Sunday, July 20, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Tarzan The Ape Man (1981)

"We're here for your pleasure. Not ours," states Bo Derek (as prim and proper Jane Parker), in her husband (John Derek's) sexual-skewing interpretation of the Tarzan mythos, Tarzan The Ape Man (1981).

Naturally, she's talking about the reasons why women are put on this Earth (for men's pleasure; not their own...), but she might as well be discussing the reasons this film looks the way it does. It was produced -- seemingly -- entirely for male consumption and pleasure. After all, the film is a lingering, loving tribute not to Edgar Rice Burroughs' seemingly immortal jungle man character, but to Derek's legendary and statuesque, perfectly-sculpted body and her character's tantalizing sense of sexual "innocence."

I realize the purists (and just about everybody else...) hated Tarzan the Ape Man when it was released back in the early 1980s, but I have to tell you: it's an absolute riot, and thoroughly entertaining (if not always intentionally so...). The basic idea of this "re-imagination" (before the term re-imagination was even a glint in Tim Burton's eye...), is a depiction of the Tarzan story re-framed and re-parsed from Jane's naive perspective; and as a sort of soft-core travelogue across gorgeous, picturesque, wild Africa.

Accordingly, the film's photography (of bodies and exterior locations...) is never less than beautiful (some might say stunning), and there's no studio fakery to break the illusion of a sojourn into the bush, so-to-speak. In terms of bad movie history, the torch of bad-actors starring in soft-porn genre films is passed from John Phillip Law (Barbarella), playing a photographer named Holt, to chiseled Miles O'Keeffe, portraying Tarzan. That baton-passing alone is a cinematic milestone, I'd estimate.

Richard Harris (who also starred with Bo Derek in Orca back in the disco decade), plays Jane's father in this version of Tarzan, and he takes his performance waaaay over-the-top. Mr. James Parker is a central character in the screenplay, however, which concerns Jane's journey of self-discovery. Yes, she must select one of the two Alpha males in her life: either bad old Dad or hunky, heroic Tarzan. Since this battle of the -- ahem -- larger-than-life men is the crucible of the narrative, both male characters are depicted by director John Derek in - how shall I say this? -- distinctly phallic terms.

For instance, Mr. Parker informs Jane that her mother almost died "during conception." You read that right. Not child-birth, mind you, but conception. That the act of love-making. "I held her too long; I loved her too hard," he explains regretfully, providing way too much information about a scene I don't want to envision. Jeez.

Later, Holt (a milquetoast) explains to Jane that it takes a very "big" (!) man -- her father -- to go into wild Africa in search of a mythical inland sea, which is tucked secretly away behind a giant stone protrusion in the land, an outcropping of insurmountable rock that Bo and the others must scale. Uh huh.

Finally, there's an absolutely incredible, shameless, downright brazen composition in which Harris is seen to be polishing a large chrome cannon (placed in the frame around his crotch level). The cannon, not surprisingly, is pointed due north. When Bo Derek approaches Harris and his gleaming cannon, she arrives from the submissive position in the frame, from below...studying the shining cannon wide-eyed...

Even Richard Harris (who regrettably plays his first scene without pants...) and his silver cannon, however, can't compete with Tarzan in the phallus department. The Ape Man (always wearing a tiny loin cloth...) reveals his worthiness by freeing Bo not just from another phallic symbol, a gigantic boa constrictor, but by rescuing her from a deflowering at the --errh-- hand of a semi-retarded savage local who had planned to make Jane his bride.

The set-pieces in Tarzan The Ape Man are not really what you would expect of a Tarzan movie; confirming the fact that this movie is really about sex, not adventure. The few action sequences are filmed in agonizing slow-motion and look more like coitus than combat. Take the snake scene: it's an over-long montage in slow-motion photography, with close-ups of Bo and Miles writhing, gasping and twisting in muddy water. Foreplay never looked so great. But it takes too want to get to the main event.

There's also an incredible scene in the middle of the film, one set at an "inland ocean" in which Jane decides - out of the blue - to take a bath. Yes! We are then treated to a lingering scene of Bo Derek swimming in a shiny blue sea; the waves lapping against her supple, gorgeous flesh. She poses in the sand, her clothes clinging transparently to her flesh. It's quite intoxicating...until a wandering lion shows up. Tarzan shows up too, and a love story (of sorts) commences.

Harris, who actually gets to voice a line of dialogue I've always wanted to say to my wife ("I wallow in me. I enjoy every syllable I say."), soon confronts daughter Jane over her new interest in the hunky ape man. "Do you understand what he wants?" He asks.

Yeah Dad, I think she understands.

Later, Tarzan abducts Jane and one of his chimpanzee entourage tosses her a banana at a well-timed moment. Clutching the banana close to her mouth, doe-eyed Jane says the words we've longed to hear from her. "I'm still a virgin." She then adds "I don't know whether that's good or bad..." (Hmmm, I'm thinking...good!). Tantalizingly, Jane sucks a little on the banana...


Later in a film that feels like all promises and no delivery, Jane teaches Tarzan to smile. She puts her fingers to his lips. He responds in kind. Then, as if he was born to it, Tarzan reaches quickly under Jane's (see-through) shirt and begins to vigorously massage her nipples. At this point in the film, Kathryn looked at me, and said "what is it with men? Why do you men automatically go for the breasts?" I won't repeat my answer here. But it was good.

The film climaxes (if you'll pardon my choice of phrase), with Bo Derek topless again, covered head-to-toe in glistening white paint; rescued in the nick of time by Tarzan from the Special Ed Savage. As for poor Daddy, he's finally undone by the King of Phallic Symbols: gored by an elephant tusk. As he dies, he continues to blabber endlessly. "Your life is going to be a marvelous adventure," old Dad says to his daughter, just as she is about go off and be deflowered by Tarzan.

I'll say...

Then, as the end credits roll, we are treated to the oddest threesome in cinema history. Tarzan, Jane and an eager orangutan frolic and wrestle at length, their limbs and bodies intertwined.

Well, whatever floats your banana, Tarzan.


  1. Well, in all fairness, it should be noted that Tarzan the Ape Man was a terrible movie. It was dull, racist, and badly acted. Even the sight of Ms. Derek in her birthday suit wasn't enough to compensate for all that.

    But I guess I should be glad that you got something out of it. No ill wind...yadda yadda yadda...

  2. Tonio --

    Oh yes, the movie is bad (so very bad, so very, very, very bad...), I just meant that it is a laugh riot and entertaining in a "so bad it is good" way. I don't think it's quality cinema...just a hoot. I was just trying to have fun with it. And the photography (natural and female) is nice...


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