Few people know more about the world that Tarzan would have lived in than Josh Ponte, the Africa Technical Advisor for The Legend of Tarzan. He advised on the gorillas in the movie and the history of Gabon at the time the film is set, as well as helping director David Yates find the stunning locations used for the film.
He also has a few things in common with the movie’s eponymous hero. Firstly, he has spent a while living with gorillas in Gabon. Secondly, he ended up doing so almost by accident. He’d always had a fascination with nature, growing up in the countryside, but Ponte was initially trained to make furniture rather than survive in the jungle.
Of course, in Ponte’s case the “accident” was a bit less catastrophic. He tells us, “I was nursing a slightly broken heart, so it was a standard maneuver – I just wanted to turn left. And an ad popped up in a British newspaper that just said: Gorilla project. Gabon.”
So in 2001 Ponte traded in his life in the UK to move to an African rainforest seven hours from the nearest town, where his closest neighbors were 16 lowland gorillas.
These gorillas were, like Tarzan, orphans. The children of gorillas killed by hunters who’d then been kidnapped to sell. When they were found they’d been put together into an artificial group. Ponte was immediately taken aback by how human they seemed.
“You read their eyes the same way as you read a human’s, and find that they are the same as us,” he says. During his time with the gorillas, Ponte met apes that he described as reliable, unreliable, trustworthy, mischievious, and even some who were “downright violent and mean”.
But from the off the gorillas treated Ponte as one of their own. The females were interested in him, the males wanted to play fighting games. But while they varied from friendly to mean as much as humans do, Ponte was drawn to the honesty of the primates, and it was something that stuck with him when he returned to the world of humans.
“Language is a good trick – it builds this mask and allows us to be manipulative,” he says. “We can share complex ideas, but there’s a ton of language that’s going on at a different level. You can’t do that with wild gorillas, so it was a blessing.”
It’s this grey area between the human and the ape, the common ground and the differences, that Ponte thinks is such a huge draw for the story of Tarzan. He explains, “Tarzan was born of a very real need a hundred years ago, when Darwin stood up for the first time and said, ‘We are of animal.’”
At the time it was shocking for such a person to suggest we’re related to apes, but Darwin publicized the theory anyway, blurring the previously clean lines between the human and animal kingdoms.
At the same time, Ponte points out that when Tarzan was written, the British Empire was fascinated with the supposed “heart of darkness” in Africa. Indeed, it’s this colonialism, and the treatment of Africa by European colonial powers, that forms the backdrop of The Legend of Tarzan.
“The film is set in a moment in history that I’ve studied at length, when the Europeans arrived under the guise of civilizing ‘savage Africa’ – and more than 11 million people died as a result,” Ponte says. “It was the darkest chapter in Africa’s history, and it’s all about that connection between man and the wild. Who was more honorable? The Colonialists or the ‘savages,’ who were, of course, highly civilized, incredibly cultured people.”
The film’s director, David Yates wanted to honour those events, and they are very deliberately used to frame the events of The Legend of Tarzan. However, Ponte believes that these themes are rooted right back in the original books.
“Burroughs took that curiosity about the ‘savage and civilized’ and flipped it,” he says. “He took the English aristocrat – the great bastion of politeness and manners and nobility – and he made him one of ‘them.’ For me, it’s as pertinent today as it was a hundred years ago.”