GREYSTOKE: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, LORD OF THE APES
Of all these reconstructions of the Tarzan myth, the most fascinating was Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes here. The project was originally conceived in 1975 by screenwriter Robert Towne, who was riding on the success of his award-winning screenplays for The Last Detail (1973), Chinatown (1974) and Shampoo (1975). For a time, Towne touted Greystoke as his own directorial debut but had the project taken away from him after the flop of his first directorial effort Personal Best (1981). Greystoke remained an on/off project for several years, before being inherited by Hugh Hudson, flush from the runaway success of Chariots of Fire (1981), which won the 1981 Academy Award for Best Picture and had Hudson nominated as Best Director. Robert Towne was not happy with Hugh Hudsons approach and had his name taken off the script, instead substituting the name of his dog P.H. Vazak (only for the script for Greystoke to be nominated for an Oscar). [Alas, Hugh Hudsons career has not fared well following Greystoke he bottomed out with the big flop of Revolution (1986) and has since only made intermittent efforts such as I Dreamed of Africa (2000), his last film to date].
Hugh Hudson and Robert Townes innovation with the Tarzan story was to treat it with absolute seriousness and assiduously avoid any of the pulp adventure aspect of the Edgar Rice Burroughs stories and especially the Johnny Weissmuller films. Out has gone the pidgin English dialogue, the chimpanzee sidekicks, the Janes in leopard-skin bikinis, the creeper-swinging heroism, the cosy mimicry of a nuclear family in treehuts and the constantly recycled adventure plots about greedy explorers, native tribes and lost cities. Back in comes Tarzans aristocratic heritage and the use of the John Clayton name. Indeed, where other Tarzan films focused on adventure and completely excised the aristocratic heritage, Greystoke plays up the aristocratic heritage and minimises the adventure angle. It does seem ironic that a writer like Edgar Rice Burroughs whose prose was crude and unhoned and who was paid by the word could end up with such a reverentially artistic treatment. The film is overlong and slightly ponderous but there is the wonderful sense that it is delving behind the myth, recasting it and elevating it to art. What better honour could ever be afforded for a pulp novelist like Edgar Rice Burroughs?
The film makes a number of changes to the original book. Most peculiarly, we never hear Tarzan referred to as Tarzan throughout. The opening sections are a very accurate copying of the essence of the opening of the book. There are minor differences in that Claytons are shipwrecked rather than stranded after a shipboard mutiny. Subsequently however, we get all the scenes with the building of the treehut, the death of parents, the adoption of the infant Tarzan by the ape mother Kala, his discovery of the childs primer, he picking up the knife and seeing his reflection in a pool, none of which have been depicted on screen since the 1918 Elmo Lincoln film. The principal difference is that the film eliminates the Porter expedition to Africa, which takes up the second half of the book. It does keep the character of DArnot who teaches Tarzan to speak in fact, this is the only appearance of DArnot in any Tarzan film. All the other films pump up the meeting between Tarzan and Jane after the Porter expedition arrives in Africa contrarily, this version moves the meeting with Jane to after the point that DArnot takes Tarzan back to civilisation (something he never visits until the last chapter of the Burroughs book). Her father has been written out of this version and she is now an orphan. The film also incorporates the character of Billings who was introduced in the 1918 film but casts him in a different role.
The first half of the film follows the book very accurately but the second half goes off at a tangent, exploring the way in which Tarzan is brought back to civilisation. We get a whole other story that Edgar Rice Burroughs never conceived about Tarzan encountering polite turn of the century British society. In terms of set dressings, score, the cast assembled top English acting names like Ralph Richardson, James Fox, Ian Holm Greystoke resembles far more of a Merchant Ivory costume drama about the British upper-classes than it does any of the pulp adventure stories of Burroughs or the previous films. Tarzans primitiveness is used to make contrast with aristocratic British society. We see how he becomes both a figure of primitive fascination and equally is condescended to his lack of manners upsets a very formal dinner party, yet at same time he also shows them up, feels grief and upset at seeing animals hunted to be mounted, kept in cages and stands up to defend an intellectually handicapped servant from being beaten. The ultimate message of Greystoke is the same one as in King Kong (1933) that civilisation kills the primal majesty of the Noble Savage. Here we see Tarzan as the limnal being one who is caught between two worlds, reaches the pinnacle of British society (inherits an estate and title) but because of his primitive nature is not at home there and is only truly himself when he returns to the jungle. It also seems to be a story about how Tarzan is at heart a lonely, abandoned orphan wherever he goes and how everyone he meets, from his parents, his ape mother, his grandfather and the ape he befriends in UK, end up dying on him.
The film has some fine casting, something that succeeds in investing the last half with considerable warmth. Greystoke was Christopher Lamberts first English-language film. In the decades since, Lambert has established himself as an action actor of limited range. Here though, there is something appealingly irresistible to his screen presence. He has a freshness and incredible handsomeness and manages to win you over with his charms when he does something as simple as break out into a smile. He has an athleticism rather than a body-builder physique, something that one suspects would have been commended by Edgar Rice Burroughs (who was not happy with the casting of burly Elmo Lincoln in the 1918 film). Andie McDowall is cast as Jane and plays with a regal sensuality. Subsequent to the film, Andie McDowell became a romantic A-list star and what is noticeable about seeing Greystoke in retrospect is that her natural, distinctive Southern accent has been redubbed for an English accent (purportedly by Glenn Close). The scene-stealer of the film is Ralph Richardson in a wonderful performance as the boyishly eccentric Earl. This was Richardsons last performance and he deservedly won an Oscar nomination.
Part of the problem with the earlier adaptations of the Burroughs book is their elimination of Tarzans childhood and starting the story with his meeting with Jane one has always suspected that one of the reasons for this is that because the technology of the period was unable to convincingly portray the apes as characters. Probably the most striking aspect about this film are the ape-suits from Rick Baker, which seem indistinguishable from the real thing. The film goes to extraordinary lengths to be able to portray the apes, both shooting in the Cameroons (making it one of the few Tarzan films to actually go on location in Africa) and employing a primate body-language specialist to get the simian behaviour right.
The other screen adaptations of the Burroughs novel are: Tarzan of the Apes (1918), the silent Elmo Lincoln version; Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), the classic version with Johnny Weissmuller who went onto appear in a further eleven Tarzan films; Tarzan the Ape Man (1959) starring Denny Miller; Tarzan the Ape Man (1981), a softcore version featuring Bo Derek; Tarzan (1999), the Disney animated version; and the motion-captured animated Tarzan (2013) starring Kellan Lutz.