The Legend of Tarzan
Produced by Jerry Weintraub Productions 
Directed by David Yates 
Screenplay by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer
from the Edgar Rice Burroughs stories 
Distributed by Warner Brothers 

The Conjuring 2
Produced by New Line Cinema 
Directed by James Wan 
Screenplay by Carey and Chad Hayes 
Distributed by Warner Brothers 

The Legend of Tarzan begins in the Belgian Congo with its villain, Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz), a small blond man with a sinister, twisted face.  His right hand is wrapped with what looks like a set of Islamic prayer beads, which he soon uses to choke an African tribesman to death.  Won’t CAIR lodge a protest? I wondered.  Would the scene provoke another terrorist attack such as the one in Benghazi in 2012?  Why had the film’s director, David Yates, taken such a risk?  Then I noticed the crucifix attached to the beads.  What a relief!  They weren’t Islamic after all.  They were a rosary!  Despite the religious item being used in such a hideous manner, no one was likely to complain loudly, much less riot murderously.  Furthermore, this was straight realism.  Everyone knows Catholics routinely use rosary beads to asphyxiate their enemies.

Then another question arose.  Why are Rom and his rosary beads in a film about a fictional hero created for no greater purpose than to amuse adolescent boys for profit?  Answer: They provide cultural cover.

Yates decided he had to rehabilitate the Tarzan story for our enlightened time by cleansing it of any tincture of racism.  You know, white savior among the benighted Africans.  He’s inserted historical figures into a wholly fantastic narrative.  Our Villain of the Rosary, Rom, was the Belgian military officer King Leopold II dispatched in 1890 to press the Congolese into slave labor.  Leopold was determined to replenish his dwindling coffers by wresting whatever wealth he could from the territory: ivory, rubber, diamonds.  It was an undertaking advertised in the European press as a Christian effort to rescue the indigenous savages from their horrid ways, as Joseph Conrad ironically expressed it in his profane novella Heart of Darkness.  There’s another historical figure on hand: George Washington Williams, a black American who, upon hearing of the atrocities Belgium was inflicting on the Congolese, traveled to the country to investigate.  What he discovered was far more damning than he had supposed.  For cruelty, ISIS has nothing on Rom’s army.

Rom and Williams serve the causes of political correctness and commercial calculation.  They’re meant to distract us from Tarzan’s offensive whiteness and thereby save the bacon for Warner Brothers’ newly resurrected Tarzan franchise.

After the opening sequence, Yates takes us to the offices of Britain’s prime minister.  He is attempting to persuade Tarzan, who now lives in his English ancestral seat and goes by his rightful name, John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, to return to his African beginnings in order to investigate what’s been happening in the Congo.  The government is considering making a loan to Leopold II and wants to make sure it won’t be throwing its money away.  Clayton, however, isn’t interested.  The noble savage sees through their motives to the greed that lies behind them.  Then Williams comes forward to make the case.  He points out to Clayton his unique position: Having firsthand knowledge of the country and its inhabitants, Tarzan will surely get to the truth.  “You’re Tarzan, Tarzan,” Williams says with a marvelously mischievous grin.  He pronounces the name with a drawling emphasis on the second syllable that becomes even more drawling in its reiteration: Tar-ZAN.  He even seems to slip into black English, swallowing up you’re so that it sounds like he’s saying, “You Tarzan!”  Samuel L. Jackson delivers these lines angling his body into a ghetto crouch, the better, it would seem, to send up the nonsense in which he finds himself.  Whether he’s mocking the film on his own accord or in deference to Yates’s direction doesn’t matter.  Either way, he gives an audacious performance.  It’s the best thing in the film other than the special effects.

To play Tarzan, Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård was sent to the gym and fed a special diet to give his torso a marmoreal splendor that reaches its fullest perfection in the display of what has been recently dubbed an ab crack, a funnel-like divide running from chest to abdomen, separating the musculature into left and right columns.  Unquestionably impressive.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t help his acting.  Skarsgård was evidently directed to throw his shoulders back and flaunt his abs forward whenever he’s standing still.  But the awesome results of his countless hours in the gym are subverted by his mild and mournful Swedish face.  His eyes are too downcast, too doubtful in aspect to convey the heroic joy one would expect to go with such a magnificent physique.  As Jane Porter, Margot Robbie, fully clothed for once, does better.  In her scenes, she looks both beautiful and brave.  And she bridles convincingly on cue.  Holding Jane captive on his Congo steamboat, Rom hisses that he needs her to scream in order to draw Tarzan into his trap.  She contemptuously refuses, spitting back, “Like a damsel?”  Quite an update from her portrayal in the original Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, Tarzan of the Apes.  There we find her looking on helplessly as Tarzan does deadly combat to save her from the ape who’s been trying to carry her off.  (Apes, as we know, are drawn irresistibly to blondes.)

Jane—her lithe, young form flattened against the trunk of a great tree, her hands tight pressed against her rising and falling bosom, and her eyes wide with mingled horror, fascination, fear, and admiration—watched the primordial ape battle with the primeval man for possession of a woman—for her.

Imagine yourself a 14-year-old boy reading this passage in 1912.  Hot stuff.  Today, however, such hooey won’t fly.  This is the age of bruising, battle-tested gals.  The Jane of the film even lands a haymaker on the Lord of the Jungle when, on their first meeting, he begins to take unsanctioned liberties with her person.

The film was shot in the Warner Brothers studio in Los Angeles, the better to manage its jungle scenes and special effects—all of which seem utterly authentic, even as they defy credulity.  Tarzan schmoozing with his lion pals?  Sure, why not!  Battling an ape in hand-to-hand combat?  Of course.  Swinging on vines from hundred-foot trees?  What could be easier!  With computer-generated imagery, digital film can make anything look real.  My willingness to suspend disbelief was never challenged until Rom looped his rosary around the ape-man’s neck and started choking him to death.  Then I had my doubts.  What, I wondered, were those rosary links made of?  Welded titanium?

I would have been inclined to give Legend a favorable review had Yates been able to restrain his anti-Catholicism.  He couldn’t even refrain from making a wholly gratuitous swipe at pedophile priests.  Noticing the ever-present beads in Rom’s mitt, Jane asks about them.  A gift from a priest friend, he explains, given him when he was ten.  Jane coyly wonders how close the friendship was.

If you want to see rosaries and crosses put to better use, you might take in The Conjuring 2.  The film and its precursor have been directed by Indonesian filmmaker James Wan.  They feature characters based on Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), the real-life American couple credited with having investigated numerous cases of demonic possession, most famously the so-called Amityville Horror, a supposedly haunted house on Long Island that became the basis for a bestselling book and two financially successful films.  There’s credibility for you.

The film begins with a flashback to Amityville, where Lorraine believes she came into contact with some sort of paranormal menace that specifically threatened her husband’s life.  A few scenes later, we’re in Enfield, England, where the Hodgson family is encountering demonic doings of their own.  When their affliction becomes insupportable, their pastor takes the obvious step: He reaches out to the Warrens.  From this point on, we’re drawn deeper and deeper into the uncanny and, if I may add my own pedestrian suspicion, the incredible.

The distinctly underclass Hodgson family, comprising Peggy (Frances O’Connor) and her four children, has come under a series of supernatural attacks: slamming doors, rumbling floors, and flying children.  After some initial investigating, the Warrens provide Peggy with an unsurprising diagnosis: Families such as hers, broken and abandoned by divorce, are more vulnerable to evil than traditional families that manage to hold together.  This is presaged by a scene in which 11-year-old Janet (Madison Wolfe) sneaks a smoke at her school while listening to her friend discuss how she’s been experimenting with French kissing.  A scene or two later, Janet and her older sister are playing with a Ouija board, inviting spirits to contact them.  These activities aren’t made to seem vicious in and of themselves.  Writers Chad and Carey Hayes (brothers and evangelical Christians) included them, I’d guess, to signal an approaching loss of innocence.  Keep in mind, the story takes place in 1970’s London, when childhood innocence had a considerably longer shelf life than it does today.  Bill Clinton hadn’t yet publicly advertised the joys of oral sex to the world, schools weren’t giving free contraceptives to children, and the internet had yet to make all manner of depravity graphically available, from perverse pornography to Islamic beheadings.  With some luck and supervision, children could retain their innocence well into their early teens, a luxury no longer available in our technologically advanced world.

The film is well made.  The actors are all highly skilled in making audiences believe whatever shows up on screen.  Also commendable is the Hayes brothers’ script, which doesn’t overplay its hand.  It emphasizes that the Warrens dismiss most paranormal reports as instances of psychological disturbance or out-and-out fraud.  When demonic manifestations become undeniable, however, they put their rosaries and crucifixes to holy use, thwarting evil spirits with the aid of Wan’s judiciously applied camera work and special effects.  Still, I was unimpressed.  Yes, it may be that Satan’s most cunning trick is to convince us that he doesn’t exist.  Nevertheless, it seems to me he would find cleverer ways to get at us than banging doors, flashing lights, and growling ominously from unwitting human hosts.  Before he fell, the Father of Lies was the most brilliant of the angels; after, the slyest.  Would he really trouble himself with the parlor tricks deployed in cheapjack seances?  There are so many other subtler ways to seduce us to ruin.