Take Two: Tarzan epic 'Greystoke' doesn't hold up as a legend
It is the responsibility of the working film critic not only to see and review as many new releases as possible, but also to constantly revisit films in order to challenge one’s own opinions. Moreover, it is important to review those films as you would any other film, no matter whether you once loved it or hated it. Considering how many movies are constantly available to audiences today, every film should be considered new to someone.
Critics should take it upon themselves to form new opinions of even the most revered movies, and to always remind themselves and their audiences that films do not belong on shelves. They must be seen and shared and constantly re-examined.
My kids have started asking me questions about Tarzan.
Certain characters hold such a permanent place in pop culture that even when there's nothing new in theaters or on TV, the character remains in the mass consciousness somehow. Warner Bros. is betting big on Tarzan again in the very near future, but there hasn't been a significant version of the character since Disney's take on him in 1999. In my house, Tarzan first hit the radar when "John Carter" was released. Toshi was just starting to read, and he asked about the John Carter novels, and that led to Edgar Rice Burroughs in general. We drive every day through Tarzana, which was named for the famous Ape Man, and so it's a word that is constantly in the background for the kids. I'm surprised it took them this long to get interested in the character.
When I think about Film Nerd 2.0 and the films I'm going to show the boys, my first question is always, "Is this appropriate?" Since I've learned that MPAA ratings mean nothing, I will often re-watch a film before I show it to the kids, and in some cases, that viewing has knocked things off the list for them. Most of the time it's because of an idea that I'm not comfortable talking about with them yet, like the Phoebe Cates monologue in "Gremlins" about what had happened to her father. Right now, Allen still believes in Santa Claus, and I'd like to enjoy a few more years with him where that's the case. There's time for that film later.
But sometimes I knock something off the list because I realize I don't want to show them the movie at all. When the kids started asking questions about Tarzan, I pulled out the DVD book where I have a bunch of the old Weissmuller films, and I also dug out my Blu-ray of "Greystoke: The Legend Of Tarzan, Lord Of The Apes," which I have been fond of since I first saw it.
The problem is, that was 31 years ago. And that's the point of this recurring column, "Take Two." For the last 31 years, I have had one opinion of "Greystoke," formed when I was 14 years old, and I've never revisited or challenged that opinion. After all, it was the follow-up to "Chariots Of Fire" from director Hugh Hudson, it featured ape suits by Rick Baker, and it was written by Robert Towne. It's got pedigree to spare, and it was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay.
When I put on "Greystoke" for my recent viewing, I started smiling almost immediately because of the Overture on the front of the film. I love things like that. I have always viewed moviegoing as an event, and Overtures make a film feel special to me. It's a way of settling in and getting ready. In this case, that was the last thing I wholeheartedly enjoyed about the movie, because right away, it is clear that Hudson was the absolute wrong guy for the movie.
It happens. In the case of this film, Hugh Hudson was coming off of the massive worldwide success of "Chariots Of Fire." That can be a defining moment for a filmmaker, and Hudson's certainly not the only one to fumble the follow-up. From the very start, the tone is off. Rick Baker commanded one of the largest teams he's ever used on a film, and it's remarkable work. Each one of the apes was given individual signature characteristics, and since the film takes place over time, they had to create versions that aged. They trained performers to play the apes, and they spent months building the culture of the apes. And all of that work, all of that effort, is for nothing because of how poorly Hudson shot and staged the scenes.
The first forty minutes or so of "Greystoke" are almost impossible to sit through. Hudson famously changed plans at the last moment on several occasions, leaving Rick Baker in the lurch, unable to produce the reaction or performance that Hudson wanted. Watching what is supposed to be one of Tarzan’s first big moments as a lethal creature, Hudson has no sense of how to create a feeling of momentum or impact in the action. He seems confused by what he’s supposed to shoot. The same is true during a big emotional beat when Tarzan’s mother dies. There’s such a naked amount of artifice, the scene shot to reveal every seam on the suit, that it borders on funny. It's embarrassing. And what makes it worse is the way the film's second half tries to lend import and weight to the first half. There’s a contrast that the film tries to establish between the rules of the jungle and the manners of English society, with the jungle proving to be the more civilized. It’s a fine idea for a Tarzan film, but as executed, they do everything but turn directly to the camera and say, “Here’s the theme of this movie, by the way. Listen up.” Because Hudson botches the stuff with the apes so completely, there's no way they become resonant to us once Tarzan is taken away to England.
And what kind of filmmaker shoots an entire movie with an actress only to realize as he's cutting the movie that her entire vocal performance is unacceptable? It's a miracle Andie McDowell survived this film. I think she is an actor of limited range, admittedly, but the idea of using another actor to completely replace her vocals is brutal. Glenn Close's voice at the time was nowhere near as instantly recognizable as it is now, so watching a famous face with a totally different famous voice is an exercise in surrealism.
There are ideas in "Greystoke" that I still like, and you'd have to be a Grinch to be unmoved completely by Ralph Richardson's winning and emotional performance as the Lord Greystoke, delighted and overjoyed to have his grandson discovered and returned to him. But overall, "Greystoke" is a stiff, and I'm hard-pressed now to imagine why 14 year old me fell for it. It's such a dull film, such a tedious experience, and the tone is so somber and straight-faced that it feels like they tried to deny the real pulp roots of the character. I have no idea which version I'll use to introduce the boys to the character, but it certainly won't be this one.
"Greystoke: The Legend Of Tarzan, Lord Of The Apes" is available from Warner Home Video on Blu-ray and DVD.