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Tarzan: Money, Power and Greed

Carl Matthes: As “Tarzan’s” Director David Yates’s two hour vision unfolded, it became painfully clear that today’s selfish and greedy moneyed-elitists had counterparts in the 1800s.

One hundred and forty years ago, Edgar Rice Burroughs was born in Chicago. Edgar created “Tarzan”, whose latest incarnation can be seen in “The Legend of Tarzan”, which, on July 1, swung into theaters nationwide on the strong arms of Norwegian Alexander Skarsgard.

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I hate to say it, folks, but while the world has changed since 1875, not much has changed in the world of money, power and greed as this movie forcefully depicts.

Edgar, however, was not a “moneyed elitist.” He was a cavalryman in Arizona, a policeman in Salt Lake City, a cowboy in Idaho, and a gold miner in Oregon. And, while he is best remembered for creating Tarzan (and Southern California’s Tarzana) he also became, perhaps, “the oldest war correspondent covering the bombing of the South Pacific (WW2) and was an actual participant on at least one bombing mission.”

As “Tarzan’s” Director David Yates’s two hour vision unfolded, it became painfully clear that today’s selfish and greedy moneyed-elitists had counterparts in the 1800s.

Edgar grew up with “English sensibilities,” first through his grandmother Mary Rice, who descended from English Puritans, and the English Burroughs side of the family, who also emigrated to colonial Massachusetts.

As “Tarzan’s” Director David Yates’s two hour vision unfolded, it became painfully clear that today’s selfish and greedy moneyed-elitists had counterparts in the 1800s. The proof? He showed the vicious colonization of Africa by European nations. And, leading this was King Leopold of Belgium who is best remembered for the “founding and exploitation of the Congo Free State as a private venture.”

Imagine, a whole country branded by one billionaire’s name. (Hmm, anyone come to mind?)

“Tarzan” is a beautifully shot film. Computer effects are state-of-the-art. Spiderman would be envious of Tarzan’s vine-swinging skills. The intelligence, ferocity and majestic bearing of the jungle animals is also powerfully realized. Not so well handled is the movie’s plot that an African chieftain named Mbonga, portrayed by Djimon Hounsou, wants Tarzan captured in an exchange for a ransom in diamonds. For me, Yates’s vision also muddles the insanity of the tragedy of slavery, even though he shows the overwhelming death and destruction caused by the dealings of the wealthy and powerful.

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Moneyed interests were at the root of slavery.

To their credit, screenplay writers Adam Cozan and Craig Brewer entwined historic figures Captain Leon Rom (1859-1924) and George Washington Williams (1849-1891) into “Tarzan".

Two-time Academy Award winner, Austrian Christoph Walz, won awards as a slimy, sadistic, Jew-hunting Nazi SS Officer in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” and a ruthless, slave-hunting racist in QT’s “Django Unchained”. In “Tarzan", he plays Leon Rom, a greedy, deranged and double-dealing emissary representing King Leopold of Belgium. (The real life Captain Rom was known to keep severed heads of Black Africans in his flower bed.)

Samuel L. Jackson, who recently won BET’s Lifetime Achievement Award, plays George Washington Williams, an American Civil War soldier, Christian minister, politician, lawyer, journalist and writer on African-American history. In an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America” with anchor Robin Roberts, Jackson said that, in researching his part for the movie, he had discovered that his character, Williams “had traveled to King Leopold Congo Free State. Shocked by what he saw, he wrote an open letter to Leopold in 1890 about the suffering of the region's inhabitants at the hands of Leopold's agents, which spurred the first public outcry against the regime running the Congo since such a regime had caused the loss of millions of lives.”

Jackson brings intelligence, awareness and an authoritative voice against the slave trade, the ongoing slaughter of whole tribes and animals, and the ivory and diamond trade. Unfortunately, Jackson’s role was too often reduced to “comic side-kick.” And, sarcastically speaking, what’s not to like in a film that shows a handsome, nordic-type, blue-eyed, athletic white man, meeting a beautiful, all-American, blue-eyed, fit white woman, Australia’s Margot Robbie, in deepest, darkest Congo, where he is “Lord of the Jungle”?

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Which begs the question, why not a film about George Washington Williams? It seems not only logical but essential since the Academy of Arts and Sciences is suggesting more diversity in film.

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Warner Bros., Mr. Yates, et al, is it sequel time?

Carl Matthes