Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes

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This article is about the 1984 film. For other cinematic depictions, see Tarzan in film and other non-print media.
Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Hugh Hudson
Produced by Hugh Hudson
Stanley S. Canter
Screenplay by Robert Towne (as P.H. Vazak)
Michael Austin
Based on Tarzan of the Apes
by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Music by Sir Edward Elgar
John Scott
Cinematography John Alcott
Edited by Anne V. Coates
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
  • 30 March 1984 (1984-03-30)
Running time
143 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Budget $30 million[1]
Box office $45.9 million

Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes is a 1984 British film directed by Hugh Hudson and based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' novel Tarzan of the Apes (1912). Christopher Lambert stars as Tarzan (though the name Tarzan is never used in the film's dialogue) and Andie MacDowell as Jane; the cast also includes Ralph Richardson (in his final film appearance), Ian Holm, James Fox, Cheryl Campbell, and Ian Charleson.

The film received a mixed-to-positive critical reception upon its release, with many praising the film as a welcome return of Tarzan to the silver screen after 1981's Tarzan, the Ape Man starring Bo Derek. Greystoke went on to receive three Academy Award nominations at the 57th Academy Awards ceremony for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Richardson, Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, and Best Makeup. It became the first ever Tarzan feature film to be nominated for an Academy Award; the later Disney animated feature film adaptation became the first one to win an Academy Award (Best Original Song for "You'll Be in My Heart").


John, Lord Clayton (Paul Geoffrey), the heir to the 6th Earl of Greystoke, and his pregnant wife Alice (Cheryl Campbell) are shipwrecked on the African coast. John builds a home in the trees, and Alice gives birth to a son. Alice later grows ill from malaria and dies. While John is grieving her, the tree house is visited by curious great apes, and he is killed by one of the apes. One female of the group, Kala, who is carrying her dead infant, hears the cries of the infant human in his crib. She adopts the boy and raises him as a member of the Mangani.

At age five, the boy (Danny Potts) is still trying to fit in with his ape family. When a black panther attacks, he learns how to swim to evade it while another ape is killed.

At age 12, the boy (Eric Langlois) discovers the tree-house in which he lived as a baby with his mother and father. He finds a wooden block, with pictures of both a boy and a chimpanzee painted on it. He sees himself in a mirror and recognizes the physical differences between himself and the rest of his ape family. He also discovers his father's hunting knife and how it works. The objects fascinate the boy, and he takes them with him. One day his mother is killed by a native hunting party, and he kills one of their number in revenge.

Years later, Belgian explorer Philippe d'Arnot (Ian Holm) is traveling with a band of British adventurers along the river. He is disgusted by their boorish nature and love of 'blood and sport'. A band of natives attack the party, killing everyone except Philippe, who is injured and conceals himself in the trees. The young man (Christopher Lambert) finds Philippe and nurses him back to health. D'Arnot discovers that the man is a natural mimic and teaches him to speak rudimentary English. D'Arnot deduces that this man is the son of the late Lord John and Lady Alice of Greystoke and calls the man "Jean" (the French version of John). Jean agrees to return to England with his benefactor and reunite with his human family.

On arrival at Greystoke, the family's country estate in the Lowlands of Scotland, John is welcomed by his grandfather, the 6th Earl of Greystoke (Sir Ralph Richardson), and his ward, a young American woman called Jane (played by Andie MacDowell and voiced by Glenn Close). The Earl still grieves the loss of his son and daughter-in-law years earlier but is very happy to have his grandson home. He displays eccentric behaviour and often confuses John with John's father.

John is treated as a novelty by the local social set, and some of his behaviour is seen as threatening and savage. He befriends a young mentally disabled worker on the estate and in his company relaxes into his natural ape-like behavior. Jane meanwhile teaches John more English, French, and social skills. They become very close and one evening have sex secretly.

Lord Greystoke enjoys renewed vigour at the return of his grandson and, reminiscing about his childhood game of using a silver tray as a toboggan on a flight of stairs in the grand house, decides to relive the old pastime. He crashes at the foot of the stairs and slowly dies, apparently from a head injury, in the arms of his grandson. At his passing, John displays similar emotion and lack of understanding about death as he did in Africa following the death of Kala.

John inherits the title Earl of Greystoke. Jane helps John through his grief, and they become engaged. He is also cheered when his mentor, Philippe, returns. One day he visits the Natural History Museum in London with Jane. During their visit, John is disturbed by the displays of stuffed animals. He discovers many live, caged apes from Africa, including his adoptive father, Kerchak. They recognise each other, and John releases Kerchak and other caged animals. They are pursued by police and museum officials. They reach a woodland park, where Kerchak is fatally shot. John, devastated, yells to the crowd, "He was my father!"

Unable to assimilate to the human society that he views as cruel, John decides to return to Africa and reunite with his ape family. Philippe and Jane escort him back to the jungle where Philippe and John first met. John returns to the world he understands. Jane does not join him, but Philippe expresses his hope that perhaps they may someday be reunited.


Ape puppeteers[edit]


In a departure from most previous Tarzan films, Greystoke returned to Burroughs' original novel for many elements of its plot. It also utilized a number of corrective ideas first put forth by science fiction author Philip José Farmer in his mock-biography Tarzan Alive,[citation needed] most notably Farmer's explanation of how the speech-deprived ape man was later able to acquire language by showing Tarzan to be a natural mimic. According to Burroughs' original concept, the apes who raised Tarzan actually had a rudimentary vocal language, and this is portrayed in the film.

Greystoke rejected the common film portrayal of Tarzan as a simpleton that was established by Johnny Weissmuller's 1930s renditions, reasserting Burroughs' characterisation of an articulate and intelligent human being, not unlike the so-called "new look" films that Sy Weintraub produced in the 1960s.[original research?] The second half of the film departs radically from Burroughs' original story. Tarzan is discovered and brought to Scotland, where he fails to adapt to civilization. His return to the wild (having already succeeded his grandfather as Lord Greystoke) is portrayed as a matter of necessity rather than choice, and he is separated forever from Jane, who "could not have survived" in his world. In his book Harlan Ellison's Watching, Harlan Ellison explains that the film's promotion as "the definitive version" of the Tarzan legend is misleading. He details production and scripting failures which in his opinion contribute to the film's inaccuracy.[further explanation needed][2]

The film was shot in Korup National Park in western Cameroon and in Scotland. Several great houses in the UK were used for the Greystoke family seat:[3]

Screenwriter Robert Towne was slated to direct this film based on his screenplay, but he was sacked following the box-office failure of his directorial debut, Personal Best. Towne retaliated by demanding that the name of his dog (P.H. Vazak) appear in the screen credit for his screenplay; the name received an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay.

The dialogue of Andie MacDowell, who played Jane, was dubbed in post-production by Glenn Close. This was due to MacDowell's southern US accent, apparently[weasel words] deemed unsuitable for the character, but was not done to provide an English accent for her character as some have held.[original research?] The young Jane featured at the beginning of the film is portrayed as American, which is consistent with Burroughs.

Sir Ralph Richardson, who played The 6th Earl of Greystoke, died shortly after filming ended, and he received a posthumous Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. The film was dedicated to his memory.


The film received a mixed-to-positive reaction, scoring a 64% "Fresh" Rating on Rotten Tomatoes, albeit scoring lower with audiences with a score of 60%. Neal Gabler described the film as visually beautiful, but devoid of thematic or intellectual value.[4]





  1. ^ The Secrets Behind That Other Tarzan Movie — The One That Earned a Dog a Screenwriting Oscar Nomination The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved July 3, 2016.
  2. ^ Ellison, Harlan, Harlan Ellison's Watching. Underwood-Miller, 1989.
  3. ^ "Film locations for Greystoke, the Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984)". Retrieved 21 December 2010. 
  4. ^ Hagen, Dan (January 1988). "Neal Gabler". Comics Interview (54). Fictioneer Books. pp. 61–63. 

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