Page last updated at 09:26 GMT, Thursday, 18 June 2009 10:26 UK

'King of the Apes' swings again

By Vincent Dowd
BBC World Service

Tarzan poster

The Musee du Quai Branly in Paris has a new exhibition looking at Tarzan's popularity and influence almost a century after the character was first created.

The two-dozen Tarzan novels by American author Edgar Rice Burroughs are not much read any more, but the character remains famous worldwide through television, films and comics.

The Musee du Quai Branly is an important centre for the study of the arts and cultures of Africa, Asia and the Pacific, so an exhibition about a fictional Brit created by an American might seem an odd choice.

In fact the museum's head, Stephane Martin, insists the Tarzan phenomenon is well worth studying.

"How pop culture creates a vision of non-Western culture is a serious topic," he tells me.

Child of British aristocrats, raised by apes, who teach him to climb and leap like one of them
Tall, handsome, grey eyes, black hair, enormously strong
Wears a loincloth, carries a knife, sleeps in trees, enjoys raw meat
Devoted to American wife, Jane

"It's the vision a lot of Westerners had of Africa in the first part of the 20th Century."

The first Tarzan movie came out in 1918, though more familiar today is Tarzan the Ape Man, starring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan and released in 1932.

Like most Tarzan films, it uses aspects of Burroughs' original but invents a whole lot more.

'Physical appeal'

What is surprising now is the sexiness of the Tarzan-Jane relationship.

The movie came out just before Hollywood cracked down on screen sensuality and it gets away with scenes and shots which just a couple of years later might have been censored.

Stephane Martin thinks sensuality was always central to the story of an orphaned son of British aristocrats, left to grow up amid the apes of the jungle.

"A strong part of the success of Tarzan was the physical appeal he and Jane had," he explains.

"And also the Africa which it shows - filled with powerful animals and muscular men and near-naked women. It's pretty sexual for a society not far removed from the Victorians."

Though the Tarzan myth appears indestructible, today's film-makers seem warier of the story than their predecessors.

Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan as Tarzan and Jane
The films helped unpick Western stereotypical views of Africa

It is now a quarter of a century since Hugh Hudson's Greystoke, and the last live-action Hollywood Tarzan was in 1998.

Perhaps, given the film industry's obsession with returnable franchises based on known properties, film-makers will find a way to reinvent Tarzan for today.

The new exhibition uses movie clips, artwork, music and text to illustrate the character's influence.

They are fun - but the exhibition's curator, Roger Boulay, has also been keen to investigate why some are left uneasy about Tarzan - especially his relationship to black Africans.

But he says this queasiness is mainly generated by the Hollywood versions of the story, not by Edgar Rice Burroughs' original novels.

"Sometimes the books can be quite subtle and rich," he says.

"Tarzan protects Jane against bad black guys but also against bad white guys... but you do have to remember that he dates from 1912."

The exhibition continues at the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris until 27th September.

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