Despite having been born long after Johnny Weissmuller hung up his loin cloth as Tarzan it was always Weissmuller's Tarzan which I remember, a jungle action figure who battled baddies and wrestled animals. As such when I first watched "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes" I wondered what the heck they had done to Tarzan because it was nothing like expected. But then this is a movie which is about the story of how Tarzan came to be, although the name Tarzan is never mentioned in the movie. If you like, this was the "Batman Begins" of its day but with Tarzan aka John Clayton as its focus and like "Batman Begins" it is a long movie almost epic and a movie of two halves.
The first half of "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes" takes us right back to the beginning as we witness an ape lose its baby, dying when it falls from a tree after a row with another ape. This is followed by us going back a further 10 months to Scotland and Lord Clayton and his wife Alice bidding The Sixth Earl of Greystoke goodbye before they go on a year long tropical study. Well I did say that this is a movie which takes us back to the beginning in fact to before Tarzan is even born.
This set up for all sense and purposes shows how illness and a run in with the apes lead to baby Jack, born in the jungle, ending up in the arms of the ape that had lost her own baby, a nice touch. And then we watch as Jack grows from being a baby, a child to a teen and then the young man eventually played by Christopher Lambert. Along the way we discover how being different caused problems as other apes did not like him but it also meant he learnt to use tools and eventually become king of the apes. Now let me tell you this set up which also includes John meeting Capitaine Phillippe D'Arnot who would eventually take him back to Scotland, lasts over an hour and you start wondering whether the story will ever get back to Scotland.
Well the story does take us back to Scotland and rather cleverly mirrors the first half of the movie as his grandfather and his ward Jane warm to John in a very protective manner whilst others fear him impeding on their territory. And of course we have the amusement of having the ape man trying to act all social but still showing his jungle upbringing in the simplest of ways such as drinking soup from a bowl. I am not going to go into anymore detail other than to say what John witnesses as he becomes part of society makes him question who is more barbaric, civilization or the wild apes.
Now the thing is that all of this makes "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes" very different to the adventure movies of Weissmuller and not what many would probably expect. In fact it borders on being a character study as we watch baby John become an ape through his upbringing but then watch how he adapts to civilization with the dual symbolization running through each half. There is still plenty of action and the obligatory scene of Tarzan swinging on vines is a joy but it most certainly never feels like an exciting adventure movie.
The sad thing is that at 143 minutes it does end up feeling long and when you consider the original running time was 180 minutes before being chopped down, a lot has been left out. And you wonder whether some of what has been left out would solve some of the minor flaws when it comes to the movie. There is a scene were Capitaine D'Arnot teaches John the word razor and then shaves his already smooth face, yes it seems that maybe John had already been shaving for some time yet we are forced to ignore this issue. It is the same when it comes to Christopher Lambert taking over the role of John because the actors who played him at younger ages were totally naked yet all of a sudden the grown up John has felt the need to wear a loin cloth, I know you don't expect Lambert to spend the jungle scenes naked but an explanation to his son need for modesty would have been nice. They are minor quibbles but these and a few others stick out and end up bugging you.
What also ends up bugging you is that whilst "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes" was Andie MacDowell's movie debut as Jane it is not MacDowell you hear but Glenn Close providing the voice and watching this movie now it seems so wrong. Aside from that quibble the rest of the performances are good with Christopher Lambert doing a decent job of playing Tarzan/ John being part handsome fish out of water part jungle man. And alongside Lambert there is a lot of talent on show including Ralph Richardson, Ian Holm, James Fox, Nigel Davenport and also Richard Griffiths.
What this all boils down to is that "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes" is not the Tarzan movie I was expecting but still a fascinating one at that as it goes back to the beginning and delivers a story of how Tarzan came to be. The only thing, it is long and requires you to not question everything you see.