Throughout cinema history, few characters can be traced back as far as that of the jungle-dwelling Tarzan. Created by Edgar Rice Burroughs for his 1914 novel Tarzan of the Apes, Tarzan was raised by apes from the age of a young child and ultimately makes his way into the civilized world before returning home. Over the years, countless films have attempted to present their own vision of the character’s story, with director David Yates (the Harry Potter films) next in line to deliver his take with this summer’s big-budget epic The Legend of Tarzan (see trailer above). Here are five of the most memorable big-screen incarnations of Tarzan.
1. Tarzan of the Apes (1918)
This silent film stars Elmo Lincoln as the title character and Enid Markey as his beloved Jane. The release shares its title with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel and was actually the first-ever adaptation of Tarzan. In fact, it is only based on the first part of the novel, and its less successful sequel, The Romance of Tarzan, follows the story into the Wild West. Tarzan of the Apes is widely considered one of the most faithful takes on the source material.
2. Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)
One of the most famous elements of the Tarzan character has come to be his distinctive yell, which originated in this classic film. Johnny Weissmuller makes his debut as Tarzan here, a role he would reprise in 11 sequels, and Maureen O’Sullivan plays Jane. Loosely based on Rice Burroughs’ novel, the film has been periodically remade in 1959 and 1981 with the same title. It also introduced Tarzan’s pal Cheeta the chimpanzee, an original character not featured in the novels.
3. Tarzan and His Mate (1934)
The first sequel with Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan, this film — directed by Oscar-winning art director Cedric Gibbons — was ultimately less successful at the box office. However, it has endured over the decades, and many now consider it to be superior to its predecessor. In fact, Tarzan and His Mate was selected by United States Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2003 due to its cultural and historical significance.
4. Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984)
Although it is based on Rice Burroughs’ original novel, this adaptation never uses the name Tarzan for its central character, played here by Christopher Lambert of Highlander and Mortal Kombat fame. Andie MacDowell co-stars as Jane, and Ralph Richardson earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his final film appearance as Tarzan’s grandfather. In fact, Greystoke was the first Tarzan film to ever receive Academy Awards nominations, as it was also recognized for its screenplay and makeup effects.
5. Tarzan (1999)
This animated Disney adaptation is often considered the film release of what has become known as the “Disney Renaissance” that spanned the 1990s. Tony Goldwyn and Minnie Driver voice Tarzan and Jane, respectively, and the adaptation re-imagines the former character’s jungle skills as a kind of snowboarding from branch to branch rather than the more traditional tree-swinging. The film was the first Tarzan feature to win an Oscar, with Phil Collins winning the Best Original Song statuette for his original composition “You’ll Be in My Heart” and the 2000 awards ceremony.
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