GREYSTOKE: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, LORD OF THE APES (1984)
Christopher Lambert first appeared on the big screen in a loin cloth, swinging into audiences' hearts as Tarzan, lord of the apes. Since then he has enjoyed a successful 25 year career as actor, producer and occasional thunder god. Although he counts himself among the star's many fans, John has actually only seen a handful of Lambert's more popular movies (the Highlanders, basically) and therefore made the questionable decision to embark on the ambitious and possibly pointless task of seeing all the French-American's films from Greystoke on. That's over forty films, but John isn't sweating it. It's time for a new kind of magic. Nothing in the world has prepared you for this. John is building a fortress for the ultimate takeover... your mind! This is his own personal
LAMBERATHON: AN INTRODUCTION
Get out your loincloths and headbands everybody, cuz goddamn if it hasn't been 25 years since Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes hit the screens. This might not seem like a particularly illustrious anniversary (especially if you've seen the movie recently) but what some cinephiles have taken for granted is that we've all been blessed with twenty-five solid years of César-award winning actor Christophe Guy Denis Lambert.
It was upon reflection of this cinematic milestone that I realized I actually haven't seen that many of Mr. Lambert's movies. I've seen the Highlanders of course, and though they range from good to terrible to slightly acceptable back to terrible again they're pretty fun to watch and I've seen the first one quite a few times. But besides those films and Stuart Gordon's Fortress I'm actually not all that familiar with the actor's body of work. I thought it was weird to be such a fan of the guy without having that much exposure to his films, so for a "purely fun" running column I decided to systematically watch as many of them - in order - as I could tolerate. We're talking roughly 50 titles (minus a few that aren't readily available in the States) so this project's not only one of ambition, but endurance. From his first taste of international stardom in a director's follow-up to his Oscar-winning film to his later years in DTV buddy pictures and then back to classy French dramas, I'm going to keep popping in his movies as long as I can Lambert it.
This idea was inspired by the excellent book Seagalogy by Vern, the eminent study of the films of Steven Seagal, but unlike Vern I'm not a disciple of Lambert in any way and am undertaking this task with the knowledge that many of the movies are probably going to be terrible. That's ok: if anything, I'd like to see how an actor I consider myself a fan of despite not being too familiar with comes off in fare like a detective film set in the Spanish Inquisition, a sword & sorcery epic from Albert Pyun and something called Druids.
Lambert has been a consistent staple in the film community since his debut, averaging two movies a year (that total's boosted a little by his impressive 11 film output from 1999 to 2001.) More than most genre stars, his success has a lot to do with his versatility and ability to adapt almost any background. Born in America to French parents and raised in Switzerland, he's most famous for his role as a Scotsman/Alien (or a Lightning God/Alien) and has over the years been cast as Italians, Cajuns, Hispanics, Israelis and ethnically-neutured everymen. He was even in the running to take over for Roger Moore as British spy James Bond. His accent is clearly French, but it's a unique dialect distinguished by the actor's uniquely stertorous voice. Although he's mainly known for his fantasy-action efforts, he actually has a fairly diverse filmography with everything from period dramas to children's films represented. He's done sequels and video game adaptations, but also romantic comedies. And he's humble about his career; he once said: "It may be a mistake to say this, but I know my limitations as an actor and I know what I can and can not do. Robert De Niro can do everything. I can't. A Highlander movie is basically my thing. What I'm attempting to do is develop my ability as an actor and try to be the best I can be in the fantasy/action genre. I would love to do a Rain Man, but I think ultimately this is my thing." You don't usually get that kind of honesty out of a movie star.
Lambert suffers from myopia, which impairs his vision yet gives him that legendary intense squint/stare. He dated Grace Kelly's princess daughter, married Diane Lane and is currently dating Sophie Marceau. He had a memorable small role in Richard Kelly's Southland Tales as a rugged Christopher Lambert-esque arms dealer based in an ice cream truck (in fact he was pretty much the only memorable thing about that piece of crap - and no, even if I make it up to that point I won't be re-watching that one.) And although he didn't end up being cast as Tintin in Spielberg's new adaptation, his next apperance in Claire Denis' White Material next to Isabelle Huppert looks like it may be his most prestigous yet. His career's still going strong, which may or may not come as a surprise to original audiences of his first big league appearance in the simian saga Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes.
GREYSTOKE: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, LORD OF THE APES (1984)
1984 was a big year. Ronald Reagan was re-elected and the Soviets boycotted the Olympics. LeBron James was born, so was the Mac. Vanessa Williams resigned her Miss America crown in disgrace while John De Lorean was acquitted of 8 counts of cocaine trafficking. The Ethiopians were let in on the fact that it was Christmas (thanks Shalamar!) Francois Truffaut and Sam Peckinpah died, Marvin Gaye was killed by his father and Richard Brautigan shot himself. It was such a madcap year George Orwell wrote a book about it. (that joke sounded better in my head). Young future stars made their leading debuts in breakout hits (Eddie Murphy, Tom Hanks, Arnold Schwarzenegger) while other newcomers enjoyed temporary pop culture significance (Michael Winslow, Pat Morita, Prince-the-actor.) Somewhere in between, there was Christopher Lambert.
Hugh Hudson, hot off the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire, discovered Lambert in a dance troupe and cast him in the title role of what he imagined would be a classy reworking of Edgar Rice Burroughs' tale of a man raised by monkeys. Greystoke was released March 30, the day after Lambert turned 27 (he and Vangelis - composer of the iconic Chariots theme - have the same birthday, maybe that was an additional tip-off to Hudson.) Reviews were mixed at best; the most vicious accused Hudson of tampering with a beloved story and pretentiously turning it into more a stuffy chamberpiece than the thrilling adventure yarn as originally conceived. None were more offended than screenwriter Robert Towne, who had spearheaded the project only to have his name removed after the latest revision reflected little of what he intended to bring to Burroughs' famous character. The film, not undeservedly, has yet to experience the same kind of next-generation reappraisal as so many of the perceived critical flops of its time (Heaven's Gate, Ishtar) or the cult status of early 80's fantasy films like The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai. Thus it remains almost exclusively a curiosity for aficionados of Lambert's filmography.
I think we're all familiar enough with this particular story that I don't need to recap too much. What you've got is a little boy who comes to be raised by primates deep in the African jungle. He walks like an ape, talks like an ape, yet apparently shaves like a man. He learns to survive in the wild, at one point he fights a tiger. There's a dancing bear and a wise panther and a wild jazz monkey voiced by Louis Prima. Later on he meets some vultures who - wait a minute. I'm getting it mixed up with Disney's animated version of The Jungle Book... that happens sometimes. The plots are very similar. I guess Disney also did an animated Tarzan, didn't they? And a live action Jungle Book too, right? You could say the young girl singing about the having to constantly "fetch the water" at the end of the cartoon version is representative of Disney going back to the same well over and over. But moving on...
The first half of the film, shot in the wild of western Cameroon and on corresponding sound stages, is inarguably the best the movie has to offer. The combination of lush, dark photography by the great John Alcott (whose 80's credits were almost entirely jungle/nature-based: The Beastmaster, Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend, White Water Summer) and excellent monkey makeup design care of Rick Baker* make up a long stretch of impressively mysterious visuals, like the film was set in the overgrown tundra of some foreign planet inhabited by weird ape-like creatures.** Hudson's cinematic reference at the outset is 2001 (probably why he hired Alcott, come to think of it), complete with two-minute grandiloquent overture and wordlessly epic introduction of angry apes calling down the thunder like the Dawn of Man chimps from Kubrick's film. In place of a tall black monolith this simian society is saddled with a human child, adopted by a motherly monkey who's recently lost her own (non-human) baby. The infant of course is John Clayton III, seventh Earl of Greystoke, marooned after Richard Griffiths ("It wasn't my fault!") wrecks the ship transporting his parents upriver. The apes don't know any of this. To them he's just a hairless substitute for the female ape's dead baby (in a pretty funny moment, she finds li'l Tarzan and discards the corpse of her own kid, which she's been dragging around sentimentally like a dilapidated stuffed animal - toss!) Most of the apes are accepting of this except for one ferocious bully - the one responsible for the death of the ape mama's baby and Tarzan's (human) father - whose general dickishness leads to a monkey civil war.
Enter into this turmultuous anthropoid environment an expedition headed by mustachioed Ian Holm in full "nervous little foreigner" mode. We know he's a decent sort of fellow because he looks on disapprovingly as the sadistic gorilla hunter gores his ape victims on the spot and smears their guts on his face while proudly spouting "Sport and blood sir – the stuff of life!" Holm's doddering Belgian gets into trouble with the local pygmies, forcing him (in a pretty cool moment) to pull an imbedded arrow straight through his back out the front of his chest. Shortly afterward, lying against a giant tree in a fevered state of euphoria, he has a christ-like vision of a man backlit by the sun. Is it Jesus? No – it's Christopher Lambert (how'd he think up the stylish headband?)
With child actors representing tiny Tarzan, Lambert doesn't appear until 40 minutes into the movie and, like Schwarzenegger in his first big performance as Conan, doesn't speak right away. His first line isn't quite as iconic as Conan's "lamentation of their women" mission statement; it's one word - "Razor!" - that Holm teaches him (I guess he didn't notice Tarzan's already figured out how to shave). However actions speak louder than words, and Tarzan's been busy integrating himself as prince of primates, presenting a maimed panther to the colony and rolling around with the body a little before tearing its leg clean off - the apes shit themselves when they see this but are undoubtedly grateful for the food.
* Can I just take a moment to say I'm really looking forward to The Wolf Man? I know he's doing good work turning Eddie Murphy into fat women and what have you, but let's get Baker back to what he does best: anthropomorphic abominations with big hair and teeth. More on that in two weeks when I discuss John Landis' An American Werewolf in London in for the Halloween Edition of the 'smoke's "Second Chances" series.
** Baker's monkey designs would go unmatched until his take on the residents of the Planet of the Apes in the otherwise unforgivable 2001 remake. He also had the unenviable task of following Willis O'Brien, recreating King Kong for that 1976 remake. Will Rick Baker ever create apes for a decent, original fucking movie?
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