“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.
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.
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.
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.