By far the stateliest and most ambitious Tarzan movie to date, Greystoke -- The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) is a mostly impressive myth-making epic. Its first half is almost a masterpiece, though most everything that follows it is muddled and ill conceived, leaving the viewer worn out by the final reel. Still, so much of what's onscreen is vividly realized and carefully considered that overall the picture is a qualified success.
The film's script focuses mainly on aspects of the Tarzan story generally avoided in previous film versions, namely Tarzan's origins and upbringing among African apes, and his blood ties to the Sixth Earl of Greystoke (Ralph Richardson).
Soon after Lord and Lady Clayton (Paul Geoffrey and Cheryl Campbell) are shipwrecked off the coast of Africa in 1884, she gives birth to son, John, though both parents die soon thereafter. An ape, known in the credits (but not the film) as Kala (Alisa Berk), adopts the infant boy, having lost her own baby in a fall some time before. Raised among the apes, John/Tarzan (Christopher Lambert) grows into manhood without any contact with the outside world, though endowed with an incredible ability to communicate with his ape family, and with amazing physical prowess for life in the harsh jungle.
He is eventually discovered and recognized by Belgian explorer Capitaine Phillippe D'Arnot (Ian Holm), a man cut off from his hunting party during a massacre by pygmies. Nursed back to health by Tarzan, Phillippe teaches Tarzan English and French, and after many months convinces him to return home to Scotland to reclaim his position in Edwardian society.
Greystoke began as a screenplay by Robert Towne, who originally was slated to direct. After many years the project was essentially taken away from him and Towne ultimately used a pseudonym (reportedly the name of his sheepdog) in the credits. Michael Austin is credited as co-screenwriter; presumably he took over after Towne left. Regardless of who wrote what, the finished film works marvelously well in its first half, but falls apart mightily during the last hour.
The DVD runs 136 1/2 minutes, which includes a 90-second overture. This is apparently several minutes longer than the original theatrical version, and close to an "extended director's cut" released to laserdisc, though the DVD is missing title cards that apparently appear on the laser. (This creates considerable confusion; it suggests Kala has been carrying her baby's corpse around for many months, which doesn't appear to have been the film's intention.) Even at this length, however, the picture seems choppy at times, as if either the script or the first cut was much longer than what finally made it to theaters. Characters tend to come and go rather abruptly, and scenes are frequently connected with sometimes-awkward voice-overs and narration. For instance, there's a character at the Greystoke estate named Willy (Hilton McRae) a young man "soft in the head" who bonds with Tarzan. The character is never properly introduced, and it's unclear whether he's a servant or, like Tarzan, a Greystoke deemed unfit by some to inherit the Earl's title.
There is an inherent fascination with bringing Tarzan into the midst of Britain's privileged class, his delight at music coming from a phonograph, his bewilderment at the 3-D qualities of two-dimensional paintings. Ultimately though, Tarzan out of the jungle is a bit like watching Sherlock Holmes in Washington. After the film's methodical, careful build-up to the adult Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, it's disappointing that he spends so much of the rest of the film completely out of his element. After a few mid-point action scenes (saving D'Arnot, a fight to the finish with the ape clan' brutal elder), Tarzan stops being heroic and mostly is despondent.
The picture also is completely dominated by incessant scenes of death and loss. Kala loses her baby, the Claytons die miserably, Kala is killed by African natives, and on and on and on. It seems like not 15 minutes go by without Tarzan cradling someone (or something) on the verge of expiring. Unfortunately, none of it amounts to very much. Survival of the fittest, natural violence in the jungle, is followed by unnatural, cruel violence committed by white hunters. "Civilization" is shown to be no better, with its own violence and petty snobbery that is apparent to Tarzan but not Britain's elite. The point of all this is rather muddled, except for the obvious and well-trodden path that Tarzan and civilization just don't mix.
Conversely, the film has an incredible sense of atmosphere and exudes class and a serious approach. The first hour with the apes is impressively told with almost no dialogue, and full of little touches that go a long way to generate Tarzan's mythic qualities. Stumbling upon the remains of his birth parents' jungle hut, now almost completely overgrown with foliage, Tarzan is drawn to the man-made objects he finds there, while sadly oblivious to the skeletal remains of parents he never knew.
Tarzan's interaction with the apes compare favorably to the not dissimilar "Dawn of Man" sequence in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Both have prowling leopards, and a deadly attack on an ape by a cat that pounces on it from a ledge above.) Rather like Kubrick also is the Barry Lyndon-esque attention to period detail during the scenes at the Greystoke estate, whose art direction should have been nominated for an Academy Award. The Barry Lyndon look is also not surprising when one considers that cinematographer John Alcott shot both pictures.
Rick Baker, whose makeup was nominated but lost, did the still-incredible creature design (only the hands seem stiff and mechanical), which subtly combines characteristics of both chimpanzees and gorillas. The apes have different personalities, superbly achieved through Baker's work and the uncanny pantomime performances by the actors inside the skins. Peter Elliott, who later essayed the title role in King Kong Lives is credited with Primate Choreography while Roger Fouts is listed as a consultant.
The movie opens with effective use of Elgar's First Symphony, but the original aspects of the score, by John Scott, are generically majestic.
Ralph Richardson had by the early 1980s become everyone's favorite old actor, especially after his scene-stealing parts in Dragonslayer and Time Bandits (both 1981), as well as the I-wish-they'd-release-it-to-DVD remake of Witness for the Prosecution (1982), in which Richardson gave a superlative performance in the Charles Laughton role. Greystoke is generally considered Richardson's last film, though several performances were released posthumously, including at least one after Greystoke.
Former model Andie MacDowell made her film debut in Greystoke as Jane, though, owing to her Carolinian accent (and possibly her inexperience), all her lines were dubbed without credit by Glenn Close. The effect is fairly glaring, more so than had been the case with myriad ingenues in Hammer horrors and James Bond thrillers. Close's readings are peculiarly flat and lacking in personality. A nice extra would have been to offer an alternate audio track with MacDowell's real voice, which this reviewer suspects may be an improvement. The character though is mostly tangential; Jane is never whisked off to Tarzan's jungle lair, and their romance is fleeting. James Fox, in the superfluous supporting role of Jane's spurned suitor, demeaningly refers to Tarzan's interest in Jane as "puppyish," an insult not without merit.
As he almost always is, Ian Holm is excellent as the sensitive Belgian D'Arnot. David Suchet, who would go on to great acclaim playing a Belgian of his own, has a small part as the proprietor of a seedy African inn.
As for Tarzan himself (who, incidentally, is never referred to by that name), Christopher Lambert is actually quite effective. He seems to have been cast as much on the basis of his intensely expressive, sad eyes as much as his physical presence, which is considerable. His features have both the intensity of a man living a cat/ape-like existence in the jungle, yet also possess the almost Romanesque profile one associates with the titled classes. He's athletic but not overly muscular, more cat-like in his movements. One suspects Edgar Rice Burroughs himself would have been pleased.
Video & Audio
Greystoke is presented here in a good 16:9 anamorphic transfer in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The film was shot in Super Techniscope, a forerunner of Super 35, and the occasional graininess and other imperfections are probably a result of the wide screen process rather than transfer issues. Included is a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix as well as an alternate French track, along with English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Though it deserves a more fully loaded set of extras, Warner's Greystoke DVD includes several decent supplements. The main extra is a Commentary with [Director] Hugh Hudson and [Associate Producer] Garth Thomas. Typical of the studio's overly-leisurely approach, the two are left to their own devices without the benefit of an interviewer prompting them with probing questions. As a result, there's a lot of repetition and dead space, though overall the commentary is about average. Their conversation suggests that at the time it was recorded Rick Baker was expected to participate, but he's nowhere to be found, at least on the long stretch this reviewer sampled.
Also included is a well-crafted Theatrical Trailer, also in 16:9 format, which may be the first of countless coming attractions to incorporate the pounding music from Gustav Holst's "Mars" (from The Planets Suite).
Though it doesn't live up to the promise of its early scenes, Greystoke -- The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes is a class effort all the way around, and despite the failure of its last act it's still one of the very best Tarzan movies.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.