Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes

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Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Hugh Hudson
Produced by Hugh Hudson
Stanley S. Canter
Written 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
Box office $45,858,563

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, while the 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 wife Alice (Cheryl Campbell) set sail and are quickly shipwrecked on the African coast. After John (or 'Jack') builds a home in the trees, Alice gives birth to a son. Soon after, Alice grows delirious and dies. When Lord Clayton finds her recently dead, the tree house is visited by curious gorillas, and John is killed by one of the apes. The female of the group, Kala, carries her dead infant, but upon hearing the cries of the infant human in his crib, she adopts the boy and raises him among the family of Mangani. The little human child thus grows up naked, wild, and free.

At age 5, 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 gorilla 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 and finds a wooden block, with pictures of both a boy and a chimpanzee painted on it. It is there, after seeing himself in a mirror, that the physical difference between him and the rest of his ape family is made more apparent. He later discovers his father's hunting knife and how it works. The objects fascinate the naked ape boy, who carries them with him.

Years pass, and the young man (still naked, but now wearing a belt to hold his hunting knife) becomes the dominant male of the ape group. He protects and shows love toward his adopted mother, father and siblings. He loses his mother (Kala) to a hunting party of natives and kills one of them. He is intensely aggrieved by his mother's death and cannot reconcile this event, wailing and howling forlornly at the sky.

Years later, a Walloon, Philippe D'Arnot (Ian Holm), leads a band of British adventurers along the river, though 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 now half-naked 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 (Floors Castle), 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 is now elderly and has obviously suffered from the loss of his son and daughter-in-law years earlier, displaying eccentric behaviour and sometimes forgetting that John is his grandson, not his son returned.

John is seen 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 behaviour.

Jane teaches John more English, French, and social skills (such as table manners and dancing), and the two become very close, making love one evening in secret.

Lord Greystoke seems to enjoy renewed vigor at the return of his grandson and, reminiscing about his childhood game of using a silver tray as a toboggan on a large 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 his adoptive mother.

Jane helps John through his grief, and the two become engaged. Having inherited the title Earl of Greystoke, John visits the Natural History Museum in South Kensington in London with Jane. During their visit, John is disturbed by the crude displays of stuffed animals. He discovers many caged apes from Africa, including his adoptive ape father, Kerchak.

The two recognise one another, and John breaks open the cage and escapes with Kerchak before releasing other caged animals, pursued by police and museum officials. They make it to a woodland park, but when Kerchak climbs a tree to avoid capture, he is fatally shot and John is devastated to lose yet another loved one, yelling to the crowd, "He was my father!" That night, John, 7th Earl of Greystoke, rides his carriage in circles in front of his country house, howling to the sky and wailing "Father!"

Feeling that he cannot assimilate to the cruel nature of human society, John decides to return to Africa and reunite with his gorilla family. Philippe and Jane escort him back to Africa and to the jungle where Philippe and John first met. There, John changes back into his loincloth, then returns to the world and life 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[citation needed] in his mock-biography Tarzan Alive, 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.

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.[1]

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:[2]

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. Ironically, P.H. Vazak 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 deemed unsuitable for the character, but was not done to provide an English accent for her character as some have held. The young Jane featured at the beginning of the film is portrayed as American, which is consistent with Burroughs.

Both Danny Potts (Tarzan, aged 5) and Eric Langlois (Tarzan, aged 12) were completely nude in all of their scenes.

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.

Several actors from Chariots of Fire (also directed by Hugh Hudson) appear in Greystoke: Ian Charleson, Ian Holm, Cheryl Campbell, Nicholas Farrell, Nigel Davenport, and Richard Griffiths.

Though the name Tarzan is in the film's title, it is not mentioned at all in the film itself. The Ape Man is referred to either as Lord Greystoke or John.


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.[3]


  1. ^ Ellison, Harlan, Harlan Ellison's Watching. Underwood-Miller, 1989.
  2. ^ "Film locations for Greystoke, the Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984)". Retrieved 21 December 2010. 
  3. ^ Hagen, Dan (January 1988). "Neal Gabler". Comics Interview (54) (Fictioneer Books). pp. 61–63. 

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