It’s a dangerous thing, the auteur theory. It can lead you to thinking that a workmanlike director such as Gordon Douglas or Ted Kotcheff, neither of whom anyone bar a few film buffs has ever heard of, will turn in a masterpiece every time; that someone as competent but essentially limited as Douglas or Kotcheff will somehow transcend the clunkiest of scripts, the demands of genre, the cruel privations of budget, every time they stand behind a camera. Yes, they did make four of my favourite films (Them and Barquero, Two Gentlemen Sharing and Wake in Fright). But for every Barquero, every Wake in Fright, there is a Viva Knievel, an Uncommon Valour.
Let’s start with journeyman extraordinaire Gordon Douglas, who roughly midway through his career, in 1954, made the giant ants movie Them. Oh damn, I’ve gone and spoiled it now. Yes, it’s about giant ants, so that dead guy you see at the start of the film has been killed by ants, yes. Giant ones. Them was a big influence on the 1980s giant worm movie Tremors, which stars Fred Ward and a young Kevin Bacon, and it scared me shitless as a kid, probably because I knew that the ants were really communists, and not ants, just as the body snatchers in Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (remade by Phillip Kaufman, who also remade Douglas’ Great Minnesota Raid) are communists and not McCarthyites, as some fans of Don Siegel maintain. These two films are probably the best of the 1950s “Red Scare” movies, but they beg the question: what do the worms in Tremors represent? Wall St bankers? Nicaraguan Contras? Oh, and here’s an interesting piece of trivia I learned from Mojo: Van Morrison’s group Them were also named after the giant ants.
Between Them and his other great movie, Barquero, Douglas made a whole crock of shit (Doris Day, Liberace, Elvis Presley & Frank Sinatra pics) but sometimes you just got to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince. In this case, the prince is actually two men, barquero Lee Van Cleef and dope-smoking villain Warren Oates, together on a barge, although not at the same time, since the whole point of Barquero is that they’re fighting over control of the barge and it keeps changing hands. This is a more than decent Hollywood stab at the Spaghetti Western, thanks mainly to Oates’ by turns brooding, sadistic, self-pitying and increasingly confused performance (must be the wacky backy!)
Post-Barquero, Douglas’ career briefly looked up (They Call Me Mister Tibbs, Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off, uncredited work on Skin Game – basically a lot of what we patronisingly term “black cinema”) then looked down, into a Grand Canyon-sized void, with the execrable Evel Knievel and Viva Knievel. In all, Douglas directed some 75 feature films and when asked by Bertrand Tavernier to explain his prodigious output, said he had a large family to feed, “and it’s only occasionally that I find a story that interests me.” He had a sense of humour too.
Ted Kotcheff made nowhere near as many films, so the overall quality is higher. On the plus side, he made Two Gentlemen Sharing (or 2GS for short) and Wake in Fright (also known as Outback) while on the minus side, he made Uncommon Valour, from which there is no coming back. He was born Velichko Todoroff Tsotcheff in Toronto to Bulgarian immigrant parents, so sensibly changed his name, but he always felt an affinity with the underdog, be they black (2GS) kangaroo (Wake in Fright) or American soldiers missing in action having napalmed a Vietnamese village (Uncommon Valour). After a career in Canadian telly, he moved to the UK and in 1969 made his first notable contribution to cinema with the aforementioned and criminally unappreciated Two Gentlemen Sharing, which was shown at Cannes but never distributed in the UK because the authorities thought it would incite a riot. I can’t see what they were worried about, really. It’s hardly revolutionary in either form or content, it’s just a unique take on “Swinging” London, one which manages to feel jaded and cynical almost from the off. No 1960s UK movie brings such a nuanced appreciation of class, race and sexuality together so effectively. Above all, class. Kotcheff’s parents were civil rights supporters and he gives Judy Geeson’s character – a white working-class hair-dresser with a black stepfather – a voice and confidence rare in British cinema. Sometimes it takes an outsider (Kotcheff, Polanski, Peckinpah) to nail the weird and wonderful society we Brits live in, with its class system painfully obvious to all but the rich, its constant undercurrents of racism, its rampant misogyny and homo-eroticism (not that there’s anything wrong with homo-eroticism).
Two years later, Kotcheff matched 2GS with the equally forensic Wake in Fright. This was the same mix of unnerving desires, documentary-style observation and mordant humour transposed to the Australian outback. The kangaroo shoot upsets the vegans but let’s be honest, they ARE a pest and as long as you eat them, where’s the harm (vegans, I mean)?
After that, Kotcheff’s career, like Douglas’, went a bit mwah. The Western Billy Two Hats was scripted by Alan Sharp, who also wrote Ulzana’s Raid, but it was no Barquero. The American football movie North Dallas Forty starts well, but fails to live up to its initial, rambling, Bob Rafelsonesque vibe and becomes more of a regular Hollywood sports movie, a la Jerry Maguire, albeit with shades of Slap Shot, The Mean Machine and even Rollerball. Then comes Rambo and – worse – Uncommon Valour, which was produced by red-meat-munching John Milius – the Ted Nugent of cinema – and is even worse than his own anti-commie opus Red Dawn, if such a thing is possible. Which it isn’t. Still, how many film-makers maintained their artistic integrity through the 80s? How could they, when the tastes of the times were dominated by the aesthetics of advertising, New Romantic, shoulder pads and coke?
Neither director was responsible for the period drama Sacco & Vanzetti: that was directed by Giuliano Montaldo and stars the great Gian-Maria Volonte, staple baddy of many a Spaghetti Western, whom Warren Oates effectively replaces in Barquero, but here Volonte plays one of the Italian anarchists executed in the 1920s by the US judicial-industrial complex. I feel there’s a sequel crying out to be made. Perhaps it could be called Gordo & Kotcheffi. Two film directors who happen to like dressing up in ant costumes get fitted up for crimes they may or may not have committed (directing Uncommon Valour, having unpronounceable foreign names). Hell, I already have the promotional image (see above) But while we’re waiting, here’s the Ennio Morricone/Joan Baez theme tune from the original movie…..