In Philip Strick’s Science Fiction Films (1972), there’s a memorable still of actress Pat Suzuki in a full-fur make-up (with visible nipples) as a ‘Tropi’, one of a tribe of missing links who feature in this 1970 movie – which I’ve only managed to track down decades later, to discover that the film never allows as clear a look at the Russ Meyer-on-the-Planet-of-the-Apes make-up creation by Bud and Marvin Westmore.
Skullduggery, which might have been called almost anything (though it does include some duggery with skulls), is an uncomfortable mix of childish adventure, blunt satire and squeam-making sexual/racial politics, with weird mood-swings that seem all the weirder for production values and a shooting style which are resolutely mainstream bland (it was an ABC Pictures production for Universal). Screenwriter Nelson Giddings (The Haunting) began work on this adaptation of Vercors’ 1952 novel Les Animaux Denatures (aka You Shall Know Them) for Otto Preminger – who might at least have had a grasp on the courtroom side of the story, though he was also in the phase of his career that yielded Skidoo and Hurry Sundown at the time – but it ended up with Gordon Douglas, who was brought on after one day of shooting to replace Richard Wilson. Douglas, a pro whose credits include Them! and The Detective (and Zombies on Broadway), just tries to get through the thing efficiently.
Paleoanthropologist Sybil Graeme (Susan Clark, in jungle kit by Edith Head) is in Papua New Guinea in search of fossil evidence of the missing link when rogueish adventurer Douglas Temple (Burt Reynolds) and his drunken pal Otto Kreps (Roger C. Carmel, in seedy Harry Mudd mode) wheedle their way onto the expedition by crippling one of the team (Edward Fox) so they can stake claims on valuable deposits of minerals used in the manufacture of colour television sets. Sybil rebuffs the macho Douglas for a few minutes then sleeps with him, which doesn’t stop him trotting out sentiments like ‘if there’s anything, I can’t stand it’s a brainy woman’. In the jungle, Douglas intends to plant some bones he’s brought along to keep the expedition in one place while he maps those deposits, a trick Sybil sees through at once but is only mildly annoyed by. I like Susan Clark, but she seemingly always got stuck with playing the humourless feminist/liberal shown up by a cheeky man’s man – notably as the social worker in Coogan’s Bluff, with Clint Eastwood. Here, her interactions with Reynolds – who unironically plays caveman in a movie which features actual cavemen – are painful. Her dialogue runs to gems like ‘Is it possible, Douglas, that we’ve wandered into uncontrolled territory?’ and ‘Oh, Douglas, wouldn’t it be marvellous if we could find another complete skull?’
After reels of arsing around in the jungle, which includes business with a tribe of bare-breasted canoeist women and Douglas shrugging off the death by spear of a native guide he’s ordered to step into taboo territory, the expedition discovers the tribe of hairy hominids played by crouched-over Japanese mimes. Douglas names them Tropis and Sybil calls in her sponsor, industrialist Vancruysen (Paul Hubschmid), who shows up by helicopter and revives a cargo cult. After an abrupt transition, everyone is exploiting the chattering little Tropis: Douglas turns them into miners in pink dungarees who turn over wheelbarrowloads of ore in return for canned ham; Sybil and colleagues try a selective breeding program, which Vancruysen is in favour of since he sees the non-human but willing creatures as a source of slave labour; pidgin-spouting priest Father Dillingham (Chips Rafferty) wants to baptise the tribe en masse, but hesitates because it might be sacrilege; and Kreps may or may not drunkenly have sex with Topazia (Suzuki), knocking her up; the local black native tribe invite the expedition to a big feast and serve roast Tropi, which they baulk at eating. If Topazia and Kreps can have a child together, then the Tropis are legally human and have rights – but she has a miscarriage in a tacky Papuan Snow White-themed motel (it must be real – Disney would never have licensed it for the film).
In a development demented even by the standards of this plot, Douglas claims to have killed the baby and insists he be tried for murder. An intense Papuan DA (William Marshall) is pitted against Vancruysen’s smooth mouthpiece (Paul Hubschmid) as a wise old judge (Rhys Williams) presides in a noisy courtroom, and witnesses include a racist Rhodesian boffin (Wilfred Hyde-White) who argues that the Tropis aren’t fully human before admitting he thinks that black people aren’t either and a Black Panther activist (Booker Bradshaw) who insists that the straight-haired, pink-skinned Tropis are in fact the prototype Caucasians. This descends into farce, and the fact that the wretched Topazia gets crushed to death while trying to escape isn’t as sobering as the film would like it to be. I suspect producer Saul David was hoping to compete with Planet of the Apes in its science fiction satire-cum-anthropology adventure. Objectively, this has a fascinating subject (which it presents awkwardly) and a pretty good non-star cast (Reynolds hadn’t yet broken big) but it’s kind of a disaster … no wonder it’s so seldom seen.