“Audiences will come to see something that has been invented by Bo. She is a happening, not really an actress.” – John Derek
Sometimes the making of a movie is a more interesting story than the movie itself. There are legendary tales of runaway productions plagued by the clashing of egos, extravagant spending or unforeseen acts of nature. Such is the case with Tarzan, The Ape Man (1981), a vanity project directed by John Derek to promote the “talents” of his wife Bo Derek who, for a short time, was a sex symbol thanks to the critical and commercial success of 10 (1979). John managed to convince MGM to back his “vision” of the Tarzan story from Jane’s point-of-view. With Bo known more for her stunning looks than her acting chops, how could this go wrong? Plenty. The Dereks’ hubris knew no bounds as they managed to alienate the film crew, the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate, and the studio. Predictably, the movie was savaged by critics but people saw it anyway and it was a commercial success. The movie itself is incredibly inept on all levels. What is interesting is the story about how it got made with the Dereks exerting an unusual amount of control over the production.
The character of Tarzan was created by Edgar Rice Burroughs and first appeared in print in 1912. Son of a British lord and lady that were stranded on the east coast of Africa by mutineers, as an infant Tarzan was raise by an ape tribe. Once he became an adult, Tarzan crossed paths with Jane Porter, a young American woman who, along with her father and others, had been marooned on the same jungle area as Tarzan. The stories proved to be very popular and this led to adaptations in film, radio and television over the years. MGM bought the film rights in 1931 for the tidy sum of $100,000 and didn’t let it lapse for decades, much to the chagrin of the Burroughs family.
In 1980, actor-turned-director John Derek announced that he would remake the 1932 movie, Tarzan the Ape Man, promising a “sensual, erotic” update with his wife Bo starring (as Jane) and producing. Tired of being exploited by other filmmakers, she decided it was okay to be exploited by her husband and only make movies with him where she could do nudity on her own terms. For the Burroughs estate this was the last straw and they charged MGM with copyright infringement and sought unsuccessfully to block the release of the movie. They were upset that the Dereks’ project would steal the thunder from a long-delayed deal the estate had with Warner Brothers to make an officially-approved $15 million adaptation. The Burroughs family lost on both counts and filming went ahead as scheduled.
At the time, Bo said that their intention was to tell a story “that was bigger than life – something with the magic and fantasy that 10 had been. We wanted the story to be corny, romantic and more absurd than 10.” If the final product is any indication, they were successful in their goal. According to Bo, it was John that came up with the idea of telling the story from Jane’s perspective instead of Tarzan’s: “She has the perfect male who can’t talk, isn’t sophisticated enough to think he is superior to her and doesn’t have any credit cards.” John acted as his own hype man: “We are putting ourselves on the line in this one, arrogantly saying, ‘We know best and we can do it better.’”
After looking at the 1932 movie, famously starring former Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, the Dereks realized that “we didn’t need to change anything to suit our idea: it really had been Jane’s story all the time.” They set about writing the screenplay with Gary Goddard, known more for his work on theme parks, who wrote it in two weeks. In a controversial move, the resulting script reduced Tarzan’s dialogue to a few grunts (he gets even less than that in the finished movie). The Dereks went back to Burroughs’ stories for inspiration, claiming that no one could have possibly taught Tarzan to speak English with his parents dead and raised by great apes.
After the financial success of 10, MGM wanted to get in the Bo Derek business and agreed to finance John’s vision for a new Tarzan movie. Right from the get-go the Dereks asserted their authority when they refused the studio’s offer to shoot the movie in a Hollywood safari park. They told the studio that they “would not film in a jungle Disneyland.” In June 1980, the Dereks spent two weeks scouting locations up the Amazon but found it “too dark and too dense.” Kenya was not right either as they couldn’t get close enough to the animals. They finally decided to film in Sri Lanka for the jungle, and the Seychelles Islands, 1,868 miles away, for the sea, the beach and the high cliffs they wanted. Understandably, the studio balked at expensive location shooting but according to John, “’We’ll leave the country and shoot the movie in some faraway place and John will direct and everyone can shut up.’”
The Dereks flew out to Sri Lanka on January 12, 1981 with a film crew of 23, a lion named Dandi, an orangutan known as C.J., three chimpanzees, two Irish wolfhounds and an 18-foot python they recruited from Thailand. Lee Canalito, a 27-year-old boxer-turned-actor standing 6’4” tall and weighing 280 pounds, was cast as Tarzan. His claim to fame was appearing as Sylvester Stallone’s brother in the ill-fated Paradise Alley (1978).
Problems occurred right away when the Dereks foolishly decided to spend their first night in a tent in the jungle instead of the hotel with the crew in order to get in the spirit of the story. They were soon driven out by mosquitos. They should’ve taken this as an omen. For the shoot, the Dereks ordered 150 elephants and on the first morning they only needed two. The problem? No one had ordered the elephants and it would take a week for them to walk to the location.
By their own admission the Dereks berated their crew who weren’t impressed with Bo and John’s management skills. She said, “I knew some of them weren’t going to last very long – and they didn’t. So every day, as people goofed or didn’t do their jobs – I said, ‘Walk!’ And they did.” Bo was flexing her producer’s muscle. “It was the first time dealing with people twice my age who I had to fire. They had made dozens of films. I hadn’t. But getting rid of someone wasn’t really difficult.” In the first 15 days of principal photography, Bo fired 15 of the 23 crew members, including Tarzan himself. According to Bo, “Lee had a beautiful quality with a Michelangelo face but he wasn’t the proud lord of the jungle.” When he was cast, Canalito was overweight and the Dereks had sent him to the gym to get fit. In the end, “when we saw the rushes; we realized there just too much jiggling.” When MGM cabled the Dereks asking what replacements they needed, they replied, “None. We’ll do it all ourselves.” Again, how could this go wrong?
Sam Jones, who appeared in 10 as Bo’s husband, was briefly considered to be Tarzan. After auditioning by swinging from a tree on a rope at a local Hollywood park, 26-year-old Miles O’Keeffe was cast as Tarzan and flown out with 24-hours notice. The 6’3”, 200-pound man was a former football player and psychology major, which of course made him the perfect person to play Tarzan. He arrived in Sri Lanka, drove four hours through the jungle and started filming immediately.
In the wake of all the crew firings it became a family affair with Bo’s mother, who had come along as a hairdresser, put in charge of wardrobe and makeup. Bo’s sister Kerry helped as an assistant director. Even Bo’s best friend was given a job. The remaining professional film crew ended up taking on ten jobs each. According to the rookie producer everything was going well: “As people went we had more fun, the problems were easier and we were getting better things on film.” As anyone who has seen the final product, this comment is more than a little surprising and speaks volumes of the couple’s hubris.
If the Dereks had problems working with their crew, they didn’t have much luck working with animals either. The lion they brought over was the wrong one and he didn’t like working with chimps and the elephants. Apparently, he didn’t like working with humans either. During the scene where Tarzan tries to drag Jane out of the water and onto the beach, Dandi’s leash broke. The animal lashed out at Bo with his paw, hitting her on the left shoulder which sent her sprawling back into the water. He then hit her on the right hip but slipped before he could strike again. Fortunately, the trainer and the rest of the crew intervened and subdued the lion.
Bo did get along with the orangutan but he got jealous when Tarzan started making love with Jane. The same could not be said about the chimps. “They may look fun but they are pigs to work with,” John said. The elephants were also a handful. The younger ones wanted to play while the larger ones wanted to fight. During filming they had to be tied to large trees that couldn’t uproot. Initially, the python was afraid of Bo but as filming progressed it became friendly and even tightened himself around her body during a scene. “I didn’t much care for the wrestling with him in the water because then he would slide his body between my legs and thighs.”
Tired of being judged solely on her looks, Bo wanted to be taken seriously – hence taking on the producer mantle. She wore many hats during the production, claiming to have dealt with money problems, checking the number of packed lunches that were needed and even acted as script girl for a while. She also found out the local caterers were charging too much for lunch and fired them. They were replaced by a messenger boy who was cheaper. John said of his wife, “Audiences will come to see something that has been invented by Bo. She is a happening, not really an actress.” Half of that sentence is accurate.
The production incurred more headaches when moving from Sri Lanka to the Seychelles Islands. Lions need jumbo jets to travel in. The only plane available was a 707 so John put the animal on a 747 out of Seychelles via London – a round trip of 11,663 miles. Filming mercifully wrapped on March 11, 1981. Miraculously, the movie finished on schedule (48 days) and on budget ($6.6 million).
The controversy continued as the Burroughs estate took MGM to court claiming that “Tarzan is nothing more than a spear carrier,” and Jane, “in sexual matters she is now the aggressor in a sense…The walking by Jane topless for long stretches seems pervasive.” The estate also objected to the “suggestion of sexuality” between Jane and her father and the “rubbing of Jane’s breasts” that took place in a scene where she was “leaning on all fours” in preparation for being raped by the Ivory King (Steve Strong). The estate also objected to a moment where a chimp “actually kisses her breast” and a scene at the end of the movie in which Tarzan, Jane and an orangutan “are almost simulating sexual activity.” The Burroughs estate claimed that the original 1931 license meant that all Tarzan films were intended for family entertainment and MGM violated the deal by allowing extensive nudity in the Dereks’ movie.
The judge presiding over the case screened the 1932 film, a 1954 remake with Denny Miller and ordered cuts in four sequences. The Dereks refused to make them so MGM did and resubmitted the movie to the judge who demanded additional cuts. He was finally satisfied after three minutes and six seconds were removed. An outraged John proclaimed, “Tarzan should be so lucky as to be made by us.” He fumed about the cuts: “Ninety percent of Bo’s nudity will be cut out. If that’s not censorship, I don’t know what is.” In protest, Bo went on Los Angeles television to announce that she and John were giving up their 10% of the gross and promised to contribute the money to saving gorillas endangered by poachers in Zaire.
It is safe to say that film critics were not kind to Tarzan, The Ape Man. Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, "The Tarzan-Jane scenes strike a blow for noble savages, for innocent lust, for animal magnetism, and, indeed, for soft-core porn, which is ever so much sexier than the hard-core variety." In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, "To describe the film as inept would be to miss the point, which is to present Mrs. Derek in as many different poses, nude and seminude, as there are days of the year, all in something less than two hours. She is a magnificent-looking creature...However, as an actress she displays the sort of fausse naivete that is less erotic than perfunctorily calculated, in the manner of an old-fashioned, pre-porn-era stripteaser who might have started her act dressed like Heidi." The Washington Post's Gary Arnold wrote of John Derek's direction: "His approach to the mating of Tarzan and Jane is so revoltingly coy and his filmmaking style so inertly picturesque, like an arthritic imitation of The Black Stallion, that the movie is no more titillating than two hours of patty-cake."
After all the dust had settled, a bitter John called Hollywood “a hellhole,” claimed MGM “failed me,” said that the Burroughs estate was “arrogant and sue-happy,” the judge “made the Constitution a joke,” and felt that the press was “out to get us.” He had to feel, however, somewhat vindicated by the box office results as Tarzan made $36.5 million off a $6.6 million budget, but the damage had been done within Hollywood. Effectively burning his bridges, he made Bolero (1984) for Cannon Films once again starring Bo, which, in addition to being mired in production problems, was a critical and commercial flop. They made one more film together – Ghosts Can’t Do It (1989), which effectively killed off his filmmaking career. Bo continues to act in movies and T.V. with her most significant role as Brian Dennehy’s trophy wife in the Chris Farley/David Spade comedy Tommy Boy (1995).
The Burroughs’ estate got their classier, more faithful Tarzan film three years later with the unwieldly titled, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984), starring then-unknowns Christopher Lambert and Andie MacDowell, which, despite its talent behind the camera (director Hugh Hudson, screenwriter Robert Towne & make-up effects artist Rick Baker), didn’t exactly set the box office on fire. Hollywood continues to try to adapt Edgar Rice Burroughs’ most famous creation with John and Bo Derek’s version serving as a cautionary tale of giving too much creative control to filmmakers that clearly can’t handle it.
Harmetz, Aljean. “Tarzan was the Star Once, And Not Bo Derek.” The New York Times. June 10, 1982.
Hawn, Jack. “Tarzan Publicity a Blessing for Some.” Los Angeles Times. July 25, 1981.
Kelly, Sue & David Wallace. “Too Wild?” People. July 27,1981.
Lewin, David. “Bo Derek Takes to the Jungle to Bring Tarzan Back Alive.” The New York Times. July 19, 1981.