Tarzan of the Apes (1918)

Tarzan is often mentioned as one of the most iconic literary characters of the 20th century, after Sherlock Holmes and maybe Dracula. But Holmes and Dracula were both created in the 19th century, so perhaps Tarzan is the most iconic literary character to emerge during the 20th, disregarding comic characters such as Superman.

Today, when you think about Tarzan on the silver screen, you probably think first about Johnny Weissmuller, who played the ape man through most of the 30s and 40s. Starting with his films, and continuing for decades thereafter, the movies were not based on any of the books written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Indeed, even the characters barely resembled those in the books (Boy and Cheeta were never in the books at all).

Stellan Windrow as Tarzan in Tarzan of the Apes (1918)

The first Tarzan movie Tarzan of the Apes, on the other hand, is very faithful to the original story. Perhaps too faithful, which may have been the reason why it was cut heavily, apparently from three hours originally, and even then they only did half the book. (The rest was adapted into a second film, The Romance of Tarzan (1918), which was thought lost until a partial print was discovered recently.)

But the existing film of only an hour is too short. You can feel the incoherence caused by the heavy cutting. Some films really deserve to be restored to their best possible versions. But restoration is expensive and time consuming, so for now we will have to settle with the butchered version.

The one-hour version at the Internet Archive is the longest extant version known to me (there are commercial releases with better music and image quality, but the same content). Yet, it can be assumed that other surviving versions contain material not used in this one. The best example is a 1937 cut of the first half of the film (Tarzan’s childhood) titled Tarzan the Boy, which was up for sale a while ago on eBay. Then there are rumours about a 73-minute version, and there are probably others. Even though a complete version may never be found, it should be possible to do considerably better than what exists at present.

The casting in the film is not exactly great. Even Edgar Rice Burroughs himself was said to be dissatisfied with Enid Markey as the young and beautiful Jane, and while Elmo Lincoln is certainly muscular enough, he does not exactly look like he could suddenly jump into a tree and start swingning away. Rather, he is lumbering around in the jungle. In fact, another actor, the Swede Stellan Windrow, was originally cast for the role, but he was drafted when shooting had only just begun. It is him we can see in some of the scenes where Tarzan swings through the trees.

The film was shot in the swamp jungles of Louisiana. A documentary was recently made about the filming. I have not seen it, but it is said to be very good.

This film is best enjoyed if you are unfamiliar with the original. It really is a great story, and this first filming tells it better than most later ones even though some liberties have been taken.

Elmo Lincoln as Tarzan holding Enid Markey as Jane in Tarzan of the Apes (1918)

Tarzan of the Apes
Download link
Year: 1918
Running time: 60 min
Director: Scott Sidney
Stars: Elmo Lincoln
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Poor, random music
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: DivX (426 M)

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