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The Tarzan story from Jane's point of view. Jane Parker visits her father in Africa where she joins him on an expedition. A couple of brief encounters with Tarzan establish a (sexual) bond between her and Tarzan. When the expedition is captured by savages, Tarzan comes to the rescue. Written by
I appreciate John Derek's "Tarzan the Ape Man" (1981) because it's so unique and it does inspire the awe of nature, whether scenic, animal, human or romantic. The plot of the film focuses on Jane Parker (Bo Derek), who goes to remotest Africa in search of her explorer father, James Parker (Richard Harris). She joins his party (which includes John Phillip Law) and they climb to the top of a mysterious escarpment whereupon they discover a wild white man, Tarzan (Miles O'Keeffe). Meanwhile the aborigines don't take too kindly to their encroachment.
The opening MGM emblem tips off that the film shouldn't be taken too seriously: instead of the lion's roar we get Tarzan's famous jungle yell. The movie is generally serious, but in a comic-book sort of way. There's a nice sense of awe as the party traverses through the wilderness (it was shot in Sri Lanka and the island of Seychelles, 1500 miles SW of Sri Lanka), particularly when they discover the great escarpment and, then, the fictitious inland sea.
The animals are great as well, particularly the magnificent lion, the friendly elephant who scoops up Tarzan's body and the playful chimps & orangutan. By the way, the Asian elephant and orangutan present an obvious plot hole since they're not native to Africa. Not to mention James' native babe, Africa (Akushula Selayah), since she's clearly of East Indian stock (although he might've picked her up on a different expedition). Also, the muscular dude who plays the "Ivory King" (Steve Strong) is obviously a white dude painted black. Speaking of the Ivory King, Steve Strong really hams it up with bad acting befitting of a gym rat and why does it take so long to simply wake him up?
The second act is kind of boring. It consists mostly of Jane and Tarzan getting to know each other in the jungle. There's a beauty and innocence to the scenes, even a sense of awe, but they're probably too long for the average viewer. Still, the film celebrates this aspect of the human experience much as the Song of Songs in the Bible celebrates the consummation of a man & woman with overtly erotic language (read it and see for yourself).
"Tarzan the Ape Man" is reminiscent of 1976's "King Kong" in tone. Remember the sense of awe of that film coupled with the comic booky material? Remember when Kong bathed Dwan via the waterfall and gazes on in wonder? Remember the stretched-out dramatics? This is what you get with "Tarzan the Ape Man". It's an adventure film with a lot of drama and little conventional action. When the action comes -- Tarzan vs. a huge snake and Tarzan vs. the Ivory King -- it's presented in slow-motion, which is strange and hardly thrilling. And, yet, it sets the film apart. "Tarzan the Ape Man" takes its time in telling its story; by contrast, 1998's "Tarzan and the Lost City" hurriedly jumps from one sequence to the next with hardly any room to breath. They're both Tarzan films but from two completely different approaches. I just viewed them both back-to-back and it's an interesting comparison.
Of course, "Tarzan the Ape Man" is a showcase for Bo Derek. She's a beautiful woman both inside and out, but she's not a perfect "10" in my opinion. Her physicality is indeed statuesque, but her butt is too flat and her thighs too skinny (sorry if that sounds crude; I'm just being honest).
Miles O'Keeffe LOOKS great as Tarzan, but that's it. He has zero dialog beyond Tarzan's patented yell and, worse, zero depth as a character, except that he's benign and heroic. This is disappointing because Burroughs' books presented him as highly intelligent and even a type of Yahweh (the LORD), as in "the Lord of the jungle". But the film focuses on Tarzan when he is first discovered by Europeans (when he knew how to read via kid's books, but not yet how to speak English), so this can be forgiven.
One aspect of the film is outstanding and that's Tarzan's kinship with the various animals. An excellent example is the innocent playfulness of Tarzan, Jane and the orangutan in the closing scene.
Also, Richard Harris is worthy of note because he gives the role all his heart and is convincing. Despite his constant (and loud) blathering he does have some interesting insights -- like the importance of living life to its fullest and the humility to turn to God when he's totally spent (and it works!). In other words, the film isn't just mindless adventure; it features some gems to chew on.
"Tarzan the Ape Man" was a modest hit in 1981 but, surprisingly, there was no sequel. It would've been interesting to see O'Keeffe's Tarzan develop as a character and his relationship with Jane. But maybe John and Bo accomplished everything they intended to with this film and found the idea of a sequel superfluous.
BOTTOM LINE: "Tarzan the Ape Man" is a unique Tarzan film and worth it for the sense of awe -- the marvels of nature, the amazement of animals, the beauty of the (fit) human form and the wonder of (true) sexuality.
The film runs 107 minutes.
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