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?
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.
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.
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.