"Do you know you're more beautiful than any girl I know? Oh, you're a lot more."
- Jane (to Tarzan)
Following the success of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark (in 1977 & 1981, respectively) Hollywood seemed to believe audiences were experiencing nostalgia for good ol' fashioned adventure films; somehow, this led to the decision to launch wave after wave of nostalgia-fueled properties which, 1979's Superman aside, were not successful: Buck Rogers. Flash Gordon. The Lone Ranger.
It's amidst this backdrop that 1981's Tarzan the Ape Man came to be; I can only assume producer-star Bo Derek and her director-husband John Derek selected Tarzan as the actress' next vehicle because they felt there was money to be made from exploiting the supposed nostalgia wave. I had heard the resulting movie was pretty bad; yesterday I watched it and... it is bad. Really quite very bad.
Tarzan the Ape Man tells the tale of Jane Parker, a young woman who journeys to Africa to find her long-absent father. Learning her father is about to undertake an expedition into a region of Africa never before seen by white men, Jane determines to accompany the group to prove she's as beautiful, intelligent and courageous as every character in the film claims her to be. The party falls prey to certain pitfalls during the trip, none greater than a tribe of body-painted people who kidnap women. Am I forgetting anything? Oh yes, Tarzan is also in this picture.
This film makes so many baffling decisions I hardly know where to begin; how about the action scenes? Yes, both of them. In the first, a snake attacks Jane and Tarzan leaps to her rescue, wrestling the snake off her body. This thrilling sequence is shot as a series of slow-motion close-ups and fadeaways, making it impossible to see what's going on; the snake isn't really defeated, the sequence simply ends so another scene can begin.
Second, we have the battle with the painted people at the climax. When they first attack the expedition, we see them chasing Jane and then... look I can't make this up... there's a spin cut and the fight is over, the expedition has lost. No action scene required, just the same scene transition you'd expect from a prime time sitcom. Tarzan does rescue the expedition by battling the painted chief. Although the fight goes on for about 3 minutes, that's only because the entire scene is shot in slow motion, just in case the viewer mistakenly found themselves getting excited. Shots of Tarzan swinging on vines are similarly done in slow-motion. Supposedly this film had former Tarzan star Jock Mahoney as its stunt coordinator; it's hard to imagine what he did all day on set when he was supposed to be preparing stunts... it sure didn't make it to the final cut.
Let's talk about clash of tone. Near the end, Jane is tied up, washed and painted by the painted people. While Jane sobs and descends into hysterics, her father rants inanely. On paper, this could be a disturbing scene. Unfortunately, the film's director was married to Jane and he shot this sequence for maximum titillation. Emphasis on "tit."
In another sequence, there are shots of the expedition climbing across a steep mountain using ropes. Frequent cutaways to the ropes show them growing frayed by the constant tension. Suddenly, one of the ropes breaks and a porter falls to his death. Cut to a dramatically lit Mr. Parker who raises his fists to the sun and bellows, "Why did you do that?! WHY?!" On the page, it sounds like tragedy; instead, it's one of the funniest moments in the film.
Oh yes... laughs. You really have to laugh when you can while watching Tarzan the Ape Man because unlike any other Tarzan film I've seen, this one takes itself completely serious. So much of this film could have been redeemed with moments of light comedy, but the intent was apparently to make a "serious" Tarzan picture. It's clearly not for boys (ie, the R-rating)... I can only assume they hoped women would be receptive to the supposed sweeping romance of Jane's love for Tarzan.
And yet, I'm not sure if the Jane-Tarzan relationship really is the point of the film; Tarzan doesn't enter the picture until it's already half over and even when he and Jane do begin their hour-long staring contest, it holds less passion than any given scene from the Blue Lagoon (which was filmed with teenagers, I remind you). Having no dialogue, Tarzan's motivations are a mystery; he alternates between fear and fascination with Jane until they finally hook up immediately before the closing credits.
At one point, Tarzan is unconscious and Jane begins pawing after his body, remarking "I've never touched a man before!" while grinning like a schoolgirl. Lest you accuse the film of double standards, when Tarzan revives he spends about a minute feeling Jane's breasts. The difference, I suppose, is that Jane is intelligent enough to realize fondling Tarzan is wrong, yet does so anyway (and with glee); Tarzan is curious and uneducated. At various points I felt as though I was watching an adult molesting an innocent child, which is surely not the stuff sweeping love stories are made of.
Bo Derek starred as Jane Parker. I'm not too familiar with Derek's career, but this film certainly doesn't make a case for her being unjustly forgotten. Her performance was flat, wooden and miserable; the terrible script did nothing to help her and because she was in about 99% of the scenes, she was effectively the worst thing about any particular moment. Her only strength was her ability to drop her drawers and appear in the nude whenever the story demanded it (which was often). This was the reason for the film's R rating, but I can't say it was worth it; I mean, surely everyone who wanted to see her in the buff was already buying Playboy?
Richard Harris played James Parker, Jane's father. Harris threw so much loud, booming emotion into every single line delivery that he almost managed to overpower the terrible dialogue. Unfortunately, having begun his performance dialed up to eleven, he had nowhere to go with it. He provided the best laughs and it seemed like he was the only man on the production who knew he was making a turkey and felt he might as well kick back and enjoy himself. Like Brian Blessed in Flash Gordon, Harris brought his best "large ham" delivery... pity that unlike the former, Harris was the only actor worth his salt.
John Phillip Law held the enviable role of "Man there so Richard Harris has someone to talk to," otherwise known as Harry Holt. Although he was present for roughly 70% of the film he managed to have zero screen presence. I suppose it's an achievement.
Finally, the fourth-billed Miles O'Keeffe portrayed Tarzan. Having heard he was supposedly a terrible Tarzan, I'm here to say: he had the best performance in the picture. Obviously, this isn't saying much. He had no dialogue (even the "Tarzan yell" was recycled from Johnny Weissmuller's films) so had to carry himself with body language, like a silent film actor. Consequently, O'Keeffe was spared having to mouth any lines from the script and maintained his dignity, which ain't too shabby when you're playing a glorified boy toy in a loincloth being groped by Bo Derek. There were moments when O'Keeffe's eyes would project sensations of fear and confusion and at such times, I could completely relate to his character.
To leave this on an upbeat note... the filming locations in Sri Lanka and Seychelles were absolutely beautiful. Also, the Frank Frazetta artwork on the production company's title card was very good.