Bright Lights Film Journal

The Elephant in the Graveyard: The Testament of John Derek

Everywhere she was, there was Eden. – Mark Twain

* * *

So this is what it’s like on the other side. Not exactly how I pictured it. Nothing like they told you about in Sunday school.

You should see it, Bo. I know you’d be amazed. It’s like a movie theater in your mind, all images with no substance (kinda like they said about my pictures). Without the weight. Your memory of things, more than things themselves; people as you saw them or made them out to be more than actual people. And you can do anything you want with them: put them in scenes, tell them what to say, make everything prettier. Best part is, you can redo your past the way you’d like to have seen it. For ever! And it’s not just ancestors like they told you. The living are here, too. Only, not in body.

Oh, Bo, you’re as real to me now as you were before my heart gave out on me. Am I still real to you?

Remember our last film? How I had dead hubby Anthony Quinn looking on you from who-knows-where and talking to you like I’m doing now? I can’t inhabit some stud-demon like he did and make love to you from beyond, and you can’t bring back the dead like you did in Bolero, but tell you what – let’s make a movie, you and me. It’ll be just like before, only we won’t have to scramble for money. We just make the movie. We don’t even have to finish it! We can shoot forever and ever, rewriting and reworking as we go along. Hell, let’s forget the writing. We’ll just make it all up. Like I did half the time, anyway: pay some schnook to hack out a script so we get backing, then throw it away once we’re on location. (“Hey, we’re in Sri Lanka! They gonna keep an eye on us here?”) We’ll pack in all my favorite themes and ideas. Because the thing is to always be creating, to make the world better than you know it was; ourselves, especially. That way you’ll know you’re in heaven.

It’ll go something like this: Deceased actor-director with a reputation for somehow playing Svengali to four strong-willed women finds a portal not to life, exactly, but some heretofore unknown meridian between the two worlds, and gets the last in line to meet him there once a year, say, and they make love and carry on conversations about life and art that she writes down and publishes, and everybody gets a chance to read it and discover what a really good filmmaker he was, if a bit of an asshole and his movies a little quirky, but what’s wrong with quirky anyway, and through a series of comical events a young guy reads her work thinking it’s fiction and falls in love with her and by the end the dead guy finds he loves her enough to give her his blessing to run off and have the life she never experienced while he was alive.

The ironic twist could be that he discovers he’s better off where he is anyway. Because I’m not so far gone I don’t remember what a shitty world it is. You made it better by being so beautiful and letting me share that beauty with everyone, but how hot do you have to be to heal a war? I might never have wanted to talk about my experiences there when I was with you, but that’s where all those movies came from: The Big One. Each picture conjuring a less hostile place through Eros; a ritual of rebirth. Once Before I Die: most remember it, mockingly, for the scene where the female lead grants a virgin soldier’s wish to sleep with her in the face of certain mortality (as if that was something beyond understanding). Fantasies: young man restores his Greek village to prosperity fueled by his hots for his maybe-sister. Love You: couples retreat to Hawaiian isle to put their marriages back together via swapping. Tarzan the Ape Man: pampered daughter of ceaseless adventurer pursues him into the jungle where she finds the embodiment of her own inner strength. Bolero: old-fashioned farce, with tons of sex and nudity, about a young woman trying to resurrect her bullfighter lover’s virility. Ghosts Can’t Do It: heart-attack industrialist goes all Mephisto Waltz so he can make love to his wife again. Each with bathing scenes everyone saw fit to make fun of, too, with no appreciation for why I put them there. There were Edens all through my work, if only people cared.

See, I knew what I was talking about. (Okay, most of the time.) I did my homework. All anybody had to do was pay attention to my characters’ names. Anastasia in Fantasies – Greek for Resurrection. Damir – To Bring Peace. Dmitri – Devotee of Demeter, who delved the underworld to rescue her daughter in spring-renewal rites. Bolero’s Catalina – variant of my daughter’s Sean Catherine and your Mary Cathleen, and Paloma – dove, like you see her with while you’re riding your prized Pegasus – “Gypsy Shadow” to bullfighter Angel Sacristan. (Do I have to even explain that one?) All the girls, including my own, I gave boys’ names to: Once Before I Die’s Alex (Ursula Andress, for chrissakes), Love You’s Charlie (Annette Haven!), Bolero’s Mac (beautiful you). Call me Svengali all you want; fact is, I was all about empowering my women. Ask my last three wives, who stuck up for me till the end. Or call them fools. Liars. Delusional. Just don’t call them weak.

The movies named me John Derek; my parents Derek Harris. Nicknamed Dare, appropriately enough. I could never be defined by anyone or held to one place; always had to be moving on. That came through in my movies. Shot Love You in Hawaii; Tarzan in South Asia; Bolero went from Scotland to Morocco to Spain, Ghosts from Wyoming to Sri Lanka to Hong Kong; even Fantasies took its kids island-hopping from Mikonos to Tinos and back. No matter where I went, though, I couldn’t get away from me. Groomed as a heartthrob by Columbia and thrown in all their swashbucklers, I posed for their beefcake shots too, but they could keep their derring-do. I’d been to war. Heroes; shit. Dropped it all and picked up a camera, took my pretty pictures; came back as one of the prettiest picture-makers they ever had. (Sure. I’ll say it.) Made women my heroes; damn right. Sick of my own macho bullshit – it was all I’d learned – I remade the world, and myself, through them. Dedicated my life to beauty, and can you believe, some people wanted to tear that down. What does that say about them?

When critics accused me of living through my women, I never knew what the matter was. Urs in Once Before I Die allowed me to talk about things guys my generation didn’t talk about. My only regret with that picture was leaving her a killer in the end; but you get the idea. A force to be reckoned with. Ended freeze-frame on her (hey, we all wanted to be New Wave) to make you take in this image, ruminate on it: This was no passing thing. Killed myself off in that one, too – grenaded reaching for a Teddy bear – the last time you’ll see me on the screen. Blew my career up just like that and let the ladies take over. Acting was a degrading game, anyway. Being somebody else just wasn’t me; I was more about remaking others. Found my authenticity through them. Got Urs in the water three times there: washing clothes in a river, sitting with bullet-headed Colonel Custer while he tries to take a bath. (She’s a cleansing agent, see?) Last time, she’s crossing that river, which people do a lot in my features. As I did in life. (How many Rubicons can one person pack into a single existence? How many people need to?)

If it wasn’t a river, it was an ocean. Urs avoided the beach-party scene in Once, but after that iconic shot of yours running out of the surf in 10, it was a given I’d put you there again and again, in Tarzan and Ghosts. (Already dunked you in the Aegean a couple times in Fantasies.) Not to mention Love You taking place entirely on the beach cos we didn’t have the budget for anything more. You can get an actress wet a lot of places if you wanna exploit her lady charms, and I found a few of those too, but why do you think a beach especially? For all the times I had to start over and reinvent life, I liked that re-evolution, going back to where it all began to climb out of the amniotic brine and into the world fresh as a baby. So you had to believe that when I found my real-life beach-bum surfer chick in you I thought I’d hit wild heaven. (Your only being fifteen only meant I got to be young again, again.)

Fact is, I liked women more than I liked men, and I liked them like I liked myself: independent-minded and able to take care of themselves. Me too, when it came to that. Personally and sexually adventurous. Starting with Urs, who went from Vegas to London to Iran to South America back to L.A. with me when she was barely 18. Do you think it had to do with my mom? She idolized me, told people I was “a god.” Seeing as I thought so little of myself, though, I felt compelled to build women up even more.

This “god” was why all the myth and ritual in my pictures: taking it to the next level, where I lived. Like the photographer’s announcement that “The gods have arrived” in Fantasies, which I situated in Greece for apparently no reason, its sappy songs a veritable Greek chorus; its fairytale tone; the horny grandfather (my spitting image) listed in the credits as Godfather; the offerings to the goddess: the sarcophagus-made-tub there, like the possessed lover (that other vessel) in Ghosts. Those mythic, archetypal nudes against the promontories and landscapes of Love You. The Olympian mountains in Bolero and Ghosts, with that one’s nods to the Great Spirit, “O Great One,” Quinn’s Great Scott. The Golden Child: Anastasia and Damir; the heiresses you played in Ghosts, Tarzan, and Bolero. The unseen lord (ha!) in his ethereal gentlemen’s club at the beginning of Tarzan spinning his yarn like recounting a myth, the recounting itself an invocation; that film’s heroic Frazetta logo art; monolithic title card; the wife rechristened Africa – chthonic connection to physical as well as spiritual womanhood; James Parker’s holding forth on the nature of God and allusions to Aphrodite and “Zeus, that gigantic imbecile”; the elemental roundelays of fire and water, not to mention the sculptural perfection of Miles O’Keeffe’s and yours (and Urs’s and Linda’s) bodies. Enough Wild Men and Women there and in the one I shot for Don Murray, The Confessions of Tom Harris, to satisfy a Robert Bly. I could exhaust myself cataloging all this, if I had breath.

To think they were all just a setup for disillusion. See, it wasn’t just the war. All my harshness and pessimism in life came from disappointment with the world’s and my own inability to live up to unreal expectations. A mother should know if her kid is a god. No wonder I sought the company of women who thought the same of me. (“He would have made a wonderful knight of the round table”: Linda.) Could I help it Mom went from being a minor actress to a “sad old drunk passed out in a wrecking yard,” as my darling daughter put it in her memoir? Best thing she did for me was date that cinematographer, Russell Harlan, who turned me on to photography. Probably the reason you see those other photographers in my movies; they’re not just surrogate me’s. The camera became my father. My sense of power, focus, potency. (That’s why you can’t tell half the time whether Richard Harris is saying “camera” or “cannon” in Tarzan.) My framing device.

Before the war, I dated Shirley Temple. How perfectly American. Afterward I wasn’t having any such. Leave her to that wet rag Agar. Married Pati Behrs Eristoff, niece of Leo Tolstoy’s niece, father a prince of Georgia. (What swashbuckler wouldn’t marry a princess?) Motherhood does something to some people, though, and she just wasn’t the same wild woman she was before we married. My eye wandered. Spent four years in Europe with my Swiss goddess Urs instead of caring for Sean and son Russ back on earth, partly cos she was underage, too. Didn’t always think to provide for my kids from Valhalla. Guess mine was the only childhood I supported.

Sometimes I think I stayed out of their lives to spare them any more of me and my hurtful influence. Damage control. Look what I did to Russ, already. Gave him the motorcycle he immediately wiped out that left him a quadriplegic, then the modified car he wrecked too. Kid didn’t know how to handle his machines. Ended up like the guy I played in All the King’s Men, crippled son of an irresponsible dad. I guess my thing always was to strengthen the female and weaken the male. Still I put the mayor in Fantasies in a wheelchair in tribute; always liked the scene where Damir lifts her up to dance. You could say some of the juju you do in Bolero to revive Angel’s gored willy was another stab at wishing him out of that chair. And Sean. The explicit sex-talk with her, the Swedish magazines, the 18th birthday for Bo at the porn double bill, getting her topless in Love You. I know it was inappropriate. I know it was out of line. But didn’t I set most of Bolero in Spain, where your character finally loses her virginity, to commemorate her first big romance there? Wasn’t Tarzan my love letter to her growing independence the only way I knew how to express it? All that “We’ll go ‘round the heavens of the Greek gods” I had Harris blather at the climax to talk his daughter through her ordeal: that was me to Sean. The extravagance – the campiness, the grand gestures – were all a heightening, an elevation of what I was too much of a coward to say sotto voce. Comic self-inflation. I was only trying to make things right. Do you think they heard me, Bo?

Still, I know: the damage I did, is done. Place like this, where everything’s a mirror, you do a lot of looking at yourself. The sins, the sacrifices. If I didn’t give up a hell of a lot for my kids, at least I had my own Major character die for Alex’s sake in Once, as she gives herself to Ericson later. Anastasia does about the same for her brother to renew their island (it was Greek drama, after all); James Parker dies impaled on a tusk in Tarzan while his daughter Jane is being ritually readied for offering to that coiled – leonine – expansive – bald Ivory King, the last devolution of cueball Custer, another in the lineage of Apocalypse Now’s chromedome Colonel Kurtz. Angel loses his manhood to abet your ascendancy in Bolero and you return the favor by bringing him back to erotic effulgence; your Katie’s kiss of life revives Fausto too, who gives his own life to reunite you and Quinn in Ghosts. Everything an effort to rebuild on the ruinations of a life.

I must have been the king of unreleased movies – my other abandoned children. After Once, there were those two that went nowhere – A Boy, a Girl, with Airion Fromer (I know: who?), and Wildflower, with Linda Evans. (Had 16 years on her, didn’t I?) Let’s face it, Once Upon a Love wouldn’t have gotten out either, as Fantasies, if you hadn’t become a star already in that Blake Edwards movie, and even that porno we made before then sat around for ages. Seemed like everywhere I was, was failure. The business ventures, bounced checks, the 10 money we burned through, the horror, western, softcore, and adventure scripts that never materialized, the De Laurentiis bungle when we could really have used the cash cos I didn’t like the way they handled your career, that Twain movie we thought we’d make after Tarzan that didn’t come together. Never stopped hustling, though; never packed it in till I packed it in.

You know, I never knew what people’s problem was with Tarzan. Or any of them, for that matter. It’s a little mad, but can’t a director be allowed the occasional grand folly on the side of life and libido? We can’t all be Francis Ford Coppola, filming our Apocalypses (which Tarzan was an obvious answer to; not that anyone picked up on it), expecting to change the world through ritual slaughter. This was not my Vietnam. It was my Sri Lanka, my romp in Paradise while it stood, like in that silly, useless, beautiful coda with Jane cavorting with Cheetah and Tarzan till you two fell to kissing in that freeze-frame cameo. (Redeemed my own first feature there, didn’t I?) If I never spoke openly about the war elsewhere, you can get from my double-exposures in the battle scenes here and in Once my ambivalence over the whole thing: why I had Angel “fight” his bulls nonviolently, even though it wasn’t popular with his public. And so, the regrets, that Tarzan had to off that walking hard-on Ivory King in his Kurtz-like compound like he did the python earlier, but you know that quote about power never giving itself up out of the goodness of its heart. Anyway, I try not to grudge. That’s not how we do things here.

Tarzan was a thing of the ’80s, barely ten years into Women’s Liberation. We were still working out exactly what that looked like. Jane’s long-suffering mother’s death signaled the end of Woman the Domestic, Jane’s expedition her mom’s soul’s journey of self-realization, those rivers she crosses both Styx and Rubicon. It’s the last call for father Parker too, the man they termed the last of a breed, the Elephant’s Graveyard they discover the end of the line for tusked Phallos. When he faces down that rogue elephant, portender of death, singing that great song of premonitory death “She Moved Through the Fair,” it’s saying he knows as much, too. There’s a great bit of dialog earlier when he breaks from spinning an adventure tale to recount his family history, and the point is clear that they’re one and the same: family is the last unexplored territory for his kind of man (let’s face it: my kind). Rudimentary, regressive, atavistic Tarzan, the one Jane really came to find, is his paradoxical next stage in evolution. When Parker asks if Tarzan doesn’t have his kidnapped native wife, Africa, who does?, it’s colonial Britain (who started out narrating the story but whose voiceover disappears before the end of the picture) coming to recognize its loss of sovereignty over woman as well as continent. His last words, for his photographer-amanuensis Holt (remember: I shot the movie) to take a picture, are a call to document his passing just as the freeze-frame that ends Once captured the introduction of a new sort of woman. The film never makes it back to its Boys’ Club beginning, ending instead with Jane and Tarzan frolicking in their egalitarian Eden. This is no longer His story.

The original ’30s Tarzan came out the same year as the original King Kong, our picture five years after De Laurentiis’ Kong remake. America in the ’70s and ’80s was looking for something similar in that primal jungle: the mysterious ape who snatches away young women like in a fairy tale, and the civilizing of that brute power. People complained it was called Tarzan the Ape Man but was all about you, missing the point again. (Whenever critics are unified in their attacks, that’s the place to look for the magic.) You should have been the focus all along. Not just you, personally: women. Women were always it. Now I’m picturing you floating back into my world to rescue me like you and Urs in those pictures. Like Linda in Confessions, her commune a paradise, her forgiveness of her rapist unthinkable in a mainstream feature. (That was Linda for you.) That one had all the earmarks of a Derek: immature, self-centered hero, jingle-spouting wildman, secluded location, and the nature girl who changes everything. Is it all so far away now? Is there any chance left for life on earth? For people to remake society in a way that can sustain itself, before the big heart attack? For the sake of my children, I hope so. Everywhere you are, Bo, there is hope.

Three of my pictures end in marriage. Think that’s an accident? In Anastasia and Damir’s land this was known as hieros gamos – sacred marriage celebrated by a priest and priestess impersonating the gods and mirroring their union in heaven. Bulls, embodiment of fertility, were often sacrificed as part of this ritual renewing of the king’s powers, but I tempered that in Bolero, where your taming that wild drive by becoming a toreador was necessary to Angel’s love-resurrection. (Put this next to Coppola’s slaughtering of the caribou at the end of Apocalypse, and ask yourself which side of the life-cycle you stand for.) Like another spring mystery, the myth of Demeter, or my own serial May/September romances. It tells us there’s no discontinuity between Above and Below, heaven and earth, earth and underworld, mind and body, past and present, parent and child. Like I’d been saying all along. There’s something about man’s always striving to leave this world and women’s reminder that heaven is beneath our feet.

Your feet, anyway. You’re the one with the body, still. (Strange how most people see Paradise as bodiless, when it sounds more like hell to me. Which reminds me.)

What’s the first sound you hear in Fantasies? Water. The first image in Once Before I Die? Urs canoeing downriver, the way you boat onto the scene in Tarzan – journeying into your father’s primal soul to find the White Ape and teach him to speak. When the bad guy grenades the water tank in Once, he dangles by the leg in front of it like a great stillborn baby after the fluid broke; some kind of retribution. Had you take two baths in our first picture; two more in Tarzan; Olivia D’Abo (15! Christ!) took the honors in Bolero along with that wild woman Angel shares a hot-springs with, then you again in Ghosts, plus a shower and indoor pool (like the outdoor one Love You begins in). What could they all mean? Given everything else here, what does it sound like? When you wet your hair in Angel’s fountain and shake it over his groin in anointment, it’s another in this line of baptisms. The water of life. Blessing. Arousal. Quenching the unquenchable need. A hell of a lot more fun way to wash away sins than some godawful priest.

That was you to me, Bo. My water. Want to know something crazy? Even though my body’s gone and I have no earthly needs, I still thirst for you. The showers we took together. The moistness of your kiss. The rain through an open window you used to rinse your body with. The dew in the valley by our ranch in the mountains that made the trees to rise. There’s nothing like that here. There’s a river that flows, but it’s a river of fire without you near. Sure as hell no Eden, no matter how I try to make it so.

You know how Love You opens with those stills, the woman’s moans and sighs on the soundtrack? It was a woman’s desire that brought and brings all proper potential to life; that generative will I wanted to bring to the screen no matter how uncomfortable it made some. (Nothing makes a critic squirm more than naked eroticism.) Women turn the mill at the climax of Tarzan and restore their respective islands in Ghosts and Fantasies (that one with its own windmill: the gears of my mind, powered by libido), as you do Angel’s manhood in Bolero – a battery, an engine of rejuvenation. It was a woman’s hand, too, that stayed a man’s pistol in Once Before I Die, and began this crazy adventure out of the Garden. So come here a minute. Let me see if I can stir that desire in you again. That loss of virginity that happens over and over in my pictures. When you’re first in love, and you know it’s gonna happen; when the heat sets in – when the embrace turns steamy – when you know you’re dealing with more than just kindness or affection. We’ll dive for treasure like your Ghosts character, only this time I’ll be the diver and your passion the pearl. We’ll dance, like Damir and Cleopatra, Katie and Winston and Sabine in Ghosts. It’ll be unprecedented: I’ll lead to start with, then you’ll come in and direct our steps till we dance our way off the earth.

It’s all so beautiful, why do I feel like Jean Renoir near the end of Rules of the Game, readying to conduct his invisible orchestra then dropping his arms in resignation?

Sometimes I think finishing things is for mortals. We gods are too thrilled by the possibilities to worry about wrapping things up in tidy bundles. It’s all there anyway if anyone wants to take the bother to divine our intentions. I myself went to considerable lengths to put all these hopeful intimations in the most beautiful wrappings I could, and if no one wanted it then to hell with them. Earth is your Eden, and if you ask me the rest of you oughtta start taking better care of it.

As for myself, I stand by my women, like they stood for me. “He put me on a pedestal. He adored me, protected me, cared for me. Together, we worked, traveled the world and shared an infinite number of experiences. I couldn’t ask more of a husband.” (Ursula] “He was a fascinating character, a beautiful man. When you were married to him he made you everything. Few men say you are the moon and stars and live it 24/7 as if you were. He was a man worth keeping in your life” (Linda). “He saw differently than the rest of us … very intense and motivated … dark and moody …” (you). Even Gary Goddard, who can you believe it takes credit for every line of Richard Harris’s dialog in Tarzan, called me “ahead of his time.” Truth is I was very much of my time, full of a man’s hubris and self-loathing, with a too-narrow opinion of what a woman should be but not much greater sense of manhood. A person of soft-focus vision, who saw tomorrow but was not destined to live it. If I haven’t proven anything else in the world, I hope I’ve shown that I tried. I can be forgiven that, can’t I?

You know, I’m beginning to think this isn’t heaven after all. Heaven – Eden – was where you walked. At best here you’re just a holograph; a hollow graph. In the end it doesn’t matter. I’ll keep trying to make things better; it’s just harder without you. Go ahead with your TV-actor boyfriend; as if you needed my permission. Didn’t I encourage your will? Your fearlessness? Your impetuosity. I can see this picture’s never going to get made; this place just encourages dreaming. The ones I did get out there – they may not stand up to eternity, either. They were something in their time, and people should have appreciated them more, but fair enough. I always thought it a burden, this body of work, but now I see I miss the weight. That’s where all the passion is.

Isn’t it weird, Bo? Just as I had gotten myself thinking I had it made here, I’m coming to realize this being without you is hell. I was a man of the world. Your world. As long as you’re in it it’s beautiful, for all its wars and worries and endless failures and regrets. I’ll just have to content myself with looking on from now on. At you, and your beautiful, fearsome, loving, lost, lost world.

Note: All images are screenshots from John Derek’s films.