Let's hear it for Bo...
Originally Appeared in ERB-APA #41, 1994
Thirteen years on and still it would appear that the knives are out for John and Bo Derek for daring to lay their hands (and on various other parts of the anatomy) on Tarzan and yet I have to ask myself why? What have they done to deserve this continuous barrage of ridicule and abuse? Are they so guilty that they will never be given the privilege of a fair and just trial?
In David Fury's new book Kings of the Jungle, he places the crown of 'Worst Tarzan movie' of all time squarely upon the Derek's shoulders, displacing the earlier contender Denny Miller who was given the ignominious award by Gabe Essoe in his book Tarzan of the Movies in 1968. (appropriately enough 13 years before the Derek's version).
Following closely in David's footsteps we now have our own ERB-APA colleague Scott Tracy Griffin who awards the film with no less than a zero rating in three out of his four categories.
Both David and Tracy give a variety of reasons why the film should be slated and perhaps the majority of people who have read their arguments will have nodded their heads in agreement. But are they being fair? Let us try to make one or two comparisons between the Derek's film and some of the other Tarzan movies that have made it to the big screen...
To begin with, Tracy gives a zero rating (plus throwing in a [not applicable] for good measure) to his category 'Knowledge of Source'. By this I assume he is referring to the question of where did they get the (some might say 'meagre') story from? Well actually I can think of two sources without giving any thought to the question. The first is that it is a remake of the original 1932 version that apparently MGM still held the rights to. This is all the Derek's were allowed to do, nothing else, not even try and adapt it to the Burroughs novel. But try they did for in the opening sequence of the film, we hear several club members talking and one begins to tell a story. In this short piece of narration we hear just one name, Edgar. Now refer to the opening paragraph of Tarzan of the Apes "I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me..."
One also has to wonder what constitutes a remake? Does it have to be a direct copy of the original, word for word, scene for scene, or can it be allowed the licence of keeping to the basic plot but change the story to suit the new producers? A perfect example of this is the wonderful film 'The Prisoner of Zenda'. There have been at least six versions of this film, but as the first three films were made during the 'silent' period and difficult to obtain to make a comparison, for this exercise I am going to ignore them. The fourth version was the first using sound and starred Robert Coleman in 1937. Next came the 1952 remake with Stewart Granger playing the leading roles of Rudolf Rassendy and King Rudolf V. The final screen version to date was made in 1979 with Peter Sellers taking on the triple roles of Rudolf IV, Rudolf V and Syd Frewin. Granger's film turned out to be an almost direct copy of Coleman's version, whereas Sellers adapted the plot to his own liking and changed the finale to give a fairy tale ending and in so doing, produced an equally delightful film. But although the story differed in certain aspects from its earlier counterparts, it is still considered a remake. Did John and Bo Derek really do any different I have to ask?
Reviewing the two remakes of 'Tarzan the Ape Man', the Derek's version follows the plot far closer to the original 1932 film than most people appear to have given them credit for. The same however cannot be said for the later 1959 film starring Denny Miller when comparing it against the original as the action jumps around all over the place. As an example, Jane and the safari actually come into contact with Tarzan long before they ever reach the escarpment, which makes his first contact with civilisation less believable. As for the film being a "vehicle for Bo" - only the fifth blonde to be cast in the role, and Tarzan as a sideline story, it should be recalled that in the original 1932 film, Maureen O'Sullivan appears in approximately 95% of the scenes.
Next we have David Fury's statement, "Bo Derek, who can't act." Well perhaps she cannot, but is she alone? What about the acting abilities of some of the other actors that has filled the title role. Let us go straight to the top of the pile and pick on Johnny Weissmuller - the most popular and famous Apeman of them all... Have you ever tried turning the sound off in his first two movies? You can virtually hear the Director calling out instructions to Weissmuller on what he is supposed to do next, his movements are so wooden. Act? You have got to be kidding!
Then we have the reference to the nudity or the even stronger term 'softcore porn' in the Derek's film. Again let us look at some of the other films to make a comparison such as the 1929 picture, Tarzan the Tiger. Here we have Natalie Kingston taking a leisurely swim and baring her breasts! But that is nothing compared to the film Tarzan and His Mate where Maureen O'Sullivan (or rather her double, Josephine McKim) who did the choreographed underwater nude swimming sequence. It should also not be forgotten that this scene began with Weissmuller tearing O'Sullivan's dress from her as she jumped into the river! Playful it might be, even innocent and a delight to watch, but did Bo taking a bath in the inland sea appear so very different and vulgar?
While many will agree that Miles O'Keeffe is perhaps physically the best looking Tarzan we have ever seen, it should be also be recalled that Miles was not the first choice for the part. That 'honour' went to Lee Canalito who was later fired (and not for the bad press reports that he apparently made a pass at Bo which turned out to be false) but because he was considered too overweight for the role. An interesting comparison should be made at this point with Jock Mahoney in Tarzan's Three Challenges where he suffered a severe bout of dysentery and almost died. While Mahoney was probably the best 'actor' ever to play the role of Tarzan, he also looked the worst because of his illness. The kind of good sense the Derek's showed should have led to either Mahoney being replaced or the film being postponed.
David Fury obviously did not like the slow motion sequences (actually neither did I, although the fight scene with Tarzan wrestling the Ivory Chief is less painful than the scene with the snake). But Fury totally ignores probably the best scene in any Tarzan movie made to date, which is where the elephant literally picks up the injured Miles totally unaided (at least from a visual point of view) and carries him off. The scene is pure magic.
If a film is to be given criticism and categorised as the 'best or worst' in its field, then the film should be viewed objectively and comparatively with other films of the same genre. Excuses to raise the standard of other films are varied such as 'produced with war propaganda in mind'. The scene that immediately springs to mind is where Cheta is playing with the radio and the Germans believe it to be Hitler, is probably the most ludicrous of all). Restricted budget is another excuse and yet many award winning pictures have been made on a budget that would put their more expensive counterparts to shame.
So what do I consider to be the worst Tarzan movie of all time? Well I can think of one or two other Tarzan movies that could very easily fall into that category, but making that comparison is not my purpose for writing. For those however that do continue to slander the Derek's, maybe they should take another look and perhaps decide that if they applied a bit more fair play, then just maybe the film is not quite as bad as they first once thought.