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Greystoke: The Legend Of Tarzan, Lord Of The Apes

Greystoke: The Legend Of Tarzan, Lord Of The Apes(1984)

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Say what you want about those old Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies, you can't beat them for kitsch value. Their Busch Gardens look is only compounded by intense wrestling matches with rubber anacondas, and Weissmuller's trademark yodel is ready-made to be mocked by shirtless skinny kids the world over. This sort of thing isn't exactly suited to the Masterpiece Theater treatment, so it's not surprising that Hugh Hudson's high-minded Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, now available in a special 20th anniversary edition from Warner Bros. DVD, is a mixed bag at best.

It could be that Weissmuller's iconic take on the character simply overwhelms any new interpretation. Then again, this is a story about a guy who was raised in the jungle by a bunch of monkeys. A certain degree of absurdity is bound to seep in, no matter how reverent the tone.

The story opens in 1885 England. Christopher Lambert eventually plays Tarzan, who, had his mother stayed put rather than journeying to Africa, would have been raised as the grandson of the sixth Earl of Greystoke (Sir Ralph Richardson, having fun with the role.) Instead, there's a shipwreck, and baby Tarzan is born on the Ivory Coast. When Mom and Dad meet an untimely death, Tarzan is quickly adopted by a pack of chimpanzees. After assimilating with the chimps and growing into adulthood ­- simultaneously the silliest and most interesting part of the film - ­ Tarzan finds a badly wounded French explorer (Ian Holm) and nurses him back to health. Then the explorer brings his partially-clad friend with him when he returns to England.

And that's where the real trouble starts. A large chunk of the movie is set in "civilization," where people just don't understand that ape men are best suited to swinging through trees and chasing wild animals, rather than attending swanky social gatherings. Unfortunately, Hudson and his screenwriters ("P.H. Vazak" and Michael Austin) also don't realize it. Let's face it, you watch a Tarzan picture to see a man act like an animal, not to see an animal forced into acting like a man. Genre revisionism is one thing. Ripping the very heart out of a genre, then telling us it's been improved, is quite another.

That said, there are still some pretty good reasons to sit through Greystoke. Hudson lavishes great attention on period detail, and cinematographer John Alcott supplies imagery that, at times, is positively Kubrickian; some of country estate shots seem lifted from Barry Lyndon. Makeup wizard Rick Baker (who specializes in apes) also does superior, if not entirely convincing, work. But the real jolt lies in watching Andie MacDowell, who plays Jane, deliver her dialogue in someone else's voice!

It seems MacDowell, who made her big-screen debut in Greystoke, couldn't shake her southern accent, so the producers enlisted Glenn Close to dub in the proper upper-crust lilt. Unfortunately, nobody bothered to tell MacDowell about this little maneuver, and she was humiliated while watching the premiere with her friends and family.

The other oddball story connected to Greystoke is that screenwriter Robert Towne, who initiated the project and nursed it along for several years, grew so disenchanted with Hudson's treatment of the material, he had his name changed in the credits to that of his dog - P.H. Vazak! Vazak promptly became the only dog ever to be nominated for an Academy Award®, unless you count The Godfather Part III.

The new wide-screen digital transfer, is absolutely gorgeous, and the soundtrack has been remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1. There's also a theatrical trailer, and a decent commentary by Hudson and associate producer Garth Thomas.

For more information about Greystoke, visit Warner Video. To order Greystoke, go to TCM Shopping.

by Paul Tatara