Warner Bros. // 1981 // 115 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Neil Dorsett (Retired) // July 14th, 2004
"I indulge myself...a full one hundred percent!"
Some movies are bad. Some movies are goofy. Some movies are goofily bad, and some movies are badly goofy. Some movies are badly goofy and bad, some movies are goofily bad and goofy. Some movies are badly goofy and goofily bad. And some movies are goofily bad, badly goofy, and star Bo Derek and Miles O'Keeffe. Which is to say, that's "some" in the logical sense, meaning that there exists at least one example of such a phenomenon. And this is it. Warner has brazenly included it without disclaimer among their massive Tarzan back catalog release of late, so here it is again, from that dusty time of early MTV, presidential assassination attempts, and the dawn of home video as a major power. Will you welcome please, all the way from a darkest Africa the world failed to actually provide, Tarzan, the Ape Man.
Tarzan, the Ape Man is what they call a message movie. And the message is, Bo Derek is hot. We start things right off with a Frank Frazetta image of a nude girl, presumably either Derek or her previous incarnation, Linda Evans, reclining on her belly atop the logo of the production company (aptly named Svengali Productions). Then the movie opens with a voice-over between two anonymous commentators and lets us know that Jane Parker is the most beautiful woman that at least one of them has ever seen, which the other fellow in the dialogue accepts without question. I must admit here that my familiarity with the library of Edgar Rice Burroughs extends only to the Mars series; I have no frame of reference to determine to what degree any of this business is inspired by the actual Tarzan tales. I would reckon that the total is low indeed. At any rate, this Jane, played of course by Bo Derek, begins a voyage amongst a questionable sea crew during a cheesy, multicolored credits sequence. The credits are a harbinger of things to come. The movie contains many cheesy transitions of the like we remember these days from movies like Swamp Thing and The Rocky Horror Picture Show: zigzag irises, oddly shaped curtain wipes, that spiral wipe thing, etc. Anyway, during a sequence of such credits and transitions, Jane's ship is apparently attacked, leaving her shipwrecked but somehow still on course to her destination deep in the lost heart of Africa.
We pick things back up, following a brief nude swim shot at a discreet distance by Bo's exploi...I mean husband, John Derek (who of course shot the entire film, not just this one bit), with Jane's arrival at the encampment of her father, played by Richard Harris, who has been in all kinds of movies and stage productions far, far better than this. Nonetheless, Harris, displaying a vein in his forehead that looks exactly like the stripe on Charlie Brown's shirt, rises to the occasion and makes a complete ass of himself throughout the movie. It is he who issues forth the line given as The Charge above, and he also has a truly crowning moment shouting "Damn! Damn! Damn!" while pummeling a bonfire with a polearm-sized torch as Jane and Tarzan (whom we shall get to in a moment) come close to consummating what represents the rare literal instance of the phrase "hot monkey love." Filling out the cast are two celebrated veterans of Mystery Science Theater 3000, the mightily pumped Miles O'Keefe (The Blade Master, AKA Cave Dwellers) as the mute Tarzan and John Philip Law of Mario Bava's kitsch classic Diabolik as Parker's photographer, Mr. Holt. Now, Miles O'Keeffe made his whole living off of pumping iron and appearing in bad movies like this one, but in this case the man seems to have gone a bit too far; the poor fellow's so musclebound in this picture that he seems barely able to move. Johnny Weissmuller this is not!
But indeed, Tarzan's sections of the movie are there largely as filler, and filler is what they stink of. The movie violates its rule of cutting away to the aftermath of all sex and action twice in traumatically lengthy wrestling scenes (one with a snake, the other with the obviously Caucasian leader of the menacing African tribe), covering up the lack of movement in the action with the use of many dissolves and a continuous skip-frame artificial slow motion effect -- the literal opposite of the undercranking used in the old Tarzan pictures. One truly (possibly even intentionally) amusing moment occurs in the snake fight when Bo gets beyond the range of the slow motion, but Tarzan is still stuck in it. That fight goes on long enough to induce nausea. But of course, as I said, this is the filler, just here to space out the scenes of Bo Derek nude or topless.
And they're not few. We get Bo on the beach, Bo swimming in the river, Bo changing, Bo painted white ("They're painting me! They're painting me white!" she cries before being seen that way, as some sort of preparation for the shock of a painted-white Bo Derek). Not only that, but the clothing designer displays a remarkable capability for making Bo's breasts stand out as if they're nude, even when she's in full Victorian costume. And finally, in a truly peculiar sequence seemingly intended to represent Tarzan's sex education, we get Bo cavorting topless with an orangutan as Tarzan watches intently. O'Keefe's Tarzan is a bit dim and somewhat impotent except as a voyeur in the movie; when a lion (that moves like a husky) has Bo pinned down at the beach, Tarzan neither moves to rescue the girl nor to capture her immediately. Rather, he simply takes a seat and joins the lion and the audience in their leering observations. But hey, who can blame them? Bo Derek was indeed a very beautiful woman, perhaps not to the degree touted by this movie, but still quite something. Which makes you wonder how she managed to shoot the whole first reel of this movie with an unbleached mustache. But I kid. By the way, there is another woman in this movie, Parker's lover, named Africa by him, played by Akushula Selayah. Her role amounts to some diddly, followed by a bit of squat, whereupon she's kidnapped by the menacing tribe and disappears.
So that's it. One big stinker of a movie, that knows full well it's a stinker, but doesn't care, because it's all about the bods anyway. I can't recommend this movie except as catcalling fodder with a bit of sweetening. But, on that note, it's got a sort of nostalgic sweetness to it too; this movie in many ways represents the rise of home video over cinema more eloquently than any other. Once Sports Illustrated and Playboy got into the video business, there was no longer a place for this type of extended big-screen centerfold, which had really only just developed not too long before in response to the backlash against mainstream pornography. And AIDS, that spectre which turned most mainstream American sex movie into scare stories, had yet to rear its head. So there's something of an artifact value at work in this movie, if you care about such progressions. But it's still not good entertainment, and still a blatant piece of exploitation not only of Bo's physique but of the Tarzan license and legend, and I cannot in any way recommend it as a movie.
Tarzan, the Ape Man is presented here by Warner Brothers in a reasonably nice-looking anamorphic widescreen transfer. Some edge enhancement is detectable, but nothing out of the ordinary. It's more than a little bit grainy, but we're not talking about something that underwent print remastering here, and it wasn't a very high-budget movie in the first place. Colors are pretty good, and the motion compression is not awful, though occasionally it's overwhelmed by the amount of foliage in a pan or tracking shot (one quick lookaround shot is completely destroyed). The movie is presented in a straightforward 5.1 Dolby Digital mix that neither moves about much nor provides tremendous range. Overall, what we have here is a fairly decent presentation of an older sound mix which takes advantage not of the panning capabilities of multi-channel sound, but merely its discrete channel encoding, which is a feature of Dolby Digital and DTS systems that maybe doesn't get enough credit. The sole extra feature is a theatrical trailer, which, as one might expect, makes quite an attempt to tantalize the audience with the prospect of a nude Bo Derek. The packaging, as several other Warner releases have of late, displays what would be perfectly ordinary in any other company's disc, but a miracle for Warner: it's in a keep case. They seem at last to have gotten the idea. Further, the cover image is a very straight reproduction of the movie's poster (painted by another artist renowned for cheesecake art in the fantasy field, Olivia De Berardinis), with the movie's original tagline: "The most beautiful woman of our time in the most erotic adventure of all time." Sure, it's anachronistic, and it's presumptuous in almost every word that isn't an article or a preposition -- but by golly, it's the movie's original tagline. Good for you, Warner! On the other hand, the back cover image is taken from the movie's only dual vine-swinging shot, another skip-frame slow motion atrocity that makes the both of them look about as attractive as a bowl of bricks. To be honest, it doesn't even look like Bo Derek in that picture. What a strange choice.
Tarzan, the Ape Man can't be caged, but it's sure guilty. A deft bit of humorous judo and an appreciation for the physique of Mrs. Derek could turn it into a guilty pleasure, but only for the seasoned bad movie aficionado. Beware the Ape Man!
Review content copyright © 2004 Neil Dorsett; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailer