Tuesday, April 11, 2023

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

this is the most pretentious possible Tarzan poster

Watched:  04/10/2023
Format:  HBOmax
Viewing:  First
Director:  Hugh Hudson

I can only imagine what the pitch meeting was for this movie, and I can totally see how it happened.  

In 1981, Hugh Hudson had directed Chariots of Fire, a movie that was a smash hit about pasty British guys running foot races and worrying about religion.  Like, you couldn't escape the movie, which I watched on TV once when I was sick as a kid and immediately erased from my memory.  But it was a big @#$%ing deal when adults went to the cinema.  

I'm sure it's great.  But it was an unlikely hit, and won Best Picture.  Career made for somebody.

So when the director of the footrace movie comes to you and says "we're gonna do Tarzan.  But now it's a prestige costume drama about how Tarzan is, in fact, a very sad ape man.  He is not a super-human living among men, continually pursued by hot women and fighting weird alien threats and large animals.  Instead, he's a kind of skinny French guy who does stuff you've seen apes do at the zoo.  But, you know, it's quite sad" I guess you trust and give that guy a sack of cash to give it a go.

A bunch of other people had seen this movie, and had more or less ape-blocked me from seeing it over the years as every time I said "I've not seen this, but I'd like to" I'd be told "No.  It is not good."  And I was like "okay, fair enough."  But tonight that didn't work, and I settled in for 2 hours and 15 minutes of sad Tarzan.

Look, at the end of the day, someone needed to realize a grown man imitating an ape is not what Tarzan is, exactly.  Or that this would be a good thing to see on screen when it did happen.  I don't know if they thought they were getting the magic on camera by having Christopher Lambert oop every time he felt an emotion, or basically having him play an ape who occasionally mutters short sentences.  Frankly, this Tarzan seems positively ready for an institution, and so it makes for an utterly unbuyable love story between John Greystoke and Jane Porter, but it's the sexy 80's, so you know they're gonna bang.  And, indeed, they do.

I've read the first Tarzan book, seen a few other Tarzan movies and read (and re-read) a Marvel comics adaptation of the first part of the first novel a fair bit, and you kind of realize the quick pitch version of the Greystokes winding up in Africa and their time there before things go sideways is more crucial than this movie thought.  Add in that this movie really, really struggles with whether Tarzan is a feral person or has the astonishing intellect of the Tarzan of the novel in order to hew closer to a very 1980's story about man and nature, man's nature and nurture, and lacking basic reasoning skills in early 20th Century Scotland.

I can maybe get with a "but what if Tarzan really happened?" angle, but you're in a constant state of "yes, but..." regression that more or less flatlines at baby John Clayton dead in the jungle two days after his discovery by Kala.  So you have to maybe accept even more, but more nuanced, absurdities than even the original novel doles out in order to buy the film.  The casting of Lambert is odd, in part because he's not exactly Johnny Weismuller, and it's difficult to believe this guy survived in the jungle against apes and leopards. But it's the fact that when Tarzan is home, he's both utterly alien to himself and the world around him, but no one seems to notice?  As he's all but flinging poo, people are just jabbering away at him.  

What's oddest is that because Lambert is fairly successful at becoming an ape(mentally), it feels as if there's no inner world to Tarzan in some ways.  We have no idea if he understands anything said to him, or the complexity of his predicament.  He self soothes by ooping and rolling around.  It's incredibly weird that the movie doesn't seem to think this is a problem.  Or maybe it's an unsolvable problem?  There's just a peculiar distance between the characters and the viewer, all of them - not just Clayton, that it's a bit odd.  

All of that is, in it's way... kind of passable.  But the movie is also morbidly predictable.  Maybe it's the era, or maybe it's that they treat Tarzan more like a cub in Born Free than a human character, but you know this shit ends with Tarzan seeing his kindly grandfather/ benefactor croaking and the demands of the world becoming too much so he wanders back into the jungle to sweeping orchestral music before our ape man ever leaves the jungle.  You know Jane will stand there impassiveley while Tarzan chooses a swift death in the jungle over endless food, luxury and sex with an actual human.  You know the noble Belgian will try to get him back to the jungle when, frankly, he's probably gonna get killed after living soft for a year.

I am sure this felt mind-blowingly clever as they were making it, but the end result is a sad man making monkey noises for 90 minutes, and then running away.  And that's maybe not what people were thinking of when they showed up to see a Tarzan flick with a budget.   

Jamie mentioned the movie felt weirdly disjointed, and upon review...  yeah.  It kinda was.  The movie can feel like it's borrowing from movies you already know, but doesn't do much with those storylines, so it's like these barely realized vignettes.  Like - the entire storyline of Jane having a suitor goes nowhere and doesn't really do what it's intended to do - ie: show Jane how Tarzan is more noble than the nobleman.  She doesn't see the suitor beat the young helper guy.  She doesn't see Tarzan save the day.  She just dumps the suitor for reasons that are vague (I mean, except wanting to live in a sweet mansion).  That's just an example.  The movie kind of does a lot of this.

It's a shame, because there's maybe a path for a Tarzan movie that tries to ground itself a bit more.  But the 1980's was probably the last decade to tell a story about Tarzan without culture's need to navigate and acknowledge Europe's fuckery in colonial Africa.  I think now you'd need to set the story post WWII or something and be careful.  ERB's original prose isn't quite as racist as you'd expect, but it's certainly a product of its time (ie: it's still racist, just not as nut punchingly straightforwardly racist as other things you'll stumble over).  

I kinda liked the 2016 Tarzan, because (a) the casting was rock solid (b) 3rd reel animal rampage and (c) making Lord Greystoke here anti-Colonial and giving a convincing argument for his desire to return home.  It's got issues, and I wanted more monkey-business, but it was all right.  That said - it was still mostly a reminder:  oh my god.  This is really hard now.

Anyway, I'm glad I finally watched it.  It made excellent use of Andie McDowall's frankly stunning hair.  Rick Baker's ape suits were everything I'd read about.  The set and locations look phenomenal.  There were genuine moments of hope for me that this might be better than expected.    

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