Some stories are so simple and so timeless that they’ll forever be a part of cinema. Boy meets girl. A stranger comes to town. A man is raised by apes, yet upon closer inspection, is not actually an ape himself. Samuel L. Jackson is clearly a fan of that third idea, as the actor is now in talks for a co-starring role in the live-action Tarzan film that director David Yates has been trying to get off the ground for some time now. Back in April, budgetary concerns threatened to de-vine Tarzan for good, but the addition of Jackson, the confirmation of Christoph Waltz (who entered talks for the film in September), and the already-on-board star Alexander Skarsgard mean things are looking a little brighter. The film still hasn’t been greenlit yet, however – and only after doing so will it begin casting its Jane. Right now, Margot Robbie is said to be the frontrunner there.
So now Tarzan’s got its grade-A, top choice cast. It’s got a budget (or had a budget, at one time) that was enough to make Warner Bros quake with fear and slam the panic button. How exactly will the film balance its blockbuster leanings with the somewhat ridiculous image of an actor cavorting around in nothing but a small piece of brown fabric? I don’t mean to harp on Tarzan, or his fashion choices. And obviously, there’s a level of audience appeal in a mostly nude well-built actor doing a little cavorting. But over the years, Tarzan’s classic look has aged a little more like milk then like a fine Cabernet.
He didn’t always have the loincloth. Starting with the very first Tarzan film adaptation, 1918’s Tarzan of the Apes, actor Elmo Lincoln sported a fur-and-sticks toga rather than the traditional underwear-only Tarzan costume. It worked perfectly fine for the time- especially if you’re as He-Man sized as Lincoln was.
The toga (or toga-like thing) stayed around through the silent era Tarzans, but by the time Johnny Weissmuller was filling Tarzan’s non-shoes in the early 1930s, the shoulder strap had been done away with. Now, the loincloth was here to stay – not always the most flattering of costume choices, as can be seen below, but a mainstay of Tarzan’s cinematic image.
And so it continued. Throughout the decades, Tarzan stayed a relatively popular hit, a dependable part of cheap action cinema from the ’30s through the ’60s. And with each passing decade, his loincloth would slowly shrink. By 1966 and Tarzan and the Valley of Gold, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ hero (here, portrayed by Mike Henry) was as practically nude as he still is today.
Yet by 1968, Tarzan’s status as a power player had run out, and for over a decade, there was not a single live-action Tarzan film or TV show. Tarzan would eventually return to the media spotlight in the early ’80s, but by then he was reduced to a relic of old, loincloth and all. His costume (or lack thereof) was now nothing more than an excuse for blatant sex appeal – even more so than the image above this paragraph. Take 1981’s reboot of Tarzan, the Ape Man, for example (be warned – the following trailer is billed as “the most erotic adventure of all time” and contains an extended sequence of Bo Derek seductively eating a banana while glancing at a chimpanzee).
When not swaggering around like a cheap porno actor, Tarzan set about finding a niche in the only place he could – cheap ’90s schlock. It’s there he’d stay, in series like Tarzan: The Epic Adventures (seen in the image at the top of this article) or films like Tarzan and the Lost City; a place where a thin strip of cloth and still count as a costume. It’s still a cheesy look, of course, but so are all the other production values. Tarzan fits right in. Now, when Tarzan is yanked away for some new adaptation, it’s always with a catch. Disney’s Tarzan (along with this year’s 3D adaptation) skirted the loincloth issue by keeping things animated, as a cartoon version of a semi-naked adult is little more appropriate for a kids’ film than a real live semi-naked adult. Then, the 2003 TV series Tarzan threw its hero in modern-day New York, swinging around shirtless but with an everyday set of real human pants. The last attempt at a live-action Tarzan had both a 1930’s and a parkour twist – I have no idea how that would have worked around the loincloth issue, but I also have no idea how that would have worked at all.
And now Skarsgard faces the same issue (or will, if his Tarzan ever gets the green light). No matter what the variation, I can’t really wrap my head around seeing that old Tarzan costume in something that’s supposed to be a studio tentpole film. According to Variety, “Plot details are still vague on how this version will be interpreted,” meaning that Yates, like so many others, may have found some new spin to put on the classic ape-man. Maybe he’ll have some twinge of Johnny Depp camp, like we’ve seen in the costumes for Jack Sparrow or Tonto. Maybe Yates is completely reinventing the wheel, and there’ll be no loin cloth at all. Or maybe he’ll just bite the bullet and keep Skarsgard in four square inches of brown cloth, and in the right context it won’t be so bad after all.
All I know is, if this new version has Rosie O’Donnell playing another talking gorilla, I’m buying a ticket opening night.