Bo Derek rose to fame in motion pictures for being extremely beautiful and extremely naked. Both qualities are on amply display in the bombshell's 1981 bomb, "Tarzan, the Ape Man."
Based on the popular characters created by Edgar Rice Burroughs for a magazine story in 1912 and for the first of a series of novels, "Tarzan of the Apes," in 1914, this movie adaptation is but one of the many Hollywood versions of the tale. The best thing it has going for it is the attractiveness of its two leads, Bo Derek as Jane and Miles O'Keeffe as Tarzan.
OK, that's the only thing it's got going for it.
The movie was produced by Ms. Derek and directed by her husband, John Derek, so I suppose you could call it a "family" picture. If it weren't for the nudity. In fact, the movie is little more than an excuse to show Ms. Derek undraped as much as possible. And if she's not taking her clothes off, she's getting drenched with enough water to ensure that audiences can see through her clothes. One way or the other, it's Derek's body that anchors the picture. It's a lovely body, to be sure, but it's not enough to waste two hours on.
The problem is not Ms. Derek's. She does what she can with a gorgeous bod and limited acting talents. The problem is the script, which is nothing more than a succession of reasons to show off Ms. Derek's assets. Poor Tarzan gets first billing in the title but doesn't show up in the movie until it's half over. When he finally does make his appearance, he's probably the best-looking Tarzan we've ever had on screen. Unfortunately, neither a movie-star name (I love the sound of "Miles O'Keeffe"; it's so old Hollywood) nor a handsome physique can make up for O'Keeffe's lack of talent, either. But at least, unlike Ms. Derek, he doesn't have to say anything.
The person who does have to say things, and all the time, is Richard Harris as Jane's father, James Parker. His character is supposed to be a famous, egotistical, blathering blowhard of an explorer who is in Africa searching for the fabled "elephant's graveyard," of all things. He abandoned his wife and child years before to go off adventuring around the world, so, naturally, when Jane's mother dies, Jane immediately leaves home to join the father she so despises. No explanation is given, beyond the vague intimation that like her father, Jane is also into taking risks, having sailed over the Alps in a balloon. Presumably with Phileas Fogg. Who knows.
No sooner does Jane show up in Africa than the semblance of a plot kicks in. But not before we have to listen to Harris's character huff and puff and bluster on about nothing in particular. At one point he hears Tarzan's famous yell far away in the jungle and says, "Oh, shut up, you boring son of a bitch!" That's exactly what most viewers are probably saying to themselves about Harris.
The first hour of the movie is mostly talk and walk. Jane and her father, accompanied by a professional photographer, Henry Holt (John Phillip Law), and a train of bare-breasted male and female African bearers, chatter endlessly while trudging through the forest at a cinematic pace that's deadening. Not even the natural beauty of the Sri Lanka and Seychelles locations can relieve the boredom we're forced to endure as the director and cinematographer manage to miss most of the grandeur of these settings through an overreliance on close and medium shots. Don't they know they're shooting in widescreen? Gorgeous scenery competes with gorgeous leads, and we care about none of it. Takes genius to screw up that combination.
Silliness abounds, so much so that the picture comes off closer to a comedy than the romantic action-adventure it was meant to be. The father, for instance, tames a rogue elephant by walking up and singing to it. The moment Jane goes skinny-dipping in the "Great Inland Sea," a pesky lion wanders down to the beach to distract her. And the minute the lion besets her, Tarzan appears on the scene to soothe his friend, the lion, only to be shooed away at gunpoint by the father and Holt. But not to fear, Tarzan returns shortly thereafter to kidnap Jane, only to have her shoo him off at gunpoint. Does the Ape Man get the message? No, he hangs around the vicinity, anyway, and shows up again to rescue Jane from a giant python. Well, I told you it was silly.
It takes forever for Tarzan finally to invite Jane to his treetop retreat, where Ms. Derek continues to get a lot of mileage out of her lip and finger-biting act. It's a mannerism that helps establish her virginal naïveté at the beginning of the film but begins to grate by the end.
The last half hour is taken up with a preposterous melodrama involving an evil tribe of mixed ethnic races, led by a white fellow who looks like a refugee from a professional wrestling circuit (Steven Strong, another great name) and who surrounds himself with nubile, naked young women. He apparently wants to take Ms. Derek as another of his concubines, and he's willing to kill anyone who stands in his way. Tarzan comes to the rescue once again, this time leading a herd of elephants.
Tarzan looks good swinging from a vine, and Ms. Derek looks good anytime. But they can't make up for the inadequacies of the script, the foolishness of the plot, and the lead-footed guidance of the director. Frankly, a herd of elephants couldn't get me to watch this thing again.
Despite Warner Brothers' best efforts to transfer the picture to disc in anamorphic widescreen, the image quality is no better than mediocre. The screen dimensions approximate the film's 1.85:1 ratio, theatrical-release size at about 1.74:1 across a standard television, but the actual video presentation is rather grainy, perhaps due to age, perhaps inherent to the original film stock. The enhanced picture does provide good color depth, but it is also slightly dark and not always perfectly well delineated.
The film's two-channel audio has been remixed to Dolby Digital 5.1 specs, but it, too, is deficient compared to today's best sound. The stereo spread is relatively narrow; the tonal balance favors the top end; the dynamic range is limited; and the overall sound is on the hard, edgy side. The surround speakers are fed only a small amount of information, mainly jungle noises, birds and such, and a peal of thunder at one point. Your front center channel will see the brunt of the sonic activity.
Let's see. There are twenty-seven scene selections, which is more than some more-expensive and more-prominent DVD releases provide. And there's a widescreen theatrical trailer, well worn. And that's about it. English is the only spoken language available, but English, French, and Spanish are around for subtitles. I can't imagine anyone needing a language track for this film at all, however; it might just as well be in Swahili for all the dialogue that's of any importance.
OK, so "Tarzan, the Ape Man" is a washout, but for compensation the good folks at Warner Bros. simultaneously issued the first six "Tarzan" movies to star the most famous Tarzan of them all, Johnny Weissmuller, with Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane. The movies are available in a four-disc box set that includes "Tarzan the Ape Man," "Tarzan and His Mate," "Tarzan Escapes," "Tarzan Finds a Son," "Tarzan's Secret Treasure," and Tarzan's New York Adventure." In addition, the set includes a fourth, bonus disc telling the history of Tarzan, plus vintage short subjects and trailers. And if that weren't enough, WB have also brought out "Greystoke, the Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes," with Christopher Lambert, in a separate release. The devoted Tarzan fan can have a swinging time with all these DVDs.