Making a realistic version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel Tarzan of the Apes would certainly be a daunting task, but before such a task was undertaken one should take into consideration one important question, “Should we be making a realistic version of Tarzan of the Apes?” Since Burroughs first wrote about Tarzan back in 1912 there have been many versions of this iconic character appearing in film but numerous different actors, but in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes we get Academy Award winner director Hugh Hudson giving us a serious dramatic take on the timeless tale. The end results hinges greatly on how much you love the original Burroughs story and on how much you love period dramas.
With a cast consisting of many of Britain’s top actors Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (henceforth I’ll just call Greystoke as the name Tarzan is not uttered once in this movie) is basically very much an Edwardian melodrama that just so happens to have a 73-minute jungle prologue. The film opens with a female ape being chased by a rather angry male ape through the dark jungle of equatorial Africa; there is a struggle and during their altercation, the female ape drops her baby.
In the books, this would be Kala, the ape that would raise Tarzan, and the male ape would have been Kerchak, the ape that Tarzan would eventually wrestle lordship over the apes from, but as these apes are unable to tell us their names only book readers will know that bit of inside information, as it stands, this movie tries its best to give each of the apes’ personalities but they can only get so far without dialogue. That said, Rick Baker’s ape designs and costumes for Greystoke are simply marvellous but if they had started talking I’m betting that audiences of the time would have laughed them off the screen. This is why most Tarzan movies ditch the entire origin story and start their movies with the arrival of Jane. Disney’s 1999 Tarzan film cracked that nut by going the animated route as people are quite accustomed to talking animals if they are cartoons. Now, as years have passed and with the advent of better and more realistic CGI, I’m betting audiences who marvelled at Andy Serkis as Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes would be more than willing to see a proper tribe of Great Apes that Burroughs envisioned.
Koba from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a perfect example of how Kerchak could be done.
The movie then jumps to the Greystoke family’s country estate in the Lowlands of Scotland, where John, Lord Clayton (Paul Geoffrey), the heir to the 6th Earl of Greystoke has decided to head to Africa for some reason or another and is taking his young wife Alice (Cheryl Campbell) along for the adventure. The 6th Earl of Greystoke (Sir Ralph Richardson) is not keen on his son going on such a dangerous journey but his son assures him that they will be all right.
The only survivors of the wreck are John, Alice and Captain Billings (Richard Griffiths), and the despondent Captain abandons them to go “look for help” and they never see him again. Alice gives birth to a healthy baby boy, but she sickens and dies of malaria. John lives but a few minutes longer as the apes invade their jungle home and he is killed. Kala, still carrying around her dead baby, decides to trade up from an infant corpse to the healthy little Greystoke. For the next little while, the movie focuses on young Tarzan (though like I said he is never called Tarzan because the ape’s language is not given to us). He eventually comes across the remains of his parents and their treehouse, and he picks up his mother’s locket and father’s knife. This last gift now gives him an edge in this cruel world. His days are spent trying to keep out of the way of a vicious ape leader who hates him, and off the local wildlife’s menu. His only two allies are his ape mother and ape father, but when his ape father is banished for challenging and failing to take the leadership of the tribe, and Kala is killed by some pygmies, his life takes a dramatic turn.
This movie’s biggest departure from the book is that it completely drops Jane’s arrival in Africa. The movie jumps ahead a few more years and we are introduced to Philippe D’Arnot (Ian Holm), a member of a British zoological expedition who we see travelling upriver to get exhibits for the British Natural History Museum, though D’Arnot is from the book this is not how he arrived. In the book, the first group of white humans Tarzan encounters consists of Jane Porter, her friends and family and a mutinous crew, while D’Arnot is a French Naval Officer sent into the jungle to look for them. In this movie, Jane does not meet Tarzan in the wilds of darkest Africa, instead, they meet later back in Scotland. We still get D’Arnot getting rescued by Tarzan (Christopher Lambert), as he was in the book, and it’s still D’Arnot who teaches Tarzan to speak and brings him back to civilization. He also teaches Tarzan to shave, wait…what?
In the book, Tarzan spent many hours in the home of his dead human parents; learning to read from the picture books they had brought with them, and he used his father’s knife to shave so that he could look more like the men in the pictures. It was all about him trying to find his identity. Once again the movie is hampered by not being able to have the apes or Tarzan speak, instead, Lambert has to do his best to infer all these things and, for a relative acting newcomer to the acting profession, he does a decent enough job. So after bonding with D’Arnot, who has deduced that this ape-man is the son of the missing heir, the two eventually head off to civilization, but not before Tarzan kills the ape leader and becomes Lord of the Apes…for all of five minutes.
Tarzan/John Clayton leaves with D’Arnot to return to civilization, but the ape man’s initial brush with civilization isn’t very promising as their first encounter is with a group of cruel British colonialists that run a small trading outpost. When these Brits don’t believe D’Arnot’s claim that he is a lost member of a British expedition (believing that he is most likely an escaped convict and possibly gay) they decide to beat him. D’Arnot calls for John and the Lord of the Jungle leaps to the rescue and shoves the men aside and sets fire to a British flag. Now I know you’re all asking the same question, “He shoves them, what the hell is up with that?” Because in what crazy universe would Tarzan shove aside any enemy when he could be tossing them around like tenpins? This movie spends way too much of its time trying to assure us that we are watching a serious drama and not a pulp action film, heavy on melodrama, and very light on the adventure. The only kill Tarzan racks up in this movie is the pygmy that speared Kala, he picks that guy up and breaks his back, which I call bullshit on as at that point in the film Tarzan was about twelve years old and not really in “breaking a dude’s back” shape.
Eventually, D’Arnot and John make it back home and he finally gets to meet his flesh and blood family. The travails of jungle-raised John Clayton trying to adapt to the civilized world makes up the second half of Greystoke and if it wasn’t for the splendid actors, led by the amazing Sir Ralph Richardson, this would be hard if not impossible to watch. Richardson received a posthumous Oscar nomination for his part and rightly deserved it as he is the heart of this piece. He plays the Earl as a man tortured by the loss of his son, with maybe a little loss of sanity as well, but he is overjoyed at the chance of seeing his grandson and heir to the Greystoke name. In just the simplest of looks, Richardson conveys more emotion than a dozen other actors on screen, and without him, we’d basically have Tarzan at Downton Abbey. On the flip side of Sir Ralph Richardson, we have Andie MacDowell as Jane Porter. Now, I’m not saying she is a terrible actress but we never get a chance to see her whole performance because all her dialogue was later dubbed over by Glenn Close.
Apparently, her southern US accent was deemed unsuitable for the character, but on the DVD commentary track director Hugh Hudson and associate producer Garth Thomas talk about how amazing Andie MacDowell was and that they fell in love with her look when they saw her on the cover of Vogue, yet they never once mention the fact that all her dialogue was dubbed. I’m guessing they were just too embarrassed to bring it up, whether they regretted the post-dubbing or not, regardless, anytime Jane talks and you hear Glenn Close it’s kind of distracting. The remainder of the film deals with Jane and John falling in love, much to the dismay of Lord Charles Esker (James Fox) who had set his sights on marrying Jane, ad the lovely Jane Porter turns down Esker’s proposal and jumps into bed with John.
When John’s newly found grandfather passes away, due to a crash after sliding down a stairway while riding a dinner tray, he decides to marry Jane, but then a disastrous visit to the British Museum of Natural History wrecks their chance of happiness. While touring the exhibits John wanders off, not being too keen on seeing stuffed and mounted creatures that he once called friends, and while wandering the halls he discovers a room for the study of animal anatomy. Inside that room, he finds an ape body that had been through vivisection, but he also finds a caged living ape who just so happens to be his ape father.
John frees the ape and the two cavort through Hyde Park, swinging through the trees and having a grand old time, that is until the Guard is called out and the ape is shot and killed. As this is the last in a long line of dying “family” members John is understandably a tad upset so he decides to return to Africa, with Jane and D’Arnot accompanying him on the trip, but they only go so far as to watch him disappear into the jungle. This version Jane has no interest in living in a treehouse.
Hugh Hudson shot two endings; one where she goes with John into the jungle and the one that eventually got released, where she just watches him go, but the reason why neither one of these would work is that it kind of makes Jane’s character weak and Tarzan uncaring. In the book, Tarzan follows Jane to America to only find out she is engaged to marry William Clayton, the current Earl of Greystoke (unlike the movie D’Arnot does not figure out who Tarzan is until much later), and instead of claiming his inheritance, Tarzan chooses to conceal his identity and renounce his heritage for the sake of Jane’s happiness. This is a noble self-sacrificing thing, as opposed to the movie version which is basically “Dude got fed up with society and dumps girlfriend to go back and live with old friends” and certainly isn’t very romantic.
I’ll say this, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes is a beautifully shot film but at 135 minutes (143 minutes if you are watching the extended cut) it is currently the longest Tarzan movie but also the dullest – even Bo Derek’s dreadful Tarzan, the Ape Man had the decency to be well under two hours – this film may be chock full of some of the best acting talents the British Empire had to offer but damn does it take itself way too seriously, this is a Tarzan movie, not Sophie’s Choice. Where are the lost cities? Where are Tarzan’s numerous battles with geographically challenged lions? And how can you make a Tarzan movie without an elephant stampede? The only time we see an elephant in this film it’s dead.
I believe that any “Serious and Realistic” version of the Tarzan story was doomed from the start, the source material is from a group of amazing pulp adventures written a hundred years ago and if you try to elevate it beyond the scope of that genre it loses the sense of fun that made the books so entertaining. And I’m sorry but a baby being raised by apes could last maybe two weeks tops before succumbing to one of the endless things that would be trying to kill it, so even the most realistic attempt at the Tarzan story has to swallow that bit of unbelievable bullshit. Which is something you don’t have to worry about if you are doing a fantasy adventure movie. So if any future directors are out there are reading this please, please keep your realism away from my ape-man.
You can find all my Tarzan movie reviews here: Tarzan at the Movies
Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes
Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes is a stunning achievement in location and studio cinematography, but not even a roster of Academy Award winning filmmakers could make this film anything more than an intriguing snooze fest.