Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes
If there’s a lesson from late-70s to mid-80s Hollywood, it’s the danger of amping up fledgling “auteurs” beyond their stations, with very costly results. First there was the Oscar glory of Michael Cimino, who drove a terminal nail into New Hollywood with his The Deer Hunter follow-up Heaven’s Gate. Later, Roland Joffe would lose a bundle with the pictures he made after The Killing Fields, The Mission and Fatman and Little Boy.
And then there’s the case of Hugh Hudson, an ex-adman like Sir Ridders and also (in relative terms) no spring chicken when he got his first feature. Chariots of Fire was a solid, dependable picture that sprinted its way to Best Picture on the back of an iconic Vangelis score. Five years later, Revolution would pretty much sink Goldcrest and his career. In between was Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, a project Robert Towne had been developing for Warners since the mid-70s. It didn’t entirely tank, but the costs of this attempt to turn Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp into a classy heritage piece were prohibitive. As to its quality, well it could have desperately used some Vangelis – the composer passed, citing lack of inspiration – to jolly along the frequently soporific passages. About the best you can say for it is that it isn’t the 2016 The Legend of Tarzan. Neither is Tarzan, the Ape Man of two years earlier, which probably delivered more bang for its buck (the target, in retrospect, would surely be the kind of reception and gross Disney’s 1999 animated Tarzan mustered).
In contrast to Cimino, whose pictures, whatever their faults, possess a sense of meticulous craftsmanship, Hudson and Joffe tended to summon up highly produced affairs, but dilapidated ones when it came to vision. Both got lucky with their debuts, but they subsequently appeared to be chasing the idea of prestige pictures in a sub-Lean way, rather than having an acute sense of what they wanted to say and how they wanted to say it.
Greystoke features scenes of ape culture and human rearing that seem to go on interminably, as if Hudson has the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey in mind (the ape who kills John Clayton – the recently deceased Paul Geoffrey, of Perceval in Excalibur fame – even attacks him in a manner redolent of the famous slow-motion bone/tool discovery in Kubrick’s epic). The actual ape suits are pretty good, mostly. Sometimes overly obvious, but generally more than adequate for the suspension of disbelief, even nearly 40 years on. However, Hudson lacks the acumen to make this more than skin deep. He lacks action acumen too, for that matter (the fight with White Eyes, during which Tarzan “dramatically” leaps out of the water; any given swinging on vines).
The picture doesn’t really pick up until Ian Holm arrives as Belgian explorer Hercule Poirot – David Suchet is in this actually – d’Arnot, rescued by Tarzan/John Clayton (Christopher Lambert) after savages kill his party (they aren’t cannibals here, per the 1912 Tarzan of the Apes, so I guess that’s something). There are some interesting ideas in this section, as the Belgian and the feral aristo bond while the apes view the interloper with suspicion, along with attempts to capture how Tarzan’s different way of looking at the world would manifest (he grasps the concept of past and present yet rejects the future, which did not exist for him). Less clear is how John is clean shaven when he appears unfamiliar with the concept of personal grooming (you wouldn’t think about it, most probably, except that such a big thing is made of “ray-zor”).
The problem with this conception is that Tarzan remains ever opaque; that’s understandable when he’s an ape man, but there’s precious little additional interiority when he learns the language and is back in Blighty. Pauline Kael noted this in her review – “Tarzan never does use language very expressively” – which acutely summed up the Hudson approach when referencing the occasional long-shot vistas and how “you wonder where is this place and why you never get any closer to it”.
She was biased against it, of course, since Towne had been one of her ’70s darlings: “Towne’s script, which I read, was marvellously detailed; it had sweep and a sense of wonder, and everything fitted together”. Kael opined that Towne’s “conception exists now only in vestigial form” (whereby the boy who develops a dependency on an ape foster mother discovers he is different, and as an adult learns what it is to be human). She identifies the problem of conceit – of Hudson thinking he’s above a pulpy adventure tale, trying to elevate it – but it’s difficult to construe other than that Towne was aiming for something similar. Mostly, though, she sees the director failing because he “uses pieces of the Towne script and leaves out what they’re connected to. He gives us the big scenes without the steps that prepared us for them, and they’re no longer big scenes – they’re flat”.
Hudson claimed Greystoke was “about the loss of innocence and about the evolutionary urge”, with D’Arnot as the serpent. Kael found additional quotes of “how society lives, halfway between the apes and the angels, aspiring to go up yet coming from down there” and “self-discovery, lost innocence, evolution, coming to terms with evil, the use and abuse of the earth, and the delicate balance between our moral and physical beings”.
Burroughs, who is recorded as pro-eugenics, as were many of the era (and many popular writers), dealt with themes of class, race and particularly heredity. This contrasts with the evolution-centric Hudson take, and the criticism of Empire rather than simply class. Nigel Davenport’s Major Downing is your unreconstituted hunter, shooting down apes willy-nilly because they’re there (“Sport and blood, Sir Evelyn”). In this sense, he isn’t so different to the ape who kills Lord Clayton because he feels like it; there’s no morality, there, while Tarzan’s adoptive mother Kala simply takes him because her own is a (dead) rag doll and she needs a replacement. In such survival-of-the-fittest terms, the movie poster, with Tarzan, arms outstretched to signify lordship over his (ape) disciples, could be construed as a coded smear on religious perspectives (evolution triumphs over divine dominion).
To weave any kind of spell here, we need to see Tarzan’s jungle as an appealing place, one where we’re on board when he opts to go back there. But we don’t. The Film Yearbook Volume 3 called it “a pretty empty, pretty overlong, and pretty pretty piece” before citing its thematic similarities to Chariots of Fire: “Again, the message is driven home without a hint of subtlety. And again, the message is duplicitous, whereas on the surface the film appears to be an attack on the strait-laced morality, hypocrisy and general snobbery of the upper classes in England Past, on a deeper level the tone is infused with an awesome nostalgic affection both for tradition (in terms of family, the aristocracy and the nation/Empire) and for the general concept of Innate Superiority. In its own calculating way, indeed, the film is as two-faced as the characters it purports to castigate”.
There’s something to this, although it’s quite difficult to make a heritage picture that isn’t inherently becoming. But Hudson fails to make us despise Britain, even in those terms. Sure, there are rotters like Fox, but Ralph Richardson’s a loveable old duffer, right up until he expires via tea tray surfing. And when Sir Evelyn attempts to impress upon Tarzan his responsibilities – “You are the Earl of Greystoke!” – we can’t but concur he has a point. Because, the occasional patented Lambert cackle aside, there’s nothing to encourage us to warm to this Tarzan. When he gets “dad” Silverbeard killed after releasing him and climbing a tree, our response is less the cruelty of the peerage than what a silly bloody ape man Tarzan is.
On a purely philosophical level, Tarzan returning to the apes should be an affront, however degraded civilisation is. It would be one thing for him to be a glorified zoo keeper, which is what you used to get in the Tarzan movies, but he goes back to living as them, as their leader, and it represents a debasement of his essential self. Perhaps we know that as viewers, and Hudson secretly does too, because it doesn’t feel like a successful choice.
Had this been made three years later, it might well have been Daniel Day Lewis in the title role, and then: kudos all round. I hadn’t realised this was Lambert’s first big movie (I had Subway down as preceding it). From certain angles, he resembles Brendan Fraser in Airheads (who went on, of course, to become George of the Jungle). The problem is less that Christopher fails to anchor the proceedings than that Hudson fails to anchor them to him, to make him a character. So you look to Holm, or Richardson, and scenes like “Porridge with everything”, because they can offer a sense of what’s going on, of perspective. Andie McDowell is no help, dubbed by popular Hollywood female impersonator Glenn Close.
Peter Biskind (in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) told how Beatty had warned Towne, back during its development in the ’70s, that Warner Bros would never let him direct with a prospective budget of $30m. The project was replete with “the usual Towne danger signs. He never finished the script, which ran 240 pages without the last act”. It was a script that was, per Biskind, all about Towne, deep down. Or rather, on some level about the business: “he increasingly sentimentalised innocence, became mesmerised by the theme of innocence and experience, purity and corruption…” (also The Last Detail, Chinatown, Shampoo).
During Preproduction, Towne caught sight of acres of toned female bodies working out for the Olympics and decided he wanted to make Personal Best instead. Warners’ Anthea Sylbert thought this was a good thing, even if Towne was, on the face of things, squealing on the deal. It would be a better bet for studio than Towne in Africa, “with babies, and live chimps, and mechanical chimps”. Subsequently, when Personal Best’s budget ballooned from $7m to $16m, the studio secured the rights to Greystoke – to do with as they wished – in exchange for finishing money. Towne called losing it “the biggest creative regret of my life”, but even if he’d been satisfied, it has to be considered that none of his completed directorial efforts are hugely so.
Greystoke’s an odd film, then. In development for a decade yet scoring a production on the basis of the new British movement, one that tended to be better off with homegrown productions, when it came to the crunch, and not necessarily particularly well placed when transatlantic exchanges occurred (most infamously, such moves spawned David Puttnam’s unfortunate stint as head of Columbia). One might argue it’s at least trying to do something different with the material, much as Ang Lee would with Hulk, but Hudson manages to straightjacket such intentions. Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, reflecting its over-presumptive title, sits there, most of the time, looking for some kind of momentum. For something. Perhaps Chariots of Fire would also have felt that way without Vangelis. Needless to say, a prospective sequel was nixed.