The Earl of Greystoke (Ralph Richardson, in his last film role) is none too pleased when his beloved son decides to take his wife to Africa for a year. But even the Earl could not have foreseen just what would befall the young couple: Their ship is wrecked, and the two are forced to create a makeshift home on the island where they have washed up. The two survivors soon become three when their son is born, but they do not long survive his birth. When the ape Kala, who is still grieving for her own dead child, discovers the human infant, she adopts him for her own. The infant heir of the Greystoke line thus grows up among the apes, believing himself one of them despite the strange whiteness of his skin, for which he is named Tarzan.
As Tarzan grows to maturity, however, he acquires skills unknown to his ape community, such as the use of weapons and the ability to swim. These skills enable him to defeat the malicious ape White Eyes, who has tyrannized over the gentler apes, which include Kala and her mate, Silverbeard. His inquisitive nature, as well as his instinct to defend the underdog, leads him to rescue a wounded Belgian explorer (Ian Holm, Alien, Hamlet), one of the few survivors of an ill-fated British expedition. As Tarzan (Christopher Lambert, Highlander) nurses Captain Phillippe D'Arnot back to health and quickly begins to pick up the ways of humankind, D'Arnot determines to take the Lord of the Apes back to civilization and to his rightful place on the Greystoke estate.
Drawn to his first human friend, Tarzan accompanies D'Arnot back to Britain. Now known by his human name of John Clayton, he is greeted with delight by the elderly Greystoke and welcomed with friendly interest by the Earl's lovely American ward, Jane Porter (Andie MacDowell, Four Weddings and a Funeral). Some of his other new acquaintances, such as Sir Evelyn Blount, greet him with a more clinical interest, considering him a worthy subject of scientific inquiry as well as a potential embarrassment to the fine old house of Greystoke. Tarzan proves to be a quick study, however, and when he and Jane fall in love, his new life would seem to be a great success. But his new environment is no less brutal than the one he knew in the jungle, and a series of tragedies causes him to question whether he will ever really belong in human society—and why he should want to