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Sunday, 12 June 2016

The Lost World (1960)

Director: Irwin Allen
Writers: Charles Bennett and Irwin Allen, from the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Stars: Michael Rennie, Jill St John, David Hedison, Claude Rains and Fernando Lamas
Irwin Allen, who would have been a hundred years old today, is a rare example of someone who is still remembered by two utterly different audiences. Anyone who grew up watching movies in the seventies knows him as the ‘Master of Disaster’, the man behind the biggest of the disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, not to mention lesser films with less catchy titles that followed in their wake, like Flood!, Cave-In! and The Night the Bridge Fell Down. However, audiences a decade older are more likely to remember him for sci-fi shows he produced for television like Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants, many of which I saw on British TV in later re-runs. The source of both of these aspects of his career, though, is really Victorian adventure fiction, as highlighted by the trio of films he directed between 1960 and 1962, his first serious efforts in the director’s chair after a few movies he created mostly out of stock footage with a few new scenes shot with major stars late in their careers.

I’ll mention these films in reverse order. Last up, in 1962, was Five Weeks in a Balloon, which was based on the novel by Jules Verne, a cornerstone of Victorian adventure. Before that, in 1961, was Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, an original story but one which could easily be mistaken for a Verne adaptation, given what it does and where it goes. It’s notable that the Seaview, a nuclear submarine at the heart of the story, was based on the real USS Nautilus, in turn named for the fictional Nautilus of Jules Verne. Kicking off the thematic trio was this picture, The Lost World, adapted in 1960 from a novel by another pivotal author in the Victorian adventure genre, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. I should emphasise that not all connections are valid. The real bottom of the sea is the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, named for HMS Challenger, the survey ship that recorded its depth, but it was no nod to Doyle’s legendary explorer, Professor Challenger, introduced in The Lost World, as the ship came forty years earlier.
What is obvious from this trio of films is that Irwin Allen was clearly a big fan of Victorian adventure fiction and he felt an urge to adapt it to the big screen. He wrote each script in collaboration with Charles Bennett, who is best known today for his early work with Alfred Hitchcock on films like The 39 Steps, Sabotage and Blackmail, the latter of which was based on his own play. Incidentally, Bennett’s final picture took him back to Victorian adventure with City Under the Sea, loosely adapted from a poem by Edgar Allan Poe. What’s also obvious is that this material fed both the sci-fi shows Allen made for television and his disaster movies. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was successfully adapted to TV and Allen pitched The Lost World for similar treatment but it wasn’t picked up, even though this film is as episodic in nature as any season of any of his shows. The final scenes of the source novel, with a live pterodactyl escaping into the skies of London presage the entire disaster movie genre, but Allen didn’t have the budget to do it.

What he did have was some star power, though I have to question some of his casting choices. Claude Rains was an accomplished actor with a range that lent him success in films as diverse as The Invisible Man, The Adventures of Robin Hood and Casablanca. I’m not buying him with ginger hair and beard as Professor Challenger though. He has the irascibility down pat and his banter with fellow scientist, Professor Summerlee, ranks as the most faithful this film gets to the original material. However, the original Challenger was an imposing physical specimen, with broad shoulders, a barrel chest and head and hands of remarkable size; Rains, at 5’ 6½’’, really doesn’t fit that bill in the slightest. It unfortunately defuses his angrier scenes and shifts them far too far towards comedy. I took a while to buy into Michael Rennie as the big game hunter, Lord John Roxton, too, but because of his soft spoken voice rather than his size. He has the composure, surety and height to be the leader of this party, but he’s a different sort of authoritative.
The best scenes are actually the early ones, as the script adheres closest to Doyle’s novel. We meet reporter Ed Malone as he tries to interview Prof Challenger on his return to London Airport from the ‘headwaters of the Amazon’. He’s belted over the head with an umbrella for his troubles and left in a large puddle. David Hedison, four years away from his most famous role as Captain Lee B Crane in Allen’s TV show, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, is clearly a better actor than Jill St John, who rescues him and whisks him over to Challenger’s presentation at the Zoological Institute that night. She’s Jennifer Holmes, who serves as the glue between the characters. When Challenger is laughed at for proclaiming that he’s seen living dinosaurs in South America, the expedition to find out for sure is financed by her father and includes Malone, whom she rescued, and Roxton, whom she aims to marry. It’s no shock to find that her own adventurous soul joins the party too, complete with younger brother, pink wardrobe and little poodle.

At least St John is easy on the eyes, because she isn’t tasked with doing much except being inappropriately independent for a girl early on and then conventionally useless once actually thrown into adventure. While her lines are too carefully delivered, she’s a surprisingly good tomboy and her sass is believable. Unfortunately, all her early promise is wasted by a script that sees her as half eye candy and half damsel in distress. To be fair, nobody is written well here, surprisingly given Bennett’s history in scriptwriting. Each and every character is a cartoon take on Doyle’s originals, not even interested in struggling to escape their one dimension. It falls to debate only to decide which is worse. Perhaps its the girly girl with her poodle but perhaps its the skeptical scientist, brash reporter or greedy coward. Maybe it’s the smouldering helicopter pilot, silent native girl or quietly tough hunter. Not one of them fails to escape their respective stereotypes and it’s fair to say that some of the actors are better than others at hiding it.
Once the company arrives on top of Challenger’s mysterious plateau by helicopter, thus marking a firm departure from the novel, the film begins to be notable for other unfortunate reasons too. I like the matte paintings a lot but they look like matte paintings. The waterfalls look amazing but they’re major landmarks and not all from this neighbourhood. The extra characters taken to the plateau clearly have no viable purpose to be there and the new romance angle is a weak one indeed. And, worst of all, but perhaps most spectacularly of all, there are the dinosaurs. Willis O’Brien, the pioneer of animating dinosaurs with stop motion techniques, had created amazing footage for the silent 1925 version of The Lost World and Allen brought him back for this version. O’Brien shot nine minutes of animated dinosaur footage with his most notable successor, Ray Harryhausen, but for Allen’s 1956 documentary, The Animal World, not this film. His talents were reduced here to sketching concept art and his animation skills were sorely missed.

At the end of the day, while Doyle’s The Lost World contains both thrilling adventure and social commentary, any film adaptation of the novel is going to be accepted or laughed at on the strength of how believable its dinosaurs are. These dinosaurs are clearly not believable by anyone over the age of four, because they’re not stop motion animations, they’re real animals in disguise. We aren’t shown a dinosaur until the 34 minute mark, around a third of the way into the film. Prof Challenger may identify a brontosaurus rubbing up against the miniature greenery, but it’s clearly a monitor lizard with stegosaurus scales on its back. Like most kids, I’d fallen in love with dinosaurs young and I wouldn’t have bought this as a brontosaurus at the age of five. A gigantic iguana wearing a pair of fake horns in a standoff with Frosty the poodle is no more ludicrous. Neither is the neon green superimposed giant spider that Malone shoots while he’s chasing a scantily clad but somewhat entirely decent young native woman.
It’s the battle of the behemoths that leaves the worst taste in the mouth though. In the red corner is the returning monitor lizard, flicking its tongue like there’s no tomorrow and roaring like a beast on heat. With Malone and Holmes evading its attentions, it has to face off against a caiman with horns and spikes added everywhere that wouldn’t fall off. As you can imagine, this disqualifies the film from the familiar disclaimer we see on any movie nowadays that features even one living creature: ‘no animals were harmed in the making of this film.’ The American Humane Association has monitored filming of Hollywood movies since 1940, including a couple of thousand productions a year, but that’s only about 70% of animal action and this film was clearly part of the exception. I can’t help but describe the monitor lizard vs caiman battle as a cockfight in lizard form, similar to the real life battles captured on African safaris by tourists with cameras, only staged here for entertainment. I doubt either animal survived their tumble off a cliff.

There really aren’t a lot of dinosaurs in this film, if we count these real life reptiles as dinosaurs. There’s no T Rex to be found, no pterodactyls, none of what readers of the novel might expect. That’s sad but explainable given that Cleopatra was already bleeding 20th Century Fox’s coffers dry three years from eventual release. What’s saddest of all is that there isn’t anything else of value to replace them. We’re given cardboard characters whose clichéd attributes are mirrored by the clichéd situations into which they’re placed. The natives are purest exotica, little more than an unwelcoming collection of facepaint, tiki statues and tribal drums. Doyle kept his adventure as scientifically sound as he could; Allen and Bennett don’t seem to know what science is. They don’t even let anyone get dirty in the jungle, even when running for their lives in white suits from giant frickin’ lizards. Almost everything was shot indoors on sets at Fox with as much dry ice as was needed to hide how fabricated everything was. It’s embarrassing.
A five year old might get a kick out of the cliffhanging nature of the piece: here a roaring dinosaur, there a carnivorous plant; here a vicious betrayal, there an honourable self sacrifice; here certain death and there a magnificent way out. Older audiences will find all of these a stretch, especially as the story had been adapted before and relatively well by Harry Hoyt in 1925 with the believable casting of Wallace Beery and Lewis Stone as Prof Challenger and Lord Roxton, as well as the glorious stop motion animation of the master, Willis O’Brien. In fact, older audiences are far more likely to thrill at the frequent sight of Jill St John’s camel toe than any of what they’re supposed to be watching. The cast is strong, Richard Haydn and Fernando Lamas both acquitting themselves well in support of Rains and Rennie; David Hedison clearly didn’t want to be in the movie but stuck it out anyway. Only Irwin Allen got any momentum out of this and that was a career in episodic shlock, forged from The Lost World and presented on ABC.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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I was watching "The Lost World" and noticed with the pants Jill was wearing in the movie, she may as well have been nude. Thus I decided to do a search on The Lost World + camel toe, and that search brought me here.