Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees gives this underrated epic some hot jungle lovin'.
"Half of me is the Earl of Greystoke. The other half is wild."
Edgar Rice Burroughs's most famous literary creation gets the epic treatment in this underrated modern classic. Offering sweep and spectacle but also taking a more realistic and introspective approach than other film versions of the famous series of novels, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes is an unforgettable reinvention of a favorite hero, taking us into the troubled heart of a man in search of his identity.
Facts of the Case
The Earl of Greystoke (Ralph Richardson, in his last film role) is none too pleased when his beloved son decides to take his wife to Africa for a year. But even the Earl could not have foreseen just what would befall the young couple: Their ship is wrecked, and the two are forced to create a makeshift home on the island where they have washed up. The two survivors soon become three when their son is born, but they do not long survive his birth. When the ape Kala, who is still grieving for her own dead child, discovers the human infant, she adopts him for her own. The infant heir of the Greystoke line thus grows up among the apes, believing himself one of them despite the strange whiteness of his skin, for which he is named Tarzan.
As Tarzan grows to maturity, however, he acquires skills unknown to his ape community, such as the use of weapons and the ability to swim. These skills enable him to defeat the malicious ape White Eyes, who has tyrannized over the gentler apes, which include Kala and her mate, Silverbeard. His inquisitive nature, as well as his instinct to defend the underdog, leads him to rescue a wounded Belgian explorer (Ian Holm, Alien, Hamlet), one of the few survivors of an ill-fated British expedition. As Tarzan (Christopher Lambert, Highlander) nurses Captain Phillippe D'Arnot back to health and quickly begins to pick up the ways of humankind, D'Arnot determines to take the Lord of the Apes back to civilization and to his rightful place on the Greystoke estate.
Drawn to his first human friend, Tarzan accompanies D'Arnot back to Britain. Now known by his human name of John Clayton, he is greeted with delight by the elderly Greystoke and welcomed with friendly interest by the Earl's lovely American ward, Jane Porter (Andie MacDowell, Four Weddings and a Funeral). Some of his other new acquaintances, such as Sir Evelyn Blount, greet him with a more clinical interest, considering him a worthy subject of scientific inquiry as well as a potential embarrassment to the fine old house of Greystoke. Tarzan proves to be a quick study, however, and when he and Jane fall in love, his new life would seem to be a great success. But his new environment is no less brutal than the one he knew in the jungle, and a series of tragedies causes him to question whether he will ever really belong in human society—and why he should want to.
If ever a film demanded the label "epic," it's Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. From the very beginning, as the sweeping orchestral overture leads into breathtaking vistas of an active volcano in a mist-veiled jungle, we know this film is not going to take the same lighthearted, even campy approach as earlier versions of Burroughs's novels. Director Hugh Hudson brings some of the same grandeur and epic scope that were evident in his previous film, Chariots of Fire, and under his direction Greystoke stands apart from other interpretations of the Tarzan story. For one thing, it gives substantial screen time to the ape community, establishing the personalities and conflicts therein and Tarzan's place among the apes, helping us to see this world as a fully realized universe rather than simply a training ground for Tarzan's later adventures. Greystoke also looks seriously—even devastatingly—at the conflict of heredity and environment that bedevils our protagonist, or what could be considered the clash between the natural world and civilization. In the tradition of the noble savage of literature, Tarzan must confront the hypocrisy, illogic, and brutality of the human world, the world that he is told he belongs to but which his upbringing has not prepared him for. Tarzan is not innocent of the harsh realities of life; he has known death intimately in the jungle and has been both bringer of death and devastated onlooker in its wake. But only among purportedly civilized folk does he see killing for sport and for display: In one harrowing sequence, the new Earl of Greystoke inaugurates a new museum wing dedicated to natural history, full of glass cases containing dead animals and pieces of dismembered creatures. This kind of collection, of course, represented an admirable interest in scientific knowledge, but its greedy acquisitiveness and cold brutality still take our breath away—as they do Tarzan's.
The emphasis on realism also sets this film apart from other incarnations of Burroughs's series. In their feature commentary, Hudson and associate producer Garth Thomas emphasize their desire to make the film a realistic one, and this results in a substantial change in tone. This interpretation of the story is less heroic, more philosophical, and some of the more incredible or dated elements of the sometimes pulpy source material have been omitted or altered. Decades after Burroughs wrote his books, for example, we can't accept so blithely the purported superiority of the Victorian aristocrat, and this complicates our feelings about the life that is held out to Tarzan in Scotland. As John Clayton, he has wealth, position, privilege, acceptance, and even love—all the advantages civilization could offer—but is still witness to injustice and savagery. Most devastatingly, this world believes itself to be the pinnacle of human achievement. Tarzan's peers pride themselves on their knowledge of Darwin, yet they abuse their place at the top of the food chain by hunting for sport. This depiction of upper-class Edwardian life is a great difference from Burroughs's books, but it acknowledges what we have come to find problematic in the aristocratic lifestyle.
The film crafts Tarzan's story in a deceptively simple way, but small choices add up to significant impact. For example, note Tarzan's progress through languages. His first language is that of the apes; even when he has joined humankind, in private and in moments of deepest emotion this is the language he returns to, the one he uses without thinking. His first human language, which he learns as an adult, is French, and this becomes his instinctive human language: When he meets Jane, for example, he comments on her beauty in French, almost unthinkingly. French isn't good enough, though, for his new surroundings, so he learns English. But even that won't suffice: Jane's beau, comments snidely that soon he will learn to speak "as we do," meaning with an English accent. The superficiality of such language snobbery is breathtaking; this man has already made the leap from ape to human speech, but he won't really fit in until he learns to use the proper accent. Even more ironic is that when Jane gives Tarzan lessons, we see her teaching him Latin—a dead language, of no use for actually communicating with anyone, but part of the expected education of a proper British aristocrat. No wonder Tarzan continues to be baffled by these civilized humans: The further his education in communication progresses, the farther away it moves from direct, practical use. In addition to being intellectually curious, however, Tarzan, is also a good sport and a loyal grandson, never openly questioning these pointless conventions. Or perhaps, even with four languages under his belt, he still can't find a way to fully articulate his situation. The words he does use when he comes to a breaking point strike at the core of his confusion: Mother. Father. Family.
The weight of such philosophical issues would sink a lesser actor, but Christopher Lambert (in his first English-speaking role) brings his conflicted character to utterly convincing life. With little dialogue, Lambert must rely largely on his physical performance to embody Tarzan, and he succeeds magnificently. The lithe, unself-conscious grace of his movements makes us completely believe him as a denizen of the wild; he moves like a jungle cat, with a kind of sinuous strength that's a world away from the bodybuilder Tarzans we've seen before. Lambert may be the first actor to force us to take the character seriously. His intense, deep-set gaze is riveting, conveying a savagery absent from earlier incarnations of the character while also revealing intelligence and sensitivity. Likewise, through expression and posture alone Lambert draws us into Tarzan's moments of anguish and (more rarely) mirth. Without this performance at its core, Greystoke could have easily become another campy jungle adventure. It's a grievous pity that, except for Highlander, none of Lambert's subsequent performances would reach this level. And I wouldn't be a red-blooded female if I didn't note how powerfully sexy a presence Lambert's Tarzan is: I'm hard pressed to think of another film love scene as tantalizingly erotic as the scene in which Tarzan prowls into Jane's bedroom. Lambert effectively reinvents Tarzan in this film, and I'm sure it's no accident that the much more recent Disney character resembles Lambert greatly, especially in his piercing, deep-set blue eyes. The actors who portray Tarzan at younger ages are also excellent, especially Eric Langlois as the adolescent Tarzan, but Lambert makes the role indelibly his.
When it comes to the character of Jane, however, it's a bit trickier to assess performance. As most viewers are probably aware, Andie MacDowell, here making her film debut, had not yet learned to suppress her South Carolina accent, so all of Jane's lines were dubbed in by Glenn Close (who was probably as surprised as anyone else that she would later be called upon to voice Kala, Tarzan's ape mother, for the Disney Tarzan). Thus, what we have on screen is an amalgam of performances by two different actresses, although the combination is quite smooth. Close's cultured tones give Jane poise and patrician bearing, while MacDowell's pure, youthful beauty is just right for the period of the Gibson Girl. Jane emerges as compassionate and openhearted but definitely a hothouse flower; one can't see this girl swinging from vines, which is ultimately the point. Jane seems to represent the best of civilization, but she, like Tarzan, has been marked by her upbringing. It's as difficult to imagine her surviving outside her environment as it is to imagine this Tarzan surviving for long as merely John Clayton.
Two other standout performances among the human characters give the film richness and power: Ian Holm brings great energy to his role as D'Arnot, the fiery, determined mentor who comes to question that his goal for Tarzan is in fact a wise one. Ralph Richardson is touching, funny, and simply wonderful as the old Earl: Taking on some of the doddering mannerisms of Jane's father in the original novel, he provides some gentle comic relief but also stands as a force of love and familial strength. Some of the most remarkable performances, however, are the ape characters. Rick Baker deserves special accolades for the amazing realism and expressiveness of his ape make-up and costumes. Thanks to both Baker's achievement and the skills of the actors, the ape characters show such a range of expression that we come to know them almost as well as Tarzan does: We feel the malevolence of White Eyes and the tenderness of Kala. The actors playing the apes are so utterly convincing in their movements that it's not really that surprising to recall (from an article I read shortly after the film debuted) that the young chimps involved in the filming began to accept the humans in their ape costumes as parent figures. The complexity and realism of these performances, combined with the masterful make-up and costumes, help propel Greystoke to greatness.
Greystoke is a film that was truly made for a widescreen DVD release, and the 2.35:1 aspect ratio does full justice to the awe-inspiring panorama of the jungle scenes. The video quality isn't as sharp as newer films, but that may be the result of the filmmakers' choice to render a lot of the movie in slightly soft focus. Instead of crisp outlines we gain a richness and patina that make this film almost tactile: We can practically feel the humid air of the jungle and the moisture dripping from the leaves. I rejoice to note that no computer-generated images were used in this film, so that the entire film has a concrete quality that makes it more convincing and physically real than many more recent movies with more sophisticated special effects. It wasn't until I listened to the feature commentary that I learned that some of the jungle vistas are glass paintings by Albert Whitlock: Even on a second viewing, these are so convincing that I find it almost impossible to believe I'm not looking at location shots. Colors are true, although blacks are not as deep as one would expect, and the lighting is particularly beautiful; both the golden Scottish sunlight and the green jungle gloom are realistic and evocative. This is a gorgeous-looking film, and the restored transfer, which features a minimum of age defects (such as speckling), shows it off to excellent advantage. The sound has been remixed in Dolby 5.1 surround, and although my entertainment system doesn't support surround, even on my modest television set the separation and clarity were excellent, and the orchestral score came through clearly and powerfully. I imagine that the surround sound would be a particular enhancement to jungle scenes, allowing us to hear the sounds of animals both friendly and hostile all around us.
This DVD restores footage that was cut for the American theatrical release, but some cable broadcasts have evidently aired this restored version, so there may not be any surprises here for some viewers. Among the restored footage are the orchestral overture, a prologue in which we see the death of Kala's chimp, and an extended sequence at the outpost where D'Arnot and Tarzan inquire among the hostile British misfits for passage to England. This release also includes the theatrical trailer, in widescreen, and a feature commentary by director Hugh Hudson and associate producer Garth Thomas. The commentary is often fascinating but deliberate in pace and touched with British reserve: Neither gentleman is ungallant enough to so much as hint when discussing Andie MacDowell's performance that her voice has been dubbed. Nevertheless, there's much to be gleaned here: information about the casting and rehearsal process, intriguing anecdotes about filming in Cameroon (where they employed native pygmies as tribesmen), the skillful methods used to dovetail location shots with the living jungle set, and how the filmmakers worked with wild animals (including maggots). We also learn about Ralph Richardson's passion for motorcycles (and the man was in his '80s!).
Toward the last third of the commentary Hudson and Thomas tend to fall back on describing the onscreen action, but even at these points they often illuminate or clarify scenes. Be sure to hang around until the end of the commentary, when they reveal the original ending for the film and discuss why they made the choice they did. (Although I grieve that this ending is not included on this disc, I'd be very surprised if this footage was saved; Hudson and Thomas don't comment on whether it survives.) It's a shame that Lambert doesn't appear on this commentary as well, but what we do have is substantial. The commentary also discusses the careful selection and use of music, which is another facet of the film that gives it an epic quality: The combination of period compositions (particularly Elgar's first symphony) and John Scott's powerful, majestic original score adds immeasurably to the film's emotional impact.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Readers of the Tarzan novels will instantly note some dramatic differences in the way Greystoke interprets its source material. The changes bolster a new reading of the story, as not a heroic adventure but a tragic meditation on the nature of humanity. Thus, much of the books' humor (some of it quite broad) and the resolution of the romance with Jane have given way to a much more intense scrutiny of the conflict Tarzan undergoes as he tries to acclimate to the new world of humans. Likewise, whereas the books come down heavily on the precedence of heredity over environment, so that Tarzan instinctively acts as a British gentleman would when he encounters the Porters in the jungle, the more modern Tarzan of Greystoke implicitly questions the mores of society and has to find out for himself what is important to him. The answers no longer seem as simple as they did in Burroughs's time, and Greystoke not only acknowledges this fact but builds a powerful theme from it.
Another substantial change from the first of the Tarzan books is that the novel's Tarzan is not acknowledged as the heir of the Greystokes. Instead, Jane's fiancé is believed to be the heir, and Tarzan hides his knowledge of his identity to avoid disenfranchising this amiable young man. Thus, Tarzan's identity is a focus of honor rather than doubt. By showing his peers acknowledging the film Tarzan as John Clayton, Greystoke changes the nature of Tarzan's problem: Instead of being inconvenienced by anonymity, he is pressured by the expectations everyone heaps upon him. Tarzan must question whether he can in fact be the Clayton his newfound family and peers want and expect him to be.
Despite these significant changes to the Burroughs books, I think it's indicative of the power of the Tarzan story that succeeding generations can reshape the source tale to represent the anxieties and standards of their own age. Perhaps each age creates the Tarzan it needs. Tarzan purists may be dismayed at some of the changes, but they work in the service of a powerful film.
If you never thought a Tarzan movie would force you to examine the nature of humanity and identity, Greystoke will open your eyes. Both more modern and more pessimistic than the novels on which it is based, yet deeply moving and thought-provoking, this is an epic film experience that should not be missed. Although it would have been nice to have seen some more goodies included with such a significant film, I'm delighted to see this restored, remastered cut made available, and the commentary is a considerable enhancement to one's appreciation of the film.
Not guilty. Greystoke is a Tarzan for the ages.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Director Hugh Hudson and Associate Producer Garth Thomas
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