In 1984 when Greystoke: The Legend Of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes opened, I couldn’t have been more excited. I was a nerdy fanboy, having read almost all the Edgar Rice Burroughs series. Marketing promised the film would take the character and books seriously. This Tarzan wouldn’t be the bronze “Hollywood” boy audiences had grown so used to, but would match the tone and depiction from the series.
Directed by Hugh Hudson, the recent wunderkind behind Academy Award winner Chariots of Fire, the hope was this credentialed production which would star Ian Holm and Sir Ralph Richardson would even garner Oscar attention.
And upon its 1984 release, the film received critical praise and a solid box office. The script, written under a pseudonym by Robert Towne, focused on the very believable clash of species when an orphaned baby is raised by apes, then is forced to embrace civilization and take his place as heir to a British fortune and empire. Wisely steering clear of the riding elephants and “Me Tarzan” speak, Towne melded the first two books of the series, Tarzan of the Apes and The Return of Tarzan, into one fully realized story; focusing instead on Tarzan as an outsider; both in the jungle where he is not an ape, and civilization where his behavior is far removed from the staid Victorian manners of the early 20th Century.
The story speeds through its set-up; The Earle and Duchess of Greystoke embark on a zoological odyssey in1885 and end up marooned off the West African Coast, the sole survivors, save for the captain who, in shock, wanders into the forest. Ten months later, the couple are slowly succumbing to fever in a treehouse they’ve built, and the difficult birth of their son has sent the Duchess into a feverish tail spin. Nearby, a mother “ape” (these are neither gorillas or chimpanzees, but a primate creation by Burroughs) mourns the loss of her baby. The pod of apes have moved in close and after hearing the wails of the hungry baby, storm the shelter, killing the Earle and taking the baby; now adopted by the childless mother.
We watch as the baby grows into a boy and then a man, through episodic events that reveal his life lessons, his ability to mimic other animals, facing off against Kerchak, the evil ape that first killed his simian mother Kala’s child. When a hunting expedition dispatched by the Greystoke patriarch savagely poaches animals and apes alike, a local native tribe clashes in a bloody battle; killing all but the Belgian Military Guide Captain Phillippe D’Arnot, who is left critically wounded. Tarzan finds him, nurses him back to health, and the two strike up a mentor-mentee friendship, with D’Arnot teaching Tarzan English and French as well as the origins of his birthright. Once rescued, D’Arnot presents “John Clayton” the heir of Greystoke to his grandfather (Ralph Richardson) who embraces him as his own.
The final third of the film deals with Tarzan’s struggle to find an identity in England, as he falls in love with Jane Cooper (his niece!), mourns the loss of his Grandfather and clashes directly with the Estate’s mistreatment of animals and apes. The final scene offers a nice conclusion to a story that originally, had an open ending for the many sequels to follow.
There are many production details that help give Greystoke an element of seriousness and heft, not the least of which is that the name “Tarzan” is never uttered. Instead, we accept that he is the feral child, heir of Greystoke, only given the name John Clayton when it is discovered through journals in the abandoned tree house that he is the child of his perished parents.
Christopher Lambert in his first feature film lead, embraces the character with an engaging and appropriate primordial energy. He plays and interacts with the apes as if he is one of their own, but when forced into a confrontation with any of the tribe, stands tall and erect, a threat to the ape hierarchy. The relationship between Tarzan and D’Arcy intentionally and powerfully hearkens back to the teacher and student characters in Francois Truffaut’s The Wild Child, a true story of a French aristocrat’s attempts to civilize a feral child from the wilderness.
Even though the film works hard and ultimately succeeds in bringing a substantial importance to the material, there are still elements that haven’t aged well since its release almost 30 years ago. The apes, men in costumes designed by makeup maven Rick Baker, only play believably in a handful of moments. Some of the “masks” are unintentionally funny, with shaking rubber ears and facial construction that look more like trolls than these chimp/gorilla hybrids. As well, so much of the film takes place with Lambert and the apes that the constant barking, howling, whining and chirping of the creatures becomes tiring.
When Tarzan meets Jane, we see a beautiful and young Andie MacDowell, but her performance is sabotaged by the producers’ decision to dub all her dialogue with another actress’s voice (an uncredited Glenn Close). McDowell’s twangy southern dialect that we have come to know so well was thought to be wrong for the part, and even with training, she couldn’t master the British-lite accent that Hollywood maintains as accurate. So Close, then not a household name, dubs the entire film, which continually jars the modern viewer’s sensibilities.
Tarzan’s ability to mimic is played out in some unintentionally funny ways, as he approaches threatening men with a cheetah’s growl or lion’s roar. Some of the strongest moments are upstaged by these laughable sound effects, supposedly emanating from a human’s vocal chords.
The BluRay transfer is rendered beautifully, revealing some stunning cinematography, rich textures and frames dense with natural beauty. The Warner Archive Collection release also includes commentary by Director Hugh Hudson and Associate Producer Garth Thomas, which is really for the most stalwart of fans, since much of it they wonder aloud where Rick Baker is , since he was supposed to supply a third track of commentary and obviously never did. They also tend to ramble and repeat themselves, without the help of questions or an outline to follow. But for a WAC release, it offers a lot more than most extras.
The film drags at 136 minutes, and even at this running time, feels as if scenes were cut short, or lifted out wholesale that could help explain some of the ancillary characters.
Greystoke has a lot going for it, and was even a greater spectacle when released in 1984. Were it not for the technical advances in special effects, and a little more restraint with the sound mix and creature design, this would definitely be a worthwhile revisit.