Were it not for some scattered visits to the only movie theater in my project of city to watch a Tarzan movie, my knowledge of Africa would be reduced, I am ashamed to say, to cero (and don’t start smiling yet, your case may be not very different …).
And as incredible as it may seem, Tarzan reminds me my grandmother. No, not that. Not that they had similar looks –not very gifted that first sentence–, but the fact that was this sweet lady, that before leaving home used to pulled up the collar of my coat and remind me to breathe through the nose, behind the scarf, to avoid getting a cold, who take me to the night sessions in which the films were playing.
My grandma also liked Tarzan. Well, rather his films. And I cannot be sure –I was still wearing short pants and use to have my legs frozen–, but I don’t think we missed any of the unforgettable Johnny Weissmuller movies screened in our village. What I do remember clearly is that I not only watched those films with unaccountable devotion, but somehow, they indelibly influenced me. Granted, part of the magic had to do, no doubt, with the mental association to my first forays into the night.
In retrospect, certainly Tarzan movies are an obvious audio-visual representation of the colonialism that prevailed in those days. The dichotomy between civilized and savage, which is to say, white and black, is represented in the character’s actions, costumes, and dialogue. Not to mention the character’s creator, novelist Edgar Rice Burroughs, a man that never stepped foot on the continent, or the lush «African jungle» prospering in the vicinity of Lake Sherwood, Westlake Village, California, USA.
But hey! What about the courage of Tarzan fighting desperately without breaking a sweat with a curiously rigid crocodile in an infested African river? The long minutes he could hold his breath under the water –over, was not needed–, with a dull knife between his teeth, a scene that will inspire the more contemporary and obtuse Rambo … Johnny Weissmuller, insuperable swimmer –Olympic gold in 1924 and 1928– even in his latest interpretations of the character, when, a little too plump, it was time consuming for him to fit into the loincloth. A reason, perhaps, which forced the unforgettable Ape Man to come down from the trees and become the implausible Jungle Jim on a series of B movies that were insistently played –for decades– on several well known TV stations, specially for their tireless commitment with mediocrity, but kept the King of the Jungle’s flab dressed –and fed for several more years.
And the insinuating sensuality of Jane? The beautiful Irish born actress Maureen O’Sullivan, unperturbed, even when surrounded by threatening animal sounds coming out of the darkness, expressing her oneness with the jungle and the wilderness, her natural habitat, although she never before would have suspected it: «A horrible noise, isn’t it? Then, I don’t know. It’s part of it all… Love it, who wouldn’t? Look. Isn’t it marvelous? And the funny part is, I feel so completely at home.” No lie here, she was home. In California.
Or the excellent demonstration of her deep knowledge about: «why one never finds a dead elephant in the jungle…» She describes the secret graveyard of the elephants: «…An elephant can always tell when death is coming for him. And when he hears the call, there’s a secret place to which he wanders. A place where he can lay his bones with his ancestors. A place of rest.” Deep, man… isn’t it? My first love. Ethereal, of celluloid, as it should be true love: cinematographic, not necessarily credible or, rather, blatantly unbelievable.
Or the talents of Cheeta, lovable chimpanzee before zoophile was discovered, that loved to eat cheeto’s, the ape sidekick of the title character, sometimes male, sometimes female, always comic relief, capable of convey messages between Tarzan and his allies, or firing a rifle –God save America! – after two weeks of hard training, and a hole in the foot of his keeper, and proud possessor of an engraved star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars.
And although not remembering some of the Goth Kings, I still could recite a dialogue in a scene from Tarzan of the Apes, in which, one night around the campfire, Holt expresses his interest in the beautiful and charming Jane, but she is non-committal:
Holt: …You know, Jane. I’m not a romantic sort of a person or anything like that, but if we, uh, if we get through this all right, is there any kind of a chance for me?
Jane: With me? I don’t know. I-I haven’t thought about it much?
Holt: Well, will you? I thought I hated this country. Since you’re here, I almost love it.
Jane: Do you Harry? I’m very glad.
Holt: Are you?
Jane: Glad you like Africa.
Holt: Oh, poof.
And man, what about the amazing Tarzan’s wild monkey’s yell? as the yodel yell of wild ape educated in Tyrol –while Weissmuller was swinging between the poplars–, in which I spent uncountable hours trying to imitate, being unfamiliar with the same inability that found the next stars playing the new releases of the series and forcing MGM to produce it in a recording studio.
But in the 60 and with less than ten years, who would bother about those «little» technical details?
I could not tell if preyed on my conscience that all my knowledge of Africa was based on movies made in California 30 years before, but when a colleague asked me in 1990 if I would join a project in Liberia, Africa, my answer almost automatically was, «Yes… I badly needed the money!» to then also automatically realize that I have no the remotest clue of the existence of that country. Luckily I did have a world map on the wall of my office, so my panic did not last long. Or so I thought.
But that’s another story…
Tarzan – Dugutigui