Sunday, July 26, 2009
The Chapter Always Ended Before This Part
I wish I had enough free time these days so I could see more films that seem appropriate for summer viewing, whether they’re any good or not. But that free time just isn’t there. Things have been pretty crazy lately and while I’m not going to get into any of that here, you’d think that I’d take advantage of what little downtime I did have to make a point to see films that were a little more enriching. Instead I find myself wondering why I haven’t gotten around to a summer viewing of THE CANNONBALL RUN yet this year. And, for the hell of it, I decided that it was about time that I finally saw TARZAN, THE APE MAN. The Bo Derek version, just so no one will be confused. It came out way back in the summer of 1981 so I just figured it was time. It’s not a good movie and I wasn’t really expecting one. Does this film still have any notoriety? Does anyone really care about Bo Derek anymore? There’s not much that’s good about it, but I did get some enjoyment out of seeing a film that was so obviously made in some exotic, far off locale. And yes, Bo Derek is very nice to look at whether clothed or unclothed. Aside from that, um….I don’t know if I really have anything.
Africa, 1910. Having recently lost her mother Jane Parker (Bo Derek) sets off far darkest Africa in search of her father James who abandoned his wife and child decades earlier. She finds him in the form of Richard Harris, either half mad or, well, just being played by Richard Harris. Setting out on an expedition, she soon hears of the legend of Tarzan (“A great white ape, supposedly ten feet tall…”) and before she knows it is face to face with the beast in the mute form of Miles O’Keeffe. She falls for him immediately, much to her father’s obvious horror as he becomes more determined to capture Tarzan himself but when certain denizens of the jungle set off for the Parkers, of course Tarzan is the only one to do anything about it.
Reviled upon release which didn’t prevent it from doing pretty well at the box office (although none of Derek’s other starring vehicles were released by a major studio like this was), there’s very little I can say about TARZAN, THE APE MAN that is particularly favorable but considering how legendary the film is as being notoriously awful I guess I’d have to say that I didn’t think it was quite that bad. If anything, it’s just really boring. Maybe I managed to be diverted by the location work (not Africa, but Sri Lanka and the Seychelles Islands) which at least managed to make it feel like a real film or the genuinely impressive amount of footage of human actors interacting with presumably dangerous animals clearly in the same shot. The animals are enjoyable to watch as well. There’s always the possibility that I was just distracted by the sight of Bo Derek but, in all honesty, I didn’t think it was quite the level of bad that I was expecting. It was just bad. Period. And dull. No need to overreact about it. Not that this means that I’m going to launch into any sort of defense of it.
If part of the negative response to the film at the time had to do with director John Derek’s Svengali-like approach to directing wife Bo (well, the company behind the film is “Svengali Productions” complete with a provocative logo drawn by Frank Frazetta) but since that’s not really a concern anymore all we can really deal with now is an erotic adventure story that focuses more on the “erotic” half that would never be made today and clearly directed by someone who is unable to piece together a film in a particularly coherent, or engaging, fashion--it’s simply designed to showcase his wife in the best possible way. And make no mistake, Bo looks beautiful throughout, framed in extremely well-lit close-ups like something out of 1940s MGM even while her male co-stars in the same scene only get medium shots. She’s so beautiful that it’s too bad that she doesn’t display much in the way of actual acting ability. She works just great in “10” mostly because she’s supposed to be a figure of fantasy for Dudley Moore and when she’s supposed to display more depth than that it’s clear that Blake Edwards worked very closely with her, probably being very careful in how he chose the takes he ultimately used. Here, John Derek seems just interested in the look which is admittedly rather stunning but there’s no personality, no spunk, no real character beyond that gorgeousness, even if the script credited to Tom Rowe and Gary Goddard tries to give her snappy dialogue, like comparing her encounter with Tarzan to something that might happen in a cheesy romance novel. She’s also revealed to be a forward-thinking woman which seems inspired by discussion of Women’s lib circa 1981—the concept of Tarzan from the point of view of Jane may be the point of the entire movie it just comes off as being shoehorned in there—but she doesn’t say these things with any real conviction, instead coming off as the very definition of vacuous.
John Derek’s direction doesn’t reveal much personality either. Aside from the Johnny Weismuller yell over the MGM lion and the old-fashioned wipes between scenes (you know, like STAR WARS) there’s no real sense of excitement or fun, even when Tarzan is engaged in some life-and-death struggle. As for the title character, he doesn’t turn up in the flesh until close to forty-five minutes in, never speaks so much as a grunt outside of his trademark yell and displays next to no personality which is presumably just what the liberated (but virginal, which she reveals as she goes over him closely) Jane Parker is looking for. In her autobiography “Riding Lessons” Derek describes O’Keeffe as having “the most beautiful body I have ever seen” and her character says to him, “Do you know you’re more beautiful than any girl I know?” He at least looks the part of Tarzan but aside from that he’s just a blank—which pretty much seems to be the point—paired up against a Jane who is a blank herself, but that part doesn’t seem as intentional. I’m the wrong person to discuss the film’s fidelity to the original Edgar Rice Burroughs creation but if the original story were this dull I can’t imagine anyone would have ever cared. The fact that the villainous natives near the end, including the one who Tarzan has to fight, are at least in part clearly played by Caucasians keeps everything in a fantasy realm which keeps things from getting too uncomfortable but it really doesn’t matter.
Photographed by its director it’s at least a good-looking film, particularly in the close-ups of the star and it does seem to make some good use of the locations they filmed in. But being well-shot and well-directed are not the same thing and scenes are continually staged in a completely dull and, at times, confusing way. Even the set-ups used feel badly chosen. Every single one of the action scenes are terribly directed and, with massive amounts of skip-framing used to slow things down, seem to go on forever. Actually, most of the movie seems to go on forever, including what has to be the longest death scene for a major character in film history and the entire thing clocks in at what feels like an interminable 114 minutes. The various animals are very likable, however, particularly the chimpanzees and orangutan. Since it’s probably all anyone cares about, there is considerable Bo Derek nudity but it’s not like she’s nude throughout the entire film, although we do get to see her unclothed and on all fours being scrubbed clean when she’s taken captive, with lots of coverage on this as she screams, “They’re washing me just like a horse!” Still, there’s never any kind of soft-core action that would jeopardize the R rating and really, anything you’d ever need to see in the film can be found in the end credits which features a topless Bo cavorting with O’Keeffe and their orangutan. Everything that the film is, or wants to be, is right in that shot and it only took nearly two hours to get there. It’s really the only part of it you ever need to see. If that's the sort of thing you're looking for, of course.
Playing against the romantic leads with zero charisma is Richard Harris who seems to be trying to compensate by generating enough energy for twenty other actors. He’s either playing his part as genuinely insane or maybe wanting us to think that he really is that insane as he plays some sort of odd Freudian drama in his own head in regards to how beautiful his daughter is and how much she looks like the late wife he abandoned so many years ago. Maybe John Derek never tried to get him to bring it down a few dozen notches, maybe this is exactly what the director wanted but rarely has a star as big as this come off as so truly deranged as he catapults over the top and past several mountain ranges as well. At times he yells so much it’s tough to imagine how the actor could have worked more than a few hours in a day without his voice being shot. As Mr. Holt, who is in charge of the expedition, John Phillip Law brings a genial likability to his early scenes but then he just winds up not doing much of anything even though he’s around just about the entire time. Diabolik deserved better.
TARZAN, THE APE MAN is a dull, badly made film with next to no real style, plus it seems to go on for a very long time. It really isn’t one of the worst films I’ve ever seen but I can’t think of a reason for anyone to seek it out at this late date apart from Bo Derek completists, Edgar Rice Burroughs completists or maybe just someone like me who can’t come up with even that much of a reason and simply wanted to see it anyway. Watching movies like this were more fun when I had more time to kill in the summer months. It would be nice if I could get a little of that feeling back but I guess this wasn’t the film to allow that to happen. Maybe I really should watch something like THE CANNONBALL RUN again.