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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.