Tarzan, the Ape Man (1981)

Tarzan, the Ape Man (1981), directed by John Derek, written by Tom Rowe and Gary Goddard, based on characters created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, starring Bo Derek, Richard Harris, John Phillip Law and Richard O'Keeffe

I could start by saying that Tarzan, the Ape Man is a bad movie, which it indeed is. But at the same time, I should state that it also is a peculiar movie that is far more intriguing than many other movies that are just simply bad.

To get it out of the way, why the movie is bad, it's just simply poorly directed and shot movie, that doesn't really seem to know what it wants to be. There's a constant feeling of someone mistakenly mixing up pages from two different scripts, which causes the story to look like an odd mix of drama and silly sex romp for adults. Not that the script is anything to be elated about, far from it.


This confusion carries over to how the movie presents itself visually.  It fails in even the simplest thing of presenting a scenery as magnificent by using too tightly framed shots and confuses messy slow motion layered shots as an exciting way of showing action scenes. It has scenes that just flow oddly or feel completely misplaced, just as the "humorous" use of the famous Jhonny Weissmuller Tarzan yodle throughout the movie, starting from the MGM studio logo.

But still, despite the less than stellar direction and editing and the mixed up script, or perhaps just because of them, this bad movie manages to be intriguing. While it is a movie I felt like turning off at times because of how bad some of the scenes are, it still has something in its core, that makes it interesting. And that something is Bo Derek and Richard Harris, who both act, at least when they are together on the screen like they were in some entirely different movie, a movie that isn't even based on the same script the director was making. They both act far better than the movie really deserves and the same could be said on other actors as well. 

The story of Tarzan, the Ape Man, goes like this: Jane Porter (Derek) goes to Africa to meet his father James (Harris), who she has never met in her life, as he abandoned his family when she was just a baby. James is an adventurer, who is trying to find the legendary burial ground of the elephants that is located somewhere near a famed inland sea of Africa. The first 40 or so minutes of the movie is very peculiar mix of overly dramatic conversations between Jane and James, where they go through their strained relationship and try to find a common ground, which takes both of them to a journey towards the inland sea, and oddly unfitting pieces comedy and poorly shot travel scenes.

After almost 50 minutes in, we finally get to see Tarzan (O'Keeffe), who stumbles upon Jane when she is taking a bath in the inland sea. Scenes like this are in the movie solely to bring in some nudity and display the admittedly fine figure of  Bo Derek. But again, they feel like they are meant for a different movie.

In any case, the main villains of the story, the Ivory Tribe, has kidnapped James's lover, a woman he calls Africa (Akushula Selayah). James is blaming Tarzan for this and is with his friend and photographer Harry Holt (Law) trying to capture him. And as Jane has gone missing, he believes Tarzan has also kidnapped her. Things come to a conclusion when the Ivory Tribe captures them all and the movie dwells into an exploitation movie territory by showing how the females of the tribe ready up Jane to a looming rape by the tribes' king. In this oddly shot scene, we are shown, how Bo Derek is on her fours on the ground while women paint her fully white and Richard Harris is trying to steel her mind to survive the fate he knows is closing in.

Finally, Tarzan manages to reach the tribe, hit a couple of dudes in slow motion, swim in slow motion and in the end, jump on the chief in slow motion and wrestle with him in, you guessed it, slow motion. The slow combat ends with Tarzan wringing the king's neck and Jane leaving with him after saying goodbye to her dying father.

And that's the story in its simplicity. A fairly standard thing you'd expect of a Tarzan movie really, but with some added nudity. There are some elements in the movie that feel like a standard adventure film, but at the same time, they feel odd in the contrast of the more dramatic elements, especially because how Harris and Derek play them out. And it's just these scenes, where the two are together, that have this odd feeling about them. When Derek is by herself, it feels like an entirely different movie and when she's with O'Keeffe, the movie turns plain bad, mostly because of the dialogue which is just clunky. See, Tarzan doesn't talk, so the constant banal dialogue from Jane is really hammering in what should be only hinted as with non-verbal communication between the forest god and his new mate to be.

So, like I stated in the beginning, Tarzan, the Ape Man is not a good movie, but none the less, it is an intriguing movie because of how badly different aspects of it mesh together. It is perhaps a movie that should be watched with a group of like-minded friends, who can appreciate the peculiar oddity of it. Or maybe you can just sit back and let the absurdity of it wash over you.


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