I'm not sure why someone decided to deliver a new version of the Tarzan story as a stodgy period drama, but by God someone did. And not half badly either. Though devoid of the pulp sense of wonder that the character thrives on, the serious-as-a-heart-attack Greystoke manages to distinguish itself from the crowd of fellow Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations solely on the fact that it plays it all completely straight. For the first half -- the half set in the jungle and which most closely adheres to Burroughs' text -- it magnificently blends middlebrow drama with high flown adventure. Then over the last half, it slowly loses its way.
Christopher Lambert makes a surprisingly effective Lord of the Apes, stranded in the jungle when his shipwrecked parents die and raised by a local tribe of chimpanzees to become their eventual leader. Lambert gets a lot of grief because… well, because he's appeared in a ton of shitty movies. But he also understands the value of physicality for an actor, and can convey a great deal without saying a word. That serves Greystoke exceedingly well as it charts his struggle against poachers, hostile tribes and one extremely scary panther. As with the Burroughs' story, he survives because he's smarter than the other members of his tribe, and director Hugh Hudson does quite well in painting the savagery of his world. As long as they stay in the jungle, this Tarzan may be one of the very best versions of the character you’re likely to see.
That doesn't change much when a group of British hunters arrives, led by a Belgian guide (Ian Holm) who alone survives when the party is wiped out by a gang of cranky locals. Tarzan finds him and nurses him back to health. The Belgian responds by convincing him to return to England, where he is the heir apparent to a wealthy estate. There, he meets the ubiquitous Jane (Andie MacDowell, voiced by Glenn Close) and discovers that savagery still exists beneath the veneer of civilization.
It's a potent theme and credit Hudson for trying to follow through on it. The topic clearly fascinated Burroughs and using Tarzan to point out our own lack of "civilization" holds its share of charms. But the later scenes feel too different from the earlier ones, preventing the notion from connecting as strongly as it should. Hudson also finds his way into a few too many cul-de-sacs: trying to cover the grief at losing a family member and the pain of a couple from two different worlds holds a heavier load that the film can hold.
And the attempt to tell this story as serious drama holds its share of dangers too. Greystoke carries little sense of fun or adventure to it, and at times seems to psychotically insist that we keep stern expressions on our faces lest we lose the gravitas of the situation. The tone works, in that it becomes a fairly plausible scenario and it doesn't look like any other Tarzan movie we've ever seen (credit DP John Alcott for some stellar work here). But it also throws at least some of the baby out with the bathwater, and never quite recovers from the misstep.
That leaves the movie more curiosity than masterpiece, despite the impressive filmmakers assembled to make it and a burning desire to follow through on its intriguing concept. The pieces are in place, and in and of themselves they're very interesting. But some vital spark eludes it, some bit of magic that might have connected the dots and brought the whole thing together in an impressive and memorable way. It carries plenty of trivia for film nuts (among other things, it was Sir Ralph Richardson's last film and he earned a posthumous Oscar nomination for his work as Tarzan's grandfather), and it never remains less than respectable. But this story need a little more to come together: some sense of wonder that can turn the character into the icon he is instead of just another inhabitant of Masterpiece Theater. You won't regret seeing it, but it will make you acutely aware of how much more of a movie it was supposed to be.