A Review and a History Lesson

One of the things we did yesterday was to watch the new Tarzan movie. I have never been much of a Tarzan fan, and never read the books because I figured they would just annoy me, seeing as they were written by a man who never set foot in Africa (from what I’ve been able to find out). I have not changed my opinion about the books. There are so many hundreds of books to read that I know I would enjoy; the Tarzan books aren’t on that list.

However, I did enjoy the movie, at least to the point that it piqued my curiosity about some things. One was the background of Jane. In the movie, she is portrayed as having been raised in Congo by a father who was a professor who taught English to the local villages. To me, this was laugh-out-loud funny. I guarantee there were no noble Americans teaching English to Congolese tribesmen during the time when Congo was the personal property of King Leopold of Belgium. If any language was taught, it would have been French, to make it easier for the Belgians to exploit the Congolese.

It would have been much more believable to have Jane’s parents be missionaries, because in fact it was missionaries who alerted the rest of the world to what was going on in Congo at the time. So,  before casting aspersions on Edgar Rice Burroughs, I did a little research and found out that the Jane in the books, though indeed an American and the daughter of a professor, was shipwrecked on the west coast of Africa as an adult (just like Tarzan’s parents) and therefore was not raised there. Whew! Burroughs gets points for that one and it was the movie makers who screwed up.

My research rabbit trail also led to the interesting fact that the movie’s antagonist, Léon Rom, and the Samuel L. Jackson character, George Washington Williams, were actual people who were in the Congo during the time the movie’s story is set. So of course I had to look them up too!

Rom was a Belgian official known for his brutality, a man who adopted the quaint local custom of decorating his garden with the severed heads of his enemies. Sadly, he was not killed by Tarzan. Instead he was rewarded for his barbarous leadership and lived to a ripe old age.

George Washington Williams, on the other hand, joined the Union Army under an assumed name at the age of 14. After his fighting days were over, he became a minister, one of the details the movie left out. He did indeed travel to Congo to investigate the treatment of the tribespeople under Leopold’s regime, and he did indeed write an “open letter” to King Leopold calling him out for the deplorable situation in Africa. However, he never confronted the king in person and he died of diseases caught in Africa when he was on his way home to the USA. He was only 41 when he died.

I applaud the makers of the movie for making the effort to place the Tarzan story into the context of actual historical events. Thanks to their efforts, I learned something new from this rather cheesy movie about Tarzan! Now maybe you learned something new too.

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