The Naked Ape


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Playboy Magazine really got involved in the film industry back in the late sixties and seventies. In some situations, a film would feature a Playmate, and the magazine would reciprocate with a lengthy pictorial (e.g. Can Hieronymus Merkin ...). In other cases, the magazine would take additional photos on the set, perhaps persuading the principals to do a more graphic version of their onscreen sex scene (e.g. The Sailor Who Fell ...).

At some point Hef and the gang decided that it might be worthwhile to get involved in producing their own films, and their first effort was excellent - the acclaimed, innovative Roman Polanski version of MacBeth (1971). Buoyed by the success of that project, Hef kept at it, but the second effort was a sophomore slump - The Naked Ape (1973). It fell more than a bit in quality from the Polanski film. Macbeth is rated 7.5 at IMDb while The Naked Ape is rated 3.5.

The problem is that this movie is fundamentally an ambitious attempt to film an unfilmable book: The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris. Dr. Morris stunned the 1967 universe by writing a pop anthropology book, first serialized in London's Daily Mirror tabloid, in which he described humans in the same objective, analytical way that zoologists describe animals. Dr. Morris was the curator of mammals at the London Zoo. He specialized in primates, and his particular slant on the nature of man was that our species is best viewed as a very complicated primate. The title of the book is derived from the fact that there are 193 species of monkeys and apes on the planet, of which man is the only one not entirely covered in fur and is, therefore, the only naked ape. Scientific critics of the book pointed out that  Dr. Morris was a zoologist, not an anthropologist, and as such was making partially formed and unscientific speculations by defining man in purely zoological terms, because while man is an animal, he also stands apart from the animals in many ways. Religious groups had, as you can imagine, much harsher criticisms.

The book made for a livelier-than-expected read because it focused on sex and mating rituals. Morris pointed out that man is "the sexiest primate" and noted that Homo Sapiens not only has the biggest brain of all primates, but also the largest penis. Sex usually provides lively cinematic fodder as well, but it is very difficult to make something like this into a movie. The film version of The Naked Ape is somewhere between a documentary and a series of anecdotes, which is to say that it's an odd film and very hard to watch. The scientific arguments are presented in a heavy-handed way. At times, people walk around with Dr. Morris's book in hand, quoting from it liberally. At other times, university professors recite passages from the book while addressing their classes. The director sometimes uses stock footage to show connections between human rituals and animal behavior. Some of the book's points are illustrated with anecdotes about a mating couple in various stages of their relationship, while other points are illustrated with animations, Terry Gilliam style. The film wanders haphazardly back and forth between the live and animated segments. There are also scenes which seem to drag on and on for no reason at all, like a section in which male gymnasts do a long routine. The individual anecdotes and illustrations don't connect very well, and the film doesn't make much of an attempt to let the recurring human characters have any dimension. The oddest thing about it is that it's all presented in a remarkably tame PG format, which is surprising when one considers that it's a movie by Hugh Hefner from a book about primitive sexual urges!

Woody Allen had a very similar film project derived from a similar book (Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex ...), but Allen managed to get his points across through humor and parody, while this film gets sucked into the trap of self-importance and does altogether too much pontificating. It's all harmless enough, and the film's points are not unsound, but mostly it's just plain boring, like your college professor who really knew his material but had no idea how to make it as interesting to you as it was to him.


1 TV Guide (of 4 stars)


3.6 IMDB summary (of 10)





First-time director Donald Driver never made another movie, but had much greater success on Broadway. He was nominated for a 1967 Tony as the director of Marat/Sade, and in 1981 he created a musical play from scratch: book, lyrics, stage design, direction, the whole nine yards. It closed after three performances. Driver died of AIDS in the 1980s.

As viewed through the prism of three decades, the most interesting element of the film is that the co-stars of the "story" segments are Victoria Principal of Dallas fame and Johnny Crawford, the former Mouseketeer who also played the son of The Rifleman.



  • If you look closely at the sex scene, you may get a fleeting glimpse of Victoria Principal's natural resources. Her nipple is barely visible in a few frames.


  • Full frontal pictures of Johnny Crawford, allegedly stills from this movie set, have circulated through the years, but this view was not to be seen in the version I saw.


Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is an unwatchable: