Swinging through colonial history

August 18, 2016

Cindy Beringer considers the most recent movie incarnation of Tarzan--and the film's pretty confusing attempts to grapple with the history of colonial subjugation.

THE LEGEND of Tarzan is not your grandparents' jungle movie, and not just because of the computer-generated animals and the IMAX film format.

I checked out this movie to relive Saturday matinees where a quarter got a ticket and popcorn while Johnny Weissmuller swung through the jungle as Tarzan. But it was the possibility of a serious depiction of--as Joseph Conrad wrote--the horror!, the horror! of the colonization of the Congo which really drew me in.

Tarzan still swings through the jungle in this film. His faithful chimp Cheetah is gone, the loincloth has been replaced by low-slung britches, and the "Me Tarzan, you Jane" dialogue was left in the past.

Every Tarzan fan is aware that Tarzan's parents were British aristocrats whose many-versioned deaths left Tarzan to be raised by apes in a far superior manner than what would have taken place in England as a child of privilege.

Tarzan appears in this film for the first time as Lord John Clayton III, Earl of Greystoke, a member of the House of Lords in late 19th century Britain, and a legend much reduced. He and Jane have married and live in an imposing manor house with all the trappings. Warning: More spoilers ahead.

Tarzan leaps into action
Tarzan leaps into action

Tarzan has become quite comfortable in his life of a British lord, speaking the king's English--the only trace of his tree-swinging days are his remarkable abs. The British prime minister summons Tarzan to his office to ask him to go to the Belgian Congo to check on things there--the invitation comes from Belgian King Leopold II, through his envoy Leon Rom.

Tarzan says thanks, but no thanks. But George Washington Williams, an African American journalist and political figure who joins Leopold and Rom as another non-fictional character in the movie, persuades Tarzan to change his mind when Washington suggests that the Belgians may be enslaving the Congolese people.

SO WHAT was really going on in the scene in the British Prime Minister's office?

At the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, the European powers--having recently discovered the vast natural resources of the African continent--divided up Africa, with all parties scrambling for the best advantage to carve up and subjugate the continent. Of the 14 nations attending, France, Germany, Great Britain and Portugal controlled most of colonial Africa and had the most say.

Review: Movies

The Legend of Tarzan, directed by David Yates, written by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, starring Alexander Skarsgård, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson and Margot Robbie.

The effects of the plan to control the riches of Africa caused unbelievable devastation to the people of Africa and haunt the continent to this day.

The conferees agreed to end slavery by the African and Islamic powers in order to get the agreement approved. The Congo River and Niger River mouths and basins were to be neutral territory open to all European investment, but part of the resource-rich Congo basin later became the personal property of King Leopold II of Belgium.

The megalomaniac Leopold promised to "Christianize" the Africans and provide humanitarian and philanthropic development to the area--to be known as the Congo Free State--with no tax on trade. Instead, his Free State became perhaps the greatest of the many imperialist genocidal nightmares.

In the movie, what the British prime minister apparently wants Tarzan to do is check on Leopold's shenanigans to make sure he isn't controlling the resources in a way that would disadvantage Britain's interests. Leopold is deeply in debt for building a railroad system and considerable infrastructure with slave labor so he can continue to plunder the country.

The Belgian officer Leon Rom carried out Leopold's designs for the Congo. In the movie, his job is to find the diamonds to pay the debts and complete the subjugation of the country. For his part, Rom wants Tarzan to go to Africa so he can be turned over to a tribal leader who has a beef with him--the leader will then lead Rom to the diamonds.

And of course, Williams, who fought in the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War to end slavery, wants him to go so he can find out what is really going on in the Congo.

Tarzan, Jane and Williams head for Africa, Jane having refused to be left behind because she misses Africa and has grown tired of hybridizing coconuts--a by-product of colonization if there ever was one--and playing ping pong. There is a heartwarming reunion when Tarzan and Jane meet the Congolese tribe they once new--along with plenty of CG fighting and reunions with the animals who love and remember Tarzan.

The real Captain Rom was every bit the monster that he is portrayed as in the movie, a villainous sociopath carrying out the plans of King Leopold II, who never once set foot in Congo. Rom, who decorated his garden with the severed heads of unruly slaves, is thought to be the inspiration for the enigmatic Mr, Kurtz, an ivory trader in Joseph Conrad's 1899 novel Heart of Darkness.

THUS, THE movie attempts to portray at least some of the cruel reality of genocide in the Belgian Congo.

Railroad cars filled with ivory tusks is one of the film's first images of the exploitation of Congo's resources. With the help of African tribesmen, Tarzan and Williams rescue a train carrying captured slaves with iron rings around their necks and a haunting terror in their eyes, giving Williams the evidence he needs to expose King Leopold's slave operation.

But the mixture of the fantasy of Tarzan and his animal confidants and the brief encounter with the real horrors of colonialism in King Leopold's Congo is a jumbled history lesson--a puzzle with missing pieces and others that don't fit.

Rom is eaten by Tarzan's vengeful crocodile buddies in the film, but the real Rom lived until 1924, giving him plenty of time to continue the conquest of the Congo Free State through the forced labor of the "rubber terror," for which King Leopold is most infamous. In 1908, after the rubber trade in the area was becoming unprofitable, investigations into the human rights abuses led to the Congo's takeover by the Belgian Parliament.

The introduction of the George Washington Williams to the story adds a necessary dimension of fact. Williams was an African American journalist, former slave and American Civil War veteran, among many other accomplishments.

After his service in the Civil War beginning at the age of 14, he did a stint as a "Buffalo soldier"--the term for the all-Black units of Civil War veterans run by white officers. The main duty of these soldiers was to control the Native Americans within the Western frontier, part of an American genocide in the early stages of U.S. imperialism. Under duties described as protecting the Native Americans, much Native American land was transferred to incoming settlers.

At one moment in the film, Williams compares the scene to "what we did to the Indians." "I'm no better than those Belgians," he says, making a connection to the U.S. genocide in the early days of U.S. imperialism.

As a journalist, in 1889 Williams was given an audience with King Leopold II. At the movie's end while the credits roll, Williams' character reads a portion of his 1890 letter to King Leopold condemning the crimes he saw taking place in the Congo Free State. Williams died the next year. Although he called for an International Commission to investigate, the abuses in the Congo weren't addressed until long after his death.

George Washington Williams could easily have replaced Tarzan as the main character in the film, giving the real story of Williams and the early days of the devastation of the Congo the attention they deserve.

The ravages of imperialist powers are still felt across the globe to this day, and slavery continues to rear its ugly head in various countries around the world. The continent of Africa continues to hold some of the most desired natural resources in the world, many of which were unknown in Leopold's time. Those resources are still being stolen from the people of Africa by imperialist powers, led by U.S. Africom, the division of the Pentagon responsible for imposing Washington's will on the continent.

As Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, pointed out, the film recycles a "white savior" narrative all-too-common in films about Africa: "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."

The "savior" for the Congo and other exploited people across the globe hasn't arrived--because one doesn't exist. A movement much larger than the legend of Tarzan must arise to break the chains of capitalism's imperatives that enslave us all.

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