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UK/USA 1984
Directed by
Hugh Hudson
135 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2 stars

Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes

Who was the genius who thought that giving B-grade material an A-grade finish was a good idea? It’s rather like buying an expensive Victorian mahogny bookcase to house a collection of pulp novels, say, for instance, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It’s just wrong.  As Robert Towne wrote the original script (which apparently ran to 240 pages!) and was attached as director perhaps in conception Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan was intended to be a very different film but in the hands of Hugh Hudson, coming off the back of a huge hit with his previous film Chariots Of Fire  (1981) with a script credited to Michael Austin (Towne is credited as his dog, P.H. Vazak) it is an unmitigated, borderline laughable, misfire.

Divided into roughly two halves the film tells how in the late eighteenth century, two British aristocrats, the Earl of Greystoke and his wife, survive a shipwreck off the coast of West Africa only to eventually die leaving behind a baby son who is adopted by a chimpanzee who has lost her own baby. The boy lives with as a chimpanzee until he is found by a British expedition and returned to his stately familial home. The second half of the film is given over to describing how the now Earl of Greystoke attempts and fails to adjust to Victorian mores.

God knows what Towne’s script could have been about as the first half of the film amounts to little more than a protracted wordless montage of John’s (he is never referred to as Tarzan) upbringing before Ian Holm as Capitaine Phillippe D'Arnot, befriends him and returns him to the bosom of his family. This amounts to his grandfather, The Sixth Earl of Greystoke (Ralph Richardson) and, making her screen debut, Andie MacDowell as Miss Jane Porter a distant cousin or something (I was never clear what their genealogical relationship was). The second half of the film has more story to it but it is also borderline risible as the script labours the Nature-Good/Civilization-Bad divide and John reverts back to his jungle ways.  

One almost feels sorry for the cast (by this time Ralph Richardson’s grandfather has died) who have to take this rubbish seriously. Ian Holm holds his own quite well as John’s benefactor (and in some unconvincing scenes, language coach) but eventually succumbs to the nonsense whilst Hudson seems to have no idea what to do with Andie MacDowell (whose voice was dubbed by Glenn Close) managing only to pose her decorously amongst the over-stuffed Victorian furnishings and get John Alcott’s camera to drool over her. Christopher Lambert is not a good actor but even he must have smarted under indignity of having to play a quasi-chimp.

For all the money spent on it (the budget was $46m, $7m of which went on chimp costumes) its lavish production design and wide-screen cinematography aside, the film is a half-hearted affair.  As the original print was three hours long perhaps that accounts for the unexplained appearance in the second half of the film of a character, a gimp of some kind, who hovers in the background.  Put simply however, the whole project is ill-conceived.




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