Some time ago I wrote a book about one of the great crimes of the last 150 years: the conquest and exploitation of the Congo by King Leopold II of Belgium. When King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa was published, I thought I had found all the major characters in that brutal patch of history. But a few weeks ago I realized that I had left one out: Tarzan.
Let me explain. Although a documentary film based on my book did appear, I often imagined what Hollywood might do with such a story. It would, of course, have featured the avaricious King Leopold, who imposed a slave labor system on his colony to extract its vast wealth in ivory and wild rubber, with millions dying in the process. And it would surely have included the remarkable array of heroic figures who resisted or exposed his misdeeds. Among them were African rebel leaders like Chief Mulume Niama, who fought to the death trying to preserve the independence of his Sanga people; an Irishman, Roger Casement, whose exposure to the Congo made him realize that his own country was an exploited colony and who was later hanged by the British; two black Americans who courageously managed to get information to the outside world; and the Nigerian-born Hezekiah Andrew Shanu, a small businessman who secretly leaked documents to a British journalist and was hounded to death for doing so. Into the middle of this horror show, traveling up the Congo River as a steamboat officer in training, came a young seaman profoundly shocked by what he saw. When he finally got his impressions onto the page, he would produce the most widely read short novel in English, Heart of Darkness.
How could all of this not make a great film?
I found myself thinking about how to structure it and which actors might play what roles. Perhaps the filmmakers would offer me a bit part. At the very least, they would undoubtedly seek my advice. And so I pictured myself on location with the cast, a voice for good politics and historical accuracy, correcting a detail here, adding another there, making sure the film didn’t stint in evoking the full brutality of that era. The movie, I was certain, would make viewers in multiplexes across the world realize at last that colonialism in Africa deserved to be ranked with Nazism and Soviet communism as one of the great totalitarian systems of modern times.
In case you hadn’t noticed, that film has yet to be made. And so imagine my surprise, when, a few weeks ago, in a theater in a giant mall, I encountered two characters I had written about in King Leopold’s Ghost. And who was onscreen with them? A veteran of nearly a century of movies—silent and talking, in black and white as well as color, animated as well as live action (not to speak of TV shows and video games): Tarzan.