40 Years Ago: Bo Derek’s Soft Porn ‘Tarzan’ Swings and Misses
Some terrible movies are near-misses, which actually could have been pretty good had one or two things about them turned out differently. Others earn the label because virtually everything about them, from idea to execution, truly is terrible.
Bo Derek's soft porn take on Tarzan, the Ape Man, which premiered on August 7, 1981, is famous for being one of the latter.
Its reputation for years now has been of a movie that has an entirely negative value, its worth lying in a series of cautionary tales about what not to do when you make a movie.
The first part of this disaster stems from the players involved. The film was the brainchild of John Derek, a handsome but middling actor who got his start in the '40s and spent twenty years playing small parts in mostly forgettable movies. A Hollywood brat – both his parents were involved in the silent film industry – Derek didn't particularly like acting, and was mostly notable for marrying a string of gorgeous up-and-coming actresses.
Watch the Trailer for 'Tarzan, the Ape Man'
His first wife was Pati Behrs, a Russian ballerina who emigrated to the U.S. and was trying to make it as an actress when she met Derek. After a few years of that marriage, Derek met and started an affair with an 18-year-old aspiring Swiss actress named Ursula Andress. Derek eventually married Andress, and then, after a few more years, moved on once again on to a younger woman – actress Linda Evans.
He was married to Evans when, in 1973, he started an affair with 16-year-old Mary Cathleen Collins. The two lived in Europe until she turned 18 to avoid statutory rape charges, and he gave her a stage name: Bo Derek. By this time, John had decided that what he really wanted to do was direct, and had fallen into the habit of making films starring his wives, all of whom were beautiful, but none of whom were very good actors. This didn't much matter, as John wasn't a very good director.
He continued this pattern with Bo, making a film in 1973 called Fantasies starring her that was so bad it wasn't released for almost ten years. The two then decided that maybe porn was the way to go, and John directed (with Bo producing) the hardcore Love You! in 1979. And then they got lucky. Bo was cast in 10, a comedy directed by Blake Edwards, and became something of an international superstar.
Watch the Trailer for '10'
For a brief moment, Bo Derek had her pick of roles in Hollywood. And she declared that she would only consent to being directed by her husband. To prove how magnificently this would work, the two decided to remake of the 1932 film Tarzan the Ape Man, which had featured the original dude to swing on the vine and do the famous yodel, Johnny Weissmuller.
Thus begun the second part of the disaster, which involves virtually every decision made in pre-production, during the filming, and in post-production. Neither Bo Derek nor John Derek had much talent, of course, but similarly untalented people have made fine films, usually because they had the sense to surround themselves with people possessing actual skills. The Dereks, for the most part, declined to do this.
The script they came up with revolved around a young woman named Jane arriving in West Africa in 1910 to find her father, a wayward adventurer named James Parker (played by Richard Harris, a fine actor whose decision to appear in the film has never really been satisfactorily explained).
Parker is dead set on journeying inland to find a landlocked sea, next to which is rumored to be an elephant graveyard filled with ivory. Jane joins him, and for almost an hour of screen time they wander through the forest more or less aimlessly. When they eventually do find the sea, Jane declares that she needs to bathe alone, and naked, at which point a lion comes sauntering down the beach and lies down on her clothes.
Watch a 'Tarzan, the Ape Man' Fight Scene
Jane is extremely lucky, though, because a moment later a mostly naked guy (Miles O'Keefe) wanders onto the beach as well. It turns out he's a friend of the lion, and happens to be named Tarzan. Not really understanding contemporary etiquette, Tarzan kidnaps Jane by throwing her over his shoulder and carries her into his forest kingdom. Eventually she escapes his clutches, although not before deducing, in a scene in which she seductively eats a banana handed to her by a chimp, that she and Tarzan are both virgins.
Sadly, her reunion with her father isn't a particularly happy one because they get captured by a band of post-apocalyptic looking tribespeople. Tarzan saves them, and the film ends with a credit sequence in which a topless Jane wrestles with the chimp who gave her the banana, and then Tarzan joins in on the fun and then they all roll around on the ground together.
To say the story is inane is of course an understatement. But what makes it particularly delicious in this regard is the seeming inability of anyone involved (save Harris, who gives a performance that is perhaps over-the-top but at least has some professional dignity) to do anything right.
John Derek decides to frame a scene – set in a tent in the jungle in 1910 – with a lightbulb swinging dramatically in the foreground. A scene that is supposed to be an action-filled fight between Jane, Tarzan and a huge snake is rendered nearly entirely in slow motion shots that fade into each other, making it look like a trippy montage from a bad heavy metal video from 1988. Bo Derek makes no attempt to put on any kind of an accent and just decides to talk like an American, despite the fact that her father is English and she grew up in the U.K. Tarzan's best friends are not apes at all, but an orangutan and two chimps, along with a docile Indian elephant. The main bad-guy tribesperson is played by a white American pro wrestler named Steve Strong, sporting a rat-tale haircut and body paint out of a Mad Max flick.
Although Tarzan, the Ape Man made a tidy profit, earning over $36 million at the box office, there is almost no redeeming quality to the film other than the fascination of watching people try hard, and earnestly, and fail in weird ways.
It is worth noting that it did little to slow down Bo and John Derek's careers, as they would go on to make two more disastrous films together, and she would maintain her glamorous cover-girl reputation through the entirety of the '80s. As they say in Hollywood, there's always that lucky few who get to fail upwards.