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Frederica Mathewes-Green


The curiously compelling saga of Tarzan.

Ungawa! Tarzan's timber-rattling call defies transcription, so we'll fall back on this all-purpose locution to salute a fine new box set of MGM's six Tarzan films. "Ungawa!" is the perfect choice whenever you can't think of the right thing to say. It appears to mean Come here, Go away, Look out, Jump, and There's a cobra behind you. Just think how a sharply enunciated "Ungawa!" could clear a Starbucks when you don't want to wait in line.

But Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan's inventor and author of 24 Tarzan novels, can't be credited with that primal cry. Like Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Burroughs' characters took on a life of their own. Once only a gleam in the eye of a pencil-sharpener salesman, they became a vast industry, the first to be "synergized" into comics, movies, toys, and other formats and marketed around the world. Viewers who complain that the MGM movies do not follow the books shouldn't blame the filmmakers; Burroughs insisted that the movie plots be wholly different, and not poach his own proprietary ideas. "Ungawa!" comes to us courtesy of Cyril Hume, screenwriter of Tarzan the Ape Man, the inaugural film in the MGM series. (Burroughs would not permit MGM even to use his own title, Tarzan of the Apes.)

Burroughs had a right to be bossy. He crafted a character who set fire to imaginations around the world, throughout the 20th century. Burroughs came late to fiction, having tried just about everything else first (cavalry rider, gold miner, railway cop, accountant, shopkeeper, patent medicine salesman). It was while he was thumbing through some pulp magazines, checking on ad space he'd purchased for pencil sharpeners, that inspiration struck. He realized, as he later said, "If people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines, I could write stories just as rotten."

He was right. Burroughs had no talent for dialogue, and he communicated ideas with the ponderous self-importance of an after-dinner bore, but he wrote ...

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