Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984)

Though a movie should always be judged on its own merits, yet it is impossible to watch a Tarzan movie without comparing it to the novel or other Tarzan movies. In comparing the book with a movie version, there is the question of fidelity to the original story and fidelity to the spirit of the novel, which are not quite the same thing.

In Greystoke:  The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, it appears at first that we may be watching the first Tarzan movie to follow the story of the novel. Minor changes are to be expected, of course. But a jarring major change is when Tarzan (Christopher Lambert) meets Jane (Andie MacDowell). In the novel, she is abducted by an ape and rescued by Tarzan. Though he cannot speak a human language, they fall in love. In this movie, he does not meet Jane until after he has learned speak English and has arrived in England. As for the great ending of the novel, when Tarzan renounces his claim to be Lord Greystoke for the sake of the woman he loves, who has already promised to marry his cousin, forget about it.

But that is not the worst of it, for the real violence is to the spirit of the novel. In the book, Tarzan is the strong, silent type, who manages to maintain his noble bearing even in the jungle. In this movie, Tarzan runs about on all fours, oo-oo-ooing like an ape. As Nietzsche once pointed out, man regards the ape as either a laughing stock or a painful embarrassment, and that is what Tarzan seems to be. This is bad enough while he is in the jungle, but long after he has arrived in England, two hours into the movie, he is still running about on all fours and making silly ape noises.

It might be argued that this is more realistic. It probably is, for the Tarzan of this movie reminds me of the title character in The Wild Child (1970), based on the true story of Victor of Aveyron, a boy who had grown up wild in the forest. But if realism is what you are after, you should watch that movie instead of a movie about Tarzan anyway.

There is a character on the Greystoke estate who is mentally deficient, and he reminds us of Tarzan, emphasizing the fact that much of Tarzan’s behavior strikes us as moronic. Actually, one of the unresolved questions about Victor of Aveyron is whether he was a boy of normal intellect, which was impaired by his growing up without human contact, or whether he had been abandoned by his parents because he was mentally retarded to begin with. This movie almost makes us ask the same question about Tarzan.

In other words, despite having the best production values of any Tarzan movie ever made, it is one of the worst. For all of their shortcomings, the first two Johnny Weissmuller movies remain the best, Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and Tarzan and His Mate (1934).

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