Tarzan,_the_Ape_Man_poster

Review: Tarzan, the Ape Man (1981)

by Trey Lawson – celluloidsheep.wordpress.com/

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Bad Movie Quote:

“Dad, they’re washing me just like a horse!”

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Tarzan, the Ape Man is, at best, a problematic film. That’s what I would say if I were being very, VERY generous. I don’t feel particularly generous today, though, so I think I will instead say that it is offensive, idiotic, and amateurish. However, it is also often unintentionally funny. The film is ostensibly based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs story of the same name, which had been adapted to film twice before. In fact, this version makes frequent use of the iconic “Tarzan yell” originally used in the 1932 version that starred Johnny Weismuller. Unfortunately, this isn’t really a Tarzan movie. I can see how audiences could mistake it for one, as it has most of the ingredients – jungle, animals, explorers, beautiful girl, muscular man in loincloth, etc. However, it becomes painfully clear that this is a Tarzan movie in name only – you’ll notice he doesn’t even appear on the poster! What it actually amounts to is a vanity project for lead actress Bo Derek (who produced the film along with her husband, the director). She is in virtually every scene, typically in various states of undress. To be honest the plot really serves only to find new excuses for Derek to end up topless – all the way up to and including the end credits.

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The story, such that it is, concerns Jane Parker as she travels to Africa to meet the explorer father whom she never knew. Her father, played by Richard Harris (yes, that Richard Harris) is looking for a legendary “white ape,” or something. It really doesn’t matter, in the scheme of things. He is accompanied by a photographer played by John Phillip Law (BarbarellaDanger: DiabolikGolden Voyage of Sinbad). Jane wanders around with them in the jungle until (finally) she is separated from the expedition and Tarzan swings in to save the day. This, of course, happens FORTY MINUTES INTO THE FILM. It actually takes that long to introduce the title character.

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When Tarzan finally does show up, there really isn’t much to him – what you see is literally what you get (And what you get is the film debut of Miles O’Keeffe, later star of the Ator series of Conan the Barbarian knock-offs). Aside from the spliced-in 1932 “Tarzan Yell,” O’Keeffe’s performance is relegated a few grunts and some bad miming. That’s right, Tarzan never speaks. Now I’m not asking for a full-on literate Lord Greystoke (although it would be nice), but they could have at least put in the obligatory (if apocryphal) “Me Tarzan, you Jane.” Ultimately he is completely undeveloped as a character. There is no indication of who he is or where he came from. What we get instead is a series of weirdly sexual scenes that are more uncomfortable than exciting, such as Jane essentially molesting an unconscious Tarzan and Jane seductively eating a banana as she tries to determine if Tarzan is a virgin. Needless to say, it gets awkward really fast. That actually leads to one of the most offensive parts of the whole movie – the explicit danger for Jane in the jungle is not death, but rape, leading up to the climax in which the expedition is captured and she is ritually washed and painted to be taken by the leader of the tribe. Meanwhile, it is seen as perfectly alright for Jane’s father to have taken a native lover (who, in a bit of irony, is named “Africa”). I was shocked that such a stereotype actually made it into a major Hollywood film in the 1980s. However, even this is presented so cheesily, with such hammy performances – especially by Harris, who looks drunk for most of the film – that you can’t help but laugh at how wrong the whole thing is.

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You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned any of the action scenes. Every Tarzan movie, even one as bad as this, has to let the title character fight off a few angry animals and/or natives (not to mention swing from vines whenever possible). However, every single action sequence, including all of the vine swinging shots, are filmed in slow motion. I don’t know if the goal was to make them look more epic, or to pad out the running time, but all it did was make me laugh. The action scenes in this movie are seriously one “wa-na-na-na-na” sound effect away from belonging in a 1970s superhero TV series. Not only that, but in a film called Tarzan, the Ape Man there is not a single gorilla! There are plenty of chimpanzees, but the whole point of Tarzan is that he was raised by gorillas – the least they could have done was put somebody in a gorilla suit.

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This movie has terrible performances (even Harris is either too drunk or uninterested to do more than yell and chew the scenery), awful action sequences, and almost zero plot or character development. As for the stereotyping and offensiveness, it’s very hard to adapt Tarzan to the current post-colonial, politically correct world. That said, it’s not impossible, and this movie utterly fails in that respect. However, everything in it is so bad that I couldn’t help but laugh. If you want a serious, somewhat faithful adaptation of Tarzan then check out Greystoke: the Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, which was released a few years later. However, if you want the perfect addition to a jungle or pulp-hero themed bad movie night, look no further than Tarzan, the Ape Man (1981).

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Rating:

One Beefcake Wrestling with a Rubber Snake

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