Unsung Auteurs: Ted Post

June 15, 2023
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: the late Ted Post, who helmed The Baby, Magnum Force and Go Tell The Spartans.

The Unsung Auteurs column is liberally dotted with directors frequently labelled “journeymen”, namely filmmakers who take on movies more as work than expressions of artistry, putting them together with no distinct sense of style or vision. Many of these directors (see the likes of Jack Smight, Lamont Johnson, Tom Gries and many others), however, have a lot more to offer than just nuts-and-bolts workmanship. You can add to this list the late and truly under-celebrated Ted Post, seemingly the very definition of a “journeyman” director. A quick scan of Post’s resume, however, instantly reveals him as a filmmaker of far greater idiosyncrasy, boasting not only two of the best sequels of all time, but also one of the most unusual movies ever made. That instantly makes Ted Post much more than just a journeyman, and also qualifies him as an Unsung Auteur, despite the manner in which the late director is often damned with faint praise.

Born in 1918 in New York City, Post worked as a cinema usher in his early adulthood, which grew his interest and ambition to become a filmmaker. He took acting classes, and eventually moved into the theatre, and eventually into the booming world of 1950s television, helming episodes of hit shows like Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, The Twilight Zone, and many others, with a particular leaning toward westerns. Post also directed two low budget western B-pictures with 1956’s The Peacemaker (in which a preacher tries to peacefully settle a bitter feud) and 1959’s The Legend Of Tom Dooley (headlined by future Bonanza and Little House On The Prairie star Michael Landon), and a huge amount of TV through the 1960s before finally receiving a major-game call-up from star Clint Eastwood, who was hot off his Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. Ted Post had directed many episodes of the Clint Eastwood TV series Rawhide, and the star brought him on board to helm his 1968 western Hang ‘Em High.

Ted Post and Clint Eastwood on the set of Hang ‘Em High.

Not too far removed from Leone’s stylistic masterworks in terms of blood and violence, the rollicking Hang ‘Em High is often overlooked in discussions of the Eastwood oeuvre, but it’s a terrific western, with the star in fine form as a man wrongfully lynched and left for dead who survives his brutal ordeal, and then turns lawman to track down his intended killers. Fast-paced, well-constructed, and consistently compelling, Hang ‘Em High instantly established Ted Post as a director both adept with action and storytelling, but also one not afraid to push against expectations a little, and embrace the unusual in a script.

In the midst of more TV, Ted Post’s next assignment had a hint of the “journeyman” about it on the surface, but the resulting film rates as one of the most bizarre sequels of all time. 1970’s Beneath The Planet Of The Apes is a truly superb piece of sci-fi filmmaking, with the wacked out script largely abandoning the famous talking simians of the hit original to instead go underground and introduce a society of freakish mutants who literally worship at the altar of the world’s last remaining nuclear missile. While some directors may have shied away from the weirdness in the film’s screenplay, Post appears to embrace it wholeheartedly, creating a series of amazing visuals as he ingeniously constructs the underworld cabal of mind-controlling mutants, and then ending the film with a wonderfully pessimistic flourish as the original film’s leading man, Charlton Heston, returns in a cameo to literally destroy the world. Beneath The Planet Of The Apes is truly strange stuff, and the film – and its director – don’t get nearly the credit they deserve.

A scene from The Baby.

But compared to his next film, Beneath The Planet Of The Apes plays like an episode of kids’ television. 1973’s The Baby is the kind of demented curio that John Waters would probably love, and it features the kind of mother that nobody deserves. Mrs. Wadsworth (played with repugnant abandon by Ruth Roman in a performance that would make Joan Crawford proud) – with the help of her two trashy daughters – has a grown son that she has maintained as, yes, a baby, complete with bibs, nappies, soft food, a large, adult sized crib, and, oh yes, a cattle prod! When well-meaning social worker, Ann Gentry (Anjanette Comer), is assigned to the Wadsworth clan, a battle of wills erupts over Baby (David Mooney), who is revealed to be the victim only of intimidation and abuse, as opposed to any actual mental or physical condition. The battle of wills eventually becomes an actual battle (replete with knives, hatchets, and live burials), as the monstrous, man-hating Mrs. Wadsworth finds a worthy adversary in Ann Gentry, who has a freaked-out agenda all of her own that puts a further kinky spin on the not-so-sacred institution of motherhood.

It’s still a mystery why Ted Post ended up directing one of the weirdest movies of the seventies, but The Baby should really have established him as a possible cult director of the first order. That status should have been further amped up with his follow-up film, 1973’s The Harrad Experiment. Curiously strange and very much of its time, the film stars Don Johnson and Tippi Hedren in a sexually confronting look at social mores of the time, as a college professor (James Whitmore) matches seemingly incompatible male/female campus roommates in the hope of inspiring a series of sexual awakenings. Liberated and filled with nudity, The Harrad Experiment is largely forgotten today, but serves as a kinky time capsule of its times, and is another example of Ted Post’s willingness to push the envelope.

Ted Post with Clint Eastwood on the set of Magnum Force.

The very busy Ted Post got another call-up from Clint Eastwood, this time to direct Magnum Force, the 1973 sequel to his monster hit Dirty Harry. Though the resulting film is an absolute belter and one of the truly great sequels – in which Eastwood’s ball-breaking Inspector Harry Callahan entertainingly faces off against a vigilante death squad of young motorcycle cops, played by David Soul, Robert Urich and Tim Matheson, no less – Post clashed with Eastwood on set. Post was hitting his straps as a director, and he chafed under big star and burgeoning director and major power player Eastwood’s control of the film and the set.

Post would later claim that the feud with Eastwood damaged his career, but the director continued to make excellent and unusual films through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, including the interesting 1975 M*A*S*H-style comedic satire Whiffs (starring the latter’s Elliott Gould); the solid 1978 Chuck Norris actioner Good Guys Wear Black; the enjoyable 1980 Jaclyn Smith thriller Nightkill; the formulaic but entertaining enough 1991 Michael Dudikoff grunt-and-thumper The Human Shield; and the barely released 2001 drama 4 Faces. Though he continued to do much solid work on episodic TV and telemovies (with strong entries like 1991’s Stagecoach, and 1979’s Diary Of A Teenage Hitchhiker and The Girls In The Office), Post’s last truly fascinating film would ultimately be 1978’s Go Tell The Spartans. Tough, cynical and subversive, this under-celebrated gem is set in the early days of the conflict in Vietnam, and features a stellar turn from Burt Lancaster as a compromised US military leader. Again, Post’s daring as a director went largely under-celebrated with this excellent anti-war film.

Though the label of “journeyman” might be a much-maligned one, the late Ted Post proves that it’s firstly, not usually accurate, and secondly, wholly misleading. Ted Post was a nearly always interesting filmmaker deserving of far more detailed discussion and celebration.