Review: Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan

Lord Jack Clayton (Paul Geoffrey) and his pregnant wife find themselves shipwrecked somewhere along the African coast. After the baby is born, Clayton and his wife are set upon and killed by apes. The apes find the baby and remarkably raise it as one of their own. Decades later, now a young man (played by Christophe Lambert) comes across a Belgian explorer (Sir Ian Holm), who is injured. The young man nurses the explorer back to health, and in turn the explorer teaches him basic English. The explorer eventually deduces that this man is in fact John Clayton, the heir to the 6th Earl of Greystoke (Sir Ralph Richardson, in his final film role), and vows to take him back to Edwardian Scotland to take his rightful place at the family estate. It is here that John (or Tarzan if you prefer, though the characters never utter the name) meets and falls for Jane Porter (Andie MacDowell, by way of Glenn Close), a ward of the Earl’s. But he also becomes restless, caught unhappily between two worlds, especially the phony ‘civilised’ world that may be even more savage than the jungle. James Fox plays the pompous fop Lord Esker, who has designs on Jane himself, Nigel Davenport is a burly big game hunter, Richard Griffiths plays the shipwrecked boat captain, and David Suchet plays a bartender.


Although I still somewhat favour the 1999 Disney animated “Tarzan”, this 1984 film from director Hugh Hudson (“Chariots of Fire”) is a well-mounted and interesting version of the Edgar Rice Burroughs classic, especially the first three quarters. For a film that in the first half gives us a mute Christophe Lambert and some fake apes…it’s remarkably entertaining. You don’t want it to leave the jungle, even though you know a posthumously Oscar-nominated Sir Ralph Richardson will be excellent company.


You can tell right away that Rick Baker has been called upon to create some fake primates, but as overrated as I think he often is, his work here still looks pretty darn good for 1984. It’s not up to the standard he showed in 2001’s “Planet of the Apes” or 1988’s “Gorillas in the Mist”, but it’s far enough removed from his idiotic work in 1976’s “King Kong” to get the job done and earn him an Oscar nomination. One shot of a dead baby monkey in particular is really disturbing, and it’s not like you could use real apes in this film. I think that’s why I feel the story works best in animation.


Like the Disney version, this one can’t help but venture into Kipling territory a tad, but that’s fine, the animals in this are quite fun. It’s a stunning-looking film with the beautiful jungle scenery captured by cinematographers John Alcott (“A Clockwork Orange”, “The Shining”, “The Beastmaster”) and an uncredited David Watkin (“The Three Musketeers”, “Robin and Marian”), a particular highlight for me. It’s a truly handsomely mounted film. The film also features an excellent, Basil Poledouris-esque score by John Scott (“Wake in Fright”, “Newsfront”, “Sexy Beast”).


It’s amazing how interesting and entertaining the dialogue-free moments are here. But that doesn’t mean the film fails once the talking starts. I wish Nigel Davenport’s brutal, moustachioed hunter stuck around a bit longer, but Ian Holm’s seemingly Poirot-inspired, Belgian character is a good one for him (It’s rather ironic to see future Poirot actor David Suchet appear briefly as a bartender). Veteran scene-stealer Sir Ralph Richardson is, as always, pitch-perfect as Lord Greystoke (aside from a bizarre and extremely regrettable final scene), and if you’re gonna have someone play a stereotypical James Fox fop character, you may as well get Fox himself to play it. For some reason, the way he says the words ‘jungle man’ in his posh voice always crack me up. As for the title role, for all the crap French-accented (yet American-born) Christophe Lambert has gotten over the years, he does remarkably well under impossible circumstances here, though I do wish he grew a beard for the role. I found it particularly amusing that a French-accented Belgian was in charge of teaching Tarzan to speak English, perhaps as a way to account for Tarzan’s peculiarly French pronunciation of English.


The one dud piece of casting is obviously and unquestionably Andie MacDowell in her film debut, doing the best Glenn Close impersonation I’ve ever heard. In all seriousness, full credit goes to MacDowell for forging a career after this unflattering debut, and she’s not quite Jessica Lange in “King Kong” bad, but not even Glenn Close’s voice can help MacDowell act much here. And we’re talking about a film that already has Christophe Lambert. I don’t think I’ve ever heard another case of a famous actress dubbing the voice of another famous actress, but it just goes to show how thoroughly Southern-fried inappropriate MacDowell’s voice likely seemed to the director. It’s a blemish on what is otherwise a rock-solid film, possibly even a neglected one to some extent these days. But there’s no doubt that the best scenes in the film are in the jungle, not to mention that these are the most faithful scenes to the original literary source.


The screenplay is by Michael Austin (“The Shout”, writer-director of “Princess Caraboo”) and Robert Towne (“The Last Detail”, “Chinatown”, “Personal Best”), the latter rather idiotically using the pseudonym of his pet dog for God knows what alcohol-related reason. The screenplay ended up being nominated for an Oscar, making Towne look like an even bigger tool.


Rating: B-


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