence; less than half the original 130-minute running time. A genuinely sad fact, but something we hear all too often from the early cinema days. The silent days saw numerous entries to the Tarzan canon, but it would be the 1932 movie Tarzan the Ape Man that brought the world its first real iconic portrayal of the character, by Johnny Weissmuller. Appearing as Tarzan twelve times, many with the beautiful Maureen O’ Sullivan, Weissmuller would be synonymous with the tree-swinger, but there were other actors at the time that took to the role and attempted to make it his own. In the twelve-part serial Tarzan the Fearless (1933), Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe - an Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer - stripped off his top and gave the infamous yodel-yell while fighting lions and crocodiles. Crabb, of course,  would become much more famous as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers in more cliff-hanging serials. Other pretenders to the ape throne included Herman Brix, and while Weissmuller is the best remembered, all the leads of each production are given minor profiles in this work.

It’s astonishing to read just how many versions of the ape-man there were, particularly from the ‘50s and ‘60s, the decade being topped by another very recognisable and iconic portrayal; this time, Ron Ely in the colour TV series that ran from 1966-68. Some of the fifty-seven episodes were stitched together into feature-length versions to play on the Saturday Morning cinema circuit, meaning Ely would become even more identifiable in the role. The actor, who would later become Doc Savage - Man of Bronze - also suffered numerous injuries while performing his own stunts, which although covered, are not gone into in too gory detail.

The seventies saw the interest in the lord of Greystoke drop off somewhat, there was the long-running cartoon, Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, brought to the screen by Filmation Studios. Although popular, it’s no longer in syndication. Which we could only wish was the case for John Derek’s 1981 attempt to sex up the story, Tarzan, The Ape Man. Only really conceived to showcase the ‘talents’ of his wife, Bo Derek, the film does boast a good cast including Richard Harris and John Phillip Law, but it completely forgettable, albeit a massive box office hit.

It’s curious to read about the TV series from the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, often forgotten in the UK, similarly, the WB 2003 ‘re-imagining’ that they hoped would rival Smallville’s success.  And it’s when engrossed in these kinds of pieces that one realises how the book could have done with being longer. By having such an exhaustive catalogue to cover, the 220+ pages just isn’t enough to allow for anything in-depth. You won’t feel like you’ve missed out on much, but there will be points where you’ll want to delve deeper.

The cinematic history is brought bang up-to-date with the recent Alexander Skarsgård/Margot Robbie flick The Legend of Tarzan and Netflix’s animated Tarzan and Jane.

Whether you have a fascination with the Tarzan character, a love of cinema history, or just like looking at pictures of well-built men with their tops off, this book is a recommended read.


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