On an expedition to find the legendary ‘white ape’ in Africa, a father and daughter take to the jungle. What they find is an erotic tale of overacting, softcore nudity and lots of the finest cut cheese the decade has to offer. It’s Tarzan, The Ape Man.
When we think of the amazing women who stand behind the men who have become heroes in our favorite films, names such Lois Lane, Sarah Conner, Marion Ravenwood and more, it probably wouldn’t be long before Jane Parker gets added to the list. Who is Jane Parker? You might know her better, interestingly enough, if you dropped her last name. As the love interest for the King of the Jungle, she has long been an important part of the story but one that is less defined by who she is but by what she becomes.
In John Derek‘s Tarzan, The Ape Man, a remake of sorts of the 1932 film of the same name, Tarzan takes a back seat in his own story as the focus shifts to the lovely Jane, played by Bo Derek, wife of the director. Playing an independent woman in a time when women “we’re for men’s pleasure, not their own,” she is an adventurer who has come to the jungles of Africa in search of her father (Richard Harris), on an expedition to exploit the riches of the continent. Of course, when she arrives, she learns he is actually hunting the mythological 100ft tall White Ape, a legend he finds amusing as it terrifies the locals. Convinced Tarzan is the greatest prize to plunder and one to stuff on his wall, he is determined to find him.
At the time of filming, Bo Derek was a bonafide sensation. After a dream sequence in the 1979 comedy 10, in which she runs in slow motion down a beach in a flimsy flesh-colored bathing suit, she became an international sex symbol, something her husband had been working hard to ensure for most the 1970s. With Tarzan, The Derek’s had full control over direction and story (even after the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate unsuccessfully sued them). That allowed for giving a familiar story a new perspective, that of Jane rather than Tarzan.
Controversial at the time for its nudity and sexual situations, it also drew heat for its depiction of the blonde-haired naked Derek being bathed by black women and then again as they paint her white. It’s a prolonged, grope-y sequence in slow-motion that in today’s climate, is even more uncomfortable. Derek herself though, in her first leading role, is mostly convincing as Jane, though her go-to emotive acting gestures is touching her lips, which she does time and time and time again. Nothing sexual about that. It happens just slightly less often than Harris calling Tarzan a son-of-a-bitch. Seriously. It could be a drinking game.
Watching the movie now, it’s a slow, melodramatic piece of fluff that is more than a little ridiculous. Choppy direction and editing don’t help an awful script. A climactic fight is filmed in such slow-motion, they barely move and is as gripping to watch as a rice cake on a plate. Harris goes off the deep end playing a wildly eccentric James Parker (a name repeated over and over), who not just chews up scenery, he mangles them with ferocity. His reciting of Humpty-Dumpty in a moment of crisis is cringeworthy. And of course there’s Tarzan himself. In his film debut, Miles O’Keefe is 80s beefcake jungle boy BAM, who swings on vines and talks to the animals. And he yells with Johnny Weismuller‘s voice.
In the run time of the film, there are any number of scenes that make you wonder how it ever got made, but there’s no resisting the power of a beautiful woman and a pair of naked boobs. While the film was ravaged by critics, it was a box office smash. That said, let’s take a closer look at one moment when a kidnapped Jane explores the man who stole her.
She Jane. She Ready.
There’s not much setup needed. James Parker is hunting for Tarzan. His hot twenty-something daughter is with him There you go. On a riverbank as Jane’s father leads his expedition inland, Jane is swept into the water by a silent Tarzan who has become smitten by her beauty. He drags her away and into the dense jungle where she pulls a gun (which, like her, is totally dry for some reason – and actually one of the few times she is in the film). She fires and he runs off, even though she calls for him to come back.
It’s not a minute later that she’s attacked by a giant constrictor and gets entangled with the beast. Thank goodness Tarzan hears her struggling and swoops back in on his vine, giving us that Tarzan yell. What follows is a bizarre three minutes of super slo-motion snake fighting with Tarzan, Jane and the python all seemingly super-imposed over each other. It’s nearly impossible to understand what is happening.
When it’s over, Tarzan is victorious but exhausted and wounded. He collapses and his jungle friends emerge from the forest, including chimpanzees and an orangutan (which is an exclusively Asian species of great apes, native only to Indonesia and Malaysia, but we’re not watching this movie for a science lesson). Oh, and then comes and Indian Elephant. Driven, literally, by a chimp, it scoops up Tarzan in its tusks and carries him into the foliage. Jane follows.
They all head to a secret location where the chimps and Jane tend to the unconscious Tarzan. We learn that Jane, a gorgeous 25-year-old independent European woman has never touched a man before. There’s a lot we need to accept if we’re going to get through this, so we’ll just take that at face value.
While the knocked out, loincloth-wearing Tarzan is splayed unawares on the shore of a small lagoon, she takes the chance to sneak a feel and runs her fingers along his glistening hairless face, chest and abdomen. She likes it. We know so because she says, “I like it.” That’s not a joke.
He eventually wakes up from the
sexual harassment physical examination and dives into the water, swimming to the other side. She and the other animals follow. Tarzan climbs up into large nest-like structure in the tree tops and when looks up doe eyed, pulls her up and they settle into the reeds where they quickly fall asleep. There will be no sex in the jungle tonight, even though the curious ape man sneaks a peak at the goodies rounding out the front of her dress.
The next morning, Tarzan, who has yet to utter a single sound aside from his jungle call, swings down from his nest and gets right back into the water with Jane right behind because John Derek refuses to have his wife not look provocative for even five minutes of this movie.
There is a bit of back and forth here as the burly man edges closer to the drenched girl, she backing up and somehow finding a way to took nervous and seductive at the same time. Soon, they are face-to-face and she begins to talk to herself/him about her predicament. And since this is a Bo Derek movie, that conversation is about sex.
She comments that she got through the night and is still a virgin. She can’t decide if that’s good of a bad. Again we know this because she says, ‘”I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad.” That’s a direct quote. Also, since a chimpanzee has given her a banana, she has a long moment where she undress the fruit with long strokes and playfully use it instead of her fingers to touch her mouth.
She surmises that Tarzan must be a virgin, too because, well, as she says, “You’d have to be.” That statement leaves us with a whole host of retorts that mostly involve the orangutan but we’ll just show you the face Tarzan gives her instead.
Jane then goes on to muse about how the girls back home would never believe where she is. She says if all feels like a story out of a book and and can’t tell if she’s dreaming or not. She just hopes it has a happy ending. She explains that he’s prettier than any girl she’s every known, which prompts her to try and teach him how to smile. He doesn’t. Instead, after running his own fingers on her her lips, decides it’s time to go straight for second base.
While Tarzan gropes at her chest, apparently seeing a woman up close for the first time in his life (which seems odd as we see topless African women throughout the film because Hollywood), he seems to be about as sexually interested in her as he was the elephant. She however thinks this is how sex starts out and closes her eyes for some jungle love. What happens next will be for you to discover, and while it involves her knee high leather boots, Tarzan keeps his loincloth on.
The sexplotation of Bo Derek was always more about expectation. A mainstream actress who was defined by her body rather than her acting skills, her unusual look and uninhibited style had audiences craving more. In a time when uncountable nude women weren’t a click away on a smartphone, the movies were where many headed to see a glimpse of a beautiful naked girl. Derek embraced the sex symbol persona with great enthusiasm, making public appearances on late night television shows, talking about sex scenes and being nude. She produced one of the most popular pinup posters (anyone remember those?) of the decade and made a career out of showing her assets.
In Tarzan, The Ape Man, the setting and the title were meant to conjure audience’s imaginations about the ravenously sexy Derek in animalistic sexual action. While there’s absolutely none of that in the story, she does give fans enough skin to keep it from being a disappointment. The movie is a mess, artistically technically, and every other -ically, and this scene serves to highlight the dreadful script and dialog, Derek’s terrible line reading, and her husband’s lack of compelling direction. However, all is not lost. There is an abandonment about it that somehow keeps it enjoyable. Well, fun at least, even at its most absurd, which is surely the finale. As a relic of the time, it’s worth catching and if you are a fan of Bo Derek or have never heard of this once world-wide phenomenon, now’s the time to give this a look.
Tom Rowe (screenplay), Edgar Rice Burroughs(characters)
Bo Derek, Richard Harris, Miles O’Keeffe