Tarzan the Ape Man (1981)

b5-tarzanDirector: John Derek
Starring: Bo Derek | Richard Harris | Miles O’Keefe | John Phillip Law
Music: Perry Botkin
Based on characters created by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The most misleading thing about this movie is the title – TARZAN THE APE MAN. While Tarzan does appear in the film – from about the 60 minute mark – the story is primarily about Jane Parker (Bo Derek) and her journey to Africa to find her estranged father, James Parker (Richard Harris). James Parker is a drunken 18th Century Irish explorer – slightly eccentric, verging on mad – fixated on finding the fabled ‘Elephant’s Graveyard’, high on an escarpment in deepest darkest Africa. Legend has it, that a one-hundred foot tall white ape named Tarzan lives on the escarpment – but no one can be sure, as no one has ever returned alive.

Richard Harris knows the role of a drunken Irishman too well and puts in a lazy performance, fluctuating between soft philosophical whispers and histrionic yelling. Mr. Holt (John Phillip Law) is the other white man on the expedition party. Holt is the photographer, along to chronicle Parker’s heroic exploits. He has little to do, but be a bystander to the fates of the other characters. But as I mentioned at the top, the film is all about Jane – or more precisely, Bo Derek, in various states of undress, which, if that’s your bag, man, then you’ll find a great deal to enjoy over the film’s 110 minute running time.

Naturally enough, Jane finds her father and joins him on his latest expedition into the interior. Little do they know a savage primitive tribe also live on the escarpment. Luckily for Jane, when danger threatens, she has a protector in the form of Tarzan, who becomes infatuated with her.

As a Tarzan film, there’s a lot to dislike about this movie. Firstly the absence of Tarzan (Miles O’Keefe). And when he does appear, the poor fellow gets no dialogue – not even a grunt, let alone a “Me Tarzan, you Jane.” The film also refuses to present the audience with an action scene – the few action sequences are shown in ridiculous exaggerated slow motion, which I guess is supposed to represent power, but instead creates the opposite. Worst sequence in the film is where Tarzan wrestles a python, utilizing an ‘arty’ multiple exposure technique, the scene goes on waaayyy tooo looonnnggg, and makes it impossible to follow the action. Later, when the primitive tribe attack Parker’s expedition, the viewer sees their arrival and the aftermath, but not the battle itself. Those expecting a vigorous jungle adventure will be sorely disappointed.

However the film is not all bad. The cinematography is gorgeous – I believe much of the film was shot in Sri Lanka. Remember this film was made before CGI and digital grading. The actors and crew must have spent many and hour waiting around for the light to be just right – when the ‘magic hour’ was upon them.

The animals in this film, lions, elephants, chimps and apes, are well trained and gave a sense of realism to many scenes. There’s a sequence where a bull elephant scoops up an unconscious Tarzan on his tusks and carries him to a stream, that is very impressive. In this day and age, I’d expect a similar scene to be done with CGI.

In closing, and it must be reiterated, TARZAN THE APE MAN is not for fans of the Lord of the Jungle. But if the thought of watching Bo Derek, in her prime, cavorting around in very little clothing, in exotic locations, appeals to you then give it a whirl. On that level, at least, it succeeds.

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