Tarzan is one of the all time great iconic figures, up there with Sherlock Holmes, Dracula and Batman. The moment you say the name everyone can picture him swinging from vine to vine, and at some point you’ve probably tried to do an impression of the famous Tarzan cry. But how much do you really know about him?
With The Legend of Tarzan in cinemas now, it’s time to take a closer look at the King of the Apes and find out some things you may not know…
His name’s not Tarzan
“Tarzan” is his ape name, given to him by his adopted family of apes when he was found as a baby. However he is actually the son and heir of Lord Greystoke, and his birth name is John Clayton. Indeed, when we meet Tarzan in The Legend of Tarzan he doesn’t look anything like you’re expecting.
“You meet him in London where he’s having tea with the Prime Minister, and he’s in a suit and speaks with a perfect British accent,” says Alexander Skarsgård, who plays Tarzan, sorry, John in The Legend of Tarzan. “It was a character who has left the jungle behind and doesn’t think he’ll ever go back.”
He’s not just King of the Apes
We all know Tarzan was raised by apes, but he was in the jungle for a long time and has plenty of other animal companions, and he finds time to chat with all of them. As Skarsgård points out, “Animals are obviously a very important aspect of the movie, so it was important to me to study how they communicate, how they socialize.”
Skarsgård spent plenty of time with real animals in the run up to the film, including big cats such as lions, tigers and panthers. But for the movie all the animals have been created with computer wizardry.
“He meets this elephant that he knew when he was a kid and tells Sam Jackson’s character [George Washington Williams] about his old friend and the wisdom of an elephant,” Skarsgård remembers. “When we were shooting, it’s a tennis ball on a C-stand, so it’s lovely to now see that beautiful elephant. I was blown away by the animation.”
Jane is more than a damsel in distress
If you ask somebody who’s not a fan to name everything they know about Tarzan, the first thing they’ll do is his “swinging from the vines” cry, and the second is “Me Tarzan. You Jane.”
But Jane Porter is far more than Tarzan’s damsel in distress. In the books she eventually becomes an adventurer in her own right, and the Jane we see in The Legend of Tarzan is no different. As Skarsgård explains, “He needs to get to her because he’s very vulnerable without her. Jane anchors him in so many ways.”
Getting into Tarzan’s shape is hard
If any guys out there are thinking he might be a good choice for their next Halloween costume they’re going to have to do more than stick on a loin cloth. As Skarsgård points out, “It was important to look like someone who was raised in the jungle – that’s his natural habitat. You want to feel like when he moves through the jungle he can do it blindfolded, and his physicality was a big part of that.”
He did intensive preparation for the role, with “no alcohol, no dessert, nothing”. There were four months of preparation to get into shape before filming, following by training throughout the shoot.
The Congo was a troubled place when Tarzan was there
The story of Tarzan is an adventure and a fantasy and a great time, but it takes places in the Congo during a dark chapter of its history. Set during the reign of King Leopold, The Legend of Tarzan doesn’t shy away from the serious subjects of slavery and the way the indigenous people of the Congo were treated. Skarsgård is blunt in his summation, “It was a genocide. They estimate that 20 million people died. It’s this very subtle undertone of the movie that you experience through John’s eyes when he returns to this land where he grew up.”