His Tropi Wife

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“That was, without question, the most fucked-up film I have ever seen in my life,” declared Fiona after watching SKULLDUGGERY (1970).

My human bride had been quite interested to see the pic, as it deals with the missing link, and features favourites like Edward Fox, William Marshall and Wilfred Hyde-White. And Burt Reynolds, practicing his up-the-creek manoeuvres for the forthcoming DELIVERANCE. Reynolds plays a dodgy adventurer in New Guinea who latches onto an anthropological expedition in the hopes of finding profitable phosphorous deposits. Along the way he finds lurve with Susan Clark, the sexy female anthropologist (for once, the sexy scientist seems not too removed from reality, since there have apparently always been anthropologist babes — this isn’t like Denise Richards playing a nuclear physicist in THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH) and they also find a tribe of primeval hairy people they nickname the tropi.

Now, by the time Primitive Man shows his whiskery face, the movie has already reduced itself to rubble around us, with stupid and insulting humour about the African populace, and charmless romcom tosh in which the Reynolds’ character’s blatant villainy does little to endear him. We are encouraged to leer at native girls like a teenage boy grasping his first National Geographic in his sweaty palms. The uncomfortable ethnic stuff is made still weirder by the fact that all the tropis are played by Japanese actors.

tropi

Every image I had previously seen from this movie emphasised the female tropis’ busts, thrusting pertly from beneath their orange fur (not quite the orangutan shade, more the tangerine of Japanese people attempting to go blonde). But the movie is squeamish about ape-woman nipple, and indeed seems reluctant to offer a clear look at these crucial characters at all, as if someone, somewhere, were ashamed. Their anxiety might have more productively focussed on the script.

Burt puts the tropis to work mining phosphorus for him, paying them in tinned ham, which they love. Then the backer of the expedition seizes on the idea of the tropis as an invaluable source of slave labour, and Burt is the only one who objects. This seems inconsistent, to say the least. The scientists are apparently all for slavery, though so much of Edward Fox’s performance takes place beyond the edges of the 4:3 pan-and-scan area, it’s hard to say if he ever had more of a character arc about this. The plot now becomes a debate about whether the tropies are human, which then focusses on whether Burt’s best pal has drunkenly fathered an infant by a tropi mom. To force the issue, Burt claims to have murdered the baby, and we end up in court for an in-depth analysis of where mankind ends and the animal kingdom begins. An in-depth analysis as imagined by idiots.

Where this idiocy comes from is hard to guess, since this film is based on a book by “Vercors,” author of the classic French occupation novel La Silence de la Mer, filmed by Melville, and the screenplay is credited to Nelson Gidding who did THE HAUNTING. Neither one seems like a fool. But foolishness prevails. I suspect uncredited other hands may be to blame for the foul tonal inconsistency and brainless fumbling. This is supported by the background info that Orson Welles associate Richard Wilson was tipped from the director’s chair, his still-warm buttock imprint occupied by the sagging rump of THEM! director Gordon Douglas, whose approach to the material is not so much uncertain as absent, as if behind the glass eye of the camera lurked another glass eye, gazing blankly and without feeling.

Skullduggery from David Cairns on Vimeo.

We do have the pleasure of seeing Edward Fox react to an ape-woman flying a helicopter — I don’t know about you, but I’ve always wondered what Sir Edward’s response to such a spectacle would be — but the sheer offensive stupidity of the rest boggles the mind.

Clark attempts to prove to the court that establishing an individual’s species is more complicated than you’d think, by laying out skulls from a baboon, a chimp, a human and an aboriginal. Yes, you read correctly. The movie apparently thinks aboriginals aren’t human, or are at best some sub-species of the main branch. There’s a spirited debate between William Marshall and Wilfred Hyde-White in which Marshall is, of course, dignified and Shakespearian and Hyde-White is doddery and wry, his usual mode — all the more effective when his character turns out to be a white supremacist. The smartest thing in the film is this underplaying of evil, and it may have only come about because WHW just did what he normally did and nobody thought to stop him.

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Then the movie spoils its nanosecond of goodwill by bringing in a parodic Black Panther (he’s flown all the way from America, apparently, to make the case that the tropis, being pale skinned, prove that white people are less evolved, or something), part of the usual satirical escape clause — “Black people are prejudiced too!” — in fact, I just realized, SKULLDUGGERY bloody well *is* Bonfire of the Vanities, book and film, only it’s all gone Piltdown.

The most neglected character in all this is Topazia, the tropi wife, played by Pat Suzuki. She gets knocked up by a human (hairless variety), gives birth, loses the child, and then gets hauled into court in a cage. The film has absolutely no interest in her as a character, human or animal, despite the fact that far more happens to her than to any of the bare-faced ham-dispensers making up the upper echelons of the cast list. SKULLDUGGERY unfair to tropis.

At last — a Film of Ideas made by morons.

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16 Responses to “His Tropi Wife”

  1. That pic of a hair-encrusted Japanese couple graced the cover of a “Midi-Minuit Fantastique” I once had.

  2. Yes, it’s the first thing that comes up on a google search. Alas, the film does not compare to the startling image.

  3. “Anytime you have Pat Suzuki dressed as a small ape, I think you’re in trouble.”

    Burt Reynolds: an astute man.

  4. chris schneider Says:

    The fact that ill-treated Pat Suzuki was a star of the original production of FLOWER DRUM SONG — she had the role played by Nancy Kwan in the movie — calls for this quote from one of the FLOWER DRUM lyrics as commentary: “good and bad, intelligent, mad, and screwy!”

  5. Always a man to learn from his mistakes (except the hairpiece), Burt has never again appeared in a movie with Pat Suzuki dressed as a small ape. A shame, as I can imagine an entertaining alternate universe version of Every Which Way But Loose.

  6. Also, Burt Reynolds says Lorenzo Semple Jr wrote Skullduggery. Does anyone have any information about this?

  7. Lorenzo S certainly wrote a ton of stuff, and after Batman was the go-to guys for comic book camp (Superman, Flash Gordon, King Kong). Of course, Burt could be wrong, but the flippant tone does seem more like LS than the rather stolid Gidding. So, somebody probably rewrote somebody else, and Gidding got cursed with screen credit.

  8. charles W. Callahanb Says:

    You kids ain’t just whistling dixie.

  9. Recall a documentary on the Planet of the Apes movies. While preparing the first sequel, they shot makeup tests for a kid who was to be Heston’s son by a female chimpanzee (Kim Hunter’s character?). Not al all surprised it was squelched by the studio, but wonder how it got as far as that.

  10. Also recalling the famous story of “Africa Screams”, an Abbott and Costello feature. The script had a female gorilla taking quite a shine to Lou. The Production Code people insisted that the gorilla be positively identified as male. So in the finished film, Lou is dealing with what can only be a gay gorilla. This supposedly became a big joke among writers who’d had trouble getting more mundane relationships past the code.

  11. Ha! And interesting that King Kong got a pass (admittedly in pre-code das, but it was re-released later) but when the genders were reversed, suddenly there was panic. Hilarious that a same-sex relationship was considered the way to dispel any sexual element.

    Among the inanities of Skullduggery is the fact that nobody thinks to perform either an autopsy or a blood test of the supposed half-human baby. And a major disappointment is that we never get to SEE it.

  12. King Kong did not have a penis.

  13. Actually, gorilla penises are very small, so he could have had one tucked away somewhere.

  14. lefty people person Says:

    “The movie apparently thinks aboriginals aren’t human, or are at best some sub-species of the main branch. ”

    (You probably meant “Australian aboriginal”, as opposed to European aboriginal/native, American aboriginal/native, or an aboriginal from anywhere else. )

    Not necessarily. It just illustrates how there’s a continuum of features, even within humans. Native-Australians (followed by native-Europeans), unlike Native Africans and Asians, commonly have more robust features, that resemble those of several hominid species. The forehead also has a more inclined slope, and even the cranial vault volume is in the lowest range of living humans. Teeth are also larger, which is taken as a preserved ancestral feature. To a lesser degree, they have a less pronounced chin, which is sort of a hallmark of the Homo sapiens species, as opposed to other Homo species and other hominids. It would be more certainly less kinda-racist if there were also more linking of such primitive features pointed in European specimens, and just to be sure, their near absence in Asians and Africans, so it still doesn’t look as if Europeans are “at the top”.

    It’s an intereting and creepy alternative world to imagine, one where there were an European white chimpanzee species (chimpanzees are often white skinned even in Africa, anyway). Makes us wonder about the impact it could have had on racism. Perhaps it would have been considerably worse for the Irish (and other European lower castes), who were once dehumanized in a way similar to the propaganda against black people. Even today there are jokes in popular culture that are somewhat akin to jokes that were once acceptable having black people as the object of mockery (think of “Willy”, from “the Simpsons”, but also Cletus and his hillbilly family, even though they aren’t Irish).

    It would be even more complex it it was something like a neanderthal or Homo heidelbergensis, or even Homo erectus georgicus.

    The American paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould said we’re kind of lucky that all those species either went extinct or “blended” into the lineage that evolved into Homo sapiens, so that the gap between human and “non human” is considerably large, rather than there being a fine continuum. Certainly it’s lucky “not to exist” being even more prone to dehumanization than the “lower castes” of Homo sapiens, not being unlucky just because of such caste system, but also because then “scientific racism” would sort of be “kind of right”, in a very troublesome ethical scenario, with the problem of rights and duties for a whole gradation between “humans” and “pre-humans”, or maybe not a gradation, but a steeper step below.

    But maybe it wouldn’t be all that different. Despite being potentially more favorable to “nazi” worldviews, perhaps those species wouldn’t be in the end (after some gruesome moral evolution akin to the one we had/are still having with children, women, other races) treated much more worse than pre-civilized natives are. Sometimes they’re protected in a way that is pretty much like “wildlife”, or a combination of “wildlife” and minors or mentally retarded — specially protected, albeit with less rights due to lack of capacity and civil/criminal illiability. Possibly more people would be vegetarians, too.

  15. Thanks!

    Yes, I fell into using the movie’s terminology, “aborigines” of course aren’t just Australian, they’re anyone indigenous. My fault.

    But it did seem highly dubious the way the lined up some animal skulls, a white person skull and an enthnic minority skull. It’s ironic that the tropi actors are all Japanese, since Japanese people have, I believe, the largest average brain size, a bit of a blow for white supremacy.

    A shame the movie isn’t smart enough todeal with its idea — the book sounds a lot better.

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