Legends: Hercules vs Tarzan

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One is a god raised by men, one is a man raised by apes, both legends of the screen who have been reincarnated many times, their stories usually deviating considerably from their source. They both made pretty decent Disney films in the 1990s as their empowered but isolated heroes make great lead characters, even if they were not entirely true to the Greek myth and the early 20th century novel. But let’s pass over the animations and compare two recent big budget blockbusters, which were both relative flops.

The Legend of Hercules (2014) probably doesn’t deserve quite as much bile as it gets though it doesn’t offer much originality after a battering of 300 films and titans films and isn’t particularly memorable. It came out just months before another Hercules film starring Dwayne Johnson and both are high-budget action films made for 3D and not for academy awards.

And yet Renny Harlin’s effort is watchable and in my mind it has some redeeming features. Plot, acting and originality are not included among them. However, this is the first Hercules film I know of that depicts a demi-god conception, I mean the actual moment Hercules is conceived. Now I know you may snigger and think it’s rather vulgar to think of a god impregnating a woman but when you think about it, the ideas of motherhood, sexual consent and a mother’s sacrifice are the most interesting parts of the Hercules myth. Although different takes on the myth suggest alternative reasons for Hercules birth, the idea that God is able to commandeer a human woman’s body for whatever his will, is quite provoking, especially in the light of Christianity.

In this film, whether it was intentional or not, I saw many parallels between Hercules and Jesus, which you would think would be obvious in any incarnation but for the most part Christian mythology is played down in action films. In this film, faith and mythology play a central role from the very beginning and that is interesting if not wholly exciting.

The Legend of Tarzan (2016) has come under criticism for being slow, a bit generic and a bit silly. Actually, I think it does very well to stop the action-drama from turning into what could easily be a camp farse. That’s not the fault of the filmmakers. Tarzan is usually a wild-man in a loincloth who can talk to animals and yodels. The character lends itself to comedy far more easily than action and it’s hard not to make a parody in the vein of the live-action George of the Jungle (1997).

But with a few changes to that iconography, this film keeps a serious tone throughout, and it’s pretty clear that it wants to be taken seriously. Despite this, Tarzan has several unexplained abilities and the representation of the Congo and its animals are not entirely realistic. As it turns out, not just Tarzan but other native people can easily use jungle vines to board a fast-moving train, hurtling through the forest. Still, I guess some of the iconography has to remain in a Tarzan film. This film is actually much truer to the original novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

As with Hercules, the story of Tarzan lends itself to exploring ideas of identity, nature and nurture, heritage, duty and courage. Legend of Tarzan begins somewhat unusually with a civilised Tarzan living in London who for reasons that aren’t delved into deeply enough, does not wish to ever return to Africa. The opportunity to explain Tarzan’s reluctance to return home, which could be a fear of confronting his past or a rejection of what he now sees as uncivilised behaviour, is in my view sadly missed. The rest of the film explores the theme of colonial exploitation and our shameful history in the slave trade. However, when you dig further into Tarzan ideology you see that Tarzan symbolises much of Africa. Painted as exotic and other worldly by Europe and as a continent, which has been civilised by our more modern world, Africa continues to struggle to find its identity, stuck between emulating ‘the West’ and shedding its colonial past. A Tarzan film can spread African stereotypes or potentially enlighten our culture about Africa.

Tarzan Hercules
Biologically the child of a British Lord and Lady but you can’t get much cooler than raised by Apes

 

Parents Except being the son of an actual god. 1-0 to Hercules

 

Swinging through trees, communicating with animals, strong, agile and athletic. I give this one to Tarzan

 

Powers It’s just strength basically

 

Loincloth wearing, heavily tanned, screaming, jungle swinger

 

Campness Beefcake with a big sword who likes to wrestle nearly naked Greek men. Hercules just about wins this one

 

The jungle isn’t particularly known for its comforts

 

Home Ancient Greece, the birthplace of democracy, and it’s still Greece so it’s gotta be quite nice right? 3-1 to Hercules

 

Plenty of silent movies, some famous iconic films and three animations

 

Depictions Some cult television and nine films including the debut of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Who knows, without Hercules, there might have been no terminator. Hail Hercules

 

Teaching kids the fastest way to die in the jungle… but then again most kids these days never see wild animals so it’s good for them to see the jungle whilst it still exists.

 

Education It’s history ain’t it. Sort of. Greek names and classic mythology. It’s got to be Hercules

 

Hercules beats Tarzan 5-1

Both legend films are passable entertainment but there are better versions of both stories. There is certainly more potential with these characters.

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