Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes
Release Date(s)1984 (July 16, 2013)
Studio(s)Warner Bros. (Warner Archive)
Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan is one of those ultra-iconic characters, like Dracula and Sherlock Holmes, whose name is instantly recognized the world over. You don’t have to have ever read a single Tarzan story or watched a single Tarzan movie to know he was orphaned as a child, raised by apes and is Lord of the Jungle. Of course, the character has also had such a pervasive impact on pop culture that it’s virtually impossible to avoid having seen or read one of those stories.
The character has appeared in books, movies, TV series (both live action and animated), comics, radio shows…pretty much any and every narrative medium imaginable. So it was inevitable that sooner or later somebody would go back to the source and attempt to make a “faithful” adaptation of Burroughs’ novel.
That someone was supposed to be Robert Towne, who wrote the original screenplay to Greystoke with the intention of directing it himself. Towne was replaced as director by Hugh Hudson, fresh off the surprise Oscar victory of Chariots of Fire, and his script was substantially rewritten. Towne had his name taken off the project, replacing it with his dog’s name, P.H. Vazak. This is not typically an encouraging sign.
And yet, there’s any number of elements that Greystoke gets exactly right. The movie starts off extremely well, detailing the young John Clayton’s adoption and coming of age into his new ape family. Rick Baker’s primate makeup effects are extraordinary and this entire sequence is fascinating. Christopher Lambert takes over as the adult Clayton and he’s excellent in the role, graceful, curious and conflicted about his dual nature. Ralph Richardson and Ian Holm are standouts in a stellar lineup of British character actors in the supporting cast. Andie MacDowell, in her film debut, makes less of an impression as Jane but this isn’t entirely her fault. Dissatisfied with her southern accent, the producers redubbed her entirely in post-production with an uncredited Glenn Close. It’s a jarring effect that doesn’t exactly get easier to deal with as the movie goes along.
The major problem with the movie is its pacing, particularly once Holm brings Lambert back home. The entire film is episodic and many of these episodes clatter up against each other without resolving themselves. It feels like there are big chunks of the movie missing, and I’m sure there probably are. Also, Hudson treats his source material with a stately sense of self-importance. The details that are missing from so many Tarzan movies are here but that sense of exciting pulp adventure is absent. For better or worse, this is the Masterpiece Theatre version of Tarzan.
I hadn’t seen Greystoke since some time in the mid-80s and until I watched it on Blu-ray, I never realized what a beautifully filmed movie it really is. John Alcott’s cinematography, combined with fantastic visual effects by legendary matte artist Albert Whitlock, is simply breathtaking and the 1080p transfer doesn’t disappoint. Greens are rich and lush and the picture is alive with detail. Audio is presented in an excellent 5.1 DTS-HD track. The Blu-ray includes the previously released features from Warner’s DVD: a rather dry commentary by Hugh Hudson and associate producer Garth Thomas and the theatrical trailer. I suppose you could make a terrific documentary about the production but, let’s face it, that’s probably never going to happen.
Greystoke is an ambitious, almost successful epic that would never get made today. In today’s climate, a Tarzan movie would be a tentpole, setting up future movies and seeking to entertain the widest possible audience. While the ending of Greystoke certainly leaves the door open for a sequel, it’s impossible to see this movie as any kind of franchise-launcher, unless it was something like Greystoke II: Tarzan Goes to Downton Abbey.
- Dr. Adam Jahnke