Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan is one of my husband and in-laws’ favorite movies. I have heard them quote the thing countless times over the years.
You get the idea.
I, however, have only seen it once, and recently I decided to take another look just for the heck of it. Do I like it as much as Dear Hubby and the in-laws? Well…we’ll get to that.
The plot of this 1984 movie is easily summed up. Lord John (Paul Geoffrey) and Lady Alice Clayton (Cheryl Campbell) are shipwrecked off the coast of Africa, where they build a treehouse and try to stick it out until rescue. Alice, who is pregnant, gives birth to John, but then she and Lord John die of malaria.
The baby is raised by a family of apes, and years later when John has grown up, Capitaine Phillippe D’Arnot (Ian Holm) comes up the river looking for him. John isn’t hard to find, seeing as he’s one of the few humans around, but he isn’t as bowled over by the sight of D’Arnot as he could be, since he spends his spare time exploring his parents’ old treehouse and looking through their few surviving effects.
D’Arnot teaches John English (and how to shave, of course), and soon they’re off for civilization, where a gang of sleazy toughs rough up D’Arnot on their first night in an inn, or at least they do until John jumps in and starts kicking butt. He’s nothing if not dramatic, as he sets fire to the place and burns it to the ground.
Back in Scotland, the Sixth Earl of Greystoke (Ralph Richardson) anxiously waits to see his grandson. When John arrives, he’s a little hesitant, but he takes to everything pretty nicely, even if he does drink his soup out of the bowl and break into ape speech now and then. Family friend Jane (Andie MacDowell) is staying at the Earl’s estate, and John takes to her, too. Literally–he sneaks into her bedroom one night on all fours so the two of them can go the way of all flesh. After that, though, the film is a harsh commentary on so-called “civilization,” but it has a lot of redeeming moments.
Greystoke is not a typical Tarzan movie. There are no perfect-looking jungle scenes and perfect-looking animals. The title character isn’t even called Tarzan. There are no warble-y, yodel-y yells (looking at you, Johnny Weissmuller), although there’s quite a bit of vine-swinging in the first half. Tarzan doesn’t look like he’s fresh from a Hollywood barber (looking at you again, Johnny Weissmuller, and every other Tarzan that’s ever been). On the other hand, he is remarkably clean-shaven for a guy who’s never seen a razor before.
The film is considered to be faithful to the source material, and it is, mostly. The Earl of Greystoke was actually English in Burroughs’ original novel, and D’Arnot was a Frenchman. I don’t know why these changes were made; maybe director Hugh Hudson didn’t want to make the English and the French mad, so he let the Scots be the horrible ones.
Or maybe Hudson fell prey to the sophomore slump, as reviews of the time seem to indicate. He was fresh off of Chariots of Fire when he made Greystoke, and it appears that what could have gone wrong with his first feature showed itself in his second. He seemed to be trying to play things safe, featuring actors who had been in Chariots of Fire. There’s Ian Holm, obviously, plus Nicholas Farrell, Cheryl Campbell, and Nigel Davenport. Ian Charleson makes an appearance as well, although his character strays as far from Eric Liddell as possible–in this case he plays a sleazy barfly named Jeffson Brown.
Family loyalty aside, I’m kinda mixed about Greystoke. Its biggest flaw is that from a narrative stanpoint it’s all over the place. A few nips and tucks wouldn’t have hurt it a bit. The scenes of the apes, for instance, could be cut around because they don’t add anything to the story. It’s just Tarzan…errrr, John, running around trading barbs with the apes and the local tribesmen and rather bombastically illustrating his prowess as Lord of the Apes. Roughly half the movie has gone by before D’Arnot comes chugging in. It reminds me of the first time I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey–the scenes with the apes and the monolith seemed to go on…and on…and on.
What I think could have helped the movie would have been to have Ian Holm’s narration running though the whole thing instead of from the first moment we see his character. It not only would have tied both halves of the film together, but it’s one of the most interesting elements. D’Arnot approaches his search for John Clayton like an anthropologist, and it wouldn’t have taken much for him to frame the story.
The acting in the film is its other strength. Christopher Lambert is a lithe, athletic Tarzan who effectively plays into the character’s tortured view of civilization. His John Clayton is clearly a genius, as he not only easily picks up conversational English, but just as easily switches over to French. Christopher Lambert’s first language is French, so it was cool that he was able to bring this dimension to John Clayton.
Oh, and it’s not possible for a human being to roar like a lion without assistance, but John Clayton does it. The dude is really talented.
Meanwhile, the rest of the cast is made up of British actors who couldn’t give a bad performance if they tried. Ralph Richardson is a particular highlight in his last film role; his acceptance and love for his long-lost grandson is heartwarming. And he has one heck of a bittersweet death scene–after an ill-fated attempt at sledding downstairs on a silver serving platter, he dies in John’s arms.
The only actor I really felt sorry for is the wonderful Andie MacDowell. She was apparently unable to shake her Texas accent for her role as Jane, so her voice was dubbed by Glenn Close. Yeah, Glenn Close. Why? In Burrough’s original novel Jane was an American from Baltimore, Maryland, so I don’t know why it was so important to shoehorn Glenn Close’s voice in there. It would have been easier to say Jane was a Texan. And if they were so concerned about accents, why not have an actual British actress dub MacDowell’s voice? It makes absolutely no sense.
Don’t get me wrong, Greystoke is entertaining and it looks terrific, but I think the key is not to take it too seriously. There’s never been another Tarzan film like it, that’s for sure.
A new Reading Rarity is coming on Tuesday, and it’s of a musical nature. Thanks for reading, all…
~Purchases made via Amazon Affiliate links found on this site help support Taking Up Room at no extra cost to you.~
If you’re enjoying what you see on Taking Up Room, please consider supporting the site on Patreon, where you’ll find extra content, behind the scenes tidbits, and exclusive merch for qualified subscribers.