There are bad movies, and then there are movies that transcend mere awfulness by lacking even the basic components of storytelling and fiction filmmaking. Plan 9 from Outer Space may be a bad movie, but as shoddy and inept as it is, at least it has a story, a beginning, middle, and an end, with dramatic conflicts and characters. Tarzan the Ape Man, the infamous 1981 remake of the 1932 Johnny Weissmuller / Maureen O'Sullivan classic, is not just a bad movie, it barely qualifies as a movie at all.
Even audiences that have never seen a Tarzan movie are familiar with the basic set-up. In Darkest Africa, adventurers Parker (Richard Harris, madly overacting and grasping at straws), photographer Holt (John Phillip Law), and Parker's beautiful daughter, Jane (Bo Derek), are looking for the fabled "Elephant's Graveyard" atop the Mutia Escarpment, and its veritable sea of priceless ivory. Along the way, Jane is kidnapped by Tarzan (Miles O'Keeffe), the vine-swinging man-ape, and everyone is threatened by hostile natives.
That's the premise, and that's pretty much the movie, too. It seems almost impossible that a film can run 115 minutes without almost anything happening, but such is the case with Tarzan the Ape Man. After the basic set-up, there is no effort to generate anything like a story or characters at all. Some have described the picture as like watching John and Bo Derek's home movies, a description that's pretty close to the mark.
The film was directed by former actor-turned-photographer John Derek (probably best remembered as Joshua in The Ten Commandments), who also served as the picture's cinematographer. Wife Bo not only stars but also is billed as its producer. In these positions, the couple can only bear all the blame for this stupefyingly bad film. Literally nothing in it works.
Derek previously had been married to Ursula Andress and Linda Evans, and partly through his aggressive management fashioned them into internationally recognized sexpots. But Bo Derek's fame was John's crowning glory. After playing the perfect 10 (1979) in Blake Edwards's film, Bo briefly flirted with superstardom, until John drove her career into the ground faster than you can say Pia Zadora. Tarzan the Ape Man was her first starring role after 10, and built entirely around what John perceived as Bo's greatest assets.
The result is a movie that plays less like a Tarzan movie and more like Emmanuelle Goes to Africa, though even the early Emmanuelle movies had a better sense of story and character. Bo spends much of the film nude or semi-nude wearing translucent clothing (according to this film, women in 1910 apparently never wore undergarments). The film is comical in the way its script constantly finds excuses to get Bo back in the glistening water. She falls off a dock, is pulled by Tarzan into a river, takes a swim on her way to Parker's camp, and constantly wants to take a bath.
The film's biggest crime is that Tarzan (who resembles John Derek as a younger man) is treated little better than an extra in his own movie. Director Derek is so in love with Bo that even when Tarzan and Jane are together, the camera rarely cuts to Tarzan alone, even when he's engaged in action and Jane's just sitting there. No effort is made to give Tarzan any back-story or make him heroic or noble or anything else. He has no dialogue (though his lips can be seen moving in at least one shot), nor does he ever communicate any emotion or desire and only a passing curiosity about Jane. Bo Derek's tits have a bigger role than Tarzan.
John Derek's direction is singularly awful. Besides showing no interest in the title character, he seems incapable of directing anything like action. The picture's two feeble action scenes -- Tarzan grappling with a python and fighting a beefy native chief -- are utterly squandered by Derek's bad direction. Both scenes use a fake slow motion created in postproduction by an optical printer. The effect is that these scenes play like they're taking place underwater and generate no tension or interest at all. Their impact is further deadened by Derek's decision to superimpose more blurry action on top of the already confusing imagery. Further, they unfold without sound effects but with Perry Botkin, Jr.'s overemphatic score, which often imitates John Williams's music for Jaws.
Derek also greatly overuses wipe effects, to the point where some scenes use only wipes instead of straight cuts between characters. Since the device is normally used to punctuate the end of a scene or transition action to another locale, Derek's use of wipes to cut between characters engaged in conversation or where non-action wipes to more non-action somewhere else is, if nothing else, novel. His photography is bland, failing to take full advantage of the film's Sri Lanka locations, and occasionally is substandard. One scene includes a zoom so sloppy it would embarrass Jess Franco, no small feat.
Producer Bo Derek is more to blame than star Bo Derek. Onscreen, she suggests the wide-eyed birdbrain Julie Haggerty used to play in the Airplane! movies. Her well-scrubbed, rosy face is pretty inexpressive, but mostly she comes off badly because the script gives her nothing to do and contrarily paints Jane as both as a proto-feminist and virginal innocent simultaneously. She has little dialogue until she meets Tarzan, and because he says nothing, Derek is stuck with long, idiotic dialogue as Tarzan cops a feel.
Video & Audio
Warner Bros.'s DVD of Tarzan the Ape Man is presented in its original 1.85:1 format with 16:9 anamorphic enhancement. The picture is a little on the grainy side, typical of film stock of the period, but mostly looks good for its age. The aggressively stereo 5.1 track is impressive for a picture from this era. The DVD includes subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.
The only extra is an original trailer that works overtime trying to sell the film as something other than the total disaster it is. The trailer is likewise presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic format. Rather foolishly, Warners does not include trailers for any of their other Tarzan releases, even the 1932 original.
Neither erotic nor action-packed, Tarzan the Ape Man fails miserably on every count. Some bad movies can be entertaining in their awfulness, but Tarzan the Ape Man is so bad as to be almost unwatchable.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.