In 1886 a shipwreck strands Lady Alice Clayton (Cheryl Campbell) and Lord Jack Clayton (Paul Geoffrey) – a British couple of noble lineage from the Greystoke family – in the wilds of Africa, where her ladyship gives birth to a boy. After the death of his parents, the child is raised by apes.
With the help of zoologist Dr Roger Fouts, director Hugh Hudson filmed the apes so effectively that they don’t even need subtitles. For a fascinating 20 minutes or so, they play and fight and convey absorbing lessons in the politics of primate behaviour.
Admittedly, Hudson cheats just a little by giving the key ape roles to human actors and acrobats dressed in such convincing monkey suits that the disclosure of these impersonations during the closing credits came as a bit of a shock.
Twenty years later, the young man, now known as ‘Tarzan’, rescues a wounded Belgian explorer, Phillippe D’Arnot (Ian Holm) and nurses him back to health.
D’Arnot resolves to take Tarzan back to civilisation and restore him to his rightful place on the Greystoke estate as Lord John Clayton.
Tarzan is reunited with civilisation as the aristocratic heir to his grandfather, the Earl of Greystoke (Ralph Richardson in endearingly eccentric form in his last film role).
Christopher Lambert excels as the feral interloper, awkwardly coming to terms with a new society with its own fair share of barbarism while romancing his grandfather’s American ward, Jane, played by then-newcomer Andie McDowell.
The script explains away his rapid mastery of English by making him a natural mimic able to duplicate instantly and accurately any sound he hears and Lambert’s performance takes this as its starting point, becoming a wonderfully inventive mixture of animal and human mannerisms.
This $33 million epic retelling of the Edgar Rice Burroughs legend is visually lush with some fine acting (including Glenn Close’s dubbing of MacDowell’s voice).
Tarzan (Lord John Clayton)
Earl of Greystoke
Captain Phillippe D’Arnot
Glenn Close (voice)
Lady Alice Clayton
Lord Jack Clayton
Sir Evelyn Blount
Major Jack Downing
Sir Hugh Belcher