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Lust in the jungle: “Tarzan the Ape Man”

February 11, 2014

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Lord, I miss the movies of the ‘80s. And when I say that, I mean the pre-blockbuster days of the early-‘80s. When the decade still had a contact high from the ‘70s—still batshit crazy, but less violent and despondent.  That moment when we, as a society, went from “We’re in the midst of a bad recession and gas shortage, so let’s smoke some pot and have an orgy,” to “Yay! Reagan said that it’s morning in America! Let’s all do coke and have an orgy!” Because, gentle reader only that era of innocence could bring us a big-budget Tarzan movie that basically serves as nudity-delivery vehicle for Bo Derek. And with that, let us dive into 1981’s Tarzan the Ape Man.

The story of Tarzan the Ape Man is really nothing new: girl meets boy raised by monkeys, boy…no, that’s basically it. In this version, Jane (she of “Me Tarzan, you Jane” fame) is played by the aforementioned Bo Derek. Jane has ventured in darkest Africa in search of her father, James Parker (a possibly-unhinged Richard Harris), a world-famous explorer and adventurer.

This explains a great deal.

This explains a great deal.

Jane finds dad set up on a river bank with his expedition, and he is absolutely nuts.  I mean, like, break out the butterfly nets and the rubber room nuts. He greets the arrival of the tramp steamer carrying Jane by doing a jig on the river bank wearing only boots and a nightshirt. Because, I guess the best to whet your audience’s appetite for some nubile Bo Derek flesh is to show Richard Harris hanging brain.

Well, the family reunion isn’t exactly a joyous one, as Jane is really cheesed off at dad for basically abandoning her mother to romp around Africa, and James is obsessed with how beautiful Jane is and how much she resembles her mother. Oh yeah, it gets real incesty real fast, as Parker spends many scenes staring longingly at Jane. This is as good a time as any to point out that pretty much everyone in the movie throws rapey looks at Jane–from the crew of the steamer, to her dad to, well…the elephant might have, it’s hard to tell with elephants. Also: you’re probably going want to take a shower after seeing this movie.

This pretty much sums it up...

This pretty much sums it up…

James launches the next phase of his expedition which entails climbing a massive cliff face into unexplored Africa where there is rumored to be a great inland sea. And also, a great white ape, whose familiar call they often hear in the distance.

Finally, the movie picks up some steam as members of the expedition go missing, and James attributes it to the great white ape, who, he promises, he will kill and mount on the wall of his club back in England (he’s very insistent about the whole “mounting on the club wall” thing; it’s kinda weird). Soon enough they reach the inland sea  (newsflash, Africa had an ocean in the middle of it back in the 1800s). during a moment alone, when Jane frolics in the waves, the great, white ape himself makes an appearance to rescue her from an errant lion. Only the ape is actually a chiseled slab of man-candy played by Miles O’Keefe.

The only reason women went to this movie...

The only reason women went to this movie…

Well, James runs him off, but later, Tarzan—having liked what he saw of Jane in the ocean (he saw a lot of her) snatches her from the expedition and takes her back to his, uh, home on the beach with his extended family of an apes, lions, and elephants. There he and Jane, well, they basically get each other all hot and bothered, while Jane delivers some of the worst-written lines in cinematic history. There are Cinemax softcore thrillers about vampires stalking strippers that sound like The Thin Man next to this dialogue.

Tarzan's one smoove operator.

Tarzan’s one smoove operator.

Well, Jane is rescued from her almost-deflowering by James and she rejoins the expedition. Unfortunately, they’re all promptly captured by mud people (uh…I mean, a tribe that slathers themselves in mud, not a racist observation—goddamn it, now Klanwatch is gonna have my blog bookmarked).

Well, the mud…ah, tribe ties everyone up except Jane, who a bunch of the female members give a sexy, sexy bath. Then they slather her with white paint (because Jane’s status as the white goddess in the dark continent wasn’t established thoroughly enough already), and offer her to their massive, mohawked chieftain.

Look, they're people who wear mud, not...ah, dammit!

Look, they’re people who wear mud, not…ah, dammit!

Aha! But moments before the white virgin can be despoiled by the savage, Tarzan rides in with a herd of elephants and promptly breaks the dude’s neck after some homoerotic wrestling. James is killed and Jane goes off to live with Tarzan, and the two have a lot of bam-chika-wah-wah—the movie makes this absolutely clear—and we get plenty of totally gratuitous nude scenes by Bo and even a couple of heart-wipes before the movie ends.

But this mere description barely gets at the craziness of Tarzan the Ape Man. To understand it, you have to understand 1981 Bo Derek—a woman at the pinnacle of her desirability. This is no mean feat, as her turn in 1979’s 10 set movie theaters on fire. The scenes of her running along a Mexican beach, cornrows dancing in the breeze single-handedly ended that whole “malaise” thing Jimmy Carter talked about. And this movie was all about getting her naked.

“Our long, national nightmare is finally over! A really hot chick just showed up”

Director John Derek—Bo’s husband—spent much of the early ‘80s making damn sure everyone who watched movies knew exactly how sexy his wife was. In this, pretty much every other scene in Tarzan was John Derek telling the audience, “I’m totally boning her!” Which also explains why everyone in the movie also wants to Bone Bo. You can’t even complain about the racial politics of the movie, because as far as Derek is concerned pretty much everyone is the same—they all want to see Bo Derek naked.

I could go on and on, but this blog post is plenty sleazy already. And that’s what I miss about those early ‘80s movies—the fact that Hollywood decided to make an R-rated Tarzan movie in all seriousness. Eighteen years later, Tarzan returned as a Disney animated feature. I haven’t seen it, but I think it’s safe to say there was a lot less nudity in it. Man, I miss the ‘80s.

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