American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
“Tarzan, The Ape Man” is “The Blue Lagoon” with elephants. Of course it's completely ridiculous, but at the same time it has a certain disarming charm. Sure, it's easy to groan at the secondhand "plot." It's easy to laugh at the clichés and mourn the demotion of Tarzan, who started out in the movies as king of the jungle and now gets fourth billing behind a schoolgirl, an anthropologist, and a wimp. And yet when Tarzan beats his chest and screams and swings to the rescue on a vine, there is something primal happening on the screen. And when Jane and three loyal chimpanzees tenderly bathe the body of the unconscious ape-man, we're getting very close to the reasons why we watch movies, and why there will always be a few movies to reawaken the child within us.
This Bo Derek version of the "Tarzan" legend is allegedly a remake of the MGM version of 1932, starring Johnnie Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan. Not in that version or in any of the others, however, did Hollywood honestly address the central mystery of the Tarzan story, which is--what, exactly, was the intimate relationship between Tarzan and Jane? Were they lovers? Friends? Neighbors? Business partners? I always presumed they made love in order to produce Boy, but no: reader Jennifer Wise informs me Tarzan found Boy in the wreckage of a plane in “Tarzan Finds A Son!” (1939). No wonder I always thought there was something just a little peculiar about the behavior of Weissmuller, Lex Barker, Gordon Scott, and other movie Tarzans. There they were, all alone in the jungle with the beautiful Jane, and what did they do? Swing around on vines and talk to the animals. If I'd wanted “Doctor Dolittle,” I would have seen “Doctor Dolittle.”
This 1981 version is nothing if not willing to satisfy our curiosity about sex life in the rain forest. Bo Derek (who stars and produced) and her husband John (who directed and photographed) are frankly interested only in the relationship between Tarzan and Jane. The whole movie is a setup for several steamy scenes of confrontation between the savage, muscular jungle man and the petite young girl with eyes as wide as her shoulders. When Tarzan and Jane first meet, the movie all but abandons its plot in favor of foreplay. This is not a movie to waste time on ivory-smuggling, Nazis, cities of gold, ant-men, slave girls, lost safaris, or any of the countless other plot devices Edgar Rice Burroughs used as substitutes for interpersonal relationships. It gets right down to business.
The movie opens with a vow by Bo Derek's scientist father (Richard Harris) to lead an expedition to plunder the jungle of its secrets. His real mission: To capture the legendary ape-man Tarzan and bring him back to his club--stuffed and mounted, if possible. Harris takes Bo along on his expedition, which also includes John Phillip Law in the role of the wimp assistant. Law has hardly anything to say, and is always the guy who's looking the other way when Tarzan kidnaps Jane. After a series of routine shots of the jungle march, Tarzan does meet Jane and finds himself powerfully attracted to her. Harris is of course insane with jealousy: "Do you know what he really wants?" he asks Jane. She hopes so.