Film Torments: Tarzan, the Ape Man (1981)

TARZAN of the Apes is an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel about a man named Tarzan who is raised by apes in the African jungle. It also has absolutely nothing to do with Tarzan, the Ape Man from 1981. The characters in director John Derek’s adventure trainwreck may bear the names of Burroughs’ characters – they may even speak similar lines – but that’s where the similarity ends. Tarzan, the Ape Man is terrible, right down to that irritating little comma in the title. It’s a film so bad that even the animals look embarrassed. The acting is atrocious, the direction is laughable and the editing looks like it was done the night before release while the men in charge were chugging Ayahuasca.

The film stars producer/premier 80s sex symbol/wife of the director Bo Derek as Jane Parker who, after the death of her mother, journeys to meet her intrepid explorer father James Parker, played by an incredibly drunk Richard Harris. As she sashays her way through the country on a sedan chair hoisted up by small children, she eventually meets the titular Tarzan (Miles O’Keeffe) while falling into innumerable bodies of water for the titillation of the (entirely) male audience.

This is Bo Derek's expression in every. single. scene.

This is Bo Derek’s expression in every. single. scene.

Then there’s the acting. Bo Derek as Jane is quite possibly the worst lead actress to ever star in a Hollywood production. She is a grinning, vacant-eyed floozy; if she was indeed trying to do otherwise, she fails spectacularly at everything else asked of her. Every intonation is wrong. Every attempt to emote falls flat. Every single word she says is coated in a fine layer of polished mahogany.

“Is that chair speaking?” I asked myself: “Oh, no, it’s just Bo Derek. What’s that table doing with that banana? Oh, no, it’s just Bo Derek. Ew.” Glistening hunk of man-meat O’Keeffe has the decency to keep his mouth shut at least, though things certainly take a turn for the softcore when she starts caressing his unconscious(!) body and suggestively eating a banana. The watching orang-utan looked very uncomfortable.

Mercifully, Richard Harris is on hand to somewhat salvage this mess with a genuinely captivating performance. As Parker, adventurer extraordinaire, Harris is magnetic. His calibre as, you know, an actual actor allows him to revel in his cartoonishly extravagant role, recognising the pulpy nonsense nature of the Tarzan story and hamming it up to the nth degree, especially when he has to deliver corkers like: “I wallow in being; I enjoy every syllable I say and every gesture I make.” “WHYYYYY did you do THAT? WHYYYYYYY?” he wails at a man falling to his untimely death.

Richard Harris: Top quality drunkface

Richard Harris: Top quality drunkface

Harris is also quite clearly drunk, bringing me joyous reminders of Peter O’Toole’s wildly intoxicated performance in Caligula. It helps that he’s given the lion’s share of the dialogue, a boon particularly appreciated whenever he’s sharing the screen with Derek. A film about Parker being a massive bastard across the world would have been a welcome alternative to what we were given; sadly, however, Harris has to sit there, face in his palms, as Derek wisps her way through line after merry line of vapid grot. At least she looks happy doing it.

Perry Botkin Jr.’s bombastic, sweepingly melodramatic score is thoroughly wasted, not only on tedious, plodding exchanges but also on excruciating slow-motion action sequences that drag on for three whole minutes at a time. When I say slow-motion, I mean these sequences are shot entirely in slow-motion. Tarzan and Jane grappling with an anaconda? Slow-mo. Tarzan beating up a tribe leader? Slow-mo. I was having enough trouble investing in proceedings at 24 frames per second, let alone three.

Behind the camera, John Derek’s direction careers from lovely panoramic sweeps of African sunsets to leering, extended shots of his wife’s rear. For every impressive shot – an elephant carrying Tarzan across a river – there’s about seventeen of Bo gawping like a moron. The bizarre insertion of overt sexuality into this otherwise tame screenplay smacks of not only pandering but also gross misjudgement of material. It’s tonal whiplash – one minute we’re watching a cavalier adventure through treacherous African jungle, the next we’re suffering through Bo Derek getting her breasts rubbed. It ends up feeling like a porn parody of itself.

Tarzan & Jane: Making everyone uncomfortable

Tarzan & Jane: Making everyone uncomfortable

Of course, this could be more a problem with the editing. James B. Ling is credited with responsibility on that front, and we have to assume that name is the editing equivalent of Alan Smithee because this is the single worst cutjob I’ve ever seen. Now, I’ve seen Uwe Boll’s House of the Dead, a videogame adaptation with actual footage of its source material haphazardly spliced into the movie. Never mind House of the Dead, Dr. Boll’s entire filmography has more pace, elegance and rhythm in its assemblage.

Ultimately, however, for all its myriad faults, the film was a hit at the box office, capitalising on the sexbomb status of Bo Derek; the critics, of course, hated it. The film went on to be nominated for six Razzie awards, with the coveted Worst Actress going to Miss Derek herself, receiving it in a tie with Faye Dunaway for her outfuckingstanding performance as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. Never mind that disgusting miscarriage of justice; Bo would repeat her achievement in Bolero and Ghosts Can’t Do it, both of which were also directed by her husband and also managed numerous Razzie wins. Go figure. At least O’Keeffe went on to be Ator: The Fighting Eagle.

Tarzan, the Ape Man is the sort of film you’d go to see in a dimly lit, smokewreathed porn cinema, surrounded by moustachioed men in Macintoshes and unbuckled trousers. This is masturbatory nonsense sold as erotica with all the eroticism of a mildewed windowsill. It’s B-movie material with a D-grade execution and you should watch the Christopher Lambert vehicle Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, because we all love Christopher Lambert. There can be only one.

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