Sunday, December 30, 2012

Book Review: Tarzan and the 'Foreign Legion'

As we close out 2012, I thought I would post my last book review of the year with the final adventure penned by Edgar Rice Burroughs, bringing full circle the centennial of the Lord of the Jungle.

With World War II raging, an American reconnaissance plane is shot down over the island of Sumatra, leaving most of the crew dead. Among the survivors are the pilot, Capt Jerry Lucas; Sgts. Joe Bubonovich and Tony "Shrimp" Rossetti; and British RAF Captain John Clayton. Eventually the group discovers the island is crawling with Japanese forces, rebels and villagers and Corrie Van Der Meer, a young Dutch woman whose parents were brutally killed by the invading forces. It will take all this small group has to escape from capture and find a way off Sumatra. Of course when your RAF Captain happens to be the famous Tarzan of the Apes the odds probably just got better.

Written in 1944 but not published until 1946, Tarzan and the 'Foreign Legion' was the last complete novel Burroughs would write. Having witnessed the bombing of Pearl Harbor while living in Hawaii, Burroughs had volunteered as a war correspondent-in fact the world's oldest war correspondent-and brought that experience to his tale. What is refreshing here is that clearly time away from churning out Tarzan adventures reinvigorated Burroughs as the tale is a fast-paced and often violent tale that grips the reader from start to finish. Burroughs gives his characters enough personality-most of I admit cliched-but like any war film you end up rooting for them. He also plays well with stereotype, portraying both Corrie and the female Eurasian Sarina as smart, resourceful women who don't just stand around and scream.

Burroughs also plays with the character of Tarzan and the formula that had set in. There is no lost civilization here, no clueless or ruthless safaris, just soldiers trying to survive and Tarzan doing his best to help them with his jungle skills and willingness to jump on tigers. He also tangles with orangutans and finds a substitute Nkima named Keta. Burroughs also plays with the character's fame to humorous effect. When Tarzan reveals who he is Shrimp immediately confuses him with Johnny Weissmuller, a reference is made to long time Tarzan film producer Sol Lesser and there is discussion about how Tarzan's stories go way back and are familiar to his fellow soldiers. There is also a brief section where Tarzan talks about how he has lived so long, thanks to saving a witch doctor and those immortality pills he and Jane found in Tarzan's Quest. He however admits that in the end death always wins, an indication that as he was nearing the end of his life Burroughs wasn't immune to thoughts of leaving this world.

On the flip side the book is a product of its time, which means the Japanese are portrayed as stereotyped killers with no remorse and I admit it will leave a sour taste to some readers. You'll just have to remember the time period it was written in and the audience Burroughs was writing for at the time. The book also dabbles in war story cliche more than once, with its ethnic heroes hurling insults at each other, the long marches and constant gun battles can wear one out after a while.

That said Tarzan and the 'Foreign Legion' is an entertaining tale and a nice close to the career of a great story teller. It may not reach the heights of Burroughs' greatest but as a curtain closer it's damn good. Rating: ***1/2 out of 4.

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