Margot Robbie’s survival instinct
At the London premiere of The Legend of Tarzan, the cast and director agree that star Margot Robbie would outlive them all in a jungle.
July 7, 2016 – 9:03AM
He may be king of the jungle, but Tarzan – the feral white boy raised by great apes who featured in a series of iconic novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs – is not king of the box office.
But as studio accountants grapple with the July 4 weekend box office balance sheet and wonder what went wrong, there is a bigger question: why does Hollywood persist with a character who has such a poor record of return?
Margot Robbie and Alexander Skarsgard in the film The Legend of Tarzan, which has been panned by critics and is struggling at the box office. Photo: Jonathan Olley
Few characters in literature’s great pantheon of heroes have so consistently featured in such a poor parade of film adaptations as Tarzan. And not just badly made films, but films which make little or no profit.
More than 200 film adaptations of the Tarzan story have been produced in the last century, the most memorable of which were made between 1932 and 1948, starring Johnny Weissmuller.
Though the Weissmuller films were much loved, they were also memorably camp, with a lot of chest beating and the inevitably awkward footnote of forcing Weissmuller to share top billing with a chimpanzee named Cheeta.
B-grade but brilliant … Johnny Weismuller starred as the King of the Jungle between 1932 and 1948. Here he is in Tarzan’s New York Adventure.
They also didn’t do much for the women’s movement, shoehorning a bevy of beauties (but mostly Maureen O’Sullivan) into what would best be described as an animal hide unitard, answering to the name of Jane, as in, “me Tarzan, you Jane”. (Cue chest beating.)
Despite all of that, however, they were commercially successful, and consistently so, in marked contrast to what would come decades later as Hollywood persevered with the character, and all of its outmoded colonial themes, despite inexplicably not getting much back.
As only Hollywood can, the franchise was milked until the wheels fell off, with a dozen more films starring Gordon Scott, and a couple more starring stuntmen whose names are faded curls of ink in the annals of film history. Then a TV series followed, starring Ron Ely, and by the end of the 60s it was all but over.
Christopher Lambert in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes.
The modern era of Tarzan remakes did not begin until 1981, when MGM’s Tarzan, the Ape Man, starring Miles O’Keeffe and Bo Derek as Tarzan and Jane.
While it was a truly frightful film – British film critic Leslie Halliwell said it was “certainly the worst of the Tarzan movies and possibly the most banal film so far made” – it at least pulled in a modest $US36 million from a $US6.5 million budget.
In 1984, it was followed by Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, which to its credit dispensed with the chest-thumping stupidity that had defined most of the character’s life on cinema and restored the sophistication Tarzan possessed in Burroughs’ novels.
Miles O’Keefe and Bo Derek in Tarzan, the Ape Man.
It starred Christopher Lambert as Tarzan and Andie MacDowell as Jane, but only made $US45 million from a $US30 million budget, and when factoring in marketing, distribution and exhibition costs, would be recorded as a loss on paper.
You can see where we’re heading here, right?
Then came 1998’s Tarzan and the Lost City, which starred Casper Van Dien. That returned a paltry $US2.1 million from a $US20 million budget. No need to break down those numbers: it stunk.
In this photo released in 1955 by RKO, Gordon Scott, the screen’s eleventh Tarzan, makes his debut as Tarzan in Tarzan’s Hidden Jungle,” as he is shown in this undated photo with actress Vera Miles who plays UN nurse, and Zippy, the chimp, as Cheta.
Now, you don’t need to be a mathematician to see that what you’re looking at is what we call a downward trend. The kind of downward trend that draws a big red line from the top left corner of the graph, to the bottom right of the graph.
Which brings us to 2016’s The Legend of Tarzan, starring Alexander Skarsgård as Tarzan and Margot Robbie as Jane.
Now it’s technically a work in progress, but what we’re looking at is roughly US$70 million in box office takings so far, off the back of a $US180 million budget. And remember: inclusive of marketing, distribution and exhibition costs, the actual cost of releasing a movie is sometimes up to double the production budget.
Tarzan and the Jungle Boy … Mike Henry and Alizia Gur in 1967.
Setting aside the rather enormous cultural issue that the Tarzan story brings with it a whole lot of colonial cliches that just don’t sit well in modern society, there is a significant commercial imperative that Hollywood is ignoring: Tarzan movies don’t seem to work.
It is true that the currently soft performance of The Legend of Tarzan is in part due to a generally soft summer box office, and it’s not alone. There’s a whole crowd of under-performers. Alice Through the Looking Glass also flopped, and Steven Spielberg’s The BFG is struggling. (On the upside, Finding Dory is going gangbusters.)
And to be fair this year’s summer box office comes after last year’s, which featured Avengers: Age of Ultron and Jurassic World, which became two of the biggest films of all time.
Disney’s animated movie Tarzan
But if there is a dialect that Hollywood’s chieftains speak with more clarity than all others, it is money. And when it comes to dollars and common sense, rebooting Tarzan time and time again just doesn’t add up.