I last watched Greystoke - The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) about ten years ago, when Warner Home Video's DVD first came out. Since then I've had the unique pleasure of watching (or re-watching) the entire Tarzan films series, 28 feature films produced during 1932-1968, in chronological order, along with a big batch of episodes of the TV series that followed. That has allowed me to look at Greystoke again from a different perspective.
Seeing it on Blu-ray, in high-definition also makes a difference, though not nearly as much as I had anticipated. By far the stateliest and most ambitious Tarzan movie to date, Greystoke - The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes is a mostly impressive myth-making epic. Its first half, set primarily in late-19th century Africa, is almost a masterpiece, though once the story moves to Scotland for its second half it deviates far from Edgar Rice Burroughs original concepts, and turns into something more closely resembling Akira Kurosawa's Soviet-made film Dersu Uzala (1975) with almost identical plot points and themes. The film is also relentlessly depressing, with what at times feels like Tarzan painfully reacting to the violent death of a major character every other reel.
Compared to the classical Tarzan movies, particularly the earliest Johnny Weissmuller ones and the two vastly underrated Tarzans starring Jock Mahoney, made in the early 1960s, Greystoke is singularly joyless. Tarzan and His Mate (1934), generally regarded as the best-ever Tarzan movie, famously features a long sequence of a nearly nude Tarzan and completely nude Jane swimming in the lagoon near their famous tree house home. Even seen today the sequence is both explicitly sexual and arousing, watching a playful Tarzan and Jane at one with nature, and each other. It's just one scene, and most of the picture is breathlessly exciting and, again even by today's standards, quite intense, at times gory and genuinely scary. Greystoke has some of the latter but none of the former.
Still, so much of what's onscreen is vividly realized and carefully considered that overall the picture is a qualified success. The Blu-ray, its release delayed for a time to maximize its potential, is worth the wait.
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 adult African apes, and his blood ties to the increasingly senile but charming 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 a 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 shown in the pre-credits prologue. 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 (French in the novel) 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 (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 original cut of the film, apparently never shown publically, ran three hours.
The DVD runs 136 1/2 minutes, which includes a 90-second overture. This is apparently several minutes longer than the original theatrical version. Even at this length, however, 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's brutal elder), Tarzan stops being heroic and mostly is despondent. Though directed in England and Scotland by an Englishman with a mostly British cast, the script needlessly presents upper-class stereotypes who add nothing but cliches to the story. Particularly bad is the sort-of romantic triangle that develops among Tarzan, Jane, and Jane's suitor, Lord Charles Esker. A too-old James Fox plays him in the same Edwardian twit manner he did in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines twenty years before, and that was a comedy.
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. 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 with the production exuding 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 sometimes 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 character, however, is explicitly American, from Baltimore, in keeping with Burroughs.) 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 nevertheless tangential; Jane is never whisked off to Tarzan's jungle lair, and their romance is fleeting.
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. The fine supporting cast also includes Nigel Davenport and Richard Griffiths in small but colorful roles probably larger in the original cut.
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 his physical presence, which is considerable. His features have both the intensity of a man living an 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 like a cat in his movements. Even Tarzan's slight French accent makes sense, considering. One suspects Edgar Rice Burroughs himself would have been pleased.
Video & Audio
Greystoke was shot in Super Techniscope, a forerunner of Super 35. Essentially it exposes a flat, non-anamorphic image onto a frame three perforations tall, versus most anamorphic processes (e.g., CinemaScope, Panavision), which expose four perforations. The main advantages of the process are that it's cheaper (by exposing less negative) while making close-ups, full-frame TV versions, etc. easier. The downside is that Super Techniscope/Super 35 exposes less frame area resulting in a slightly grainier image, though by 1984 film stock was improving to the point where such degradation was not as noticeable as two-perf Techniscope. All this is to say that on Blu-ray Greystoke looks quite nice, beautiful at times, though the 2004 DVD was also quite good and the upgrade isn't as dramatic as similar epics filmed in large negative formats like VistaVision, Ultra Panavision, and Todd-AO. Included is a new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. There's much directionality to the left and right speakers but the surrounds aren't nearly as immersive (particularly in the jungle scenes) as I had hoped. The DVD included an alternate French track along with English, French, and Spanish subtitles but the Blu-ray has English SDH subtitles only and no French audio.
Though it deserves a more fully loaded set of extras, Warner's Greystoke Blu-ray offers 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. Highly Recommended.
* Not gorillas, not chimpanzees. The Tarzan film series, with its Cheeta character, perpetuated the image of chimpanzees as playful, child-size primates. But the chimps in those films were almost always pre-pubertal and far from full-grown. Full-grown chimpanzees can weigh 150 lbs. and can be extremely aggressive and violent, especially toward human captors foolish enough to keep them as pets. Greystoke portrays their behavior much more realistically than other films before or since. As Sergei Hasenecz notes, "for the first novel Burroughs created an unknown species of ape he called the Mangani, distinct from gorillas and chimps. Although in the movies Tarzan is usually shown palling around with Cheeta, a chimp (in the books it was a monkey named Nkima), the movies do, with varying degrees of success, show Tarzan with 'apes' that are neither gorillas nor chimpanzees. (Men in costumes, yes, but what they portray are never called gorillas or chimpanzees.) You can see them from the beginning with Elmo Lincoln through to the MGMs with Johnny Weissmuller."
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.