Tarzan, the Ape Man (1981 film)

Tarzan, the Ape Man is a 1981 adventure film directed by John Derek and starring Bo Derek, Miles O'Keeffe, Richard Harris, and John Phillip Law. The screenplay by Tom Rowe and Gary Goddard[3] is loosely based on the novel Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs, but from the point of view of Jane Parker. It is the final of three filmed versions of the story released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Tarzan, the Ape Man
Directed byJohn Derek
Produced byBo Derek
Written by
Based onTarzan of the Apes
by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Music byPerry Botkin Jr.
  • John Derek
  • Wolfgang Dickmann
Edited byJimmy Ling
Distributed byUnited Artists (United States/Canada)
Cinema International Corporation (International)
Release date
  • August 7, 1981 (1981-08-07)
Running time
107 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$6.5 million[1] or $8 million[2]
Box office$36.5 million[1]

The original music score is composed by Perry Botkin Jr. Former Tarzan actor Jock Mahoney, billed as Jack O'Mahoney, was the film's stunt coordinator. The film is marketed with the tagline Unlike any other "Tarzan" you've ever seen! The original actor cast in the Tarzan role was fired (or quit) early in production, resulting in the sudden casting of his stunt double, Miles O'Keeffe, in the title role. This film received extremely negative reviews, and in some circles has been considered to be one of the worst films ever made, even though it was a box-office success.


James Parker is a hunter in Africa, searching for a mythical "white ape". He is joined by his estranged daughter, Jane, after her mother's death. They discover the "white ape" is actually Tarzan, an uncivilized white man raised by apes living in the jungle. James continues to pursue Tarzan with the purpose of capturing him, dead or alive, and bringing him back to England.

Realizing that James is on his trail, Tarzan kidnaps Jane. Jane and Tarzan become fascinated by each other. Jane is then kidnapped by natives who intend to make her a wife of the tribe leader, forcing Tarzan into action. James has been killed by the natives, and they took off her clothes. Tarzan came to the rescue and escaped from the natives. Until then, Tarzan and Jane fell in love.

Main cast


Bo Derek was extremely popular at the time due to her appearance in 10. After making A Change of Seasons, she was meant to appear in High Road to China but pulled out of the film saying she only wanted to be directed by her husband John.[4]

In February 1980, MGM announced the studio was making a Tarzan film with the Dereks. Warner Bros. complained, as that studio was also developing a Tarzan film with Robert Towne called Greystoke and they had the rights to the character from the Burroughs estate. MGM argued the Derek film would be the second remake of their 1932 film Tarzan the Ape Man which they had the right to do, having released the first remake in 1959.[5] The Burroughs estate sued MGM.[6]


In a 2012 interview with the film history magazine Filmfax, co-writer Gary Goddard revealed that he had originally been commissioned to write a screenplay for Bo Derek based upon the Marvel Comics superheroine, Dazzler; a 30-page treatment was completed before the project was cancelled and work instead proceeded on Tarzan, The Ape Man which initially carried the working title Me, Jane reflecting its focus on Jane Porter as a showcase for Derek.[3]

Goddard, who became better known for his work in theme parks, said he wrote the script in two weeks.[7]


Filming took place in Sri Lanka in February 1981.[8]

The original Tarzan was Lee Canahalin.[9] He injured his knee in 1980 meaning he was reliant on his stuntman. His stuntman had to undergo an emergency appendectomy when filming started. This resulted in Canahalin being replaced by Miles O'Keefe.[10]

Richard Harris enjoyed working with the Dereks.[11]


The film was widely panned upon its release. Film critic and historian Leonard Maltin considers this one of the worst films ever to appear in his popular "TV, Movie and Video Guide" (now simply "Movie Guide"): "Deranged 'remake' lacks action, humor and charm; Forget about comparisons to Johnny Weissmuller; O'Keefe makes Elmo Lincoln seem like Edwin Booth." Leslie Halliwell described Tarzan, the Ape Man as "certainly the worst of the Tarzan movies and possibly the most banal film so far made; even the animals give poor performances".[12] In a discussion of Tarzan films, Thomas S. Hischak was also negative: "Produced and directed without a shred of talent by John Derek, Tarzan, the Ape Man often ranks high in the lists of the worst movies ever made".[13]

However, critic Roger Ebert offered a somewhat more positive review of Tarzan, the Ape Man, awarding it two and a half stars out of a possible four. According to Ebert, the film was "completely ridiculous, but at the same time it has a certain disarming charm." Ebert thought Harris's talents were completely wasted and the film's dramatic peak was "incomprehensible," yet he praised the forthright depiction of the sexual passion and tension between Tarzan and Jane, which had more typically been downplayed in film adaptations of the characters: "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."[14]

Box Office

The film was a hit making $15.8 million domestically.[2]

Awards and nominations

Won: Worst Actress (Bo Derek)
Nominated: Worst Picture
Nominated: Worst Screenplay
Nominated: Worst Actor (Richard Harris)
Nominated: Worst Director (John Derek)
Nominated: Worst New Star (Miles O'Keeffe)

Box office

Despite the negative reviews it received, the film was a success at the box office, grossing more than US$ 36,565,280 in the United States.[15]


Tarzan, the Ape Man was released to DVD by Warner Home Video on June 8, 2004 as a Region 1 widescreen DVD.

The Japanese manga series JoJo's Bizarre Adventure references this movie in chapter 265, the final chapter of the manga's third story arc, Stardust Crusaders. Jōtarō Kūjō tests his grandfather Joseph Joestar with trivia questions, including "Who's the female lead in the 1981 film, Tarzan, the Ape Man?", which Joseph correctly answers with "Bo Derek". This scene is also featured in the last episode of the second season of the manga's 2012 anime adaptation.

Follow Up

Gary Goddard said he was going to write more films for the Dereks including one called Pirate Annie.[7] However financing for Annie was withdrawn when the studio, CBS, read the script and were unhappy with what they considered too small a role for Bo Derek.[16]


  1. Harmetz, Aljean (9 September 1981). "HOLLYWOOD IS JOYOUS OVER ITS RECORD GROSSING SUMMER". The New York Times. Retrieved 10 October 2017.
  2. ((cite news|title=MGM-UA AND THE BIG DEBT |last1=Boyer|first1= Peter J|last2=Pollock|first2= Dale|newspaper= Los Angeles Times |date=28 Mar 1982|page= l1}}
  3. Moore, David J. (Summer 2012), "Me, Jane!", Filmfax (131): 63–64
  4. BO TAKES HIGH ROAD TO PLAY TARZAN'S JANE: MOVIE NEWS Los Angeles Times (1923-1995); Los Angeles, Calif. [Los Angeles, Calif]19 Feb 1980: g1.
  5. M-G-M Buys Rights to 'Whose Life Is It Anyway?': 'Teeming Melting Pot' Legal Problems Possible By ALJEAN HARMETZ Special to The New York Times. New York Times (1923-Current file); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]22 Feb 1980: C9.
  6. Tarzan the Apeman, MGM Are Swinging Into Legal Troubles: Descendants of Book's Author Sue to Prevent Remake With Bo Derek as Jane Wall Street Journal (1923 - Current file); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]16 May 1980: 48.
  7. 'Tarzan' Publicity a Blessing for Some Hawn, Jack. Los Angeles Times 25 July 1981: b10.
  8. BO IS STAR, PRODUCER OF "TARZAN": [FIRST Edition] Boston Globe 6 Feb 1981: 1.
  9. Bo brings sexy peel to jungle Jane role Daly, Maggie. Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file); Chicago, Ill. [Chicago, Ill]15 July 1980: d6.
  10. FILM CLIPS: SHOW-BIZ SEGUE: FROM AGENT TO STUDIO CHIEF Pollock, Dale. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995); Los Angeles, Calif. [Los Angeles, Calif]25 Feb 1981: h1.
  11. MOVIES: HARRIS: THE ONCE AND PRESENT KING Mann, Roderick. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995); Los Angeles, Calif. [Los Angeles, Calif]19 Apr 1981: l15.
  12. Leslie Halliwell, John Walker, Halliwell's Film Guide. HarperPerennial, 1996 (p. 1119)
  13. Thomas S. Hischak, American Literature on Stage and Screen: 525 Works and Their Adaptations McFarland, 2012. ISBN 0786492791 (p. 237).
  14. Ebert, Roger. "Tarzan, The Ape Man Movie Review (1981) - Roger Ebert". www.rogerebert.com.
  15. "Tarzan, the Ape Man (1981) - Box Office Mojo". www.boxofficemojo.com.
  16. FILM CLIPS: A LITTLE BO PEEP VS. A LOT FILM CLIPS: TOO LITTLE BO PEEP? Boyer, Peter J. Los Angeles Times 6 Nov 1981: h1.
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