The movie folklore of animals in Africa is very different from what would be heard around the fires of traditional African people. One area of convergence, however, is in stories of lions on the Serengeti.
Most of these films are about apes, fueled by evolutionary irony, and there are a few about lions. As it became less common to see footage of animals being shot dead in their tracks, it was a little more typical to see animals being extracted from their habitat, confined to cages, and loaded onto ships. It is a practice older than the Roman Empire, when both humans and animals were taken from their homelands to serve the pleasures of the “over-culture.”
There never was a Tarzan of the apes. There never was a little British boy who was orphaned on the shores of West Africa and raised by a loving mother gorilla named Kala. It never happened that he grew into a strapping young man who knew only the animals of the jungle for his companions. It also never happened that a comely young woman named Jane followed an expedition led by her father into that same jungle and fell into the arms of Tarzan. It is complete fiction that these two built a treehouse above the wildness and lived the life of Eden with their young son and an adopted chimpanzee.
This story sprang in its entirety from the imagination of the American author Edgar Rice Burroughs, who published his first Tarzan of the Apes in 1914. The book enjoyed extraordinary popularity and Burroughs would write 22 sequels. The chimpanzee named Cheetah does not appear at all in the Burroughs books but is an invention of the movies. Indeed Hollywood has invented a great deal of what is familiar to most people who know the Tarzan story. Burroughs was inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution and took time in his novel to establish an analogy between Tarzan’s upbringing among the apes and the deep past of the human race. This included ample attention to the violent side of our animal nature. It was not a theme that earned the approbation of those who were gaining control over what could and could not be shown on the screen in the mid 20th century.
There has never been a Hollywood movie that followed the lines of the original Burroughs book except in the broadest brushstrokes. The first important Tarzan film was a crude but engaging silent movie called Tarzan of the Apes (1918). Unlike most of the more famous talking films that would follow, this one gave some screen time to little Lord Greystoke’s adoption by the gorilla, Kala, and included footage of the small boy running naked in the jungle. The classic Tarzan movies, beginning in the 1930s, are those that starred Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan. Jane has been changed from an American girl to a pretty English aristocrat, and Tarzan’s childhood among the apes has been largely erased. The most enduringly popular of the Weissmuller/O’Sullivan films is Tarzan and His Mate (1934) featuring their daring underwater ballet. Later Tarzan movies gave us a variety of interpretations of the character from dumb hunk to complex individual. The silly Disney Tarzan (1999) restores the story of Kala.
In the year following the first Weissmuller/O’Sullivan film, the classic King Kong (1933) premiered. This was the beginning of a long bloodline of films the traded on human fascination and fear of kinship with the apes. Who can forget the looks of love exchanged by the giant Kong and the pretty blonde girl that he held in the palm of his hand? Most of these films were ludicrous, but through them all ran deeper perturbations of the human imagination. The only movie to air both sides of the midcentury evolutionary argument was Inherit the Wind (1960).
Postmodern treatments of these motifs are characterized by tongue-in-cheek evolutionary humor. There are a few films that take a documentary approach, such as the framing scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Gorillas in the Mist (1988), and Chimpanzee (2012). The supreme ironies, however, belong to The Planet of the Apes franchise running from 1968 to 2011, and not dead yet. See the Movie Archive for a full list of ape movies.