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The most visible part of director Hugh Hudson's mainstream career can be summed up as one home run and two innings where nobody got on base. His impressive Chariots of Fire deserved the Oscars it was awarded, even if its popularity was sewn up by a top-ten radio hit tune. The pricey Revolution dunked the audience into a Yanks vs. Redcoats story that appealed to almost nobody. Between these two pictures Hudson made a lavish, lovingly detailed ode to one of pulp fiction's most enduring heroes: Tarzan, the feral jungle king from the beloved books of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Tarzan has seen so many film adaptations that a two-hour docu could barely keep them straight. Hudson's 1984 epic, mounted on the scale of a classic Road Show event, is impressive in almost every aspect -- production, acting, and especially special makeup effects. The dozens of apes that represent Tarzans adoptive parents and tribe must have been the result of enormous R&D effort. Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes was one of the big films of its year.
The script by Robert Towne and Michael Austin certainly takes the high road with Burroughs' iconic jungle man. Forget the author's flights of fancy into lost kingdoms and prehistoric monsters -- this show focuses on Tarzan's bizarre origin story and its attendant identity issues. Rescued and returned to his native Scotland, the Lord of the Jungle discovers that modern society isn't necessarily more civilized or enlightened. And that's what the picture is about, in place of the jungle adventure presumably anticipated by, well, at least a majority of Tarzan fans. Some of the picture is insightful while other aspects seem like an anti-civilization lecture we didn't need. Hudson & Co. didn't cheat, as the movie puts the name Greystoke ahead of Tarzan. In fact, I don't believe that the name Tarzan is ever spoken. This upscale adventures' couldn't be more impressively visualized. So why does the movie feel like one downer after another?
The 1880s. Lady Alice Clayton and her husband Lord John (Cheryl Campbell & Paul Geoffrey) hope to conduct research in Africa but are instead shipwrecked and marooned on the West African coast. Sickness takes Alice after she delivers a baby, and a local band of apes puts paid to the unfortunate John. Having lost her own simian baby, the ape Kala (Ailsa Berk) adopts and suckles tiny John Clayton, who grows and thrives among his new ape tribe. He's not as powerful as his peers, but he's smarter and almost as athletic. He's protected by his ape "father", White Eyes (John Alexander). When fully grown, John (as Christopher Lambert) survives an attack by an expedition led by a brutal hunter, Major Downing (Nigel Davenport). Over the protests of Belgian guide Captain Phillippe D'Arnot (Ian Holm) and scientist Sir Evelyn Bount (John Wells), Downing shoots everything in sight. Pygmy retaliation effectively wipes out the expedition. Bount flees with the few survivors but the wounded Captain D'Arnot is left behind. John befriends and cares for the Captain, who realizes that his savior is a feral child. He teaches John some rudimentary English. They stumble back to civilization, where the non-verbal John intimidates the ruffians holed up at a backwater outpost. Overjoyed to hear that an heir has survived, the Earl of Greystoke (Ralph Richardson) welcomes John with open arms. He accepts the fact that he'll need time to readjust to the duties of his estate. John hoots instead of talks and brings ape manners to the dinner table, but the Earl's power is such that servants and peers make allowances for the jungle man, even Evelyn Bount, who would like to make John into a scientific specimen. John is strongly attracted to American cousin Miss Jane Porter (Andie MacDowell), much to the consternation of her priggish suitor Lord Charles Esker (James Fox). But can John possibly "adjust" to this brave new world? It seems made of injustice and dishonesty, and his instinctual reactions can be violent.
To paraphrase the tagline for Superman: The Movie, "You Will Believe That A Man Was Raised By Apes." If that's the show you're looking for Greystoke cannot be bettered. The ape effects crew headed by Rick Baker succeeds grandly with almost every illusion, from the human eyes inside the ape makeup to giving actor-mimes costumes with elongated arms that still look natural. These mimes are fully convincing ras they run, climb and cavort among giant jungle trees. This part of the picture is so impressive that we never worry about the fact that the naked John wouldn't take the weather as well as his primate kin. The resistance-unprepared tot would also surely be fair game for every insect, microbe and parasite Africa could throw at him. But John Clayton has what it takes to grow into a fine human specimen. So far, excellent -- this is the most powerful origin story of any superhero to date, and it sets us up for any adventure the filmmakers have in mind.
The movie instead goes in several directions at once in search of a profound social statement. It first tips its hat to Heart of Darkness, as those rotten Europeans come blasting down everything living in the forest, just for the fun of it. After the pygmy attack John meets a group of Conradian pirates. Just as that encounter might build to an interesting climax the film dissolves to the rolling green acres (hectares?) of the sprawling Greystoke estate, land of Noblesse Oblige and unlimited privilege. The paternal Greystoke is going a bit daffy and is fond of playing Mr. Toad's Wild Ride in a horse-drawn buggy. The sweet old codger exhorts John never to sell or break up the land, no matter what might happen. Now Tarzan is being equated with Scarlett O'Hara.
Richardson's Greystoke is a benevolent father figure, but practically everyone else in England/Scotland is such a jerk that we wish a pack of pygmies would come along and zap them all with poisoned blow darts... "NOBODY expects the Attack of the PYGMIES!" James Fox is excellent as a constipated toff who can't see beyond the end of his nose, and is so dumb that he assumes that the spirited Yankee Jane Porter will feint with joy at his proposal of a horrid social marriage. The scientist Bount just wants money for his museum and bio lab, and acts as if he'd like to dissect John to see what makes him tick. England / Scotland appears to have no truly competent men for John to recognize as worthy of emulation.
Being John's possible post-jungle mate, the lovely Jane is more interesting. She responds passionately to John's ape courtship ritual, a scene that frankly doesn't even begin to work. No matter how much Jane understands and appreciates John's past, I doubt any woman wants to be ravished by a literal ape-man. But building the movie's Big Social Dilemma Theme requires that not even Jane posess the common sense to help John sort out the obvious problems that confront him. Can John run a big estate or handle the Greystoke finances? No. Will he ever be accepted in society as a real peer? Doubtful. Will his hooting and hopping around on all fours become a new fad craze for gentlemen on the make? Hmm, who knows?
Christopher Lambert deserves a lot of credit for almost putting across the full-on monkeyshines behavior in the Scottish manor house, which is no small achievement. Ian Holm is more the heart and soul of the picture. His endearing Captain D'Arnot gives the movie a shot of adrenaline whenever he appears. It's nice that thanks to the Captain, John learns to speak English with a French accent. But does he talk French with an ape accent? 1
Everybody else including Fox and Richardson are limited by their characters. They represent less individuals than essential components in the film's pessimistic thesis. In her first film role, ex-model Andie MacDowell was handed a rotten deal. Although Jane is supposed to be from America, somebody apparently decided that her Southern accent was unacceptable. Over-dubbed by Glenn Close, MacDowell must have been horrified -- half of what the actress has to offer has effectively been wiped out. Critics looking for fresh meat were quick to label her a major detriment. Miss MacDowell had to wait five years until 1989's Sex, Lies and Videotape gave her career a major boost.
Although the movie always looks good, I can't say that it's as involving as it might have been. Is it fair to say that nobody expects a Tarzan movie to be a tragedy burdened with a heavy anti-colonial message? It also has a marked lack of anything resembling fun. No wonder John is in a funk -- every time he turns around he's mourning the death of another loved one. The final conflict in England when John confronts his adoptive jungle father, now a specimen being prepped for dissection, seems a rigged argument. 2 The movie doesn't recognize much of a difference between humans and animals, and it criticizes Victorians for not having the moral values of PETA activists. I'm glad that the movie isn't a lame comedy rip-off imitating the style of Indiana Jones. With Van Helsing Universal effectively destroyed the viability of their entire franchise of 30s horror classics for the foreseeable future. And I'm certainly not going to say that any director shouldn't try to tell a story in any way he sees fit. Tarzan's jungle/nature identity problem is most definitely a facet of the original literary character. But as beautifully made as this Tarzan may be, it can't help but have problems pleasing an audience.
Without getting into spoilers, the ending seems an ill-judged compromise. This is the solution? Why would Jane travel 3,000 miles, if this is what John Clayton has it in his mind to do? Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes is a sensationally good origins story, but it jams its beloved hero into a far too sober civics lesson. 3
Final note: After marveling at an hour of some of the best makeup effects ever, convincing us that rubber apes are alive and real, Greystoke then shows us an ordinary bird in a birdcage. It turns out to be a mechanical prop that wouldn't fool a child. Very odd indeed.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes is a gorgeous Blu-ray with excellent color. It begins with an overture of John Scott's music score, that was used in 70mm theatrical engagements. Stanley Kubrick's noted cinematographer John Alcott filmed using the "Super Techniscope" format, which is essentially Super-35 but with only a 3-perf pulldown per frame to conserve film stock. Albert Whitlock's matte painting effects are almost invisible. In keeping with the epic feel, the show was edited by Anne V. Coates, of Lawrence of Arabia.
Director Hudson and Associate Producer Garth Thomas contribute a full-length commentary that will make any listener appreciate the enormity of the production. Much of the jungle sequences that look so utterly convincing were filmed on gigantic interior sets. It makes sense that the trees and topography would be customized to enable the mime-actor-acrobats playing the apes to leap about, and all I can say is that I wouldn't want to be jumping among branches wearing a costume that limited my movements and restricted my vision.
An original trailer is also included.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Lambert's antics unfortunately remind me of the National Lampoon magazine's parody comic called "Tarzan of the Cows". Raised in a pasture by loving bovine parents, this Tarzan has similar problems adjusting to civilzation. One funny gag has him disrupting a high school class by leaping atop his desk and pointing out an airplane in the sky with a deafening yell: "LOOK, IRON BIRD!" Lord Greystoke's dinner table manners make us think he's going to break out in an unpredictable insane or violent action. The scene just proves how much the rich folk will pretend not to notice, so long as they're invited to the Earl's table.
2. The business of seeing his simian father prepped for medical experiments is just one moment in which Greystoke reminds us of Planet of the Apes, an earlier social consciousness fantasy that openly embraced satiric comedy.
3. Criminal critic's fantasy: the show really needs to end with Jane shouting, "I'm going to go work out in the gym and come back and join you!" followed by a Buckaroo Banzai- style title reading, TARZAN WILL BE BACK... IN THE ATTACK OF THE ANT-MEN FROM PELLUCIDAR. And at the end of the stuffy credits sequence, Chris Lambert needs to step from a cloud of steam and growl, "My name is Tarzan, and Don't You Forget It!" That would bring every human being on the planet into the theaters for the followup feature.
As it is, the impressive production has a peculiarly limp finish. The character Tarzan won't be fully formed until he befriends the pygmies and the elephants, wipes out the foreign jungle pirates, breaks a few Great White Hunters in half and climbs the Great Escarpment to where all of
Please forgive this uncalled-for digressions into what Hudson's movie is not. It's just that we've seen Hudson's sober thesis played out many times in other genres, historical films and adventure stories. It's only one facet of the Tarzan myth, mostly from the first book.
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