As a child of the 1970s, the fantastical productions of Irwin Allen formed a significant part of my imaginative backdrop. Popular TV series Lost in Space (1965-68) and Land of the Giants (1968-70) were constantly being repeated and I would watch them religiously, along with their stablemates Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-68) and The Time Tunnel (1966-67) (which must have been on just as frequently but felt more elusive). But preceding all of these, and occupying much the same child-friendly spot in the TV schedule, was Allen’s first non-documentary feature film The Lost World (1960), which offered the holy grail of many a child’s viewing desires – dinosaurs!
The Lost World is loosely adapted from the 1912 novel of the same name by Arthur Conan Doyle, which introduced his personal favourite character – the violently obnoxious Professor Challenger, a fictionalised mashup of explorer Percy Fawcett (who would later go missing while looking for a lost city in Brazil) and physiology professor William Rutherford (under whom Doyle had studied). Although I personally fail to see the appeal of a character who would rather shout down or physically attack his opponents than explain himself, I imagine Doyle found him to be a cathartic contrast to his more famous creation Sherlock Holmes – and such a character is certainly a useful plot catalyst for adventure stories. In this instance, Professor Challenger (Claude Rains) has recently returned from an expedition to South America where he claims to have seen dinosaurs atop a distant plateau, although none of the supporting evidence has survived the return journey. To his credit, he recognises that his story isn’t particularly convincing and proposes that his chief critic Professor Summerlee (Richard Haydn) should accompany him on a return journey to visit the plateau and obtain further evidence. Seeking volunteers from the audience of the public lecture in which he aired his claims, Challenger agrees to accept the experienced big-game-hunter Lord John Roxton (Michael Rennie) and Global News reporter Ed Malone (David Hedison) – although the latter is only accepted under protest after his employer (John Graham) agrees to fund the expedition. Joining them in South America as a fait accompli are the editor’s two grown children, Jennifer Holmes (Jill St. John) – an adventurous woman pursuing an ill-advised relationship with Roxton – and David Holmes (Ray Stricklyn), talked into coming by his big sister. The final expedition members are their local guides, helicopter pilot Manuel Gomez (Fernando Lamas) and his cowardly assistant Costa (Jay Novello).
Allen’s decision to shift the story forward from 1912 to contemporary times doesn’t affect the plot in any substantial way besides the introduction of a helicopter as a means to shortcut a lengthy jungle trek, although this does undercut the idea that we’re travelling to an obscure location completely unknown to western explorers. As helicopters aren’t generally designed for long-range transport, I found myself going down a rabbit hole to learn that the Sikorsky HRS-2 in which they travel had a maximum range of 720 km before refuelling – perfectly adequate for the Korean War, but implausible when it comes to reaching a remote jungle plateau unexplored by western civilisation. This is, of course, completely irrelevant to most viewers – but as my younger self spent a lot of time poring over books with military hardware specs, it’s a little surprising I never picked up on it back then. Then again, my desperation to get to the dinosaurs is probably sufficient explanation.
More significant than the chronological shift are the changes Allen and his co-writer Charles Bennett have made to the characters from Doyle’s original novel. Challenger and Summerlee make the transition more or less intact. The reporter Malone was originally motivated to join the expedition as a way of impressing a girl – this motivation is carried forward by making him a romantic rival for the affections of Jennifer Holmes. The substantial character revisions kick in with Lord John Roxton, who in his original incarnation helped to end slavery in the Amazon. Here, although he retains his international reputation, he has been re-cast as an inveterate womaniser whose pursuit of one particular woman led him to neglect his duties to another South American expedition three years before – his failure to turn up to an appointed rendezvous resulted in the loss and presumed death of all its members. As an attempt to give his character some depth, it’s pretty perfunctory in the final script, but it does at least add something to the character of Gomez, originally an untrustworthy former slaver (and ethnic stereotype) out for revenge against Roxton for killing his brother (also a slaver). In this new scenario, Gomez’s brother was a member of the expedition Roxton failed, making his desire for revenge more sympathetic to the audience – although his decisions in pursuit of that revenge (and last minute heroic change of heart) make very little sense, owing more to plot-convenience than to any compelling psychological rationale.
As for the new characters, Jennifer Holmes is initially promising as the headstrong adventuress who won’t allow herself to be dismissed on the basis of her gender, but is quickly undermined by the writers’ decision to take a 180 degree turn and make her the type of spoiled city girl who joins a dangerous expedition in order to secure a marriage proposal, while bringing along a tiny poodle with its own carry-bag. The love triangle involving Roxton (whom she has pursued over the last two years) and Malone (who she barely knows) is clumsily handled and fails to engage, a token addition for older viewers which simply eats up screen time while boring the younger audience. But Jennifer does at least have more personality than her brother David, a thankless role which gives the actor very little basis on which to create a character and whose primary function is to act as a love interest for the token dialogue-free Native Girl (Vitina Marcus). As for Native Girl’s tribe, it suffices to say that they’re a typically generic mishmash of primitive stereotypes which don’t bear close inspection.
But what about the cool stuff? Well, the movie starts promisingly by running the opening credits over footage of lava, recognising that its young dinosaur-enthusiast viewers will also be hoping to see a volcano or two – and to provide a bit of visual spectacle to tide them over until the characters reach the centre of the action. Roughly half an hour in, we get to see our first dinosaur, and… well, your reaction to what comes next may well depend on your childhood expectations, because all of the dinosaurs in this movie are portrayed by lizards with bits stuck on their heads and/or backs. This was pretty much the default depiction of dinosaurs in live-action entertainment when I was growing up, so it brings a pleasant rush of nostalgia to see this cheerfully old-hat method of doing one’s best on a budget. It wasn’t Allen’s preferred choice – he had included a 10 minute sequence of stop-motion dinosaur animation in his documentary feature The Animal World (1956), which was realised by Willis O’Brien (responsible for 1925’s original film version of The Lost World but best known for King Kong) in collaboration with Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts) – but it was the best option available to him under the budget he had been allocated. Given these constraints, the one mistake Allen makes is to attempt to pass off some of these hybrid lizard creations under the names of actual recognisable dinosaurs. Having Professor Challenger identify an iguana with glued on horns as a Brontosaurus, or a gecko with horns and sails as a baby Tyrannosaurus Rex, only undermines his scientific authority since any child with the most basic knowledge of dinosaurs would be able to point out that they look nothing alike. On the plus side, casting living creatures as dinosaurs does allow for realistic animal movement that stop-motion techniques of the time were incapable of achieving, even if this opens up a dubious animal ethics question about the fight scene between a monitor lizard (portraying a Protostegosaurus) and a spectacled caiman (appearing as a Ceratopspinus). My favourite creature of the lot, however, was (and still is) the giant glowing-green tarantula which ineffectually blocks two characters’ passage through a tunnel of webbing (Native Girl creeps around the edge of the effect before the pursuing Malone dispatches it with a single shot from his rifle). It may not do very much, but I really liked that green glow – the image of that spider is the single most vivid memory of the movie I retained through all of my childhood viewings.
Claude Rains (The Invisible Man, Casablanca) puts in a solid performance as Professor Challenger, submerging himself in a faithful character portrayal which displays a familiarity with the source material and is sufficiently different from his other more famous performances that I didn’t recognise him until I consulted the cast list. The only other performer who really stands out is Michael Rennie (The Day the Earth Stood Still), giving Lord John Roxton the calm dignity of a man who knows himself better than he’d like and is quietly attempting to find redemption. David Hedison would go on to become the face I associated with James Bond’s CIA buddy Felix Leiter thanks to his likeable performances in Live and Let Die (1973) and Licence to Kill (1989), but the role of Edward Malone gives him little to work with and my lasting impression was of a petulant tantrum-throwing dullard (although Allen must have liked him since he became a series regular in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea). Jill St. John, who seared herself in my memory as Molly in the first episode of Batman (1966) and was so charismatic in Diamond Are Forever (1971), starts well in her opening scenes but is unable to salvage the less inspiring material after the beginning of the expedition proper. Fernando Lamas (The Merry Widow) attempts to make something more of his character than a menacing locus of impending betrayal, but is undermined by the lack of any psychological reality to his character.
The most surprising name to find on the credits list is co-writer Charles Bennett, a talented screenplay writer best known for his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock (The 39 Steps, Sabotage, Secret Agent, Saboteur). His work is at its best in the opening London scenes, which provide the greatest opportunity for the characters to bounce off each other. Some signs of this sparkle can still be seen in an exchange between Jennifer and Roxton shortly after their arrival in South America, but from that point on the dialogue becomes increasingly perfunctory. Director and co-writer Irwin Allen may not have been up to much as a writer, but he certainly got a lot of use out of his dinosaur footage, re-using it in all four of his television series before allowing Hammer Films to recycle it for When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970). Allen’s career peaked with the disaster movie boom of the 1970s, most notably The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974), the movies most likely to define his legacy. The Lost World never reaches the heights of those films, but while it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny nearly so well as the far superior Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), it still has its charms for those willing to indulge it.
Far more likely to stand the test of time is pioneering Czech animator Karel Zeman’s Journey to the Beginning of Time [Cesta do pravěku] (1955), a charming family film combining boy’s adventure with an educational remit which I wish I’d had the opportunity to see at a younger age. Rather than perpetuating the division between intellectual and physical pursuits more typical of American entertainment of the era, Journey to the Beginning of Time ties the quest for knowledge to a physical journey down a river undertaken by four boys aged between 12 and 17 years old.
Twelve-year-old Jirka (Vladimír Bejval) discovers a Trilobite fossil while out playing near a cave. The curiosity inspired by this discovery prompts his older brother Petr (Josef Lukás), the narrator, to further Jirka’s education, beginning with a diagram illustrating the different stages of life in the intervening millennia and following up with a visit to the local museum to look at the skeletons of prehistoric life before finally reading Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth [Voyage au centre de la Terre] (1864, rev. 1867). Since this has only increased Jirka’s desire to see a living Trilobite, and “almost everything in Jules Verne books came true”, the obvious solution is for them to set off with two of their friends on a journey down the river into prehistory. Petr will record the travels in his journal, while the oldest boy Toník (Petr Herrman) will take photographs.
Sailing up Slovakia’s Váh River and through the cave where Jirka discovered his fossil, the boys emerge from the other side into an icy river and camp overnight in the Ice Age. Continuing their journey the following day, they observe a mammoth on a nearby riverbank (realised through a combination of practical macro-scale motorised puppetry and stop-motion footage matted over the river bank, depending on the angle from which it’s viewed). Further down the river they discover an abandoned campfire in a cave, admiring the tusks and antlers left over from the cave-dweller’s hunting expeditions and marvelling at the absent occupant’s skill at creating cave paintings. Toník goes off in search of the caveman, snapping pictures of the wildlife (birds and bison) before discovering a spear and promptly falling into a pit. The other boys watch two woolly rhinos battle on the opposite riverbank but hide from a mysterious spear-bearing figure who turns out to be their mud-encrusted friend and not a caveman.
Continuing back into the Tertiary Period they encounter flamingoes, gazelles, vultures, Deinotheria, sabre-tooth tigers and giraffes. If there were an American production, I’d expect at least one of the boys to have brought along a rifle, turning this into a mini-safari – but the focus of the story is very much on scientific observation and recording of data. Although the boys have some close encounters with a leopard and some alligators, their approach is to fend the creatures off with fire and make their escape. An encounter with a Uinthatherium prompts laughter from some of the boys about its silly name, leading to an impromptu lesson about scientific nomenclature and the meaning behind the funny-sounding names of prehistoric creatures.
Petr makes a narrow escape from a Phorusrhacos and they continue downriver to the Mesozoic. After fending off some exploratory dives from a hungry Pteranodon (probably more interested in the fish than them), they observe a Styracosaurus and Trachodon on the riverbanks and encounter a Brontosaurus hanging out in the river. And then, at last, they get to witness the obligatory battle between two dinosaurs – a Stegosaurus and a Ceratosaurus. Although the Stegosaurus is successful in fending off its attacker with a few well-placed thwacks from its tail spikes, it succumbs to its injuries, leaving a corpse for the boys to explore (and climb over) the following day. Disaster threatens when they return to discover their boat smashed to pieces, but the older boys are able to construct a raft and their journey continues.
Their raft finally bogs down in the Carboniferous Period, where they encounter giant centipedes, dragonflies and salamanders. Jirka’s tendency to wander off on his own gets him in trouble with the older boys, but they soon forgive him when they learn that he found Petr’s lost journal. Making the last stretch of the journey on land, they finally reach the Silurian Period (represented here by the shores of Rügen, an island off the coast of East Germany). Jirka’s quest comes to a successful conclusion when he finally gets to meet a living Trilobite, illustrated with a touching picture of the young boy holding his fossil in one hand while the other holds its still-living relative. All that remains is a quick coda featuring Petr back at home paging through his completed journal, and the film comes to an end.
The scientific elements of the screenplay by Zeman and J.A. Novotný were bolstered by consultation with palaeontologist Josef Augusta, with visual inspiration for the prehistoric creatures taken from painter Zdeněk Burian, one of the world’s pre-eminent dinosaur artists. The range of techniques used by Zeman to depict these creatures in a live-action film are still deemed worthy of study today, with one Czech educational institution offering courses which give students an opportunity to attempt to recreate his deceptively simple methods. Zeman’s characteristic reference to Jules Verne early in the film would later be realised in three heavily-stylised adaptations making use of more advanced techniques – Invention for Destruction [Vynález zkázy] (1958), The Stolen Airship [Ukradená vzducholoď] (1967) and On the Comet [Na kometě] (1970).
American producer William Cayton bought the American distribution rights, releasing a dubbed and re-edited version with additional footage in 1966 under the pretence that it was an original creation. Despite the additional footage, the US version is 13 minutes shorter than the original and some of the changes foisted upon it for the local audience actively work against the tone of the original. A reconstructed credit sequence running over abstract patterns of light puts the emphasise on the US personnel, with most of the original crew receiving anglicised names or being omitted entirely. The new footage features four Americans who, despite being filmed entirely from behind, are clearly completely different people from those in the film – they don’t even bother to get their relative heights correct. Gone is the delightful premise that Jirka (renamed Jo-Jo) wants to meet a living Trilobite – instead we are treated to an unmotivated visit to the American Museum of Natural History, as the four young men take a far more extensive tour through the museum than their Czech originals and are peppered with graceless infodumps which integrate less smoothly with the overall story progression. Unable to go along with the fantastical conceit of the original, the US version frames the events of their journey as a vision quest imposed by a funny look from a wooden carving of an “Indian medicine man” – at the end of their journey the four boys wake up sitting on the same wooden bench, with the only difference being the completed and travel-worn journal belonging to Petr (renamed Doc because he likes science). The other American boys have a more cavalier attitude to science than their Czech counterparts, all of whom were equally invested in their journey. The attitude to the cave dwelling shows off some particularly telling differences in approach. The Czech boys initially note the evidence of the caveman’s hunting skills, before being awed that he was not just a brute – he was also a talented artist. The American boys can’t help going into the patronising speculation that cave art must have had a ritual purpose rather than simply being a creative act, before reversing the emphasis of the original – underlining that a talented artist can still be a brutal killer. At the end of their journey, the Americans go even further back in time to the abstract lighting effects seen under the opening credits… accompanied by readings from the Book of Genesis about God’s creation of the world. This ham-fisted attempt to shove religion into proceedings was presumably intended as a sop to creationists, but it’s hard to see how juxtaposing this with pseudo-Native American magic serves either a scientific or religious audience. Leaving such plodding missteps aside, the US version still has its charms, but with the superior Czech original now available on Blu Ray from Second Run and looking better than ever, the US version really only bears watching as a curio.