Over the years the character of Tarzan, as depicted in films, has seen a variety of incarnations, from monosyllabic caveman to eloquent hero, but not until Bo Derek and her husband came along, did we ever get one like this. Tarzan, the Ape Man was marketed with the tagline, “Unlike any other “Tarzan” you’ve ever seen!” And after seeing this film one must admit that statement was quite accurate, but not in a way anyone would have wanted. For this film Bo and John Derek worked together as lead star, producer, director and cinematographer of this cinematic turkey, and one look at the poster certainly told prospective audiences who the actual star of this particular vanity project was, and it wasn’t a dude in a loin cloth.
The movie states that it is based on the characters created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and though this is roughly true, this film is more a remake of the 1932 MGM Tarzan, the Ape Man, starring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan, than anything to do with the source material.
Note: It was so far from the source material that the Burroughs Estate actually sued the studio over the film’s graphic sexual nature, and they did their best to prevent the film from seeing the light of day, sadly they failed. So is that art triumphing?
The plot deals with Jane’s father hunting for the legendary elephant’s graveyard, something Tarzan never did in the books but is constantly happening in the movies, and Jane’s dad even has a partner named Harry Holt, as he did in the 1932 version. And once again our heroes will have to climb a perilous escarpment, which will claim the life of at least one of the native bearers, and it makes one wonder how white explorers were able to constantly find so many locals willing to go on such suicidal safaris.
The movie begins with narration provided by Wilfrid Hyde-White, as he tells this Tarzan story to his fellow members of the Explorers Club, the story of how Jane Parker (Bo Derek) came to Africa looking for father James Parker (Richard “I need more Scotch” Harris), and fell in love with a jungle man. On route to the Parker camp Jane is forced to shoot an attempted rapist, and that kind of sets the bizarre tone for this whole film, and t director John Derek does his best to make this film into the “most beautiful softcore erotica ever made” it eventually fails both as erotica and as a Tarzan movie, and basically failing as a film all together.
Jane’s father is not happy to see her, he had abandoned her and her mother shortly after she was born, so that he could go off adventuring, and now that his beloved wife is dead he has to deal with his hot daughter crashing in on his fun. To say the scenes between James and his daughter are creepy – bizarre and rife with sexual tension – would be putting it mildly. Of course weird sexual tension between Jane and her father is nothing compared to the later stuff between Jane and Tarzan’s ape friends. In the 1932 version Harry Holt was a rival for Jane’s affection, but in this one Holt (John Philip Law) is nothing but a neutered cameraman, who just follows Jane and her dad around taking pictures.
James does not want Jane along on this expedition, but because this movie has about a teaspoon of originality anytime James forbids her something the film will than smash cut to Jane getting her way. Editing clichés can be found even in the darkest parts of Africa. When they do make it to the top of the escarpment, after losing the required native bearer, they find the fabled “Inland Sea” which according to legend is near the location of the elephant’s graveyard. It’s while Jane is gadding about in the surf that she first encounters Tarzan (Miles O’Keefe), and his lion wingman.
After Tarzan and the lion terrify the half-naked Jane for a while, Holt finally shows up to chase the two jungle jerks off, and thus begins the terrible “Will they, won’t they” part of the relationship between Tarzan and Jane. Even in the 1932 version the beginning of their relationship was a tad rapey at the start, sadly decades later not much has changed. James Parker is all set to hunt down this bastard, who dared touch his daughter, and declares he will mount the beast’s head on his wall. I’m not sure how that would work, as I think even the British Aristocracy of the Explorers Club would see a human head mounted on a wall as something of questionable taste, and even a more questionable legality.
When James Parker’s native squeeze, who he named Africa for some reason (Akushula Selayah), is abducted, the old codger becomes incensed with tracking down this “White Ape” and killing it, but it wasn’t Tarzan who stole the woman, turns out there is a particularly nasty and colourful tribe up on this escarpment, and they are the ones who made off with Parker’s Girl Friday. Now this doesn’t mean Tarzan isn’t capable of abducting a woman, as that’s exactly what he does with Jane mere moments later.
Jane is able to frighten him off with her gun, but after Tarzan runs away she immediately regrets it, and it’s not made quite clear if her regret stems from the idea of being alone in this dangerous jungle or the fact that Tarzan is kind of a nice piece of beefcake. Regardless she eventually needs his help when a Burmese python attacks.
Note: This is the magical Africa that is home to Burmese pythons, Orangutans, and Asian elephants.
Tarzan leaps to the rescue, and we are then treated to an incredibly long fight with a snake (one that routinely changes from a Burmese python to a reticulated python for some reason) that isn’t helped by the horrible slow-motion photography. Most of the action in this movie is shot in slow-motion, thus sucking any possible life out of these scenes, and the fight with the python goes on forever, and you can’t even tell what’s going on.
Jane has to nurse Tarzan back to health after his ordeal, fighting in slow motion must be very taxing, but this mostly entails her rubbing his chest with a damp cloth, and is totally because he’s hurt and not because he has a rocking bod, that she can’t help but constantly feel up. In her ministrations she is aided by a chimp, an orangutan and an elephant.
After a day of the two young lovers frolicking, Jane heads off to find her father, and it’s nice that she could tear herself away from Tarzan’s abs, to think about the people out there searching for her, but when she finally finds Dad and Mr. Holt, the jubilation’s of the reunion are cut short when both James and Harry open fire on Tarzan. This shocks the dimwitted Tarzan, who quickly flees back into the jungle, and this is really bad timing, for this is when the evil natives, the ones that had actually kidnapped Africa, finally attack. The native bearers are slaughtered, while Jane, her dad and Holt are captured, and then taken to see the Ivory King (Steve Strong). He is called the Ivory King in the credits, but aside from having some elephant tusks hanging about he’s not much of a collector of ivory, and we never do see this fabled elephant’s graveyard that Parker was so hung up on finding. Of course the name could be reflecting the fact that the leader of this African tribe is a white dude, a really large musclebound dude who appears to have the IQ of an eggplant.
And just how did a musclebound moron become the leader of a tribe deep in the jungles of Africa, you ask? Was it some kind of Colonel Kurtz Apocalypse Now thing, where this guy was part of an expedition, and then one day he turned on his safari, took over the local tribe and started babbling, “The horror, the horror.” Could be, but we never find out, whatever his story is it’s certainly more interesting than this version of Tarzan. The African tribes in the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs were never really fleshed out, and they were unquestionably just cannon fodder or our hero, and were basically two dimensional villains in the earlier Tarzan movies, but in this entry they are just batshit weird. They kill all the natives in the Parker expedition, yet take James, Holt and Jane alive. Now when they took Africa we assumed it to be for adding her to the Ivory King’s harem, thus taking Jane makes sense, but why in the hell did they not just off the two white guys? Does the Ivory King bat for both teams? Another interesting question left unanswered by this movie. Instead we get an interminable amount of screen time of the Ivory King’s female minions bathing Jane, and then painting her white for some reason. Now I’m all for nudity, and Bo Derek is a very attractive woman, but at some point even that can get boring if it goes on long enough.
Lucky for Jane one of Tarzan’s chimp pals had spotted the abduction, and quickly raced off to inform the Lord of the Jungle of his lady’s problems. Sadly James isn’t that lucky, as the Ape Man doesn’t get there in time to prevent the Ivory King from sticking an elephant tusk through poor James Parker’s gut, but he does arrive in time to stop the Ivory King from getting down to some serious raping, so that nice, I guess. Now this film was directed and photographed by John Derek, who was of course Bo Derek’s husband at the time, which kind of makes this whole thing seem like a bizarre married couple’s sex tape, and it even gets weirder. After Tarzan arrives, and defeats the Ivory King, in one of the most monotonous fight sequences I’ve ever put to film, seriously, two dudes hugging in slow motion for five minutes is not scintillating action, but once the Ivory King is defeated Tarzan and Jane run off to cavort in the jungle with their ape friends. She does say goodbye to her dying father, who has the remarkable ability to give a farewell monologue with a tusk through his gut, and she doesn’t even bother to untie poor Harry Holt. What a total bitch.
It’s at this point you realize that both John and Bo Derek are out of their fucking minds, because the film then ends with seven minutes of Jane being sexually molested by the apes, while Tarzan looks on.
The quality of Tarzan films runs from classic adventure fun to campy and bad, with all the variations between, but no film, in the decades of Tarzan film, comes close to the batshit crazy abysmal levels of terribleness that this thing reaches. The acting is godawful across the board; Richard Harris we are assuming was paid in Scotch, the action scenes are barely coherent, but the worst of all is that Tarzan is hardly in this film. Now the reason for Tarzan being such a small part, and why he doesn’t even talk at all (There is no “Me Tarzan, you Jane” in this film), is because they fired the original actor cast to play Tarzan, and just grabbed Mile O’Keefe. who had been hired as a stunt double. How’s that for artistic integrity? I mean come on, if you’re going to make a crap Tarzan movie at least have the decency to make Tarzan a key player in it, but no, instead we get the Derek family’s personal sex tape, and not even a good sex tape, it’s a soft-core porn sex tape…with bestiality!
The movie was not well received by critic, considered by some to be one of the worst films of all time, but it still managed to do quite well at the box office, proving that gratuitous nudity can really pay off if it’s some one who looks like Bo Derek. Now there is no disputing that this is a train-wreck of movie, and the film could almost have been enjoyed, just by the level of sheer awfulness and bizarre story choices, if not for the fact that it’s also so poorly paced and boring. It’s just a real slog to get through. The 80s have a lot to answer for, the mullet and parachute pants for sure, but this version of Tarzan, the Ape Man is one of that decade’s greater crimes.
You can find all my Tarzan movie reviews here: Tarzan at the Movies
Tarzan, the Ape Man (1981)
This movie was clearly a vanity project for Bo Derek, the poster clearly announcing to the world who the star of this Tarzan movie really was, but her lack of acting ability is only matched by our lack of interest in her story. Why a major studio provided money for this production is truly a mystery for the ages.