In 1912, Edgar Rice Burroughs created the character of the loinclothed legend, a white man swinging through the African jungle on a fever dream of paternalistic imperialism. Hollywood followed, and through more than 40 screen versions over a century was careful to leave actual Africans out of the picture, except as broad stereotypes. Tarzan is back in theaters again. Here, in a 1959 publicity shot for the film, "Tarzan, the Ape Man", Denny Miller strikes the classic pose for the Tarzan yell.
The fourth screen version of Tarzan was a 15-part movie silent serial, "Adventures of Tarzan", starring Elmo Lincoln, a little less naked in an animal skin. Stranded in Africa after his English parents die, young Tarzan is raised by an ape, battles animals and a volcano, and rescues Jane from Arab slave traders. A window card for the 1921 serial shows scenes.
The super buff American actor Gordon Scott did six Tarzan films for RKO in five years before going on to play Hercules and other shirtless characters in a series of sword-and-sandals flicks. Here he is in 1955's "Tarzan's Hidden Jungle," filmed on location in California.
The Tarzan franchise pretty much went dark in the '70s, but returned for a sexy swing with Bo Derek and Miles O'Keeffe in 1981's "Tarzan, The Ape Man," panned by the critics, despite the presence of the esteemed actor (and future Dumbledore) Richard Harris as Jane's father. Film critic Leonard Maltin called the movie "deranged."
The most egregious example of Hollywood's aversion to portraying Africa or Africans, has to be Disney's 1999 animated "Tarzan," writes Lewis Beale. While set "on 'the dark continent,' it contains not a single African figure. No gun bearers, tribal leaders, nada. It's as if some anti-black plague has struck."
2016's take on Tarzan, "The Legend of Tarzan", features Alexander Skarsgård (shown here with Samuel L. Jackson) as the white hero, but avoids many of the earlier Tarzan mistakes, writes Beale. Native characters, most of them played by African actors, such as Benin native Djimon Honsou, have speaking roles, and the film gives a sophisticated view of African society.