Raised in the jungles of Africa by apes, John Clayton (Christopher Lambert, Highlander) returns to his aristocratic family in England only to discover that the so-called civilized world is far less humane than the African wilderness.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“Half of me is the Earl of Greystoke… the other half is WILD!”
Tarzan was the brainchild of American writer Edgar Rice Burroughs. He wrote more than 20 novels depicting the adventures of Tarzan. The books were quickly translated into dozens of languages and over the years, more than 20 million copies of the books have been sold all over the world. Burroughs is still one of today’s most well-known authors, and Tarzan remains one of the world’s most popular literary characters.
Hollywood quickly took notice, and in 1918, the first Tarzan movie was released. Tarzan, however, really became a bona fide cinematic phenomenon with MGM’s 1932 Tarzan The Ape Man, starring former Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan. Over the years, many films (and TV shows) about Tarzan were made with an array of actors — Buster Crabbe Lex Barker, Gordon Scott, etc. — playing the title character. All these films were action-packed stories, leaning towards the B-movie mentality.
But in the 1980s, something interesting happened in regards to Burroughs’s hero. After countless movie and TV incarnations, a British produced movie came out of nowhere and quickly was proclaimed by many as the definitive Tarzan movie. The title of the film is Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, and without any doubt, this lavish and fascinating movie is, so far, the most ambitious retelling of the often filmed story about the legendary and beloved Lord of the Apes.
The first draft of Greystoke was written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown), who envisioned the Tarzan story as a validation of recent scientific discoveries that strongly suggest that all primates share physical and behavioral characteristics. Towne intended to direct the film, but after his movie Persona Best died at the box office, the renowned Hollywood writer was removed from the film.
Once British director Hugh Hudson, a hot commodity after the enormous success of his 1981 period piece Chariots of Fire, became attached to the film, Towne’s ideas were somewhat diminished by Hudson’s interest in giving the story a pro-nature edge. Hudson saw the film more as an affirmation of the pleasures of nature versus the evils of civilization — suddenly the Tarzan legend not only becomes an adventure tale, but also a great plea for the conservation of our ecosystem.
These two different approaches give the film its fascinating structure, dividing its story into two phases: the first half deals with Tarzan growing up in the jungle (mostly written by Towne), in which the Tarzan interacts with the apes. The second half (in which Tarzan is brought back to England) works more or less as a study of the clash of cultures in which the seemingly cold and inert Edwardian era is brutally contrasted with the dynamic, survivalist atmosphere of jungle life, represented by Tarzan.
Although Towne was not happy with the changes (he had his name removed from the credits and opted for a pseudonym), the end result is a multi-layered, absorbing film that does a great job reinventing Burroughs’ hero, and makes him relevant to modern audiences. That being said, Greystoke suffers from a few blemishes. The editing, in particular, is a bit choppy — the film was heavily edited after a disastrous screen preview (people thought the movie was too long), with many scenes (including a sequence in which Tarzan meets the King of England) ending up on the cutting room floor (Warner’s DVD/Blu-ray edition runs a few minutes longer than the theatrical version).
But I’m happy to report that the good far outweighs the (minor) imperfections. Rick Baker’s (An American Werewolf in London) then state-of-the-art make-up work is the movie’s true hero. Combined with John Scott’s (The Final Countdown) majestic music score and John Alcott’s (A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon) beautiful cinematography, Baker’s monkey suits make the jungle scenes so compelling to watch — the rest of the movie can’t compete with the near-perfect first half.
Fortunately, Sir Ralph Richardson (The Heiress), who plays Tarzan’s kind grandfather, single-handedly saves the admittedly less riveting second half. If the first half is dominated by Baker’s make-up effects, the second half belongs to the great English actor — Richardson gives a heartfelt, deeply touching and superb Oscar-nominated performance (his last). Christopher Lambert and Andie MacDowell (voice was dubbed by Glenn Close, Fatal Attraction) are fine as Tarzan and Jane respectively.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
I first discovered Greystoke during its original theatrical run, and my interest in the film has only grown over the years. Despite some obvious flaws in the narrative (the film builds up the a climax that never comes), Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes is quite possibly the best movie ever made about the popular Lord of the Apes. It’s also a valid statement about our responsibility to preserve our natural resources for the enjoyment of future generations. Color, 130 minutes, Rated PG.