Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984)
written by Robert Towne and Michel Austin
based on the novel Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs
directed by Hugh Hudson
Rating: 3.5 / 4
I often practice a silly mental game – I imagine many film fanatics do – which consists of keeping a tab on the X number of movies that I keep close to my heart (in my case X = 10). Of course, this list changes over time, as recently seen pictures may edge out previously seen stuff. But there’s a particular film that has never left the list, ever since I saw it some thirty years ago: Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of The Apes.
I want to make clear that I said “X number of movies that I keep close to my heart.” It’s not a list of the best films I’ve ever seen – Greystoke is far from perfect. But if you see it, perhaps you’ll agree with me that it not only has great moments, it’s full of unique moments. I don’t think any other films resemble it. In fact, I don’t think any other Tarzan movies do either.
The beginning of the story is well known: At the end of the XIX century, John Clayton (or Lord Greystoke), a rich, young member of the British aristocracy, goes on an expedition to Africa with his wife. The ship shipwrecks close to the coast, in some remote corner of the “black continent.” John and his wife must survive by themselves in the dense tropical jungle, very close to a big community of Great Apes (please… don’t call them monkeys). The couple die soon after having a boy. Then a mother gorilla who has recently lost her baby adopts the human youngling as her own. He grows and eventually becomes the leader of the group… the Lord of the Apes.
In the blogs that comment on the film, this is the part that seems to generate the most controversy. Some think that Tarzan’s upbringing in the jungle is not very credible, and that it goes on for far too long. I completely disagree. Director Hugh Hudson valiantly develops all the necessary details on how a young child might mature into the chief boss of a community where everyone is physically stronger than him (in the real world, chimpanzees are some five times stronger than us, and gorillas even stronger still). It’s an intense thirty minutes of film, even with no dialogue. Tarzan as a boy is a weak outsider in the group, and just like a nerdy schoolboy he must survive by using his advantages (intelligence, manual ability, etc.) before his drawbacks get him killed. It’s a story of learning and social climbing, rivalries and alliances, as dramatic as if it was between humans. However, had it been just between humans, Hudson wouldn’t have been able to do things like:
– The apes (a species invented for the movie, halfway between a chimp and a gorilla) are actors in disguise – dancers, to be precise – that spent weeks practicing the postures and movements of real chimpanzees. You can really see the results onscreen.
– The costumes and makeup were designed by Rick Baker, who would become one of the most respected makeup artists in the world (he’s won seven Oscars so far). Baker had already won an Academy Award for An American Werewolf in London (1981) and had been responsible for Michael Jackson’s amazing transformation in Thriller (1983). But even though what he did for director John Landis in those two projects was spectacular for the era, today the effects seem a little dated. However, the apes in Greystoke still look as real as they did in 1984. Soon after, Baker would surpass himself as an ape specialist in films such as Gorillas in the Mist (1988), Mighty Joe Young (1998), and Planet of the Apes (2001).
– The majority of scenes in this part of the story were really filmed in the African jungle, specifically in the tropical rainforest of the Congo. When we see Tarzan (Christopher Lambert) and other primates swinging from tree to tree, they are indeed doing so.
– The pygmies that act in the film are real pygmies. Yes, members of a tribe of black men of short stature who lived in the jungle and had never acted before, let alone seen a camera before.
– Hudson used a pair of kids to portray Tarzan at ages ten and fifteen. The children did incredibly well in roles that required a lot of physical prowess. It’s a little unfortunate that the director chose to hide their naked bodies, with second-rate techniques like the use of clumsy makeup to cover the buttocks when the boys bend down. But like I said before, the film isn’t perfect.
– And the most important: All the amazingly human behavior that we see enacted by the apes in the film are very similar to what’s been documented in books and documentaries about orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos. The truth is the film was very advanced in this regard. In Greystoke, we see the apes’ abilities in forging and using tools – primatologist Jane Goodall had been making documentaries since the sixties, and by the time the film was produced the general public had a pretty good notion of their skills. But Greystoke also dramatizes the way apes practice the theory of mind (the capacity to put oneself in someone else’s experience, to think what the other is thinking) and compassion, always in difficult equilibrium with survival of the fittest; how they can recognize and love family and friends even after many years have passed, and even their understanding of the concept of death. Yes, all of this is common to both humans and apes. And even though today it’s well known that our closest cousins are really very close, in the 80’s Hudson’s story ran the risk of being misunderstood by the audience.
We don’t know what would happen if a human baby was raised to adulthood by apes. It has never happened and maybe it’s not possible. But in this artful film, it is explained with gripping realism. Science fiction? Absolutely… and the good kind.
In any case, during the first half of Greystoke you feel a strong connection to all the primates (Tarzan included). You care deeply about them and don’t want Tarzan to leave. Deep down you just know this won’t be a good decision, but you also understand that it’s inevitable.
After Tarzan’s upbringing in the jungle, the film shows us his first dramatic encounter with a white man (up to now he’s only had several violent encounters with pygmies), the only survivor of a failed British expedition. It’s the first person that can talk, and also the first to be more physically similar to him. Tarzan saves his life and protects him. But this new friend will make one grave mistake: He will convince Tarzan (now John Clayton) to enter the “civilized” human world. He will convince him to meet his grandpa – the kind father of the young man who years earlier departed to Africa, never to return – and become the new heir Lord Greystoke. From here on out the movie branches off from the novel. Those who expected Greystoke to be a literal adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough’s tale feel disappointed. I don’t know why. I not only never expected a faithful adaptation, I actually like the story better in the film.
Greystoke‘s second half follows the theme of “You can get a man out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the man.” For John it will be difficult to adjust to the refinements of British high society (use cutlery and eat sensible portions… why?). But another interesting theme that is explored is “A society that may seem more ‘refined’ on the surface could indeed be the most savage.” For Tarzan, life in the jungle was brutal, but living beings didn’t kill each other just for fun. His friends and enemies didn’t feign sophistication in public only to turn around and behave cruelly towards the weak in private. More than not being able to assimilate to his new world and take his rightful place in English society, John feels repulsed in having to do so.
But there’s Jane.
Everything has been tragic since he left the jungle. He finds himself in a world whose rules and cruelty he fails to understand. Shortly after meeting him, his human grandfather dies. His ape father also dies in an amazing scene set in the heart of London.
But there’s Jane.
In Greystoke, there are thankfully no scenes of “Me Tarzan, you Jane.” But there’s passion and understanding between a girl educated in the best schools of Europe and a boy raised by apes. The moment when John seduces Jane in bed is erotic, poetic… and ape-like. If the young John Clayton has any doubts about abandoning Britain to go back to the jungle, it’s because of her. There’s nothing for him in his castle. All the money and power he has inherited? He couldn’t care less. But Jane could not survive in the jungle. Who should he be, Lord Greystoke or Lord of the Apes?
The acting is amazing. It’s Christopher Lambert’s first film, and he exudes charisma in a very difficult role. Andi MacDowell, also in her first film, is equally great as a beautiful, sophisticated woman who wants to protect the wild man but is also sexually attracted to him. As usual, Ian Holm gives an immaculate performance as Tarzan’s friend and unwitting source of his tragedies. And Ralph Richardson, as the grandfather who gets his son back through his grandson (“Welcome back, John…”), inspires compassion.
If you like the legend of Tarzan and would like to see it captured on film, this is the one. Even if it’s not completely faithful to the novel, it is unerring in its tone.
Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of The Apes didn’t convince the critics as to its importance in the annals of film history. But I think this is a grave omission. The makers of this film went against the grain, and the result is a magnificent achievement.