Theme: Life Triumphant Over Death
While film critics may pan Warner Brother’s The Legend of Tarzan, and financial success remains questionable, audiences are responding very favorably and there is a reason why. The story of Tarzan and Jane, as specifically retold in this newest version, captures human hearts and imaginations because it contains eternal truth; biblical themes of creation and fall, exile and return, sacrificial love conquering evil and life triumphant over death.
Creation and Fall
The goodness of Creation and its brokenness are predominant themes in the movie. God created an amazing creation, a garden paradise which He blessed and called good (Gen. 1:31). He created man in His own image and placed him in the garden to cultivate and keep it (Gen. 2:15). Part of the Imago Dei was to exercise benevolent dominion over the zoological kingdom. The first Adam named the animals which meant he saw deeply into them, knowing their very essence. As philosopher Dallas Willard describes it “. . . humanity would have spoken to the animals, directed their lives as needed, in cooperation with the rest of humankind and with the sovereign action of God. . .” 1
Tarzan’s relationship with the animal kingdom, from his ability to speak to them in their own language to his ability to call upon them for help, are reflections of humanity’s original vocation. One of the most moving scenes is Tarzan’s return to Africa and his being greeted by the lions he knew as cubs. He gets down on his hands and knees, nuzzling them as long lost friends. This scene and the one where he greets the elephants touch hearts deeply, for this is glimpse of Eden.
“But we know that paradise was lost. The disruption of the harmony between God and humankind, and then between humans, were in fact earth-shattering cosmic events that made impossible the exercise of that rule to which humankind was appointed. Creation is now the unwilling subject of human vanity and folly. . . it is in its present state due to the fact that humanity is at war with itself and with its God” 2
The ramifications of this war are another central theme of the film. A foreign king pillages a nation with ruthless mercenaries while despoiling the environment and killing the animals. The scenes of the train cargo intercepted by Tarzan capture this fallen state of affairs. Humans once created with nobility in the image of God are enslaved with chains and dehumanized while animals that were originally created to be lovingly cared for are slaughtered for their ivory tusks or simply butchered like the gorillas.
A powerful scene capturing the shattered human/animal relationship is Tarzan’s fight with his “brother,” Akut. As Tarzan explains to his companion Williams, “he (Akut) will consider me a deserter because I left”. Tarzan’s leaving Africa opens up another key theme of the movie, that of exile and return.
Exile and Return
There is a rhythm of life woven into creation: this pattern of movement is a “going out” and “returning home”; in the Bible, it is referred to in the terms of exile and return. The condition or state of exile is one of degradation, diminishment, and death (Expulsion from Eden, The Prodigal Son, Israel in Egypt), while return brings blessing, life and restoration to original glory.
In The Legend of Tarzan this pattern is clearly marked by a change in visual effects. Tarzan’s parents, as told in flashbacks, are shipped wrecked off the coast of Africa. They are thus exiled from their native England with degradation, diminishment, and death becoming their fate. These scenes are filmed in shades of blue and grey visually communicating the ugliness of exile.
For Tarzan and Jane, Greystoke, the family estate in England is actually their exile; home is Africa. A title, a new name, and an estate cannot prevent the death associated with exile from touching their lives. These early scenes of England are also done in the subdued shades of blue and grey; while their return to Africa is filmed in vivid warm colors, creating a stark contrast.
Return home from exile is never easy; it is always opposed by forces of evil. The Africa Tarzan and Jane once called home has also suffered exile in their absence. Their return precipitates a climatic battle between good and evil.
Sacrificial Love Conquers Evil
At the heart of The Legend of Tarzan is a beautiful love story. This is no ordinary love story and perhaps this is why it is so captivating and so deeply felt by the audience. An other-worldly man falls in love with a humble maiden. He is really a great lord and heir to a vast estate but has taken the form of a lowly animal. The flashbacks show their first encounters; he watching her from a distance, then appearing to her and finally laying down his life to save her. This scene of Tarzan covering Jane with his body while the gorilla savagely beats him, then being carried to the village on a mat is a crucifixion scene in one sense of the word (severe and unjust punishment or suffering). It is no wonder then his actions are reminiscent of the “Last Adam” who gave his life on a cross to save his Bride.
Jane is no ordinary woman; it is not her beauty which is extraordinary, it’s her spirit. She is what the Hebrews would call an ezer kenegdo, the perfect counterpart to Tarzan.3 Their union of strength, beauty, and unconditional love is another glimpse of God’s original intentions for humankind. And just like the Garden of Eden, it too comes under assault from the powers of darkness.
Leon Rom is King Leopold’s henchman in the Congo. Out to capture Tarzan and exchange him for diamonds to finance his evil plans, he ends up kidnapping only Jane and a few tribesmen. Tarzan’s fierce pursuit of his beloved wife and Jane’s spirited stand, confident in his rescue unnerve and ultimately conquer the wicked Rom.
Life Triumphant Over Death
The movie comes to a glorious end with the destruction of the evil powers, Rom and Leopold’s army by Tarzan and his friends, the animal kingdom and the freed slaves. An epilogue takes place one year later. Greystoke is empty. Tarzan is in a free and restored Africa awaiting the birth of his first child. Joy breaks forth in the singing of his legend as the tribal women bring to him his new born son.
The story which began in exile and death now concludes with Tarzan, Jane and their child in a golden land signifying life triumphant over death.
- The Spirit of the Disciplines, page 51 by Dallas Willard
- The Spirit of the Disciplines, page 51-52 by Dallas Willard
- From Genesis 2:20. Translated meaning, "a help according to /like his counterpart"