For better or worse, the legacy of Edgar Rice Burrough’s vine-swinging lord of the jungle, Tarzan, has forever been colored by MGM’s glossy 1932 reincarnation, starring rugged Olympic swimmer, Johnny Weissmuller. If anything, Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) set a different standard for Burrough’s lost man-child, perpetually sheathed in a loin cloth, a yelping yodel to beast and foe alike, with perfectly quaffed hair and a smooth, taut body of rippling muscles; the rough-hewn half-man/half-animal survivor of a harrowing expedition into the deepest, darkest recesses of Equatorial Africa in 1885, now rechristened as the roguishly handsome ‘white skinned’ Neanderthal with broken English in need of a good sexual taming by the willing, Jane Porter (Maureen O’Sullivan). MGM’s movie may not have been what Burrough’s had in mind when he first published his novel in 1912, but there is little to doubt its influence since; renewing interest in the author’s creation and stimulating Burrough’s to continue the literary legacy of Tarzan until 1947. Arguably, the filmic Tarzan has had a much more lasting, varied and, regrettably maligned inheritance; repeatedly miscast as tawny muscle men of more brawn than brain or even marginal acting ability, the perpetual reboot merely contented to keep this wilderness throwback a brawny beefcake, happily stunted in his social evolution (the movie Tarzan never goes much beyond the oft misquoted “me Tarzan, you Jane” mastery of the English language, much less maturing in his social graces, making him a real dim bulb, indeed); his one friend, Cheetah the chimp, and occasionally Jane, who swoops in and out of the series as a love interest to compensate the lush tropical settings.
As a child of the 1970’s, I grew up with this revision of Burrough’s strapping missing link, chronically anesthetizing my expectations for anything better, while ironically providing something of a fairytale template for what it meant to be a ‘real man’ – to live and die by one’s wits, rescuing perennially distressed and lily-white colonialist hunters from their own explorative idiocy into the Dark Continent. It was, therefore, something of a culture shock to step into the theater in 1984 and be treated to director, Hugh Hudson’s superior retelling: Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. For here, at last, was Tarzan as Burrough’s had ostensibly envisioned him back in 1912; the babe suckled and raised to adulthood by apes after the natural death of his birth mother and murder of his father by wild animals. Employing a formidable roster of British talents who, again, as a twelve year old back then, I knew virtually nothing of and could not care less about, I was nevertheless awestruck by the potently subdued tragic elements gingerly massaged into P.H. Vazak and Michael Austin’s screenplay, without any perceivably transparent modicum of sentimentalized pathos.
*A word about Vazak, actually a pseudonym for screenwriter, Robert Towne, who was also slated to direct Greystoke until the implosion of his directorial debut, Personal Best (1982) caused the studio to remove him from the project altogether. Infuriated, Towne, no slouch in the industry, retaliated by demanding the name of his dog, P.H. Vazak be given his screenwriter’s credit in his stead; a decision reluctantly adhered to by the studio, and one that must have tickled Towne’s fancy immensely when Greystoke received an Oscar-nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
In Christopher Lambert’s wiry and expressively wide-eyed hero, Tarzan emerged, not as a literary myth, movie-land fantasy or even as perhaps Edgar Rice Burrough’s had concocted him via his own adventurist spirit for colonial exploration; but as a man torn asunder from the natural order of things and denied his noble birth right; thrust into the most perilous survival situations and thriving in outwardly inhospitable conditions; alas, proving no match for the refinements and depravities of the human world. And it remained to Hugh Hudson’s credit that despite the passage of time and the jadedness of my own preconceptions about the character, gleaned from a steady diet of the wrong kind of Tarzan movies for nearly a decade, that Greystoke nevertheless managed to rewrite and eclipse much of the misfires that had occurred inside an impressionable young boy’s mind until then. Upon exiting the theater that evening, it was virtually impossible to go back to watching those Saturday afternoon TV matinees starring Weissmuller. It all but ruined my limited appreciation for the likes of Gordon Scott, Denny Miller, Miles O’Keefe and the like. No, Greystoke was a return to Burrough’s jungle man; the film, mirroring the events as written so closely in the first half of the picture that, upon reading the first novel in Burrough’s franchise, it became clearer still – even to a child – that director, Hugh Hudson had done his homework.
In later years, I would come to appreciate Greystoke for its multifaceted skillfulness behind the scenes; Albert Whitlock’s stunning array of matte paintings, along with the Elstree Studio-bound jungle vegetation sets, faultlessly married to some extensive location work in Cameroon; Rick Baker’s mind-bogglingly natural creature makeups and prosthetics, transforming a series of diminutive, acrobatic dancers into convincing replicas of vine-swinging simians; John Alcott’s gorgeously lit, mist-laden cinematography; and finally, and without question, the spectacular cast assembled to sell this artifice as heart-wrenching fiction. Greystoke is not an adventure film, per say, although it sports elements from this genre. But at its core, it remains a very humanist tale about an almost too good to hope for bond of reunion between an aging aristocrat, the sixth Earl of Greystoke (an affecting performance by Ralph Richardson, in the last movie before his death) grown fragile and reclusive after the disappearance of his beloved son in Africa; his will to live resuscitated by a gracious twist of fate, returning his adult grandson, John Clayton (a.k.a. Tarzan, expressively realized by Christopher Lambert) to his rightful place as the heir apparent to a Scottish fortune.
While the first hour of Greystoke plays almost as a silent movie – virtually void of dialogue – the latter half is a superb articulation of one old man’s daydream resurrected in the flesh; the mind-numbing realization all has not been lost so many years before, played with exquisitely raw, yet restrained emotions. Of superior caliber was Ian Holm’s incarnation of Capitaine Phillippe D'Arnot, the grateful recipient of Tarzan’s salvation during a particularly lethal Pygmy attack; Ian Charleson, Paul Brooke and David Suchet’s amoral dredges of society, Jeffson Brown, Rev. Stimson, and, the gambler, Buller respectively; Nigel Davenport, as the blood-thirsty big game hunter, Maj. Jack Downing; James Fox as priggish, Lord Charles Esker; and finally, in her movie debut, supermodel, Andie McDowell as Miss Jane Porter – a minor revelation, considering her dialogue was dubbed in post-production by Glenn Close to cancel out McDowell’s southern drawl, deemed unbecoming for the character.
Yet, even the cameos in Greystoke are populated by some of Britain’s finest actors: Paul Geoffrey and Cheryl Campell, particularly effective as the ill-fated Lord John and Lady Alice Clayton. And then, of course, there are the ‘Tarzans’ to consider: the evolution of the ape man, from newborn to adult, captivatingly realized with an uninterrupted continuity in deportment and mannerisms by child actors, Peter Kyriakou, Danny Potts, Eric Langlois and finally, Christopher Lambert. The success of the movie squarely rests upon Hugh Hudson’s ability to convince us in just a few key scenes that this babe, lost to civilization and barely out of his crib, has miraculously morphed into the lanky lord of the jungle before our very eyes.
After the overwhelming critical and box office success of 1981’s Chariots of Fire, Hugh Hudson was determined to mark his territory with another surefire transatlantic hit. That Greystoke proved something of a spotty hit and a miss with critics and audiences alike and on both sides of the pond was therefore something of a minor disappointment. Despite being nominated for 3 Academy Awards (and winning none), Greystoke illustrated a fundamental truth about the long-term longevity of cinema Tarzans. Yet, in hindsight, Greystoke is memorable, and, arguably, for so much more than simply its departure from the ensconced movie-land lore, Weissmuller’s king of the swing and all those who dared follow in his bare footsteps. Director, Hudson is to be commended for adhering to Burroughs’ original novel - partly. In the book, Burroughs asserts the apes rearing Tarzan possess a rudimentary vocabulary. Hudson also applied ‘corrective ideas’ first put forth by science fiction author, Philip José Farmer meant to explain how a speech-deprived human might acquire language skills – as a natural mimic. In any case, Hudson wisely chose to reject the common tradition of the ‘simpleton Tarzan’, instead, at every opportunity, allowing Christopher Lambert to portray an intuitive intelligence, uncannily realized via penetrating stares and occasional light gestures in the eyebrows and lips.
It’s still a fairytale - perhaps, only now imbued with darker, uglier and more dissatisfying sides of reality creeping in from the peripheries of the screen. For here is a man unable to find self-worth amongst his own kind; a specimen clearly drawn to his counterparts in the human world in which he ought to belong, and yet, driven away by their oddities and cruelties; the fracture between man and beast made irrevocably complete after John discovers his adoptive ‘ape father’, Kerchak in captivity and, in attempting to restore him to freedom, inadvertently brings about his untimely death. Interestingly, John Clayton is never referenced in the movie as ‘Tarzan’; apparently, director, Hudson’s further endeavor to distance his movie from preconceived notions stemming from the Tarzan movie-land lore, while not above using Burrough’s moniker for its marketing cache on the poster art to promote the film. But it must be stated that the latter half of his movie, in which John is restored to his grandfather in Scotland, has nothing to do with either the cinema legacy of Tarzan or Burrough’s original story.
In the novel, Jane Porter discovers Tarzan in the wilds after her search party, also consisting of John’s cousin, William Cecil Clayton, and French Naval Officer Paul D'Arnot is marooned off the Ivory Coast. As in the movie, D'Arnot is the first to recognize John’s potential, educating him in the ways of behaving amongst civilized men. But at journey’s end, John makes his pilgrimage to Baltimore, Maryland in search of Jane, discovering she is to marry his cousin. Never regarded as more than a physiological fascination by Jane, the plot nevertheless thickens as D’Arnot begins to piece together the origins of John’s true identity and birthright as the Earl of Greystoke. Alas, in the end, John magnanimously refuses this inheritance, choosing to conceal his identity for the sake of Jane’s happiness. In the movie, this penultimate sacrifice is subverted; made not by John, but Jane who, having educated this primal-motivated man, returns him to his ‘place of origin’ now – recognizing the jungle as the only place where he can thrive.
Greystoke opens with some atmospheric Albert Whitlock travelling mattes of Equatorial Africa, circa 1885; real landscapes married to moody backdrops and an erupting volcano that has absolutely nothing to do with our story. During a torrential downpour, a battle between primates, Silverbeard, an elder in the ape clan (Elliott W. Cane) and new mother, Kala (Ailsa Berk) causes the latter to lose and drop her newborn from a considerable height. The baby strikes its head on a rock and dies. Kala will spend many days grieving this loss, coddling the corpse of her dead baby in her arms. We switch to Lord John Clayton (Paul Geoffrey), the heir to The 6th Earl of Greystoke (Ralph Richardson), and his wife, Alice (Cheryl Campbell) about to set sail from Edinburgh, Scotland on an expedition into the Dark Continent. The ship is lost at sea, with only the young marrieds and its’ captain (Richard Griffiths) having survived; the latter, suffering a complete nervous breakdown. Interestingly, in long shot we catch a glimpse of the damaged vessel (another Whitlock miniature matte) bobbing helplessly like a cork in the water. Exactly how everyone and everything else has happened to wash up as debris on the mainland when the ship still appears, if damaged (presumably from a storm at sea) then no less seaworthy, as it is clearly afloat, remains an oddity never entirely explained away. Instead, John and Alice make their home from these surviving remnants up in a tree (shades of the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse immediately coming to mind).
Regrettably, tragedy strikes. Alice, stricken with malaria after the birth of John Jr. suddenly dies and John Sr. is beaten to death by Silverbeard before he can recover his pistol to defend his infant son. The child is taken from its crib by Kala, who abandons her own dead baby to rear John as her own. Invested with the security of the tribe, the boy grows up naked, wild, and free, although constantly threatened by Silverbeard who, at one point, beats John nearly to death. These early sequences are imbued with a spark of brilliance for establishing the communal nature of the ape colony. At age five, young John narrowly escapes an attack by a black panther. His best friend in the tribe is not nearly as lucky. At age twelve, John stumbles upon the origins of his birth – the treehouse – where he discovers a wooden block with engravings of a human child and a chimpanzee. He also finds the remnants of a mirror and, for the first time, recognizes himself in it as unlike the other apes in his ‘family’. Sometime later, he will also unearth John Sr.’s hunting knife and, through trial and error, learn how to use it in self-defense.
Years pass. John, now in his early twenties, has attained the rank of a valued and dominant male in the ape colony. Regrettably, he loses his ‘mother’ (Kala) to a Pygmy hunting party, carrying her wounded and dying body into a clearing before murdering one of the Pygmies, who has come to finish the job. Sometime later, Capt. Philippe D'Arnot (Ian Holm) leads a band of British adventurers, including the ruthless, Major Jack Downing (Nigel Davenport) and Sir Hugh Belcher (Nicholas Farrell) along the river’s edge on an expedition for pelts. D’Arnot is appalled by Downing’s psychotic approach to the slaughter of innocent animals. Pygmies attack the party, instantly killing Downing and Belcher. Wounded but alive, D’Arnot manages to hide inside a tree stump, rescued and carried to safety by John who feed him live maggots and regurgitates water into his mouth to keep him alive. In exploring the treehouse, D’Arnot discovers John’s true identity and desperately works to convince him they must both return to Scotland. John is reluctant. Nevertheless, he and D’Arnot make their way to a remote British outpost on the edge of the civilized world. Inside a leaky makeshift clubhouse, the pair encounters the nefarious Jeffson Brown, Rev. Stimson, and, Buller. D’Arnot teaches John about fire by lighting a match, an introduction to prove fortuitous later when Brown, Stimson and Buller, hinted at harboring homosexual tendencies, wrestle D’Arnot against a table. They are about to flog him when John leaps from the balcony into their midst and dashes a kerosene lamp against the fragile wood paneling. The flames ignite and engulf the clubhouse like a tinderbox; D’Arnot and John making their escape in the dead of night.
The movie expedites the rest of D’Arnot and John’s journey home; director, Hudson cutting to the reunion at Greystoke Manor (actually, Floors Castle), a sprawling country estate in the lowlands of Scotland. The 6th Earl of Greystoke sets about introducing John to polite society and his ward, Jane Porter (Andie MacDowell). Although never clearly determined, it is suggested the Earl is suffering from the early stages of dementia; infrequently lapsing in his memory, referring to John as his son – rather than his grandson. For a time, John’s assimilation back into the world of humans progresses. Jane takes to teaching him French and English, also dance lessons. In the meantime, Lord Charles Esker (James Fox), a rather stuffy suitor, proposes marriage to Jane. She rejects his offer outright, explaining she does not love him, nor has she ever harbored deeper affections. In secret, Jane and John become lovers, leading to a Christmas party where their engagement is announced. Alas, the Earl is stricken by a delusional remembrance from childhood – riding down the grand, but extremely steep, staircase on a silver tray. In attempting to relive this moment now, he inadvertently sails into the banister and breaks his neck, dying in John’s arms.
John is now the 7th Earl of Greystoke. Regrettably, he is plagued by an inconsolable grief and frequently exhibits violent outbursts not even Jane can quell. John and Jane are invited to inaugurate a new exhibit at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London. However, in exploring the private rooms behind the exhibit, John discovers Kerchak – his ape father –cruelly confined to a very small cage. Freeing Kerchak from these restraints, John attempts to aid in his escape. The inhabitants are stunned and flee in terror, causing museum officials and the police to be called out. Shots are fired as Kerchak climbs higher and higher up a tree in Woodland Park. The ape plummets to his death and John defies the crowd by shouting “He was my father!” That night John, again inconsolable, races his carriage and horses around the estate, wailing into the night, “Father!” Unable to reach him, Jane realizes what she must do. Together with D’Arnot, she and John make a pilgrimage back to Africa. John strips down to his loin cloth and returns to the ape colony as Jane and D’Arnot look on. Their dream of a life together at an end, D’Arnot nevertheless remains optimistic. Perhaps, one day, they may all be reunited again – at least, in friendship.
In retrospect, it is easy to see why Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes was not an overwhelming critical or financial success. Not only does it not prefigure the return of the cinema’s incarnation of Edgar Rice Burrough’s classic vine-swinger, but it remains throughout, although particularly in its denouement, a genuine downer; utterly riveting in its narrative yarn perhaps, energizing and full of unexpected lyrical visualizations throughout – yes – and yet, just a little too somber, moody and weird to be fully admired for its exceptionally fine craftsmanship. Director, Hugh Hudson’s gift to the movie manifests as an almost primitive ability to unearth wellsprings and undercurrents of enflamed human desire and correlate them to the animal world. But the movie occasionally veers into a sort of ‘elephant man’ styled grand guignol; albeit, infused with atypical astuteness and sincere entertainment value.
Because Hudson has so clearly chosen to avoid virtually every identifiable cliché ensconced in the movie-land Tarzan milieu, Greystoke is not in competition with any of its predecessors…and that is part of its problem. Arguably, the audience is anticipating another Dark Continent B-grade roller coaster adventure story, complete with leering chimpanzees, lost tribes and ancient cities, fog-laden elephant graveyards and a curse set upon our unsuspecting troop of explorers. Our hero is neither referred to as ‘Tarzan’ nor does he let out with that iconic yodel Weissmuller made an indelible part of the folklore. As such, Greystoke neither lives up – nor down (depending upon one’s point of view) to our prospects. Despite this, the very best that can be said of Greystoke is, at just a little over two hours, it never drags or wears out its welcome.
Add to this, the stately approach Hudson has taken with his visually resplendent ambiance of 1885’s social mores and mannerisms, counterbalanced and slightly offset by the astonishingly earthy sense of realism achieved in Rick Baker’s makeup appliances, and, the shockingly cruel and brutal murders/deaths that occur throughout the movie, from Sir John and Lady Alice, to Kala and finally the 6th Earl, and, Greystoke takes on a very morose and disquieting patina of too much truth, none too subtly on display. The first third of the picture is imbued with some of its most noteworthy and authentic human/animal interactions ever conceived for the screen – partly shot on location and partly, and even more convincingly reconceived on a soundstage under controlled lighting conditions; no small feat, considering humans in ape costumes are situated only a few feet from real apes, leopards, pythons, flamingos and black panthers. Greystoke’s saving grace, that is to say, the thing to keep all its impending doom and ill-fated destiny at bay, or perhaps, merely from engulfing and sinking the enterprise altogether, is its cast. Ralph Richardson’s Earl, a completely fabricated character not in any of Edgar Rice Burrough’s nearly two dozen Tarzan novels, is nevertheless, an integral piece to this puzzle of what makes Greystoke click. Even if Richardson had not died a scant three months after finishing the picture, his performance herein would sincerely rank as one of his most genuinely poignant and affecting. And Christopher Lambert, movie-land’s new arrival then, matches Richardson’s portrayal, if not in sustained intensity, then certainly in its moody magnificence; deliciously brooding as both the barely sheathed and conquering ape man and uncomfortable aristocrat, more nakedly vulnerable because he is being forced to dress up for the occasion.
Long announced for the Warner Archive, Greystoke was twice delayed in its hi-def debut, the studio wisely investing more time and money into their remastering efforts. John Alcott’s cinematography, with uncredited additional work by David Watkin, uses a higher than normal exposure rate to get light to penetrate the dense jungle foliage. The effect is uncannily naturalistic and superbly reproduced on this Blu-ray. The film elements used herein are nearly pristine and have been carefully color-corrected. Fine detail is extraordinary and contrast is exquisite, with deep blacks that never crush. There is a natural and mostly inconspicuous grain pattern on display, ever so slightly magnified during matte process shots. We can also thank Warner Home Video for no untoward DNR, artificial sharpening or other digital anomalies applied to this transfer. Greystoke was never intended to look razor-sharp and/or smooth. The image represented herein returns the movie to its rough-hewn and almost documentarian quality, Alcott’s low lit artistry, either recreated by filtering rays of natural sunlight, using artificial UV lamps in the studio, or extolling the exquisiteness of flickering light and shadow from a myriad of candles, has been lovingly reproduced herein.
Greystoke 70mm limited engagement sported a 6-track stereo soundtrack; its wider theatrical release, dumbed down on 35mm with mere Dolby Surround. This new DTS 5.1 Blu-ray mix appears to have been derived from the 6-track elements, illustrated by some very subtly nuanced SFX and John Scott’s underscore soaring to new heights with a surprisingly wide dynamic range. Warner has ported over Hugh Hudson’s audio commentary from their old DVD. It’s informative, though meandering in spots. Nevertheless, definitely worth a listen. Bottom line: highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)