The Spring of '84: Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes -

The Spring of '84

Mania Grade: B+

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  • Starring: Christopher Lambert, Ian Holm, Ralph Richardson, Andie Macdowell, Nigel Davenprot and Paul Geoffrey
  • Written by: Robert Towne and Michael Austin
  • Directed by: Hugh Hudson
  • Studio: Warner Bros
  • Rating: PG
  • Run Time: 135 minutes
  • Series:

The Spring of '84: Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes

"He was my FATHER!!!"

By Rob Vaux     April 01, 2014

© Warner Bros/Robert Trate

 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. 


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SmokingFrog77 4/1/2014 7:22:09 AM

I have to say it's been decades since I saw this movie, but it sounds like my impressions have remained accurate, because you've absolutely nailed how I've always felt about the movie, Rob! :)

DarthoftheDead 4/1/2014 7:42:37 AM

 "You are the Earl of Greystroke!!!!"

Loved this movie then and still love it now.


Iridan 4/1/2014 7:58:32 AM

Haven't seen it in a long time, and I've never read the books. I recall enjoying the scenes back in England as much as the jungle.

monkeyfoot 4/1/2014 8:32:38 AM

I really liked this movie. I hadn't read any of the stories at that time but had seen plenty of the movies. I really liked the way Hudson did this. He made it much different than any other genre movie at the time. All the other movies being done then were playing out the wonderful cards that Spielberg and Lucas laid out for making Bigger Than Life movies. They all had lots of FX and broad characters with big action and humor. That's how you did it then and bless those two for putting out the template that gave us so many great movies.

But Hugh Hudson bucked that trend. He was fresh off of winning Oscars for Chariots of Fire, the story of British athletes in the first modern Olympics. It was artsy and high brow and he decided to do this film in the same style. The assumed style would have been to do Tarzan in an Indiana Jones pulp style but he did Tarzan in an art house movie style. He did a "What if an English lord was really raised by apes?" with all the stately manner of a Masterpiece Theater special. It didn't have lots of high adventure which part of me wanted then but it made a great genre character something high brow/non-genre movie goers who normally looked down their noses at such things take notice.

mellowdoux 4/1/2014 10:13:29 AM

 Chris Lambert has indeed made some less-than-stellar flicks.
I'll always give him credit though, based on this film and the amazing original Highlander.

redhairs99 4/1/2014 10:18:34 AM

Always loved this movie, especially the jungle scenes.  Ian Holm was fantastic as he's tyring to teach Lambert's Tarzan English.  This was always an A, maybe A- in my book.  The minus due in part to finding out that Glenn Close voiced over Andie MacDowell.  I never even thought of it as a kid when I first saw the movie, but discovered in my teen years in the mid-to-late 90s.  I like Andie and I like Glenn Close, but I don't get why you don't just cast someone else in the role if she can't pull off the accent.  

The ape make-up fx from Rick Baker were great as well in fact it was the best of the time period as well.  

Lambert I thought worked for this version.  Making Ian Holm Belgian really helped make Lambert's natural accent fit into the movie even more.

And the late-great Ralph Richardson gave an amazing performance as the elderly Lord Greystoke who looks upon the world with a child's sense of wonder and fun since his grandson has returned.

DarkXid 4/1/2014 12:00:19 PM

 This came out when I was seven.  I was so excited to see it and I thought it sucked once he left the jungle.  So I agree with you there.  I watched it to the bitter end because I was young and dumb.  I could have just turned it off and went to go play but I didn't.

Several years later I was delighted to see that Tarzan had come out of the jungle and was given the lead in Highlander and I was so happy and excited.  A couple of months later I realized that Tarzan was played by Christopher Lambert.  

almostunbiased 4/1/2014 8:53:54 PM

This was a great film.



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