Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan Lord of the Apes (1984)
Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan Lord of the Apes approaches Edgar Rice Burroughs’ source material very differently from previous adaptations. The movie is far removed from the vintage Johnny Weismuller films from the thirties and forties. There are no white ivory poachers, evil tribesmen or a tree house love nest. Nobody says “Ungawa”. This is a revisionist recounting of the Tarzan legend undertaken in a thoughtful and intelligent fashion. Although relatively faithful to the original stories, there are some major thematic changes. Gone are the period notions of Nietzsche’s Übermensch. The screenplay also reflects contemporary understanding of great ape behaviour and society.
I will dispense with a detailed plot synopsis due to the familiarity of the storyline. Let it suffice to say that Tarzan is raised in the jungle, discovered as an adult and brought back the UK. The literate screenplay by Robert Towne depicts Tarzan, not as racially superior warrior, but a man torn between two worlds; the natural and the civilized. In a remarkable performance, Christopher Lambert portrays this angst and duality with realism. The movie was his first major English dialogue role. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, boasting robust performances from dependable actors such as Ian Holm, John Wells, and the late, great Sir Ralph Richardson. Andie McDowell made her debut as Jane Porter. For some reason, she was completely re-dubbed by Glenn Close.
The cinematography of the African segment of the tale is very good. It captures both the beauty of the African wilderness and its savagery. Inevitably the ape sequences had to be shot in a controlled environment, so there are a lot of studio scenes to accommodate them. Also being a period film and a costume drama, there is exceptional use of English countryside as well as London exteriors. The Natural History museum is used to great effect. The production design is very authentic in representing the Edwardian age. The soundtrack by John Scott is very evocative and compliments the narrative without being too obtrusive.
Of course the film stand or falls by the quality of the ape make up effects. Rick Baker and his team excel themselves in this area, creating a range of different simian characters, all with distinct features and attributes. It should also be noted that despite its PG certificate, there are some disturbing scenes. These are mainly in the ape sequences where the cruelty of the jungle is not downplayed. Ian Holm also removes an arrow from his side in a “Rambo-esque” fashion. Bear this in mind when watching with young children. The violence, dark tone and narrative driven plot may not lend itself to the casual viewer.
Hugh Hudson is a talented director who works relatively infrequently. After the Oscar winning success of Chariots of Fire, it was a bold move to pitch such a radical adaptation to such a traditional studio such as Warner Bros. Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan Lord of the Apes is a worthy human drama, exploring the subjects of “man’s dominion over beast” and “social Darwinisms”. It takes a hard look at the strictures of English society and ponders that old chestnut of how thin the veneer of our civilisation really is. Overall this is a sombre movie with an inherently tragic thread running through it. However it can be a rewarding experience for those seeking a more in-depth exploration of the Tarzan mythos.