Unsung Auteurs: Ivan Tors

April 27, 2023
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: the late Ivan Tors, a great proponent of animal conservation and family filmmaking.

There are some fields or film genres – telemovies, romantic comedies, raunchy teen flicks – where artistry is largely seen to be non-existent by critics and commentators. These are areas into which true auteurs are not seen to tread, even though there are many, many counter-arguments to be made and debates to be had on these matters. One of the chief fields apparently devoid of filmmakers with a real sense of vision or continued thematic enquiry is the family film. Despite the common assumption, there are many fascinating directors who play in this sandbox (Brad Bird for one, and Unsung Auteurs Stewart Raffill and Lionel Jeffries to name two more), delivering films that espouse on regular themes and that display a clear sense of continued style. These films might not always be great, but you can certainly see the director in them. Into this category, we add the late Ivan Tors.

“If we learn to communicate with animals, there is some hope that one day we will learn to communicate with each other,” Ivan Tors once said, and it’s a solid entry point into this animal-loving director’s career. Though he only directed three feature films, they are linked by their key showcasing of animals, and of African animals in particular. His early life, however, hardly suggested a move in this direction. Ivan Tors was born in 1916 in Budapest, Hungary, and began his professional career in his home country as a playwright before eventually moving to the US, where he enlisted in The Army Air Corps just before World War II, ultimately being shipped over to The Office Of Strategic Services, which was the precursor to the CIA. After the war, Tors was employed as a screenwriter at major studio MGM. He was assigned various projects, even scoring an Oscar nomination in 1950 for his work on the Judy Garland-Van Johnson romance In The Good Old Summertime.

Ivan Tors

In the early fifties, Tors really hit his straps, kicking off a long career as a producer. With an almost Roger Corman-like zeal, Tors bought foreign films, pillaged them for various content, and then reshaped them for the American market, as well as creating material from scratch. Tors’ early fascination was for science fiction, action, and adventure, and also for films filled with underwater action. Though now almost completely forgotten, films like Storm Over Tibet (1952), The Magnetic Monster (1953), Gog (1954), Riders Of The Stars (1954), Underwater Warrior (1958) and many more were rock-solid, bang-on-the-money programmers throughout the fifties, with some of his films even (this might be a stretch, but let’s do it) pre-dating The Marvel Cinematic Universe with their interconnected narratives focusing on the exploits of the Tors-created Office Of Scientific Investigation.

In the sixties, Tors’ love for underwater action really ballooned when he created and produced the legendary TV series Sea Hunt and The Aquanauts, both classic of-the-era adventures lapped up by audiences of the day, and later also as afternoon reruns by kids in the seventies. In 1963, Tors’ love of animals and the ocean coalesced when he produced the iconic dolphin flick Flipper, which became a major hit. During the 1960s, Tors also produced equally beloved TV series in the form of Gentle Ben, Daktari and Cowboy In Africa. Though most of his time was spent developing, writing and producing projects for TV and the big screen, Tors did make three films as a director, and they all tie strongly into his common interests, with a focus on animals and Africa.

Ivan Tors On the set of TV’s Gentle Ben.

Filled with action and adventure, 1964’s Rhino! stars the great Harry Guardino in a rare leading role as a zoologist who tangles with poachers and local tribesmen in Africa while espousing his theories on protecting endangered animals and housing them in protected reserves. The film was pure Ivan Tors, as was the director’s 1965 follow-up Zebra In The Kitchen, in which a young boy releases the animals from his local zoo in protest at the poor conditions in which they are being held. A goofy kids’ delight, the film’s pleas for conservation and kindness to animals are loudly put, but it’s the scenes of animal mayhem that really linger in the mind, particularly the set-piece in which a bunch of primates run riot in a toy shop. Zebra In The Kitchen is great fun, all done, of course, with real animals and without the aid of CGI. In 1980, Tors moved a little further afield with the martial arts-inflected actioner Galyon, in which Stan Brock’s jungle survival expert is hired to rescue an oil tycoon from revolutionaries.

Passing away in 1983 at the age of 66, Ivan Tors created some seminal TV series and produced a long list of features (and directed a few) that have a distinct creative and thematic through-line. Though the subject of two docos (the self-directed 1967 short Unarmed In Africa and 2011’s The Legend Of Ivan Tors), Ivan Tors is certainly an Unsung Auteur, and a writer, producer and director in desperate need of rediscovery.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Amanda King & Fabio Cavadini, Cathy HenkelColin HigginsPaul McGuiganRose BoschDan GilroyTanya WexlerClio BarnardRobert AldrichMaya ForbesSteven KastrissiosTalya LavieMichael RoweRebecca CremonaStephen HopkinsTony BillSarah GavronMartin DavidsonFran Rubel KuzuiElliot SilversteinLiz GarbusVictor FlemingBarbara PeetersRobert BentonLynn SheltonTom GriesRanda HainesLeslie H. MartinsonNancy KellyPaul NewmanBrett HaleyLynne Ramsay,Vernon ZimmermanLisa CholodenkoRobert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne Fletcher,Bobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. Norton,Larysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.