A look at Tarzan through the ages

With The Legend of Tarzan out this week, we look at the enduring character’s origins and his many incarnations.

A poster for Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939). Movie Poster Image Art / Getty Images
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Forget Darth Vader’s menacing wheeze or the droning hum of a lightsaber – the most memorable sound in movie history is a yell. It returns to cinemas this week, and with it comes Hollywood’s most enduring hero: Tarzan.

Older than almost all cinematic superheroes and anti-heroes – Frankenstein and Sherlock Holmes are the only modern characters who predate the "Lord of the Jungle" on film – Tarzan first appeared on celluloid in 1918, when silent-movie star Elmo Lincoln donned a loincloth in Tarzan of the Apes, directed by Scott Sidney.

Since then, the vine-swinging orphan-turned-action hero has appeared in more than 25 novels, 50 movies, multiple TV and radio series, comic strips, video games, an animated Disney spectacular and even a Broadway musical.

If that wasn't enough, Tarzan is also one of the few characters to have appeared in both the DC and Marvel comics universes – but the Lord of the Jungle's crossover and multimedia appeal date all the way back to the character's very beginnings. Tarzan was created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author of the Barsoom science fiction novels that were the basis for the 2012 Disney movie John Carter.

Tarzan of the Apes was his third book, but the character had appeared in pulp magazine The All-Story two years before it was published as a hardback novel in 1914.

The story of a baby, heir to the aristocratic Greystoke Estate in England, who is orphaned in the rainforests of Africa and raised by apes to become lord of the jungle, Tarzan quickly became a media phenomenon and one of the 20th century’s first great cultural icons.

The phenomenal success of the character transformed its author’s life. After failure in several jobs and a discharge from the US Army on the grounds of ill health, Burroughs was working as a wholesaler of pencil sharpeners when he decided to give writing a try at the age of 35.

Writing under the pseudonym Norman Bean, Burroughs had his first science-fiction stories published in serialised form in The All-Story between February and July 1912. Tarzan of the Apes ­followed that same year, when "the romance of the jungle" featured as the magazine's October cover story.

Burroughs sensibly finished his first jungle tale on a cliffhanger, leaving the road clear for sequels.

With the love of his life, Jane Porter, about to marry his aristocratic cousin, Tarzan gives up his inheritance with the words: “My mother was an ape. I never knew who my father was,” before walking away.

As the author hoped, the climax left readers demanding more – and eight months later Burroughs gave them a sequel, The Return of Tarzan, which appeared in print in June 1913 and continued the story where the first book had left off.

The rest is pop-culture history. Burroughs eventually published 22 Tarzan novels, plus 10 in his Barsoom series and dozens of other historical, Western and jungle adventures – but none quite caught the imagination of the public, or generated the same sales or renown, as the tales of the ape man.

Burroughs had written five Tarzan books by the time the first ape-man movie appeared in 1918. The film became one of the sensations of silent cinema and such was its success that Burroughs moved to California and built a luxurious ranch that he named Tarzana.

In 1923, he became the first person to incorporate himself, becoming Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc, and the one-time failure not only became a self-publisher, but also launched a highly profitable Tarzan industry in the process.

Eight Tarzan movies were made before sound even arrived in the cinema and despite the fact that more than 50 films have been made, the first is still recognised as being one of the most faithful versions of Burroughs's original tale.

Of course, in the days of silent movies, there was one thing that the first Tarzan movie couldn’t deliver.

Burroughs originally described Tarzan's yell as the "victory cry of the bull ape", but it wasn't until 1929, when the actor Frank Merrill delivered it in Tarzan the Tiger, that audiences heard the fear-­inducing scream for the first time.

Much has been written about the origin of the definitive Tarzan yell, which became inextricably associated with Johnny Weissmuller, the record-breaking Olympic swimmer who starred in 12 Tarzan movies between 1932 and 1948.

According to film lore, an MGM sound technician created the Tarzan yell by mixing “a hyena’s yowl with a camel’s bleat and the sound of a violin’s string being plucked, with a soprano singing a high ‘C’,”. Weissmuller, meanwhile, always insisted that the – now definitive – yodelling yell was all his own work.

Such was the appeal of Weissmuller’s yodel that even Gore Vidal was a fan.

“There is hardly an American male of my generation who had not at one time or another tried to master the victory cry of the great ape that issued from the androgynous chest of Johnny Weissmuller,” he wrote.

Whatever the truth, the yell has become a metonym for the man himself, and the makers of the latest movie felt compelled to include it. As such, it is a common link back through more than 80 years of Tarzan films, regardless of the many other differences between the new movie.

However, even Tarzan has to move with the times in some ways. To avoid using an antique yell in the latest movie, that its star Alexander Skarsgård said might have risked sounding “dated and corny”, a new yell was created.

“It’s a hybrid of my voice and an opera singer’s voice and some animal sounds to make it more primal and animalistic,” the­ ­actor said.

This is perhaps more in keeping with the tone of the film. By including historical characters and setting The Legend of Tarzan in the Belgian Congo of the 1890s, a time and place that witnessed one of the worst atrocities in the history of western imperialism, the film's director, David Yates, has attempted to adopt a decidedly environmental and postcolonial take on a franchise that has often attracted accusations of racism.

In doing so, however, his movie is as much a product of its time as the stories of the past which have, in their day, pitted the Lord of the Jungle against Russian agents, Nazis and colonialists alike.

Whether we like it or not, the franchise has always acted as both a window into our anxieties and a prism that refracts the obsessions of our times – and it is precisely this shape-shifting aspect of the character that has allowed Tarzan to remain relevant, even after 104 years.