“I could use a challenge, because after I get rid of you, rounding up your little ape family will be all too easy!”
Disney’s Tarzan (1999) is one of my top 10 favorite Disney animated films, so I’m quite happy to write about the film’s villain, Clayton. He’s a bullying, scheming, lying, selfish, crazy, opportunistic, brutish, cruel gun enthusiast all wrapped up in a thin layer of British sensibility. Although somewhat obscure, he has made it into the Disney Villains franchise and even starred in the Kingdom Hearts series’ alternate universe. Not bad for a villain with no magic powers or his own song.
“…Have we met?”
When we first meet him, it’s not that hard to tell that Clayton is the bad guy. For starters, he possesses a substantial combination of the obvious physical characteristics of a Disney antagonist:
- Moustache (Jafar, Captain Hook, Governor Ratcliffe)
- Strong upper body (Gaston, Shan Yu, Professor Ratigan)
- Yellow eyes (Horace and Jasper Badun, Scar)
- Prominent nose (Stromboli, Edgar, King Candy)
- Gun (McLeach, Commander Rourke, Amos Slade)
Clayton is an interesting character because he doesn’t start out as the diabolical villain. When we first meet him he’s just a jerk who has some serious misconceptions about gorillas. He represents the belief held in less enlightened times that gorillas are nothing more than mindless, savage beasts. His old-world misunderstanding of apes automatically puts him at odds with the Porters, who theorize that the apes are intelligent, social animals.
During the second act of the film, Clayton’s interactions with Tarzan are more humorous than anything else. Clayton lacks the patience and understanding of Jane, and reluctantly goes along with the Porters’ attempts to educate Tarzan and gain his trust. His frustration with Tarzan almost makes you empathize with him. That is, until he realizes that Tarzan is getting in the way of his goals.
“I think this one would be better of stuffed.”
Once Clayton decides to find the gorillas his way, he mercilessly targets, manipulates, and captures Tarzan. First he takes advantage of Tarzan’s feelings for Jane, convincing him that taking her to the gorillas is the only way to get her to stay with him. Then he manages to ruin the ape encounter, leading to Tarzan’s banishment. When Tarzan boards the ship for England, Clayton captures him along with the Porters, the captain, and a few officers. Thinking he’s won, Clayton mocks Tarzan as an “ape-man” and thanks him for making his diabolical plot possible. His remarks are a cruel attack on Tarzan’s relationship with his gorilla family, as well as Tarzan’s own complicated identity.
“Go ahead. Shoot me. Be a man.”
Clayton’s mockery of Tarzan’s identity represents one of the central themes of Tarzan: What truly makes a man. Clayton defines himself with the worst traits of perceived “manliness”: violence, domination, callousness, pride, and greed. The bad traits have completely consumed him. Notice how Clayton asserts himself as a man using his rifle. It’s like his very loud security blanket. He also doesn’t seem attracted to Jane Porter at all, focusing instead on capturing the gorillas and making “300 sterling a head”. Disney villains sometimes go after the hero’s love interest (I’m thinking Jafar, Ursula, and Gaston) but Clayton has that rare sense of purpose that all but strips him of his humanity. Ironic.
Clayton’s psyche is also tainted by a fair amount of insanity. In the climax of the film, when confronted with eminent death by Tarzan with his own beloved rifle, Clayton mocks Tarzan again, daring him to shoot him. It’s one of the most chilling scenes involving a Disney villain. The statement is very sinister indeed and puts Clayton’s level of madness up there with The Dark Knight‘s Joker. It doesn’t matter if he dies, but if he can get his nemesis to descend to his level, he’s won. Gives me the shivers.
Tarzan prevails due to his virtue, and destroys Clayton’s symbol of manliness in the process. From this moment on, Clayton’s attacks become increasingly brutal, turning him into a savage himself. His blind fury eventually gets the best of him, and he has an unfortunate “entanglement” which costs him his life. It’s very dark, and one of my all-time favorite Disney villain deaths.
An alternate ending was planned for Tarzan where Clayton attacks Tarzan with a machine gun onboard the ship. The ship ends up blowing up and Clayton, stuck in some chains, goes down with it. This ending was deemed too dark (as opposed to him hanging himself?), but the ending change also gave Clayton the opportunity to reveal himself as a violent brute.
Though not a particularly complicated villain, Clayton’s slow progression to violence and insanity is more interesting than your typical evil bad guy. In my opinion, he clocks in at the median of the Disney villain spectrum: not as awesome as Scar or Ursula but certainly not as lame as Alameda Slim.
All images are from DisneyScreencaps.com.