Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan was made in 1984 but feels older than that, partly because Warner Bros. didn’t go out on a limb to clean it up—there’s considerable grain—and partly because of the costuming and the way it was shot. Now it’s being made available through the Archive Collection on Blu-ray, but families beware. This PG movie from the ‘80s is most definitely a PG-13 movie now.
If you have children who would be traumatized by Old Yeller, then they probably wouldn’t want to watch a baby gorilla die, or any number of other gorillas, or people, for that matter. With Greystoke, director Hugh Hudson (Chariots of Fire) stays closer to the original Edgar Rice Burroughs story than anyone else in Hollywood, opting for a naturalistic treatment of a boy being raised by apes. That means we see a very little boy interacting with some pretty mean apes and being as nude as he was when an ape graphically kills the lad’s surviving parent to give his grieving mate a baby to replace her own.
It also means that the boy’s full nudity continues through his early teen years—though the director is careful to shoot mostly from the rear so that only a hint of anything dangling is shown. Still, the violence, nudity and naturalistic treatment will be enough to rule it out as a viable family movie unless the children are in their mid-teens.
Even then, it will probably appeal more to males than females . . . though the second half of the film, when Tarzan (who’s never actually called that in the film) is brought back to England and tries to be civilized, will seem slower to males in the family and more interesting to the females. I’d bet that Hudson found the first half more interesting as well, because he takes his time in the jungle but seems to hurry through the English manor scenes, as if realizing that the movie was starting to sprawl.
Christopher Lambert does a superb job as the long-haired adult John Greystoke, so much so that Disney animators clearly had him in mind when they sanitized the story for their 1999 feature. Andie MacDowell appears as Jane in the second half of Greystoke, but was shocked to see her movie debut later and realize that they had gotten Glenn Close to cover all of her dialogue. Ironically, Close would be tapped by Disney, too, for Tarzan voice work. Other performances of note come from Ralph Richardson, who earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination as Tarzan’s English grandfather, and from Ian Holm, who plays the soldier-explorer rescued by Tarzan—the one who teaches him language and tells him about his human history and relatives.
Although computer generated images have been used in Hollywood since 1973’s Westworld, the filmmakers opted to go with people in ape suits. And while the film received three Oscar nominations, including one for Best Makeup, you can still tell the apes are people in suits, and that will seem a little hokey or comic to some viewers. Same with Howard’s indiscriminate use of live chimpanzees as “babies” or part of the ape clan—there’s no such intermingling in the wild—or an animatronic caged bird that looks as mechanical as the one Mary Poppins sang to in that Disney film. But everything else is so graphic and gritty that such things feel like mere speed bumps for the film’s realism. For all its flaws, Greystoke is still better than the romanticized live-action versions of Tarzan that Hollywood has produced.