Watching “Tarzan, the Ape Man” makes me want to take a shower, and not just because Bo Derek spends most of the film bathing. It’s a creepy movie, with oily subtexts and greasy themes, and a filmy, oleaginous layer of plaque covers the whole thing. It’s exactly the sort of unspeakably filthy movie that you would expect to be made by a dirty old man and his dim trophy wife.
John Derek was 55 when he directed the movie; his wife, bland-model-turned-bland-actress Bo Derek, was 25. They’d been together since he was 46 and she was 16. This age discrepancy had forced them to move to Germany, where the statutory rape laws are much more relaxed, and where perverted Svengalis can live with their child-brides without interference.
When they returned to the U.S. and officially got married, John decided the best way to convince people that their relationship was normal was to direct some mildly pornographic movies starring his naked, barely legal wife. The first of these was “Tarzan, the Ape Man,” a 1981 retelling of the classic Edgar Rice Burroughs stories with a twist: Instead of focusing on the title character, the movie is all about Jane! Who in this instance is boring, one-dimensional, and unconvincing!
Bo Derek’s performance may be bad — indeed, one of the worst leading performances I’ve ever seen in a Hollywood production — but I’ll say this for her: She sure does have two breasts. Yep, sure enough, there they are. Oh, there they are again. Yes, there’s no denying it: Bo Derek is an adult human female. Her qualifications there are beyond dispute.
The film is set in 1910 in West Africa, where young Jane Parker has gone in search of her long-lost father, explorer James Parker (Richard Harris, at the point in his career where one gives up and starts taking whatever roles one is offered). Parker is leading an expedition into the African jungles in search of a mythical elephant burial ground, and he’s quite surprised when a supply ship arrives with his daughter on it. He hasn’t seen her since she was an infant, when he walked out on her and her mother. Parker is aggrieved to learn that his ex-wife is dead now. “Your conception almost killed her,” he tells Jane, surely meaning “birth,” not “conception.” I mean, if merely conceiving Jane was nearly fatal, I suspect that says more about Mr. Parker’s lovemaking style than it does about Mrs. Parker’s physical health.
Anyway, apparently Jane looks just like her mother. Parker looks her in the face and says, “God, how I loved you.”
“Her,” Jane corrects him. “You loved her.”
“Yes,” he says. “But you ARE her!”
No, Mr. Parker. She is your daughter. You may not interact with her in the same manner you interacted with your wife. I CANNOT OVERSTATE THIS.
When we first meet Parker, by the way, he is in bed with a native girl many years his junior. Her name is Nambia, but he calls her Africa. (Well, why not?) He gets out of bed and reveals that his soiled nightshirt is not nearly as long as it ought to be, especially considering he is not wearing underpants.
(Speaking of nude old men, do you suppose it was weird for Bo Derek to play the daughter of a man who was five years younger than her husband at the time? She probably objected at first. “Richard Harris?! He can’t play my father! He’s not even husband-age yet!”)
So Jane tags along with her dad on the expedition, traveling away from the coast and into the jungles of the interior. The problem with that route, of course, is that if there’s no beach, there’s no excuse for Jane to get naked and go swimming. Luckily, the elephant graveyard is rumored to be adjacent to — yes! — an inland sea. This sea looks just like any ol’ sea you’d find anywhere else, complete with sand and waves and plenty of sun. The men go tromping around looking for a place to camp, and Jane is naked in a matter of seconds. She barely waits for her father to get out of sight.
After showing us what seems like hours of footage of Bo Derek being naked, the movie remembers what it was supposed to be doing and introduces: a lion. A lion comes trotting onto the beach, frightening Jane into remaining in the water and almost causing Bo Derek to achieve a facial expression. That’s when Tarzan finally appears, only 45 minutes after the movie named after him started. He grapples with the lion, sends the beast packing, and then half-heartedly attempts to have his way with Jane. I believe his unspoken assertion is that since he saved Jane from the lion, she now has to have sex with him. When you get right down to it, this is really no different from our modern dating rituals.
A few words about Tarzan. He is played by Miles O’Keeffe, known to “Mystery Science Theater 3000” fans as the lead in “Cave Dwellers.” Tarzan was his first role, and a fine Tarzan he was. He never utters a word in the entire movie, yet he still comes across as smarter than Jane, who has the screen presence of an apple-cheeked bucket of paint. He’s in excellent physical shape — the only real requirement to play Tarzan, after all — and evidently this particular Lord of the Apes lives in a part of the jungle that grants him unfettered access to body oil. Clad only in a loincloth, he walks with his chest puffed forward and his glistening buttocks thrust backward, like a steroid-enhanced human-size peacock. At one point, Jane tells him, “Do you know you’re more beautiful than any girl I know?” This says a lot about the company Jane keeps back in England (where she was born and raised, her American accent notwithstanding).
Jane’s dad returns and scares Tarzan away, and he warns his daughter to be careful of the savage ape-man. Naturally, this only makes her want to date him even more. Clearly James Parker has no experience with fatherhood.
Then Africa goes missing. I mean the native girl, not the continent. Parker blames Tarzan, but in fact it was a group of scary natives — not the nice, easily exploited kind who carry Parker’s supplies and equipment, but the mean, human-sacrifice, ooga-booga kind. Then Jane goes missing, too, though this time it really is Tarzan’s fault. He has returned for a second date.
Tarzan drags Jane through a river, whereupon they are attacked by a Burmese python (note: Burmese pythons are not native to West Africa), whereupon we are forced to watch Tarzan wrestle with the snake in slow-motion for, no exaggeration, 247 minutes. When at last the fight is over, Tarzan collapses in the sand, totally exhausted. Jane looks at his unconscious, mostly naked body and says, “I’ve never touched a man before!” and then proceeds to molest him. While this distasteful bit of sliminess is occurring, the film cuts back to her father soliloquizing inappropriately about how beautiful Jane is. All that is good and decent in the world seems to fade, and the viewer is cast into utter despair.
But wait! It is not over yet. Put those razors down. Tarzan introduces Jane to his friends, a chimpanzee and an orangutan. (The latter animal must be very lonely, since it is the only orangutan in Africa. I know they didn’t have Wikipedia in 1981, but come on. Obtaining basic information about the world wasn’t that hard.) Tarzan and Jane spend quality time together, with her partially resisting and partially encouraging his sexual advances. Then she is abducted by the ooga-booga natives, stripped naked (she had given them a head-start on this), and covered in white paint in preparation for her deflowering by the evil ooga-booga king, who is played by a white professional wrestler named Steve Strong. Tarzan comes swingin’ in to save the day, but not before a tribesman kills Jane’s dad with a spear. Then Jane and Tarzan go off to live in the jungle forever, and as the credits roll they frolic delightedly as the chimpanzee licks the paint off Jane (including from her bare nipple) and continually tries to pull Tarzan off her so that he can get on her instead. You can’t make this stuff up, folks. If you did, they’d put you in jail, unless you were in Germany.