Thursday, September 22, 2011

"Half Of Me Is The Earl Of Greystoke...The Other Half Is Wild!"

Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes(1984)
Director: Hugh Hudson
Cast: Christopher Lambert, Sir Ralph Richardson, Andie Macdowell, Ian Holm

Sumptuous retelling of the Edgar Rice Burroughs classic is at once, both accurate to it's source and vastly different in approach. While it can't hope to compare to the thrills and eroticism implied in the definitive Tarzan film, Tarzan and his Mate(1934), it does manage to contain an epic scope unlike any version ever made and contains some of the most striking images of any jungle based picture yet seen. It's a shame that the director's original vision, originally three hours long, was shorn by over 40 minutes for release. The film is still epic and involving, but it's apparent that some post-production tampering was evident.

The film begins towards the conclusion of the 19th century, where a couple are shipwrecked on the coast of Africa, where they must try to survive the elements. The woman is pregnant and complications from birth, causes her to die, and the man is slain by a gorilla from a nearby tribe of apes. A female gorilla, who had previously lost her child, takes the couple's child as her own. The human boy becomes a member of the ape tribe and grows to manhood as Tarzan(Christopher Lambert) and quickly becomes master of the jungle, acquiring his father's knife and slaying any number of predators in his midst. His surrogate ape mother is killed by a pygmi tribe and Tarzan revenges himself on the tribesman who killed her, as well as ridding the apes of a vicious elder, who was responsible for the death of his mother's original ape child and who had beaten Tarzan severely growing up.Tarzan(which he is never referred to in the film) is actually the heir to the Lord of Greystoke, a Scottish nobility. A survivor from a botched expedition, Capitaine Phillipe D'Arnott(Ian Holm), is aided by Tarzan, who in return, teaches him english and the ways of man. Holm's character is Belgian, most likely to explain Lambert's french accent. When D'Arnott must return home, Tarzan goes along to view civilization and regain his title. He is rejoined with his grandfather(Sir Ralph Richardson) who warmly accepts him into his home. However, not everyone is as kind to him and he becomes an outcast in this new jungle home. He romances Jane(Andie Macdowell) and after his grandfather passes, takes on the title and estate of Greystoke. Tarzan, actually John Clayton, cannot adapt to society and is disgusted by how the animals from the jungle are put on display in museums in his name. The breaking point arrives when he lets loose his "father", an ape who had raised him, which is shot and killed by police. Tarzan makes his decision to go back to the jungle and Jane and Phillipe see him off, leaving him to disappear into the vastness of the black forest. Sadly, no sequel will follow where Jane ever reunites with her Tarzan. What a shame.

Greystoke is a handsome, lavish production with an epic scope and sense of adventure that allows the story to transcend far beyond the cliches and campy qualities associated with the character. The first half is by far the strongest and most exciting, being the most dramatic and meaningful, but while the second part tends to lag, it does have some good moments. It probably would have been wise to have made this into a trilogy, a tired practice today, but such a story practically demanded it. The scenes in Scotland, while scenic and lovely, are no match for what came before and seem to be of an entirely different film and for some viewers, it will be an uneasy mixture.
Tarzan's battle with identity is subtly handled by Lambert, who is excellent in the title role, but the script does not always support the man's demons as well as they should have, though there are segments that stand out, particularly the deaths. This is a tragic Tarzan, as he witnesses the death of both his human parents as a child and his ape surrogates, who are both murdered by humans. He sadly laments that he came to Scotland to find his family and only found an old man, whom he learns to feel love and affection for, only to lose him as well. Lambert delivers a very physical performance, expressing most of his emotions with his stance and posture and expressive eyes, showing a surprising amount of sensitivity in the part. He is able to be warm and even comical at points, especially in his scenes with Richardson and Holm, and can be violent and imposing in the action scenes in the jungle. Lambert is also great with those imitations. His animal call scene with Macdowell is peculiarly sensual, if that can be believed. His development towards film's conclusion, of being both ape and man, as represented by that great line of dialouge that makes the title of this review, is exceptionally realized. He is one of the great screen Tarzans and it's a pity that he did not portray the character on screen again.

The rest of the cast are all professional and excellent in their respected roles. Ian Holm steals a great portion of the picture as the closest thing to a father that Tarzan knew, being one of the only people who really understands the man, bringing a humanist angle to his characterization that makes him endearing. Macdowell, who is dubbed by Glenn Close(!) is underutilized. She makes a lovely Jane and her love scenes with Lambert are tender and romantic and it's another pity that this area is so unexplored, as the romantic angle was always one of the most winning angles of the story. Richardson is superb in his Oscar nominated part, always a great actor, you can really believe how the man from the jungle could warm up to this man so easily. He adds several touches of humor to his character, even going out on a bitterly comical note in an attempt to recreate a childhood stunt. It's obvious that he admires his grandson and accepts him fullheartedly, making his demise that more tragic for the character and the audience. Sadly, this was also Richardson's last film and this picture was dedicated to him.

Special mention must be made to Rick Baker's superb ape creations, among the most realistic and effective creations ever designed for a movie. Never once would one believe them as anything else, and their believability makes the jungle sequences that much more compelling. Baker manages to infuse life into these creations and they become full blooded characters in themselves.
I've seen several of the Tarzan film adaptations, as well as having read most of the Burroughs novels, and this picture can surely be placed among the essentials in this long-lasting film genre of one of fantasy's most enduring heroes. It's a beautiful looking adaption that works well as an origin story, containing great performances, including one of the great Tarzans, behind only Johnny Weissmuller and Gordon Scott, as well as some of the most exciting and well staged moments of any Tarzan picture. Perhaps, not the definitive adaption that it could have been, but certainly worth watching and not deserving of any of the critical derision that it may have recieved. The only frustrating aspect is how close to a classic this really was.

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