If you've never seen the 1984 production "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes," you may be in a for surprise. It doesn't follow the usual pattern of a Tarzan story. Instead, it follows the book.
The character of Tarzan was created by author Edgar Rice Burroughs for a short story in 1912, followed up by the first of a series of novels, "Tarzan of the Apes," in 1914. "Greystoke" attempts to adhere to the story line of the original Tarzan book, resulting in a movie that isn't so much an action-adventure saga as other Tarzan films have been as it is a straightforward drama. It was, after all, Burroughs' intent in the early days of his Tarzan creation to make more of a sociological statement than a histrionic one, the idea of the Primal Man, the Noble Savage, and all that. He wanted to show how much more civilized so-called primitive nature could be than conventional civilization itself. Later, the Tarzan series developed into the pure adventure stories we know today, a series to which Burroughs contributed some twenty-five novels, selling over 25,000,000 copies.
But whereas most other Tarzan movies concentrate on the later stories of the Ape Man's escapades with sundry evildoers, "Greystoke" concentrates on the origins and evolution of the character himself. It's a different approach and will not satisfy viewers intent on seeing thrilling fights and derring-do. "Greystoke" is a character study, pure and simple; a rather far-fetched character study, I must admit, but about as close to Burroughs' basic intentions as we're likely to see on the big screen.
"Greystoke" is broken up into two parallel stories: Tarzan's upbringing in the jungles of Africa and his return to the more polite society of Great Britain. Part of the fun of the movie is noting that the happiness, hardships, conflicts, enemies, and loved ones he encounters in both realms are largely the same.
The story begins in 1885 when the son and daughter-in-law of the fabulously wealthy Sixth Earl of Greystoke (Sir Ralph Richardson) decide to head out to new climes, where they are soon shipwrecked on the inhospitable West Coast of Africa. They appear to be the only survivors (the captain apparently goes mad and quickly disappears from the scene) and make do as best they can, building a lodging in the trees and living off the land. Within a year or so, the wife has a child (well, at least they weren't completely bored), whom they name John Clayton. But then more disaster befalls them; the wife dies of malaria and the father is attacked and killed by an ape intent on kidnapping the baby. Smart ape; he knew a good series of stories when he saw one.
Young Tarzan, who, incidentally, is never actually called "Tarzan" by anyone in the picture, is raised by the apes, where he discovers that while he might not be as strong as they are, he is smarter. He learns to use tools, like a knife he finds, and by the time he's in his teens, he lords it over his companions.
Anyway, this beginning section of the story lasts about an hour and is quite rousing in its adventure. Then Tarzan (or John or whomever) is "found" by a Belgian explorer, Phillippe D'Arnot (Ian Holm). I'm not sure Tarzan needed to be found, as I'm sure he knew he wasn't lost in the first place, but you know those Europeans. If you're not in Europe, you're obviously lost. So D'Arnot figures out that Tarzan is really the heir to the Greystoke family and fortune because of a locket he's wearing, and he persuades the young man to return home with him.
Jane (Andie MacDowell) doesn't figure into the picture until later; meanwhile, it's D'Arnot who teaches Tarzan to speak, the young primitive having an uncanny knack for mimicking anyone or anything he hears. Once back in England at the enormous Greystoke estate, Tarzan must learn civilized customs and manners, but he finds just as many challenges as he did in the jungle. At least the apes were more polite than a few of the Englishmen he encounters, like Jane's suitor, Lord Charles Esker (James Fox).
Richardson steals the show as the eccentric old grandfather. It was to be one of his last movies, and he went out in grand style. The rest of the acting is mediocre at best but serves the story. Lambert is lithe and athletic rather than brawny or brutish, and he mostly needs only to grunt once in a while. He looks good in the part. MacDowell is radiant, but she hasn't much to do in the film. Fox, as is his wont lately, plays a scoundrel. And I kept imagining Ian Holm with his Belgian accent as Hercule Poirot. (By coincidence, David Suchet is also in the film, who later did play Poirot.) Despite the Holm-Poirot resemblance, Holm presents a good, patient, understanding father figure to the lost boy of the wilderness.
The director is Hugh Hudson, who has a penchant for epic-sized films. A couple of years earlier he did "Chariots of Fire," giving track runners a glamour he here imparts to apes. The cinematography by John Alcott is spectacular and may be the best part of the show. Filmed in Cameroon, Scotland, and England, the landscapes are gorgeous to behold. The screenplay was cowritten by Michael Austin and, surprisingly, by Robert Towne (credited as P.H. Vazak). Towne is the fellow who also gave us "Chinatown," "Shampoo," and "Mission Impossible 1 & 2." The music was composed and conducted by John Scott, owing a good deal to Edward Elgar and Gustav Holst. There's even a musical overture before the film begins. And the primate makeup and costumes were done by Rick Baker, famous for his work on "Star Wars," "An American Werewolf in London," "Men in Black," the most-recent "Planet of the Apes," and practically every other special-effects movie in the past thirty years.
Points of interest (well, to me, anyway): One of Tarzan's first words is "razor," a straight razor, an instrument he has apparently never seen before but quickly learns to use. Yet, it doesn't appear he needs the razor because even though Lambert is clearly a grown man by the time D'Arnot shows up, he is clean shaven. Has he been shaving all this time with the knife he found? If so, why the great surprise at a straight razor? Interestingly, too, while in his youth and early teens Tarzan goes about naked; but by the time he's being played by Lambert, he's wearing a loincloth. Presumably, he's learned modesty from the neighboring tribesmen (or from the movie ratings board).
The second half of the film is all about Tarzan's reactions to the civilized world. It's amusing for a while but doesn't maintain the dramatic tension of the first half. The movie's single greatest weakness, in fact, is its lack of a central conflict beyond Tarzan's amazement at his new surroundings. The whole story is mainly a series of reactions on Tarzan's part to the differing worlds he's engaged in. But, as I said in the beginning, I did enjoy the way the two parts of the movie mirrored one another, both in their agonies and their joys.
The movie ends with a rather goofy, if touching and highly unlikely, incident. It reminds us that this story was written a long time ago and wears its heart on its sleeve. It's a refreshing change of pace.
The picture quality is likely as good as Warner Bros. could make it on DVD. The screen dimensions measure a healthy 2.09:1 anamorphic (enhanced) ratio across a normal television, closely approximating its 2.35:1 theatrical-release size. The bit rate used for the transfer is quite high, ensuring deep, solid colors and few or no shimmering lines. There is also very little grain that wasn't probably in the original print. However, it appears the movie was photographed in a purposely soft, romantic light, so ultimate object definition is not as perfectly sharp as modern technology can make it. In any case, the cinematography is beautiful, and the picture we see is appropriate to the story and its evocation of a proper fairy-tale mood and atmosphere.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 remix comes up reasonably well, but it does not direct a lot of information to the rear channels, nor with the most pinpoint accuracy. The best things the audio does are to spread the sound widely across the front speakers and to add a bit of musical ambiance enhancement to the surrounds. Thunder and rain and a large fire also make their presence felt in the rear or sides of the room, but it is not excessive. Bass, frequency range, and dynamics are adequate for the job, while tonal balance and voices are mostly natural and realistic.
This all-new, twentieth-anniversary transfer is advertised as having material in it not seen in North American theaters. It's about eight minutes longer than the regular theatrical version I saw years ago, but I couldn't tell you where the new material comes in. Perhaps if I had listened through the entire audio commentary by director Hugh Hudson and associate producer Garth Thomas, I would have found out. Besides the few additional minutes and the commentary, the only other bonus items are a widescreen theatrical trailer and a generous thirty-seven scene selections. English and French are the spoken language options (the former in DD 5.1 surround, the latter in DD 1.0 mono); with English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
One of the misfortunes of WB changing from the dreaded snapper case to a more conventional keep case is that unless they include a paper insert, we no longer have a chapter index at hand. For "Greystoke," the studio provided no insert in the box they sent me.
You can take the man out of the wild, but you can't take the wild out of the man. Or something like that is about what Edgar Rice Burroughs had in mind when he first created the Tarzan character. Certainly, "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes," despite its wild and unwieldy title, maintains this message. We all owe our origins to the wilderness of long ago, and perhaps we all long to return. Whether we as "civilized" humans are any better off, any happier, any more content, than our primitive ancestors is still open to question. Well, at least we've got our home theaters and DVDs.