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Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes
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Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes

The big-budget, elaborate production Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) found its way to the screen only after an extended pre-production period which saw a studio take control of a highly-regarded script which had become legendary among Hollywood insiders. The studio in question, Warner Bros., turned the project over to a then-hot director who amplified the pretentions of the script; the resulting film, though containing some remarkable individual scenes, photography and performances, pleased few. Particularly dismayed were fans of the writing of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan and one of the most popular writers of pulp fiction in the early 20th Century. As a key indicator of the non-pulpy and even lofty pretentions of Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, it should be noted that the word "Tarzan" is never once uttered during the film.

Greystoke began as the dream project of famed screenwriter Robert Towne. He had come up through the informal "Roger Corman School" of filmmaking, writing and/or acting in several Corman productions ranging in quality from the slapdash Puerto Rican-filmed quickie Last Woman on Earth (1960) to the stylish and widely praised Poe adaptation The Tomb of Ligeia (1964). Towne would later pen such iconic 1970s screenplays as The Last Detail (1973), Chinatown (1974), and Shampoo (1975) in addition to being one of the most in-demand "script doctors" of the 1970s. His intent with Greystoke was to fashion the definitive Tarzan picture, ingeniously told largely from the point-of-view of the apes. Towne was known to have been working on the script even before Chinatown was finished, and had been thinking about it for years even before that. By 1977 the property was officially in pre-production at Warner Bros. with Towne directing, and he and his proposed director of photography, Michael Chapman, scouted locations in Africa.

Peter Biskind, in the scathing but well-researched bestseller Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, wrote that Towne had been warned by his friend Warren Beatty that the studio would never entrust a $30 million project to a first-time director. Yet, it seemed as if they would, in spite of the fact that Towne's script ran to 240 pages and he could never seem to finish writing the last act. In 1980, Towne was completely distracted by another project, but Warner Bros. felt that this smaller project would provide the writer with directing experience before he tackled the larger jungle epic. Unfortunately for Towne, Personal Best (1982), the "small" $7 million picture dealing with female Olympic hopefuls, had gone wildly over schedule and over budget - to $16 million. Towne had been held responsible for the overage, and according to Biskind he sold the Greystoke script outright to Warner Bros. in order to finish Personal Best; (in typical Hollywood fashion, accounts vary and afterward lawsuits flew between Towne, producer David Geffen, and the studio over the particulars).

Warner Bros. gave Towne's script to British director Hugh Hudson, who had helmed Chariots of Fire (1981) to a Best Picture Oscar®. In turn, Hudson brought on scriptwriter Michael Austin (The Shout [1978]) for a major rewrite. The new script retained much the original's approach to the society of apes that raise the orphaned Tarzan, but greatly elaborates on the manor house settings of the elder Greystoke family; the non-jungle scenes end up comprising more than half of the final film. (Famously, Towne had his name taken off the credits and replaced with the name of his pet sheepdog). Hudson assembled a stellar cast, including Sir Ralph Richardson as the Sixth Earl of Greystoke (it would be Richardson's last film and he won a posthumous Oscar® nomination as Best Supporting Actor); Ian Holm as D'Arnot, the Belgian explorer who discovers the ape man; and model Andie MacDowell as Miss Jane Porter (MacDowell's Southern accent was hidden beneath uncredited dubbing by Glenn Close). As the adult Tarzan, Christopher Lambert turns in a sensitive, yet athletic and versatile performance; most actors previously cast in the famous role occupied it for a series of films and it is a shame that Lambert was not able to reprise it himself.

Director Hudson also elicited superior performances from the many apes on view in Greystoke, all of whom (except for a few baby chimps) were played by humans. Early on in preproduction, it was decided to have actors play the ape society because of the many specific actions required, as well as for safety concerns. American makeup artist Rick Baker was the logical choice to realize the many apes required. Baker had created any number of werewolves, aliens, melting men, and old-age makeups for movies since the early 1970s, and his previous ape-related jobs included Schlock (1973), Dino De Laurentiis' King Kong (1976), and the incredibly expressive "Sidney" in The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981). For Greystoke, Baker relocated to England for a year, setting up his workshop in Stage 5 of the EMI Elstree Studios. With a fifty-person crew, along with another forty wigmakers, Baker's workshop became an ape-suit factory able to turn out numerous finished suits in assembly-line fashion, each taking about eight weeks total. The suits were far from identical, however, because the requirements of the script dictated that several of the apes had to be distinguishable as characters, and, in a few cases, even age over time. Baker said (in Cinefex magazine, issue 16 - April 1984), "We went for a fictitious kind of ape - not a chimp and not a gorilla, but some lean more in one direction or the other. That's what was fun. I could draw what I liked from different apes and combine them according to what seemed to fit the character. Kala, Tarzan's ape-mother, is more like a chimp, though her ears are smaller. White Eyes, a mean one, is closer to a gorilla. Figs, a big fat one, has a lot of orang in him."

While the Baker team was busy manufacturing ape suits, another group of athletically-inclined actors, gymnasts, and circus performers trained eight hours a day for several months to play the apes. Stage 7 at Elstree was their workout gym with ramps, mock trees and limbs, and nets for falls. Peter Elliott choreographed all of the ape movements, and also played "Silverbeard" - one of the key simian roles of the film. The ape suits were so thorough, the actors had arm extensions that could be adapted for walking, hanging, or grasping as the scene required. Baker said, "Even locked, the arm extensions looked a lot better than if they weren't wearing any, because they forced the actors to walk like an ape. Plus, they could even hang from them. We had a metal armature at the fingers that could hook around tree limbs so they could actually support their own weight."

The final budget for Greystoke reached an enormous $46 million, roughly $7 million of which was taken up by the ape makeup and effects alone. Hudson turned in a cut of the film that ran to three hours, and Warner Bros. had originally intended to release it as their prime Christmastime offering of 1983. The studio held four previews and the audience reaction caused a delay as the film was held back for drastic recutting. Shortened by more than forty minutes, the film was finally released in March of 1984. Most critics were less than kind. In New York Magazine, David Denby writes that "One comes out of Greystoke oohing and aahing over the photography because there's little else to get excited about. The director, Hugh Hudson, is a great setter-up of shots, but he can't produce a complete sequence that has dramatic rhythm or even simple continuity...This Tarzan movie is informed by stern anthropological-zoological seriousness. The higher primate prevails in a bloody Darwinian struggle in the jungle; then, transported to society, he suffers the humiliations of civilization. Miserable everywhere, his existence is tragic - apes and men keep dying in his arms." Pauline Kael complained that "The director Hugh Hudson brings his unique mixture of pomposity and ineptitude to this expensively mounted version of the Edgar Rice Burroughs material...In the film's second half, Hudson twists the story into knots in order to deliver his 'statement' that apes are more civilized than people; the movie simply loses its mind, and dribbles to a pathetically indecisive conclusion."

Meanwhile, Vincent Canby of the New York Times offered one of the few positive reviews, calling the film "the season's most unexpected, most invigorating surprise," and "unusually intelligent and serious entertainment." Canby contradicts the majority opinion when he asserts that "...there's not a dull moment in the film. However, there are indications at times that the original footage has been truncated, which sometimes results in major scenes being played without a proper buildup. These aren't reservations, but observations. Greystoke is one of the most thoroughly enjoyable films of its kind I've ever seen." At Time magazine, Richard Schickel also touted the film, saying "...much of Greystoke is very good, a tender, thoughtful and pictorially beautiful working out of the themes that were implicit in Edgar Rice Burroughs' original conception..." Schickel goes on to misrepresent the intentions of Burroughs, stating that the pulp writer had on his mind "...nothing less than the creation of a mythic figure who would encapsulate the Edwardian age's anguish over the way the virtues of the primitive life were being trampled by the irresistible march of industrialism and imperialism."

Michael Mayo, in the genre magazine Cinefantastique had the harshest words for the film, calling it "...one of the most inept, dull, witless and dismal genre productions to come out in a long time; a veritable Heaven's Gate [1980] of fantasy/adventure films, gutted of its fantasy and with precious little adventure left." Mayo points out that "the Tarzan books weren't meant to be explorations of modern angst or alienation; Burroughs' Tarzan never once doubts himself or the superiority of the jungle and its codes to man's civilization." The ending of Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes hinted strongly that the story would continue, but unlike most previous filmed takes on the character, there would be no follow-ups for this Tarzan.

Producer: Stanley S. Canter, Hugh Hudson
Director: Hugh Hudson
Screenplay: P.H. Vazak, Michael Austin (writers); Edgar Rice Burroughs (novel)
Cinematography: John Alcott
Art Direction: Norman Dorme, Simon Holland
Music: John Scott
Film Editing: Anne V. Coates
Cast: Ralph Richardson (The Sixth Earl of Greystoke), Ian Holm (Capitaine Phillippe D'Arnot), James Fox (Lord Charles Esker), Christopher Lambert (John Clayton/Tarzan, Lord of the Apes), Andie MacDowell (Miss Jane Porter), Cheryl Campbell (Lady Alice Clayton), Ian Charleson (Jeffson Brown), Nigel Davenport (Major Jack Downing), Nicholas Farrell (Sir Hugh Belcher), Paul Geoffrey (Lord John 'Jack' Clayton)
C-137m.

by John M. Miller

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