Am putting together all my John Derek film threads for the hell of it. Hope to write a book one day.
“Live fast. Die young and leave a good looking corpse.”
Those are the words that made John Derek a young star from the film Knock On Any Door (1949). But he was a bit of a rebel who felt he had something to say but did not like the control of the studio system. At his acting peak, he turned down a lot more than he accepted. With this free time, he practiced writing screenplays and photography. He would soon have a real knack for capturing beauty and finding it, marrying Ursula Andress and later Linda Evans both of which were stars while married to him. In the 1960s, Derek began directing very small budget idiosyncratic films that he wrote directed and photographed. In the early 1970s, he filmed Fantasies in Greece and fell for his newest discovery, Mary Cathleen Collins who soon changed her name to Bo and married John a few years after the film wrapped. Fantasies went nowhere, desperate for cash, John was offered a million bucks to do a tv show but sold his house instead. Him and Bo traveled around and
lived in a van. He even shot a porn film (Lovin You) to make a few bucks. Bo loved this time traveling around but they needed work. She went to a casting call for 10 (about a man’s obession with the perfect female), got the part and sudden fame. She turned down big offers (she did not feel comfortable being directed in starring roles, having never carried a film completely) for Sheena Queen of the Jungle and Brenda Starr. She stayed working almost exclusively with her husband.
John Derek began his acting career playing killer Nick Romano in the noir classic Knock on Any Door (1949). He ended it playing Capt Bailey, the graying handsome leader of the 26th Calvary in the, so good it should be classic, war film Once Before I Die (1966). Bailey makes one of the damned film entrances of any character in a war film. The year is 1941, the setting the Philippines right before Japanese attack. Bailey and his men are in a large field on horseback playing polo to pass the time. He is waiting for his girlfriend Alex (played by Ursula Andress), a young Swiss refugee that he plans to take back to the states soon, to come play.
No sooner than Alex arrives, a Japanese plane bombs the match. The troops manage to get out of there alive. Bailey, Alex, she feels safer with them then in town, and the troops push on, Alex has her puppies in her car so has to leave them with someone. They camp out and then ride horses into a village looking for rations. The soldiers find a villager who is sympathetic to the Japanese and will not give them rations. The soldiers raid his barn, take food and drink. Alex and Bailey get into a small argument about the villager. Soon Bailey spots a teddy bear boxed up in the barn. Wanting to give it to Alex, he reaches for it and accidentally unpins his live grenade. Bailey is dead. Lead actor John Derek has died on film and only a half hour in! If the plot thus far sounds odd, blame it on two factors. First, it is a war film made in the 1960s (jarring music, artful still photographs where an image is paused time and again plus the beauty of Alex superimposed on images of violence give the film a psychedelic feel) war is a hazy time were a lot of crazy shit happens. Second, this is John Derek’s first film as writer/director and cinematographer and his projects always have idiosyncratic plotting.
Some usual traits of later Derek films are modified. Opulence, outside of polo maybe being a rich man’s sport, is not displayed. These are grunt soldiers often in the middle of nowhere. As with all the collaborations with Bo, animals figure into the plot (when is the last time in a film that a soldiers kiss was interrupted by yelping puppies falling on his head?) especially horses. A horse is shot (in slow motion) during the polo match attack, probably the dramatic violence in the film. Also, horses are the only reason the soldiers stop in the village. In every scene with a horse the horse is in frame (for more on Derek’s love of horses read the past Derek threads posted above), getting the army for point A to point B. Two more elements figure into a Derek film depictions of machismo and sexuality, usually the later taking precedent over the former. But this is a war film.
John Derek was married to Ursula Andress in 1966. She was famous for being a Bond girl, which is maybe not as good as being known as a 10, John had taken some photographs of Ursula for Playboy (as he would later with Bo) and was quite a noted photographer (hence all the still images of Ursula in the film) before he took on directing. Derek is known for capturing beauty and he does right by Ursula in that department
As far as being the star, though in every scene, she does not hold attention like Bo does. There are similarities between characters Bo has played and Alex. With Alex, the death of her older lover is akin to the death of Kate’s older lover in Ghosts Can’t Do It or even the death of Jane’s father (since older lovers are often symbolic fathers in Tarzan, the Ape Man). One could even stretch a bit and say Lida’s lover becoming impotent in Bolero is a form of death. The point is the lead character deals with death. In the Bo films, this leads to a strength that character had not shown before, Jane forgoing society to run away with Tarzan, Katie becoming a shark in business and Lida making her lover rise again. With Alex, the death leads her sort of empty. She is less a character, more of a pretty presence that fills in the other characters.
If the first third of the picture belongs to John Derek, the rest is dominated by Richard Jaeckel playing a solider named Custer.
A note on the above still of Custer, I do not know if Francis Coppola saw this film before making Apocalypse Now, but similar panoramic views, an ending steeped in psychedelia, Custer’s look and crazed attitude, suggest that he may have. Custer is as gung ho as soldiers come. He kills 16 men by himself at one point (gun, knife, hand to hand combat). He is so good superiors think he is shell shocked and making up the numbers but this is not the case. He is a fighter and it is the need to fight that gets every killed at the end of the picture when he happens upon enemy territory and instead of going quietly by, he takes on a great number of enemy soldiers (this sequence is wall to wall violence, faceless men, music blaring so dark its hard to see who to root for, this film must have been something when it come out during the Vietnam War). Everyone except Alex dies. Custer (fittingly) takes down the last of the enemy soldiers, he gives Alex a smile of being at peace with death as he falls to the ground. His need to prove his manhood through combat has been satisfied. His second most humane moment in the film. The first being a scene early on after he kills some men and bathes in the river. Alex walks in on him and he asks for privacy, as she smiles continuing to stare he shyly walks out naked as she laughs at his bashfulness. It’s a great scene.
A different sort of bashfulness is on display when Alex has a quiet exchange with an unnamed 22 year old solider (played by Ron Ely) late in the film. The solider knows that death is coming. He wants to lose his virginity before he dies. He reasons regardless of how brave he has been, no one would see him as a man if they knew he had never been with a woman. Alex is silent in response. The solider runs away embarrassed, she tracks him to a field while they make oblivious love, a Japanese tank attacks and is brought down by the group. When Ely’s death scene comes at the end; he smiles, able to die having proved his manhood. In other words, this is a John Derek film, sex figures in.
Fantasies was the first film from John (director) and Bo Derek (actress). The film is about a brother and sister, Damir (Peter Hooten) and Anastasia (Bo) who may be in love with each other; they live on a small Greek island and spent a lot of time together on a boat called the Aphrodite (lots of the usual John Derek rustic machismo shots of sailing, fishing). The film is also Damir’s attempts to turn the island into a tourist location. The first Taboo-but-not-really-cause-it-turns-out-they-were-adopted-will-they-or-won’t-they-have-sex plot is not greatly interesting or explicit enough (though it has a bit of Bo nudity as well as cringy lines: D: “You Could be on your way to being woman.” A: “Oh Damir, you really think so!!”), but, thank God, the secondary plot is very interesting.
Damir is a gigolo. As the film opens, a beautiful woman agrees to supply him financing for a hotel on his island. Damir is in the bathtub of the woman’s hotel; she tells him over and over how beautiful he is. For the first nearly half of the film Damir is the sexual object of the film, photographed to look desirable (Man as object in a John Derek film!!!).
Anastasia is lovely (though in the begining of the film she wears layers) but perhaps a bit slow (loud, easily distracted and immature, tehn again maybe she is just a typical teen): she waves bye to the sun as sundown and tries to sell the boat they are traveling on to buy a fancy bathtub.
Something I have noticed; bathtubs play a big part in John Derek films. Jane’s first time in the jungle bath from Tarzan, Paloma’s many baths once she in taken in by rich folks in Bolero, Katie jumping into a bath while squeeling for joy after being told she is worth billions in Ghosts Can’t Do It, baths in these films tend to indicate prosperity, or maybe John just likes his women clean.
Anyhoo, Damir takes the money he has gained back to his island, promising a big ship will come and soon we will have a resturant, hotel and bar with lots of tourists. He hires a photographer and director (Faidon Georgitsis) to document the building of everything (the director is an obvious stand in for the director, a slick sophisticate who takes an instant liking to Bo). The town folk are very excited about putting in hard work to make this happen. It would seem that Damir goes over board by suggesting that the church building be used to the hotel (it is the only building with a toliet) but the town, except the priest, goes along with it in a vote. Damir rewards hard work with a nightly movie that the town is always very excited to view, these studio films seem to be an opiate to the masses. Public Enemy is shown the first night. The priest covers his ears to the gunfire and prays for his town.
Fantasies seems to be a comment on big business, likely Hollywood, destroying things without too many people really noticing or caring. See my Bolero review to see the independent John Derek’s opinion of Hollywood.
The Derek stand in, does not watch the movie. He sneaks off with Anastasia to photograph her. When the photographer starts doing this during the day, Damir, mad that his sister is not working and perhaps that someone has noticed her as attractive, threatens to beat the photographer and he and his dreams bolt at the first sign of trouble.
The film has a faux happy ending where the ship comes and Damir and Anastasia are married (the dark side seems to win). Shot in 1974, this film sat on the shelf for 8 years until Bo had gained fame and then it was released for a quick buck.
Odd, thoughtful film, worth a look
Tarzan, the Ape Man (1981) was John Derek’s most successful picture as director (31 million in 1980s dollars). This may be because Tarzan is a known commodity (though Tarzan is not in the film a great deal, familar aspects from early Tarzan picture: the chimps, the Tarzan yell, and the vine swinging are included) or it may be because it was Bo’s follow up to 10 and was sold this way: “The most beautiful woman of our time in the most erotic adventure of all time.”
Is Bo Derek the most beautiful woman of that time? It is possible. She certainly seemed to be for John Derek who photographed her spectacularly. The film seems to suggest so to. People in the film talk at length about her beauty and native children touch her skin and hair as if she is a goddess. John would try to claim her as the female Valentino in his next film Bolero that claim I am less sure about.
Is it the most erotic adventure? Not really, this has to be if not the only then one of few films where Tarzan gets laid but the scene is a quick begining with a fade out. Of the eroticism that is shown, it is not exactly HOT, more of the John Derek, idiosyncratic variety:
several nude natives covered in clay.
Bo being forcefully washed on all fours (1:31).
And a chimp licking one of her nipples (I’m not getting moderated, don’t believe it click
Bo plays Jane a rich young woman (She is always wealthy in her husband’s films though likely because of its jungle setting this is the only John/Bo film without ostentatious displays of wealth). Her mother has just died and she heads to Africa to track down her long absent adventurer father, James (Richard Harris).
Bo is very good in the film. She is bright and tough when she needs to be and vulnerable when she is in danger. In her husbands films, Bo usually plays a woman who has sat her mind to do something and lets nothing get in her way. If tragedy happens (her boyfriend being gorged by a bull or husband dying) she deals with it with fortitude, not ever really scared. Here she is required to be scared. Tarzan (Miles O Keefe) only appears in this film to rescue Bo, first from a lion (0:43) then from a snake finally with a herd of charging elephants when she is held captive by natives.
Since conventions of a Tarzan plot require he be heroic, I guess there was not much way around it, the good fortune of this film is that he saves her but she corrupts him (or at least introduces him to sexuality).
Naturally, since she keeps getting saved, Jane develops an attraction to Tarzan. It’s just that she has “never touched a man before”(1:05) but she does so in a most slow and delicate matter, esp when she gets around the loincloth. 3/4 of Bo and John’s films together, she is a virginal character, and in all but one, Fantasies, she takes charge of the situation. Regarding Fantasies,it is the only other Derek where a man is given equal time as desired object. All that being said, The film really belongs to Harris though.
From the first scene, where we see James lying next to a beautiful woman to the expertly delivered speech about fear (Harris, the best actor of the group, gets the bulk of the lines)John Derek was a famous actor before he decided to write, photograph and direct instead, and the famous actors in his films (George Kennedy, Richard Harris, Anthony Quinn) seem to be him to some extent. Harris is maybe not attracted to his daughter but there is some odd tension there, she does look just like her mother after all.
He goes on and on about her beauty while searching for her in the jungles as she is exploring Tarzan’s body (1:05).
He is also captive with her as she is being scrubbed down naked on all fours, like a horse (see my other write ups, the Derek’s love horses and I guess if one could not be in the jungle then Bo could be sort of made into one). He tries to comfort her
“You are not here. Whatever happens you are no longer of your body.”
Sounds like something a father could say in that situation; then again, how many of us have used that line when trying to seduce chicks?
But first, she graduates and after years of being prim and proper, she moons her dorm building as she is leaving
This kind of scene has been done before in some 80s skinemax films but none of those followed that scene with a long affecting apology scene (0:05), Lida apologizing to her driver Cotton, who witnessed the display, for possibly offending him, and further still, George Kennedy likely would not have played the part in the other films (he adds a real gravitas to the proceedings). Additionally, most sexy films don’t bother with references to old Hollywood and its allure versus the reality of life. When Lida meets her sheik, he went to Oxford and cannot pick her up on a horse the way Valentino could. The sex scene between them played out on a big harem bed is played like a silent film (since it is Lida telling the story of what happened to Catalina and she relates it in this fashion) with title cards [Where is the milk and honey]. The sex scene is unerotic, the milk and honey is handled with drool, but the sheik, it turns out, is not the lover for her; he
passes out from too much opium before they get started. She soon takes up with a bullfighter in Spain and the film disregards the Hollywood/reality track but it is picked up again toward the end of the film as the sheik reappears to try to kidnap her and take her in his plane. She jumps out of the plane and into the water in the best illogical silent actioneer like scene I ever saw.
Before I move onto the bullfigher, it is worth noting that the Valentino connection is also interesting because she was also seen as one of the most desirable in her time: after all in the film, she is kidnapped for love, given great gifts and able to make the bullfighter rise again after suffering impotence (hard to say if John Derek is using the sleepy sheik or the impotent fighter to represent himself, after all he was much older than Bo and with a heart condition, or if the more sturdy George Kennedy represents him. I do know that the themes or bullfighting, wine, machismo and good looks are very much a part of Derek’s persona so maybe he is the bullfighter and maybe Bo helped him to rise again, just a thought) from being gorged by a bull. All this is to say Bo equals beauty and her husband knows it and knows how to capture it whether its her headdress that resembles the dreds from 10 or the Lady Gadiva or (kinkily enough) the Clint look. It all
What also works are the sex scenes once she finds her bullfigher lover.
Romance is in the air for all the character (except a young one Paloma that they pick up along the way and is not quite mature enough). Cotton and Catalina both hook up with lovers but Lida gets the sex scenes, both with Angel the bullfighter and both about 7mins in length. She licks his ears; he bites her neck too hard; it is not the bodice ripper novel sex (but what is) and it goes on for a long time (as it should); I cannot tell you how many films are unintentionally funny with their 30 second sex scenes (talk about a dud), at the end of the last sex scene the word ecstacy appears in the air, now that is talent.
For blurring the line between reality and fantasy and being yr idiosyncratic and interesting self I say well done John Derek.
Ghosts Can’t Do It (1989) was marketed as a sexy comedy, rich old man, Scott (Anthony Quinn) with a much younger wife, Katie (Bo Derek) dies then looks for a young body to inhabit so he can ravish Katie again.
Bo Derek is naked in Ghosts so the film is sexy. There are, however, too many dour issues for the film to work as comedy.
In the first scene of the film (following title cards that represent the typical John Derek machismo images: stills of horse riding, snowy mountainous regions and cattle), Scott is horseback riding with Katie. He falls off his horse (he is having a heart attack). Next, he is in the hospital being told he is too old to get a heart transplant. The first third of the film is about Scott preparing for his death and saying goodbye to his much younger wife. It is worth noting that the director (John Derek)suffered from a bum ticker through much of his marriage to the 30 years his junior Bo. This inside knowledge gives a number of scenes more dramatic heft:
When Scott tells Katie not to cry or wear black to the funeral, one wonders if John had the same conversation with Bo and when Scott kills himself Hemingway-style (he considered pills but as he explains, "Real men don’t eat quiche), one wonders how much John was actually suffering. When Katie always refers to Scott as Great One and he asks to bite her lip as a turn on, well…one wonders about that too.
All this is to say that the story feels like the most personal yet from writer, director, cinematographer John Derek and as a personal statement I would rank it right up there with the work of another John, John Cassavetes.
The great Scott dies. He is in limbo telling an angel (Julie Newmar) that he wants to return to Earth in a new body. He is able to travel and appear to Katie (don’t ask me how, I am no theologian). Katie finds out from a psychic that Scott can inhabit a body if the body is about to die. A young Greek fisherman happens into town. Scott wants to be young this time (who wouldn’t given the choice?) so Katie tells the fisherman that her husband wants to inhabit his body.
It is worth noting that Katie talks to Scott’s ghost all the time in the film and no one reacts like she is that bonkers, helps to be rich and pretty.
One person who knows immediately that she is talking to her husband is Winston (Don Murray), a graying business partner of her last husband and a longtime friend. Winston arrives to help her run Scott’s diamond empire (the main character’s wealth allows for typical John Derek scenes of opulence: luxury travel to Sri Lanks, Hong Kong, lovely jewels and even Donald Trump in a small role) and tells her he loves her:
“Just being around you for a while would be like Christmas.” Winston is a sweet guy and when he asks her to dance, she declines saying she had not done it in years because her husband hated it. Scott’s ghost, overhearing, is shocked that Katie liked to dance and is soon bullish and leaves in a huff when Katie does agree to a dance with Winston. Winston comes across as a very good man, but it is not to be; the young Greek nearly drowns and Scott takes the body. Katie and the new Scott make love like rabbits. The end.
One could ask why didn’t Katie just end up with Winston (films have been made where a ghost let’s his love be happy with someone else) One could also ask why a man who kills himself is allowed to inhabit another body on Earth. I suspect the answer to both questions is because, conventional film be damned, John Derek wanted it so. He would have loved to return to Bo as a young man so he made a movie about it.
Bo explained in her autobiography Riding Lessons that John, an esteemed horseman, stopped riding horses when he and Bo got together. Bo, who loved to ride, asked him why. He explained how he hated being told what to do so he no longer wanted to even tell an animal what to do. He told Bo, “Keep riding. I enjoy watching you.” The last scene of Ghosts sees Bo and young Scott riding horses together. I think John’s enjoyment of Bo is what kept him going for another 7 years after Ghosts Can Do It.
He died in a hospital of congestive heart failure in 1996. Bo eventually found love with John Corbett (8 years her junior)
Henry Jaglom conpendium thread coming soon
another thread to occasionally bump
Dennis, “Fantasies” has been on my “to see” list for well over a decade. Maybe DVD import is the way to go.
John Derek’s actual date of death was May 22, 1998. I had a magazine with a Bo Derek article around this time but I’m not sure what I ever did with it.
By the way, I used to have the plaits and beads just like Bo in “10”—it’s a damn groovy look—wish I had pictures! It also makes a clicking noise when you walk around, not very stealthy!
I will have to look for that article (know the magazine?)
It was an Australian magazine so it wouldn’t be available Stateside. There might be a UK version of it with the article but I’m not certain. Who knows? It might turn up somewhere.
let me know when you do see Fantasies. It along with Once Before I DIe is his most serious work and has stuck with me without repeat viewings.
do not judge; when u make a thread you can bump as much as u like
since Knock on Any Door is in contention as well as the Derek Cagney flick from Ray