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Our review of Greystoke: The Legend Of Tarzan, Lord Of The Apes, published July 14th, 2004, is also available.
The collision of two worlds.
"This is not the world, John. Just the edge of it."
Facts of the Case
When a shipwreck occurs on the shores of 19th Century Africa, a man and his pregnant wife are forced to survive in the wilderness. The woman gives birth to a boy, but both she and her husband perish soon after. Miraculously, the boy is adopted by apes and is raised as one of them. Some twenty years later, the boy has become a man (played by Christopher Lambert, Highlander) and has made himself leader of the apes. It's at this point that he's discovered by British explorers who eventually make the realization that this savage ape-man is actually John Clayton, the grandson of the Earl of Greystoke (Ralph Richardson, Time Bandits). The good-hearted explorer Philippe D'Arnot (Ian Holm, Alien) teaches John how to act like a normal human being, and then returns the young man to the Earl's lavish estate. John is pleased to have the opportunity to bond with his kindly grandfather, and is even more pleased to make the acquaintance of the lovely Jane Porter (Andie MacDowell, Four Weddings and a Funeral). However, it isn't long before John begins to realize that "civilized" society can be even more savage than the jungle.
I have a confession to make: I really don't get the long-lasting appeal of the Tarzan franchise. Why on earth has this character endured to the degree that he has? I suppose there's some basic pulpy appeal in the notion of a man raised by apes coming face-to-face with civilization, but the premise seems as insubstantial as Tarzan's loincloth. Still, that hasn't stopped the movie industry from returning to the character time and time again. Between 1918 and 1970, multiple Tarzan films were released each decade (the Johnny Weissmuller installments of the '30s and '40s being the most well-remembered). The character took a well-deserved rest for the duration of the '70s, but returned in 1981 with Tarzan, the Ape-Man, a truly wretched "erotic" re-imagining of the franchise starring Bo Derek, Miles O'Keefe and Richard Harris. In 1984, Warner Brothers attempted to return to the spirit of Edgar Rice Burroughs' source material with the awkwardly-titled Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. It's about as classy and respectable as a Tarzan movie can possibly be, but it still doesn't quite manage to work all that well.
Over the years, Tarzan had turned into an increasingly silly character. One installment in the '60s found the character as a James Bond-style international man of adventure, while Tarzan, the Ape-Man contains scenes so preposterous that they must be seen to be believed. To its credit, Greystoke makes a valiant attempt at taking the notion of Tarzan's existence as seriously as possible and devotes itself to really exploring the contrast between the complexities of human society and the primal simplicity of Tarzan's life among the apes. Early on, there are some particularly strong wordless sequences that are bound to remind more than a few viewers of the opening section of 2001: A Space Odyssey. While director Hugh Hudson isn't as meticulous or ambitious as Stanley Kubrick (who is?), he turns in some strong stuff throughout much of the film's first half.
The second half of the film (which sees John being brought back to England) is more ambitious and messier than the first. It strives to examine the complications that ensue when John attempts to join traditional human society, but there are a number of problems that keep this section from working. First, large portions of the film were cut in order to get things down to a reasonable running time, and it's during this section that these cuts feel most evident (as the pacing is funky and character relationships aren't as fleshed-out as they ought to be). Secondly, Andie MacDowell (making her big-screen debut) originally delivered her lines with her trademark southern accent, but producers found that distracting. As a result, they decided to hire Glenn Close to dub all of MacDowell's lines. The final effect is even more distracting than simply letting MacDowell sound a bit out-of-place would have been, as the dubbing is very obvious every step of the way. Finally, taking Tarzan out of his element is interesting in theory, but it ultimately dampens the film's vibrancy considerably. There are exceptions, but for the most part, the film only works when it's in the jungle.
The weird MacDowell business aside, the performances are pretty solid under the circumstances. Lambert is sensitive and feral in equal measure as Tarzan, never overacting or allowing any of the film's potentially silly moments to derail him. Ralph Richardson is warm and engaging in his final big-screen performance (he received a posthumous Oscar nomination—largely for sentimental reasons, I imagine, but he's good), while James Fox turns in a typically arch performance as the film's snootiest character. The best piece of acting comes from Ian Holm, who's simply lovely as the Belgian explorer who finds John and takes him back to England.
Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (Blu-ray) has received a surprisingly strong hi-def release courtesy of the fine folks at the Warner Archive Collection. The movie certainly benefits from striking cinematography, and the disc allows viewers to fully appreciate that thanks to its strong detail, impressive depth and nuanced shading. Natural grain is present throughout, giving everything an appealingly filmic look. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is solid enough, sounding particularly strong whenever John Scott's rich, sweeping score kicks in (a welcome reminder that Scott remains one of the most unfairly overlooked composers of his era). Supplements are limited to a technically-minded commentary with director Hugh Hudson and line producer Garth Thomas and a trailer.
Greystoke isn't quite the cinematic classic it clearly strives to be, but at least it's more ambitiously and handsomely-crafted than the vast majority of Tarzan flicks. Still, I can't shake the feeling that the definitive big-screen take on the character has yet to be made. Maybe the 200th time will be the charm?
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Studio: Warner Bros.
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