Vintage Cable Box: Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, 1984

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“Listen to me John. How many other white apes have you seen? You’re like me, not them. You have another family, far away, one you have never seen.”

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Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, 1984 (Christopher Lambert), Warner Bros.

To those who cry over the perceived superiority of the White Male Colonialism as personified in Kipling, perhaps the easy mixture of pulp and science fiction and authors as diverse as Leigh Brackett and Mickey Spillane, I would argue the truest manifestation of that mentality is found in the pages of Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of the Tarzan franchise. These stories tell of a “jungle man”; raised from childhood by apes to become their “Lord”, if there could be such a thing. The franchise began in 1912 with Tarzan of the Apes and continued successfully until 1947 with Tarzan and the Foreign Legion. The stories were adapted into several lucrative movie series starring Johnny Wiessmeller, Buster Crabbe, and Herman Brix. The franchise enjoyed success in different formats including radio, television, and a couple of stage performances.

In 1981, Miles O’Keeffe portrayed the bare-chested “white ape” in John and Bo Derek’s Tarzan, the Ape Man, which seemed nothing more than a convenient excuse to have Bo wander about a jungle expanse either draped in wet shirts or topless.  The poster for the movie is an illustration of a half-naked Bo swinging on a vine.  Tarzan, the Ape Man was designed to be a fun, exploitation movie, but it was savaged by critics at the time for taking Burroughs’ exploitative source materal and making an exploitation movie with it.  How dare they?  A year later, work would begin on what the film’s producers would foolishly term, “the definitive adaptation” of Burroughs’ character.  Enter Robert Towne, who had been commissioned to write and direct the film.  Towne claimed he was fired from directing because of the financial failure of his interesting Personal Best, but I find his protestation dubious given his impetuous and destructive nature at the time.

Director Hugh Hudson was old-hat at English parlor drama; fresh from collecting Academy Awards for Chariots of Fire, Hudson would later direct the dreadful Revolution with Al Pacino. As a director, he has an unerring capacity for taking exciting, action-oriented source material and just completely draining the life out of it. He’s no slouch here. We have the orphaned child of privileged whites adopted by apes, elevated to god-hood, it seems because of his ability to walk upright and not drown when thrown into water. The child is a gifted mimic, learns their language and mannerisms, and provides food and protection. When a massacre leaves Belgian explorer Phillippe d’Arnot (an excellent Ian Holm) the lone survivor, he is rescued by John, the lonely Jungle Man (quasi-simian, soon-to-be immortal Christopher Lambert) and nursed back to health as d’Arnot puts the pieces together and tries to educate John on his privileged background. As such, in later scenes, d’Arnot is the only man John truly trusts and regards as family.

Phillippe d’Arnot brings John back to civilization, where he is tutored, dressed, fed, and fussed-over by the stuffy upper-class twits of his royal family.  He is thrown into the middle of ridiculous squabbles over descendancy and tutilege while romancing stuck-up hottie Jane (Andie MacDowell with Glenn Close’s affected vocals subbing for her obvious American Bad-Assery).  A later scene has John visiting a museum where he is horrified to see the treatment of his friend-animals, which, in my mind, recalls a similar scene in the Planet of the Apes television series, where ape leader Urko spots an ancient poster in a caved-in subway station depicting apes imprisoned in zoos. He really starts flinging it when his adopted ape father and family is captured and put on exhibition.  He frees his ape brethren and his “father” is gunned down after he sets up housekeeping in a tree with John.  Finally getting it through their heads that this particular white man is a fish out of water when he’s not picking nits off of other creatures, Phillippe and Jane decide to take him home where he doesn’t have to wear pants.

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It sounds silly on paper, but despite the obvious artifice, Greystoke is great fun in between leaner moments of British neuroses and inbred stuttering.  Lambert is effective when he does not speak.  His low forehead and static gaze at the prospect of “civilization” reinforces the idea that his apes are all that resemble true nobility and that the white man is the real savage, yet it avoids the preachy qualities filmmakers embrace making movies today.  Towne, suffering the sting of his dismissal from the project, credited the script to his dog, pretentiously named P.H. Vazak.  His dog received an Academy Award nomination (to my knowledge, the only time) for best adapted screenplay, along with Sir Ralph Richardson, who died shortly after filming was completed.  Rick Baker’s ape makeup is truly stunning.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

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