"The Gods Must Be Crazy," a comedy from South Africa, arms us with an argument against apartheid that is altogether original: the system produces crummy movies.

The movie begins in pseudo-documentary style, analyzing the life of the Bushmen, the "pretty, dainty, small and graceful" creatures who survive in the Kalahari Desert by knowing which roots and berries to eat, and how to find them. Blissfully unaware of such civilized creations as the alarm clock, apologizing to their prey before they slaughter it, "they must be the most contented people in the world" -- contented, that is, until a pilot flings a Coke bottle from his plane and it lands among them.

The Coke bottle twists the lives of these noble savages. Finding its hard surface useful for curing snakeskins and pounding roots for food, they begin to fight among themselves; "a thing they had never needed before became a necessity," the narrator tells us, "and other things came -- hate, jealousy, anger and violence." So one of the Bushmen (played amiably by an actual Bushman named N!xau) takes the bottle and skedaddles for "the end of the earth," where he plans to discard it.

This romantic view of tribal life is nothing but the flip side of apartheid, an appalling apology for the Bantustan program -- how noble to protect these people from running water, air-conditioned offices, and all the other depredations of civilization that have made us all into such nervous wrecks! The movie's smarmy condescension toward the Bushmen, how "dainty" and "gentle" and "unknowable" they are, is not at all foreign to the old American image of lovable blacks who were granted some sort of emotional superiority as a sop for the horrors they suffered. This kind of thing might spell "liberalism" in South Africa, but here it just leaves you reaching for your Rolaids.

On his journey to the end of the world, the Bushman encounters a biologist, Steyn (Marius Weyers), who scours the veldt for elephant manure, which he assays with a computer ("That's funny -- this elephant dung shows a complete lack of boron"). The biologist is in love with Kate Thompson (Sandra Prinsloo), who's come to Botswana to teach English, but he can't seem to get it together. He falls into tables (or they fall into him), his idling Land-Rover drives off without him, coffee cups squirt from his hand -- those gods sure are crazy.

This is the kind of pratfall yuck 'em up you don't see much of anymore, shot in an antique, pixilated Keystone Kops style that must remind director Jamie Uys of the good old days when D.W. Griffith could make a movie exalting the Ku Klux Klan. When Kate is kidnaped by a terrorist band, led by a white fellow with a thick, indecipherable accent (Russian? Cuban?), Steyn is able to save her because, like his Bushman ally, he's plugged into the ways of nature. This division of the world -- civilization for uptight whites, an impoverished but soulful link with the land for blacks -- is as neat as it is hateful. What was 20th Century-Fox thinking of when it agreed to distribute this movie?