Skullduggery (1970)

D: Gordon Douglas
S: Burt Reynolds, Susan Clark

Astoundingly clumsy environmentalist tale featuring fortune hunter Burt Reynolds partly escorting scientist Susan Clark into the jungles of New Guinea. When they encounter a strange anthropoid tribe who may be the missing link between man and ape, troubles of all kinds begin from inter-species mating to the furore which follows when developers want to destroy the creatures' natural habitat. Lurching from comedy to drama with an alarming inconsistency of direction, the film bizarrely turns on a contrived courtroom climax where the politics of race take centre stage in what seems to be a serious attempt to articulate ideas on the subject. As a product of the civil rights/Vietnam era, it seems relatively earnest as a plea for non-intervention and cross cultural understanding, but with heavy doses of laughable sexual (and racial) stereotyping, hamfisted humour (which occasionally attempts to pass for satire), and an inability to know when to give up and go home, the film degenerates as it progresses and has long lost whatever hope it had of being taken even halfway seriously before it reaches its almost surreal point of narrative and thematic resolution.

After the elegance of Planet of the Apes as a snapshot of contemporary American political and cultural attitudes, Skullduggery is ample illustration of how badly wrong such material can go in the wrong hands. Despite relatively earnest work on the part of the cast (including the unfortunates playing the tribe, University students in real life), script and direction are so misjudged that within minutes of the opening, viewers will either find themselves helpless with laughter or dumbstruck with wonder at the ineptitude with which it is handled.

The pace of the film is extremely uneven. It ranges from hi-adventure white-hunter hijinks to sex-war farce to conspiracy film rants about the military-industrial complex to its awe-inspiring courtroom closing without ever quite sorting out how to orient itself to its audience. It is difficult to know if you are laughing with it or at it as it slips between obvious winks-to-the-galleries and scenes which seem intended to be touching (such as the initial contact between our heroes and the creatures), but which are hilariously absurd. On one hand Reynolds' and Roger C. Carmel's (TVs Star Trek) characterisations of the opportunistic fortune hunters invite an appreciation of their roguish charm, yet it quickly emerges that Reynolds is a paper-thin Lothario who then abruptly turns to eco-warrior and Carmel is a sexual deviant that few will find easy to empathise with. Clark makes an equally uninspiring transition from confident scientist to sex object, and support from the likes of Edward Fox (!) only increases one's sense of discomfort about the whole endeavour.

It begins to feel like a strange nightmare after a while; not particularly scary, but somehow extremely disconcerting. Events on screen seem to follow a sort of dream logic of their own, but become increasingly disconnected from any sensible or remotely appropriate real-world frame of reference. Scenes of Reynolds expressing affection for an ape-man he has dressed in overalls and a baseball cap seem like some horrible drug-induced fantasy, and scenes of the same character passionately decying the rape of the natural world and disputing the determination of human rights feel like one of those dream moments where one slips from one reality into another without really noticing when the transition took place. By the time a Black Panther-type group bursts in to the courtroom finale arguing that the beasts are the antecedents of the white man, things have become more peculiar than any of Alice's adventures through the looking glass and we're definitely not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

On this level, it is an ideal film for inebriated or otherwise chemically-imbalanced viewers with time and inclination to view it and plenty of additional distractions to increase disorientation. Impaired or enhanced perceptual awareness can't possibly do any harm, and may, like Hippy reactions to the stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, offer hithertofore unprecedented insight for the attuned. Most viewers will be rightly appalled at a cluttered and garbled mess of a movie which, most distressingly of all, seems really to have had some genuine intentions somewhere along the way which have got lost in the tangle. Skullduggery is an obvious candidate for the 'worst films of all time' list, and, like so many others in this hallowed canon, may well find a more appreciative cult following than many more conventional entertainments.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 2000.