Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Land That Time Forgot (Amicus/American-International, 1975)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Eventually I ran Charles a movie I’d recorded off TCM earlier in the day: The Land That Time Forgot, a 1975 co-production between the British-based Amicus company (which was founded in the wake of the initial success of Hammer in the 1950’s to make similar kinds of films and capitalize on the same market) and American-International. It was based on a novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, published in 1918 and set two years earlier (and by an interesting chance, Charles happened to have re-read the novel recently), and tells the story of a German U-boat which sinks an American passenger ship with a secret hold of munitions bound for England. The remaining passengers, including the film’s leading couple, Bowen Tyler (Doug McClure, the only American in an otherwise all-British cast) and Lisa Clayton (played by an actress with the almost incomprehensible name Susan Penhaligon — if I’d encountered her last name out of context I’d probably have figured it was a scientific apparatus to see the molecular structure of chemicals), try to hijack the sub and use it to escape to an Allied, or at least neutral, port.

The German sub commander, von Schoenvorts (John McEnery) — a name which frankly sounds more Dutch or Afrikaner than German — sabotages them by sneaking a magnet into the ship’s compass so that when the hijackers think it’s headed west, it’s actually headed south — only they end up in a surprisingly cold stretch of sea featuring icebergs, and eventually a mountain that’s a giant wall of ice with only a small inlet through which the sub can pass looms out of the sea. They take the inlet (if they hadn’t, there’d have been no movie!) and discover a verdant paradise but also a “land that time forgot,” in which virtually the entire evolution of animal life on earth is happening all at once, from aggressive protozoans (shown by some odd little cartoons representing P.O.V. shots of the scientists looking through microscopes at samples of the native water) to dinosaurs, either predatory land-based or amphibian ones or pterodactyls. There are also two warring tribes of cave people, one discernibly whiter and more technologically advanced than the other, who naturally are bitter rivals and go out of their way to kill each other when the dinosaurs and other creatures on the island aren’t doing that for them. (Charles noted that in the book it’s clearly stated that the whiter a human sub-species’ skin, the more advanced it is — a clearly racist concept but one that put Burroughs squarely within mainstream thought in his time.)

Eventually the various humans, still bearing bits of their tribal rivalries (remember this is all happening while World War I is in full swing), make their way up the island’s central river and find the source of all life on it: two giant brown pots that look like huge coconuts, containing a white fluid that is apparently supposed to represent the “primordial soup” out of which life first formed, a process that in this “land that time forgot” is apparently continually going on. At the end, the other surviving humans (the ones that haven’t become dino-food in the meantime — the amphibian dinosaurs in this film are depicted as meat-eaters, which the real ones weren’t) get in the sub and try to escape, but strand Bowen and Lisa on the island — which turns out to be a good thing for Bowen and Lisa, since at that moment the volcano on the island chooses to erupt, the sub sinks from the volcanic disturbance and only Bowen and Lisa are left alive to eke out an existence on the island — which they apparently do successfully enough that the producers made a sequel, The People That Time Forgot.

The last shot we see is Bowen writing down the whole story and sealing it into a bottle — which was found in a 1975-set framing sequence at the beginning by a sailor who opened the bottle, read the manuscript and thereby set up a flashback containing most of the rest of the film. On TCM the film was introduced by Ben Mankiewicz, who ridiculed the cheesy special effects and said anyone looking for a Jurassic Park level of credibility in the dinosaur shots would be sorely disappointed. He was unfair to the film; the land- and sea-based dinosaurs are quite believable — several orders of magnitude above all the cheesy 1950’s monster-fests that used either actors in dino-suits (was anybody ever really scared by Godzilla when he looked so much like a human in an especially elaborate Hallowe’en costume, which is essentially what he was?) or living lizards with horned plates and other protuberances crudely glued on to represent prehistoric reptiles — though the pterodctyls are almost unbearably crude, simple cut-outs that don’t flap their wings or move their mouths. (The fact that this was 1975, well before the digital era, was no excuse — not when Willis O’Brien and his crew on King Kong 42 years earlier was able to create a fully convincing pterodactyl which flapped its wings — suspended on piano wire, which washed out in the bright lights then used for filming — and opened its mouth wide enough to pick up Fay Wray in it and prepare to eat her until Kong grabbed hold of it, killed it and thereby spared her.)

Charles mentioned that the book contained far more elaborate and interesting creatures than the film — including a race of flying humans — but it’s obvious Amicus had blown its effects budget just doing the dinosaurs and didn’t have any money to spare on winged people. (Derek Meddings got credit for supervising the effects and Roger Dicken was credited — or, in the case of the pterodactyls, blamed — for doing the dinosaurs.) The Land That Time Forgot was scripted by James Cawthorn and Michael Moorcock — I hadn’t heard of Cawthorn before but Moorcock was a well-known and highly respected British science-fiction writer who could probably have written a better adaptation (or, even better, given Amicus an original) if they’d wanted one — and directed by Kevin Connor, who turned out to be quite good at suspense and at dramatizing the antagonisms between the 1916 humans — the opening sequences in which the British and German contingents duel for control of the submarine well before it gets to the island that time forgot are among the most entertaining parts of the film — but stolid and dull in pace, taking 91 minutes to tell a story that a 1930’s filmmaker probably could have done in 70 minutes. (There was a longer 102-minute cut released in Japan, but in line with Hammer’s practice at the time, that one’s additional running time probably consisted mostly of extra gore.) The Land That Time Forgot — recently remade in a direct-to-video version — is a fun movie for what it is but it could have been even more exciting; at that, I’d probably rather sit through this than the recent disaster Land of the Lost!