The name not spoken

Hard to take cartoon society seriously

Published: Jul 02 2016, 01:01:am

Sunday, May 27, 1984.
GREYSTOKE: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, LORD OF THE APES. Written by P.H. Vazak (Robert Towne) and Michael Austin. Based on the 1912 novel Tarzan of the Apes, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Music by John Scott. Co-produced and directed by Hugh Hudson. Running time: 126 minutes. Mature entertainment with the B.C. Classifier's warning: some violence and nudity.

HUGH HUDSON DESERVES THE benefit of the doubt. From past performance, we can infer that the British director knew what he was doing when he started work on Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes.
    We know that he has talent. In his 1981 debut feature, the multi-Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire, he managed to weave together two separate stories, do justice to a complex of emotions and be visually stunning in the bargain.
    In Greystoke, Hudson again displays a powerful visual sense. The problem here is his narrative.
    Yet another adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs's 1912 jungle novel Tarzan of the Apes, this version began with a Robert Towne screenplay. (Towne hoped to direct the project and, when he lost control of the property, adopted the pseudonym "P.H. Vazak.")
    Reworked by Englishman Michael Austin, Greystoke opens with Lord Jack Clayton (Paul Geoffrey) setting off on a hazardous journey with his wife, Lady Alice (Cheryl Campbell). Shipwrecked off the coast of West Africa, the Claytons set up housekeeping a la the Swiss Family Robinson.
    Time passes. Following the birth of their son, Lady Alice dies. Almost immediately, some local apes invade the Clayton's treehouse and Lord Jack is killed in a fight with a powerful male, identified in the screen credits as Silverbeard (Elliot W. Cane).
    Kala (Alisa Berk), Silverbeard's mate, has just suffered the loss of her own baby. Finding the Clayton's newborn infant, she adopts little Tarzan (Tali McGregor) to raise as her own.
    The director's first challenge is to make us believe in the relationship between the ape mother and human child, and to make it work on an immediate, emotional level. Thanks to makeup-effects expert Rick Baker and a corps of accomplished mimes who convincingly simulate ape-like behaviour, these scenes are intense and involving.
    Tarzan — a name that we never hear spoken in the movie — grows to adolescence (Eric Langlois), and becomes a young man (Christopher Lambert). One day,  he comes upon Captain Phillippe D'Arnot (Ian Holm), a badly wounded survivor of a native attack on an expedition mounted by the British Museum.
    Tarzan nurses the Belgian explorer back to health, and D'Arnot teaches the feral man to speak. Urged to return to Europe, Tarzan hesitates. Finally his curiosity gets the better of him,  at which point . . .
    . . . at which point some maniac seems to have attacked Hudson's film with a meat cleaver. After taking so much trouble to realistically establish the ape man's jungle socialization, the picture lurches forward to John Jr.'s frock-coated arrival at Greystoke Manor, the home of his grandfather, the aged sixth earl (Ralph Richardson).
    There are virtually no scenes recording his vital first contacts with human civilization. The transition from jungle lord to British peer is too sudden.
    Missing are the necessary establishing shots, so essential to our understanding and continued sympathy with the character, a natural creature faced with the subtle savagery of the Edwardian aristocracy.
    At this point, the picture fails. The ripple of audience laughter heard when the night-gowned Jane Porter (Andie MacDowell) soulfully faces her "Johnny," and tells her lady's maid to "leave us now, Iris," is one indication of its failure. The leap from jungle reality to a cartoon English society is just too abrupt to sustain our belief.
    Perhaps Hudson had a depth of vision that was lost in the cutting room. Unfortunately, the crude version on view locally conveys no sense of vision at all.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1984. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: In late June of 1888, John Clayton and his pregnant wife Alice were marooned by mutineers in French Equatorial Africa. According to Tarzan chronicler Phillip Jose Farmer, their child was born four months later. John Clayton III, the future Lord Greystoke, was orphaned one year later. Adopted by the Great Ape Kala, he was raised in the jungle as Tarzan. Literature's most famous feral child, Tarzan was the creation of Chicago-born pulp novelist Edgar Rice Burroughs, the subject of 24 books and the source of his considerable fortune. Originally published in the October 1912 issue of magazine All-Story, Tarzan of the Apes was an immediate success and was reprinted in book form. Among the first best-selling authors to maintain control of his creation across all media, Burroughs made money from Tarzan movies, comic strips and merchandise. There were six novels in print when Elmo Lincoln became the first actor to play the role in the movies (in the 1918 silent Tarzan of the Apes).
    Since then, more than 20 others have bared their chests in some 50 big screen features, an impressive total that has encouraged some sources to declare that the only literary character to have appeared in more movies than Tarzan is Dracula (though fans of Sherlock Holmes make a similar claim). Among the best remembered are Johnny Weismuller, the Olympic swimming gold medalist who took over the role in 1932's Tarzan the Ape Man and its 11 sequels, and Buster Crabbe, another Olympian, whose single outing in the loincloth was in the 12-chapter movie serial Tarzan the Fearless (1933). Other performers for whom playing Tarzan was a career highlight include Lex Barker (five features), Gordon Scott (six) and Ron Ely (57 TV episodes; four theatrical features).
    Tarzan's screen debut came three years after his first appearance in the funny papers. Scripted and drawn by Canadian-born comics legend Hal Foster, 1929's Tarzan is recognized by pop culture historians as the first adventure comic strip as well as the first continuity strip. Over the years, a who's who of the genre's greats have contributed to the strip, a list that includes Burne Hogarth, Dan Barry, Russ Manning, Gil Kane, Mike Grell and Grey Morrow. And it's still out there. On Tuesday (June 28), the Hollywood Reporter noted that "the newspaper strip (ran) until 1972 before switching to reprints on the daily material, with the Sunday strip running all-new stories until 2000 before it, too, became an all-reprint feature." As recent history demonstrates, Hollywood executives prefer reading comics to actual books, so its hardly a stretch to conclude that most Tarzan adaptations owe more to the legacy of Burne than Burroughs. Given the four Harry Potter features to his credit, I've no good reason to believe that English director David Yates's current The Legend of Tarzan will be any different.

See also: Among the many takes on the tale was director John Derek's Jane-friendly 1981 feature Tarzan the Ape Man. Most people remember it as the Bo Derek Tarzan.