The Lost World (1960)

I was watching an old movie on Film4 on Sunday evening that brought back many good old memories for me. It was one of those oldies that I’d first seen way back when I was a kid, sometime during the first seven or eight years of my life, and is one that I hadn’t seen in many, many years.

The film in question was the second cinema version (1960) of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic 1912 novel The Lost World (the first version was the 1925 silent movie classic). The story involves an expedition to one of those “lost” regions of the world which were so popular back in the days before pretty much the entire world was explored and mapped. “Lost World” stories were very popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Lost civilizations in the jungles of darkest Africa and South America, beneath the sea, at the Earth’s core, indeed anywhere as yet unexplored, which could still harbour exciting adventures and unknown mysteries.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story was originally published as a serial in the Strand Magazine during the months of April–November 1912, and it took an expedition of explorers and scientists to South America, and up into the deepest, most unexplored regions of the Amazon, to a previously undiscovered plateau, where dinosaurs and other extinct prehistoric creatures had survived and still thrived. There were also cannibalistic native humans, who proved to be more dangerous than the dinosaurs, and who had wiped out a previous expedition.

The 1960 film adapts the original novel very loosely, taking a lot of liberties. And it was produced by Irwin Allen, king of the cheap and cheerful (in other words, terrible) special effects. Huge chunks of stock footage were later lifted from this film and just plonked down wholesale into several of Allen’s 1960’s television series, notably Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Land of the Giants and The Time Tunnel. Irwin Allen was the biggest cheapskate ever in the history of sci-fi television and cinema. He’s right up there alongside Ed Wood and Plan 9 from Outer Space. 🙂

Did I mention that the SFX are dire? Even for 1960, the special effects are terrible, and, by comparison, the ancient 1925 silent version, with the legendary Willis O’Brien producing the effects, was far superior technically. And O’Brien’s dinosaurs were proper dinosaurs, too. The 1960 film? Dinosaurs? Don’t make me laugh. The “dinosaurs” were a bunch of iguanas, monitor lizards and a baby alligator, all with bumps and horns glued to them. “Triceratops” was the baby alligator. “Stegosaurus” was a monitor lizard. “Iguanodon” (a bipedal dinosaur) was a four-legged iguana lizard (Allen must’ve looked at the names and thought “Iguana = Iguanodon”). And worst of all, “Tyrannosaurus”, the most famous dinosaur of all, the fearsome alpha predator, was played by a four-legged monitor lizard with glued-on horns and fins (Tyrannosaurus was two-legged and had neither horns nor fins). Even as a seven or eight year-old child, I knew my dinosaurs, and found these pathetic attempts totally hilarious. Anyone over the age of five these days would be howling with derision.

After all that slagging off, what is there good that can be said about the film? Granted that it is pretty lame by modern cinema standards, most of the criticisms are on the technical and SFX side of things. There is still an old-fashioned charm to this old movie, and it is certainly fun to watch. And even the so-called “dinosaurs” are hilarious, in a rather pathetic (“they aren’t dinosaurs!”) way. But the biggest redeeming feature of the film is definitely the cast, which included a number of big names – Michael Rennie, Claude Rains (as the cantankerous and hilarious Professor Challenger, the real star of the film), David Hedison and Jill St. John. They all played their parts straight and extremely well, which most likely elevated the film to a higher rating than it should otherwise have received (in my book, at least).

But most of the attraction for me is certainly on a personal level, namely the life-long nostalgia effect that links me to this film. I saw it at a very early age and it left a lasting impact on me, which led to bigger, better things. It lead directly to me reading the vastly superior original novel shortly afterwards at about age eight or nine, just as seeing George Pal’s classic 1960 cinema version of The Time Machine had led to me reading the original H. G. Wells novel a year or so before reading The Lost World.

Watching The Lost World for the first time all those years ago, was one of those formative encounters that helped lay the foundations that made me the geek that I am today. The film may not have dated very well by twenty-first century standards, but it still holds that old charm and nostalgia for me, and I’ll always make sure to watch it occasionally on TV when it gets shown every few years.

Sci-Fi Cinema (Part 1)

I’ve always loved all kinds of sci-fi cinema, starting with the “silent” movies, and going right up to the big-budget blockbusters of the modern era. It’s hard to believe that’s it’s over a century since the very first sci-fi film was produced. When Georges MĂ©liès unleashed Le Voyage dans la Lune upon the unsuspecting world in 1902, it was the beginning of a new era.

That film may have been very primitive and very short by modern standards, but it was unique, the first movie of its kind. It must’ve been mind-boggling for the earliest cinema-goers to watch something like this. I reckon that even MĂ©liès, visionary that he was, could never in a million years have dreamed how things would turn out. Imagine the poor man, taken forward in time and sitting in a modern cinema, watching any modern sci-fi blockbuster movie, with all the incredible SFX and pyrotechnics. He would been in complete shock. 🙂

From this point on, the film-making skills and technology improved at an incredible rate, through the earliest efforts of the first decade of the twentieth century, including the impressive Frankenstein (1910), produced by Thomas Edison (yes, THAT Edison), through the glory days of silent European cinema during the second decade of the century, in particular German gothic horror cinema, to the 1920s, when we were beginning to see much more sophisticated “silent” classics like Willis O’Brien’s classic The Lost World (1925) and Fritz Lang’s epic Metropolis (1927).

Jump forward another decade to the 1930s, the beginning of the era of “talkies”, and things had taken a quantum leap forward, improving beyond all recognition. Two of the greatest sci-fi movies of that decade, and two of my personal favourites, were Willis O’Brien’s classic King Kong (1933) and Things to Come (1936), directed by William Cameron Menzies, possibly the first two true great sci-fi film classics of the “talkies” era. Let’s not forget that this was also the decade that first gave us the great sci-fi movie serials with heart-stopping cliffhangers at the end of every episode. Starting with Flash Gordon (1936) and its sequels, it mushroomed and spawned an entire industry of movie serials. Kids (and grown-ups) flocked to the cinema every week, to catch up on “The Next Thrilling Installment…” of their favourite adventure serial.

The 1930s also saw the start of a new breed of horror films produced by Universal Pictures, beginning with Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931), and stretching out over fifteen years until the movies petered out in the mid-1940s with House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). In between those years, there was a wide range of Dracula and Frankenstein sequels and other new additions such as Werewolf of London (1935), the first (relatively unsuccessful) werewolf film, soon joining the fold. The next werewolf film, The Wolf Man (1941), featuring new lead actor Lon Chaney Jr, was much more successful, leading to several sequels (usually co-starring with the other Universal monsters), and culminating in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), although he did pop up again in the comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

These films made superstars out of B-movie actors Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr.. And even though Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man were the three big stars of the Universal monster movies, there were other classics, such as The Mummy (1932) and its sequels and The Invisible Man (1933) and its sequels. The Universal monster movies were a phenomenon lasting almost two decades through the Thirties and most of the Forties. Actually, they were more like a separate industry within Hollywood itself. I loved those old monster movies. It’s been far too long since I’ve watched any of them.

Aside from the Universal monster movies, a few B-grade horror films, some of the daft comedies, and a very few occasional decent flicks such as Dr. Cyclops (1940) and Mighty Joe Young (1949), the 1940s were a barren wasteland for real sci-fi cinema. The Twenties had Metropolis, the Thirties had Things to Come and a plethora of sci-fi movie serials like Flash Gordon (1936), Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938), Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940), and Buck Rogers (1939). But aside from maybe Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe and King of the Rocket Men (1949), I don’t think there was anything produced in the Forties that remotely qualifies as real science fiction (heck, even these two barely qualify either).

The Forties was easily the worst decade for science fiction films. I guess that’s not really surprising, as the entire world was at war for the first half of the decade, and trying to piece things back together again in the second half. Lack of budget during those rough years mitigated against spending money on films with too many technical special effects, plus there was maybe a not-inconsiderable anti-technological, anti-science bias among the movie-going audiences (which is quite normal during wartime). Science fiction on the Big Screen was no longer in vogue. Sure, Hollywood did continue to pump out the films, but there were no real sci-fi classics of note. If I was to write out a list of my favourite classic sci-fi movies of the twentieth century, I think the Forties would be the only decade that I’d have real trouble finding something that I really liked.

It wouldn’t be until the start of the 1950s that things would really start to pick up again. And what a decade that was. The first true Golden Age of sci-fi films, in which real science fiction movies (as opposed to horror) started to predominate. But we’ll leave that until next time.

To Be Continued…