Tarzan films do a poor job of teaching African history

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"NO. THEY wouldn't. They couldn't. This is a terrible thing to do to a nice, Catholic, colored kid from West Baltimore."

That was the thought running through my mind June 6 when I read in my beloved Sun's feature section that the cable channel American Movie Classics was, indeed, planning to run a marathon of Tarzan movies over the weekend.

"It's a cruel, sick, humorless joke is what it is," I muttered to myself. Tarzan movies, indeed.

I could afford to be on my high horse now. I had given up on Tarzan movies long ago. Mind you, there was a time in my life when I wasn't so selective in my viewing choices. When I was a boy, one of the local television stations made a habit of running Tarzan movies. I was there for every viewing. Johnny Weismuller was my favorite, his "Tarzan and the Leopard Woman" and "Tarzan's New York Adventure" being among the best in the series. Well, as good as a Tarzan movie can get, anyway.

But when you're a little kid you're a sap for almost anything. In junior high school, at Harlem Park, I had a geography teacher named Mr. Moulton who informed us that there were no lions in the jungle, that the Tarzan movies were all wrong.

"Wait a second!" I said to myself. "I thought these things were on the level. I've been tricked and lied to."

Boy, was I ever. I began to question the whole Tarzan concept. Could a guy raised by apes be capable of speech? Wouldn't he be attracted to a female ape instead of Jane? What was up with that loincloth? Did he ever wash that thing? And where did he get that foot-long shank? And where'd he learn to use it? From the apes? Knife-wielding apes?

Here we had some white guy in the middle of Africa swinging through the trees striking fear into the black natives simply by yelling. Oh yeah, that could happen. At the risk of sounding annoyingly politically correct, I'd have to say the main objection to Tarzan movies is the insulting way they portray Africa and Africans. It's not a case of the movies being racist, although they certainly were. But basically they were downright ignorant.

Now African history does have its gruesome moments, as do the histories of all continents. But the notion of a "Great White Ape" striking terror into the hearts of scores of ignorant and superstitious blacks was not only ludicrous, it was downright insulting.

I found this out when I started getting my African history from books instead of Tarzan movies. Yes, there were tribes in Africa that were backward, primitive and savage. But there were pockets of civilization and enlightenment. The late Dr. Samuel Banks (God rest him) taught me about the medieval empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhay when I was in high school.

Later, after many years and much searching, I learned of an African city named Kong that existed well into the 1880s. Historian Galbraith Welch described Kong -- which was in the northern part of what is now Ivory Coast -- as "a unique Negro capital, tolerant and gentle and wise, where almost every man could read, and the streets were full of song and contentment."

Historian Richard Hull said that when Kong was burned to the ground in 1887 "one of the greatest commercial, political and intellectual cities of West Africa passed into oblivion." Troops of Samori Toure's army burned Kong as he retreated from the French. His Mandingo warriors would have known exactly what to do with a "Great White Ape" swinging through the trees: They'd have shot him.

Toure had his blacksmiths make exact copies of the Gras rifle the French used. Toure's military The French were much relieved when they nabbed him -- with the help of well-trained and disciplined Senegalese sharpshooters.

This is the Africa those geniuses who produced Tarzan movies overlooked. But Hollywood has never been known to spread enlightenment when it can spread ignorance. A notable exception is Zoltan Korda's 1939 classic "The Four Feathers," which is about the battle of Omdurman in Sudan in 1898. Zoltan shot the film on location in Sudan, using extras who were probably descendants of tribesmen who actually participated in the battle. Instead of Africans fleeing at the arrival of one man, we saw -- as actually happened -- fearless Sudanese charging into British Maxim guns.

There's one thing about movies like "The Four Feathers." Once you've seen them, you'll never go back to Tarzan.

Pub Date: 6/14/97

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