What could the feature films The Legend of Tarzan and London has Fallen possibly have in common other than their public release in 2016? Tarzan seems to be about the Congo in the nineteenth century and London seems thousands of miles and an entire century away. The latter is about rescuing a U.S. president from terrorists Hollywood style and the former owes more to the original novel by Burroughs set in pseudo-colonial Africa.
It seems to me that despite the different clothing the films wear, both films are about serving a higher order. Within the colonial order of kings and colonies in which he lives, Tarzan seems to be serving a lower order of slaves and animals. But within the film itself we discover that the dignity of both enslaved people and animals surpasses the greed and evil of a king and his lackey—just as within London Has Fallen, it is an unpolished secret service man with integrity, less than the leaders of the world, who ultimately points toward a higher order.
On the surface, these adventure “guy flicks” seem to be less “spiritual” than those with religious or utopian themes. And yet in all of them—whether the Harrison Ford, Air Force One thrillers, or the John Wayne westerns, or even the old British and American war movies, there is one appealing motif in common—the hero is willing to give his all, even his life, for an ultimate purpose.
Indeed in many of these “hero saves the world” classics there is some sacred symbol such as the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark, or some symbolic heroine (i.e. Tarzan’s “Jane”) representing the divine feminine or cosmic power that must be protected from evil hands at all cost. In perhaps the most popular of such films, Raiders of the Lost Ark, it is the Nazis who wish to capture and thus manipulate the divine super-power of the lost Ark of the Covenant. As veteran audiences, we are also familiar with the variations on this theme including the terrorists who wish to control the world in London Has Fallen and the evil Belgian King’s envoy, in Tarzan, who wishes to use slavery and thousands of ivory tusks to become rich beyond words.
In essence, there is something within all of us that understands and detests manipulation of the natural order for personal gain. Hence the popularity of what I might call “loyalty films” in which a hero not only demonstrates but also even publicly utters under duress that nothing, not even death itself, can make him compromise his loyalty to a higher order. In “loyalty films” the higher order may take different forms—nature in Tarzan, the presidency and democracy in London has Fallen, or the free world, God and America, the Queen, truth, life and liberty, justice, or (as in Braveheart), freedom. What appeals to us in all of these films is something they all share in common—someone is willing to stand up against bullies and evil despite the great personal risk to protect a higher order.
Such commitment to a greater purpose is one of the earmarks of primal spirituality. Those who know their spiritual birthright sense that the “most high” or the sacred realm must be protected against self-aggrandizing manipulation at all costs. The longing to maintain both Tarzan and Jane (King and Queen of the natural order) symbolically in place, or the President and the first family (London is Falling) or the crown (James Bond) or justice (Gandhi), or dignity (Selma) at the pinnacle of the natural order is the driving force of such adventure and biopic epics but also of our hearts.
Even in comic spoofs such as Austin Powers, we recognize that the “Dr. Evils” of the world are seeking to harness cosmic forces (“mojo”) for their own purposes and we long for a hero to stop them and restore harmony with the “Tao” (the Way of Life). Even though we understand the criticisms that most women do not need male heroes to defend them and that such films do not portray gay and lesbian or disabled heroes and tend to follow “old boy” formulas, still there is a sense that devotion to a higher purpose of world service is noble and worth paying $12 a ticket at the box office.
While I am not saying that either of these films—The Legend of Tarzan or London is Falling—is a cinematic masterpiece, I am noting my appreciation for films which remind us of something far more important than our monthly paycheck or a trip to Bermuda. In both cases, Tarzan and London reveal that what goes down must come up—when London falls, it is a strong spirit of loyalty to focus which rises and when Tarzan is flattened to the ground, it is all of nature which arises to restore the balance of ecology.
To me, there is a deeper level to what is being said. There are tendencies in all of us which seek to manipulate and to aggressively serve self. When we lean in that direction, we fail to acknowledge the higher order and muffle our own inner voice of integrity. It is much easier to decry Nazis, terrorists, evil envoys, and to laugh at Dr. Evil than to look in the mirror.
And yet, letting go of false expectations and self-promotion is essential when expressing primal spirituality. Being loyal to a higher order is the first step, but being an expression of that order is the next step and the most important one.
TOM COOPER is currently guest scholar at the East-West Center, University of Hawaii, Stanford and Berkeley and professor at Emerson College (Boston). Musician, black belt, and playwright, he has written eight books and two hundred published articles, been advisor to the Elders Project (with Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter and others), co-nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and is co-publisher of MEDIA ETHICS magazine.