Dr Livingstone, I Consume?


Livingstone Lion

Visitors to the David Livingstone Centre in Lanarkshire, Scotland will have had trouble failing to notice the large bronze sculpture of the famous explorer being chomped on by a lion. This was based on an actual incident in 1844 where Livingstone shot a lion that had just killed a woman in the village of Mabotsa, in what is now South Africa, where he had been serving as a missionary. Before it keeled over and died the enraged cat managed to leave some serious, permanent teethmarks in the shooter’s arm, which was never the same again. What we don’t see is the African teacher who distracted the lion away its meal and himself suffered severe injuries, saving Livingstone’s life in the process. This dramatic scene, enshrining the explorer’s courageous credentials (see how the natives fall helplessly to the ground!), was designed by none other than Ray Harryhausen, a fond favourite here at Spectacular Attractions, creator of stop-motion animation sequences for films like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, It Came from Beneath the Sea, Earth vs the Flying Saucers, Jason and the Argonauts, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Clash of the Titans… In partnership with his wife Diana, who is Livingstone’s great-granddaughter, Harryhausen funded the statue and crafted a miniature version to be built by sculptor Gareth Knowles, who worked on it for four years before it was unveiled in 2004.

If you’ve ever seen any of Harryhausen’s miniature model figures on display, you’ll have noticed that most of them are sustained on dynamic poses, about to attack or be attacked. His mythical beasts are, more often than not, built for combat, and their physical properties are best displayed when grappling with other creatures or when precisely composited with human co-stars, some of whom are bound to get picked up and chewed at some point.

Harryhausen

The Livingstone statue has much of the old-fashioned adventurism of his earlier work, celebrating dangerous encounters by staging them as pitched battles of strained sinew and flesh-tearing weaponry. But at least it shows, long after he retired (following Clash of the Titans, in 1983), that he still has an animator’s eye for a static scene that could at any moment be brought to life – every element is caught in mid-motion: not about to pounce, fall or claw, but pouncing, falling, clawing.

Advertisements

Tarzan the Ape Man and his Mate


Tarzan-1932-poster[This post refers to the first two Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films, Tarzan the Ape Man (W.S. Van Dyke, 1932) and Tarzan and his Mate (Cedric Gibbons, 1934)]

Having just read James Lever’s mock autobiography of Cheeta the chimpanzee (which is far funnier and more moving than the skinny concept might lead you to expect), I was sent scurrying back on my knuckles to the original Johnny Weissmuller films. As far as my memory banks are telling me, these were on BBC 2 at 6pm every single night for about five years, when I was a kid, but I might have exaggerated that in my head.  I also remember Bagpuss lasting forever, instead of its actual 13 episodes, and that gaps in the TV schedule were to be filled only with Laurel & Hardy or Harold Lloyd I also can’t remember whether, as a (very) young lad I wanted to be Tarzan, or to be a member of his makeshift jungle family. I might even have seen myself in Cheeta. This pondering was perhaps prompted by a recent rediscovery of Hammer’s She, which made me want to revisit some of the films and TV that left a strong impression on my developing headspace as a child. films.

Coming from the “pre-code” period in Hollywood, a window of frisky abandon when the censorious Production Code had been drawn up but not yet rigorously enforced, the Tarzan films are a lot naughtier than I remember. In an early scene of Tarzan the Ape Man, Jane undresses and washes in front of her father, teasing him for being shocked: she is, after all, his little girl, and he’s seen her in states of undress before. Of course, she’s grown into a woman since he last saw her, and she seems oblivious to her adult sexuality. That’s a good excuse, at least, for her to lean into the camera, blithely delivering the kind of cleavage shot that would be snipped out of later films:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Tarzan the Ape Man: Jane Parker & her…“, posted with vodpod

It’s nothing, though, compared to the brazenness of a swimming scene from Tarzan and his Mate, which was cut out of the film’s original release, and only restored once it hit the home video market 60 years later. By the time of the sequel, Tarzan and Jane have settled into a kind of domestic bliss. Over the course of many sequels they will build up a recreation of a family home on the jungle escarpment, but in this second film they’ll still in a honeymoon period. When Jane falls from a tree branch, she snags the dress she’s been given by an English suitor trying to tempt her back to civilisation with fine clothes, “accidentally” leaving her completely undressed for a bit of impromptu skinny-dipping:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Tarzan and his Mate: Swimming Scene“, posted with vodpod

Actually, though Johnny Weissmuller, a former Olympian is doing his own swimming, Maureen O’Sulllivan is doubled by Josephine McKim, another Olympic swimmer. The sequence succinctly points to Tarzan and Jane’s idyllic separation from the outside world, a brief look at their ease in their jungle home before some more white guys arrive to screw it all up, but whatever its artistic merits, it was deemed too strong for the censors.

Poster - Tarzan and His MateLooking at these films again, it’s impossible to avoid the colonialist themes that are so prominently displayed within them. It would be easy to bash the films for their insensitive handling of African American actors (who are given roles no juicier than expendable dogsbody or pliant messenger) and  their native African characters (who are killed off with indiscriminate ease and patronised as window-dressing to the films’ safari aesthetic). It’s certainly true that the films condemn the destructive hubris of white traders mishandling the local culture (the first two films in the series hinge upon a hunt for the elephants’ graveyard, a sacred place for Tarzan’s friends, but an ivory-rich treasure stash for the traders), but Africa is still portrayed as an irresolvably deadly place of unchecked savagery and unpredictable violence. But you don’t even need to analyse the plots of these films. The polite but arms-length skirting around issues of race can be observed in the formal constitution of an early scene in which new arrival Jane Parker (Maureen O’Sullivan) is given a tour of her father’s African outpost:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Tarzan the Ape Man – Jane’s tour“, posted with vodpod

You can see that, what looks like an innocent, slightly patronising look at the locals actually indicates a vast ethnic divide thanks to the use of rear projection, delegating the authentic location duties to a second unit team, perhaps even using stock footage. I’m not sure whether this is better (the background plates seem to have actually been shot in Africa) or worse than the blackface in something like King Kong, which was released the following year. Whatever their narrative posturings about the need to respect the African wildlife (with no illusions about its eagerness to bite your face off), the Tarzan films are still really a drawn out discussion of the suitability of the jungle for habitation by white people, and as such, it falls back on an easy binary of civilised vs savage. But at least it does it with considerable energy, and a surprisingly striking visual style. It’s not surprising this stuff stuck in my mind. The films use a beautiful soft-focus vignetting effect for some shots, which may be to make the jungle seem denser than the woods around Los Angeles where it was actually shot, but it also adds a dreamy mist to the whole place, marking it out as a zone of fantasy:

Tarzan the Ape Man Vignette

If Tarzan’s jungle was an attractive place, it was always a dangerous one. More than anything, I remember the Tarzan jungles as a place of vertiginous cliffs and dangerous waters. Every visit to the escarpment was a tense negotiation of rocks that could throw you off at any second. I’m sure I had many dreams of falling as a result of watching this stuff:

Tarzan the Ape Man

Even as a kid, I remember Tarzan’s crocodile wrestling as a predictable, comically shoddy insert in which he rolls over on top of a plastic prop for a couple of minutes before finally stabbing it in the head. But, at least in this early version from Tarzan and his Mate, it’s a superbly realised sequence, with an unnaturally huge beast, superb puppetry and atmospheric underwater photography that mirrors the earlier swimming scene, a nightmarish flipside to the jungle dream:

Vodpod videos no longer available.