August 26, 2014

1984 Blogathon - Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes

Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes

When you look back at the films of 1984, there are a surprising number of household names. Movies like The Karate Kid, Ghostbusters, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom topped the box office, while Amadeus and The Killing Fields took home the awards. Action films hadn’t taken over yet, so the diversity among the major releases was still there. When Todd Liebenow of Forgotten Films chose 1984 for his blogathon, the possibilities seemed endless. The challenge happens if you’re the 100th blogger to join the mix. This left obscure choices that were difficult to find or prestige films that didn’t charm audiences. I ended up with the latter with Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. Director Hugh Hudson was coming off Chariots of Fire and its Best Picture Oscar. The cast included British legends and fresh young faces. What could go wrong?

Andie MacDowell in Greystoke

This story is adapted from the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel and presents a more laid-back take on the title character. John Clayton is still a guy raised by apes, but he isn’t a super human capable of swinging across vines and dominating the jungle. He comes from a wealthy heritage yet is a wild guy born after his parents were marooned in Africa. It’s a gorgeous natural location, but danger lurks around every corner. The ape Kala raises him as her own after losing her infant child. Before discovering a mirror in his parents’ former home, John failed to realize he wasn’t an ape. He returns to England to claim his great status, but it’s clear that the high-brow lifestyle is not for him. The wealthy visitors consider him a curiosity, and he forms a relationship with Jane Porter (Andie MacDowell). The American girl accepts John despite his eccentricities, but that may not be enough to soothe his isolation.

Christopher Lambert in Greystoke

I hate to use such a generic description, but this is a boring film. The high production values and veteran actors aren’t enough. Hudson is a capable director and creates a mood for each location. The challenge is whether it makes us care about John’s story. There are long scenes with no dialogue, and the slow pace gives us a chance to understand his growth. Even so, there’s little dramatic tension. Natives arrive and kill his mom, but the impact is strangely muted. A possible reason is Christopher Lambert, who looks the part yet doesn’t inspire an emotional bond. I’ll admit that it’s a little hard to take him seriously after seeing the many Highlander films, Fortress, and Mortal Kombat. Lambert throws everything into the howls after each successive tragedy, but it all seems a little silly. Everyone plays the material so straight that there’s little joy in the oddball story.

One highlight is the make-up work from Rick Baker and Paul Engelen, who received a well-deserved Oscar nomination. The apes are surprisingly lifelike, which gets pretty eerie when one is carrying around a dead infant. It’s hard to not make them laughable, but it rarely enters that territory. Baker is well-known for his groundbreaking work in An American Werewolf in London and Michael Jackson’s Thriller. He brings that same attention to detail with his work on this project. The apes don’t feel out of place among the human characters, and that’s no easy feat. Their technical achievements help to create a believable world for John and his family. That isn’t enough to make it exciting, however.

Greystoke and make-up by Rick Baker

Despite the production values, Greystoke is a missed opportunity. Andie MacDowell’s voice was dubbed by Glenn Close, and it makes that performance ineffective. She looks the part, but the different voice doesn’t match her actions. The screenplay was originally written by Robert Towne, but he asked to have his name taken off the project when he was removed as director. It’s hard to say how much of his work made it to the final product. Michael Austin (Princess Caraboo) co-wrote the screenplay, and its tonal shifts are jarring. The final scenes with Ralph Richardson’s Sixth Earl of Greystoke are a prime example. His demise comes out of bad melodrama and is a laughable way to deliver an emotional climax. Lambert’s raw emotions afterwards are ruined by the Earl’s silly end. This is one of many head-scratching moments in this movie, which shows promise but never comes together.

This review is a contribution to the Todd Liebenow's 1984 Blogathon at Forgotten Films. You should check out all the posts about the many great films from that year. 

13 comments:

  1. I'll admit I never watched this, though I'm plenty old enough to remember when it came out. The first problem is that a friend of mine saw it and told me exactly what you just said, it's boring. The second, thank my raging early teen hormones for this, I knew it didn't include Bo Derek cavorting about with nothing on like Tarzan, The Ape Man did a couple years earlier. Good review. Don't think I'll ever find myself hunkering down to take this one in.

    Off-topic: a few weeks back Eric @ The Warning Sign passed you the baton on a relay that I started. Just wanted to know if you plan on taking part.

    http://www.thewarningsign.net/2014/07/30/blogathon-ten-iconic-female-movie-characters/

    Thanks.

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    1. Sorry about that. Eric asked me in advance, and then it slipped my mind. I'll work on it tomorrow and take part as soon as I can. You're definitely not missing out with Greystoke.

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    2. My post is all set and will be up tomorrow. Thanks!

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  2. Wow! Well here's the first 1984-a-thon review I found myself in total disagreement with. I'm big on Tarzan movies and I think this is one of the best, not to mention the most unique. It's one of the most faithful interpretations of the Burroughs story and, while certainly not perfect (I remember squirming at Lord Greystoke's weirdly undignified end in the theater), I think there's a lot to recommend it. You mentioned Baker's work which is real genius; I really liked Lambert, and thought Ian Holm was terrific as D'Arnot; shame about MacDowell being dubbed; and I love the music score by John Scott, very lush and majestic and romantic. It's not for everyone, and definitely the first half of the film is stronger than the second--but for Tarzan fans this is nothing less than a must.

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    1. I had read that it was more faithful, and that's cool to see. I'll admit that I'm not a Tarzan expert, so I didn't appreciate the difference between this one and the others. I agree that Ian Holm did a good job, and Lambert was decent. It just didn't grab me, but I can totally understand why it would be important for a Tarzan fan.

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  3. It's been a long time since I've seen this, but I agree with your review. I thought it was beautifully filmed, but it seemed to miss the mark. "Boring" is the work I always use to describe it.

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    1. I think there's potential there, but it just didn't grab me despite some impressive production values. Thanks for stopping by!

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  4. I have never seen this but but I enjoyed reading your review. Had to google why Andie's voice was dubbed over - apparently Glenn Close was being considered for the role but lost out to Andie - then the film makers decided they didn't care for Andie MacDowell's southern drawl. weird.

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    1. It is odd because she was playing an American, but I guess they wanted someone with a more traditional voice. I'm not sure it would have made much difference, but it was an odd choice.

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  5. It's probably been about 20 years since I've seen Greystoke...but my most vivid memories are the apes, which is indeed some brilliant work by Baker. And of course I always remember that Andie MacDowell's voice was dubbed over. I do want to revisit it at some point.

    At least you didn't have to review Bo & John Derek's Tarzan, the Ape Man from a few years earlier.

    Thanks for being a part of the blogathon, Dan.

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    1. No problem! Despite not enjoying the movie, I've been really liking all the different posts on movies from 1984. I've already checked out a bunch of sites that I didn't know. Nice job!

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  6. thanks greystoke, you're the best film ever to receive different names of apes!

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