Lost (But Not Forgotten) Worlds – By Philip Smolen

In 1922 when the original film version of The Lost World was in production, the novel’s legendary author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, came to New York and pulled an incredible publicity stunt. He was invited to speak (by Harry Houdini no less) at a gathering of magicians. So after watching all of the assembled magicians perform, Conan Doyle stood in front of this gathering and told them of some amazing footage of prehistoric creatures that was recently captured. He then ran a test reel of Willis O’Brien’s stop motion dinosaur footage without telling the audience where the clip came from.  The group was astounded, and the event caused a sensation, even making the front page of The New York Times. Back then, people thought they were watching footage of real dinosaurs stomping around and fighting each other. It wasn’t until the next day that Conan Doyle told the astonished group the true nature of the footage. But even until the 1920s, people thought that there really still might be lost worlds right here on earth.

But technology has shrunk lost worlds right off this planet. Today you couldn’t get away with Conan Doyle’s prank (remember the famous “alien autopsy” video?). You couldn’t announce to people that an incredible prehistoric world has been discovered. People are too jaded and our technology has helped make us skeptical. And if you were making a film about a lost world today, you’d better make sure that your lost world is on another planet (Avatar anyone?) or at least set in the past on earth. Otherwise a modern movie audience would ignore it.

But not too long ago lost world movies flourished. The idea appealed to a lot of movie goers (especially young children). And producers were all too happy to supply product. Perhaps the most famous lost world movie is King Kong (1933). Told in an almost fairy tale style, Carl Denham and his intrepid crew travel to a land “far far away” and discover creatures and monsters of legend. Kong was such a huge hit that even when it was re-released to theatres years later, it made a killing at the box office. So it wasn’t a big stretch for producers to rationalize that there were more lost world tales that could be told (and profited from). So here’s a look at five lost world movies that were released between the 1950s and 1970s. They are all a reflection of the more innocent times they were made in. They also managed to entertain several generations of young malleable minds (including mine).

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1. The Lost Continent (Lippert Pictures – 1951) – Director: Samuel Newfield

Air Force pilot Major Joe Nolan (Cesar Romero) has been given a doozy of a mission. He’s been assigned to fly a group of scientists over the Pacific to rescue parts of an experimental rocket that crashed. The scientists consist of Philips (Hugh “Mr. Beaver” Beaumont), Briggs (genre vet Whit Bissell) and Rostov (John Hoyt) a Russian defector that Joe doesn’t trust. As they near a large Pacific atoll, their engines mysteriously cut out (caused by a vein of uranium on the island [no kidding!]) and they crash land. Luckily their instruments tell them that the rocket is close. All the group has to do is climb a mountain. This they do, but not before losing Briggs, who falls to his death while Rostov tries to save him. When the intrepid group arrives at the top of the mountain, they are amazed to find a green-tinted plateau full of prehistoric animals. Now all everyone has to do is find the rocket, dodge ferocious dinosaurs and climb back down the mountain before the island’s volcano conveniently explodes.

The Lost Continent is quite a hodge-podge of a movie. It combines elements of the military film, jungle thriller and sci-fi and hopes that everything will somehow stick together. While it’s fun seeing the veteran cast interact with each other, the film is hopelessly done in by an extremely boring script. The main problem is that it takes Romero and the others forever to reach the plateau. Most of the film takes place on the mountain. There are endless tedious scenes of the group climbing. The only good scene here is Bissell’s death. It’s creepy to watch him fall through the fog. Another problem is that the stop motion dinosaurs are so poorly done, they’re laughable. Legend has it that Ray Harryhausen and Ray Bradbury went to visit producer Robert Lippert to try to get him to hire them for this picture (Harryhausen for the effects and Bradbury for the script). Lippert was rude and threw them both out after viewing Harryhausen’s dinosaur footage. One wonders how much better this movie would have been if Lippert had hired the two young men. As it stands now, The Lost Continent is merely a curiosity. It’s a low budget lost world movie that loses its way because of its own cheapness.

Quotable Movie Line: “Look at it. It’s almost as if time forgot this place.”

2. The Lost World (20th Century Fox – 1960) – Director: Irwin Allen

Professor George Edward Challenger (Claude Rains) returns from an expedition to the Amazon with a wild tale of a plateau where real prehistoric monsters (and diamonds) exist. He quickly gets a major newspaper to fund a second expedition. He’s joined this time by doubting scientist Walter Summerlee (Richard Hayden), big game hunter Lord John Roxton (Michael Rennie), reporter Ed Malone (David Hedison) and Jennifer Holmes (Jill St. John) and her pink poodle. Once on the plateau, the group’s helicopter is crushed by a giant dinosaur and they are forced to find another way back. Along the way they run into a variety of dinosaurs, man eating plants, a giant spider and angry natives who plan to sacrifice them to their fire god (a dinosaur that lives in lava – really!). It’s only through luck and perseverance that they find their way home so they can tell the world of their fabulous adventures.

As a kid is there anything worse than having your spirits crushed? Well The Lost World crushed mine. It was the one movie I begged my mother to take me to. And I was so disappointed. I was expecting cool dinosaurs and lots of excitement. What I got was dumb lizards (with fins stuck on them), a bunch of dopes walking around cheap garish sets and a stupid pink poodle. I don’t ever recall being more disappointed in a movie then when I left the theatre after viewing this disaster. Even as a young kid I knew what dinosaurs were supposed to look like, and the lizards in this movie were among the worst of the fakes. As I grew older and I started watching the TV show “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” I was amazed to see scenes from this movie work their way into that TV show. And that’s when I realized that Irwin Allen was behind both of these ventures. Allen trashes Arthur Conan Doyle’s wonderful novel with this contemptible nonsense. He doesn’t even have the group bring the brontosaurus back to London (the silent version’s most famous scene)! All of the actors look like they can’t wait for Allen to say “Cut.” Perhaps the worst offender is the great Michael Rennie who looks as uncomfortable as if he’s waiting for medical test results. To this day I haven’t forgiven Allen for making this mess. I remember watching it and hoping that “Frosty” (that awful pink poodle) would get eaten by a big lizard. Sorry, no such luck. Allen couldn’t even give me this one morsel of satisfaction. Phooey!

Quotable Movie Line: “It will live long enough to grow as big as a house and terrify all of London!”

3. Mysterious Island (Columbia – 1961) – Director: Cy Endfield

Captain Cyrus Harding (Michael Craig) and two other Union soldiers, brave Neb (Dan Jackson) and cowardly Herbert (Michael Callan) escape in an observation balloon from a Confederate prison during the battle of Richmond. Along with them are war correspondent Gideon Spillet (Gary Merrill) and confederate soldier Sergeant Pencroft (Percy Herbert). A fierce storm carries the band thousands of miles across land and over the ocean where they are deposited on the shores of a tranquil island. The island contains some surprises including a giant crab, a prehistoric bird and huge honeybees. The group also meets up with two shipwrecked ladies (Joan Greenwood and Beth Rogan) and Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom) who is responsible for the giant creatures. He is attempting to solve world hunger by increasing its food supply. But all seems lost when the island’s volcano decides to erupt.

Despite the clichés Mysterious Island is a grand lost world movie. By maintaining Jules Verne’s original civil war setting, Ray Harryhausen and producer Charles Schneer keep the novel’s quaint feeling of charm and present a world of wonderful possibilities. Harryhausen supplies some outrageously entertaining set pieces. From the wonderful giant crab to the menacing underwater cephalopod, his creatures are grand and awe-inspiring. Harryhausen was at the peak of his creative powers here. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the attack by the prehistoric bird. The creature is strange, comical and weird, but still scary. But the film also delivers other highlights. Chief among them are wonderful performances from Herbert Lom as Captain Nemo and Joan Greenwood as Lady Fairchild. Lom’s Nemo is grand, articulate and honorable, while Greenwood’s Fairchild is stoic and dignified, yet still warm and approachable. The icing on the movie’s cake is Bernard Hermann’s majestic score. It is fire and brimstone in all the dramatic places and soft and dreamy in the movie’s quieter moments. After almost 50 years, Mysterious Island has lost none of its power to inspire. It remains a great lost world film.

Quotable Movie Line: “That’s the best crab I ever cooked!”

4. The Lost Continent (Hammer Films – 1968) – Director: Michael Carreras

Steamship Captain Lansen (Eric Porter) has a plan. He’s loaded his old ship The Careta with dangerous explosives and a motley collection of passengers who desperately need to escape Freetown, South Africa. His plan is to sell his ship and cargo for a nice tidy profit when they reach South America and then retire. But fate has other plans for Lansen and his lost souls. First, Lansen’s crew mutiny when they find that they are carrying illegal cargo. Next, a fierce hurricane batters the tramp steamer forcing Lansen and his passengers to abandon ship. Things get worse when strange carnivorous seaweed grabs hold of the lifeboat and steers the survivors towards a lost ship’s graveyard and a nearby fog shrouded island. Lansen and the passengers find The Careta again and climb aboard, but by now the ship’s propellers have been fouled by the sentient seaweed. Now all the Captain and crew can do is fight for their lives against the many horrors that exist in this terrifying place.

Any way you slice it, The Lost Continent is a wild and wacky lost world movie. Never have I seen such diverse elements combined to make such a flavorful sci-fi stew. One of the film’s major strengths is the art direction by Arthur Lawson. His use of yellow really makes the lost continent seem rank and fetid, a place of death. Another plus are the wild Robert Mattey monsters. From the horrible seaweed to the slobbering living orifice, Mattey’s monsters are garish and colorful. They fit perfectly in this bizarre living nightmare world. But perhaps my favorite special effects are the gravity defying breasts of co-star Dana Gillespie. I nearly fell out of my theatre chair when she made her first appearance. Another eye opening performance is by Suzanna Leigh who plays a nymphomaniac. I don’t think my 11-year old mind was ready for all the sex that percolates in this film. But despite these positives, The Lost Continent suffers from some really terrible scriptwriting. Some scenes are so haphazardly put together that they seem like they were written for another movie. The Lost Continent was a huge investment for Hammer films. It wound up losing a ton of money and started the company’s downfall. Now rarely screened, The Lost Continent is a guilty pleasure. It’s a fun and colorful lost world movie. If you can look past some bad writing, it’s an enjoyable time waster.

Quotable Movie Line: “I’ll not worship any man, let alone a boy who’s hardly old enough to wipe his own bottom.”

5. At the Earth’s Core (Amicus [UK] – 1976) Director: Kevin Conner

English scientist Dr. Abner Perry (Peter Cushing) and his American friend and financial associate David Innes (Doug McClure) climb aboard Dr. Perry’s new earth boring machine and proceed to drill themselves right to the center of the earth. There they find a strange underground world called Pellucidar which is inhabited by fierce giant creatures (one is called a “rhinosaur”), strange pterodactyl-like people called “Mahars” and the usual enslaved humans. Dr. Perry is all for just observing, but David falls in love with a young enslaved lovely named Dia (Caroline Munro) and is determined to help her and her people. So with the aid of the surface dwellers, the enslaved underground human’s revolt and experience freedom for the first time.

At the Earth’s Core is juvenile and has some real clunker lines in it, but overall it remains a satisfying lost world movie. Its chief assets are a wonderful performance by Peter Cushing as Dr. Perry. Cushing is all British and proper and acts wonderfully befuddled. The film follows the basic lost world formula (find lost world, fight monsters, save the girl) and the only real surprise is that McClure doesn’t stay in Pellucidar with Munro. While the effects are very poor when compared with modern films, they are competent for any sci-fi fan that grew up in the visual effects-starved 1970s. The monster costumes are decent (though quite obvious) and the matte paintings successfully convey that strange new world feeling. While there are no real surprises in the film, there are no real bury your head in your hands moments either. And at its heart, it has the great Peter Cushing. His performance grounds At the Earth’s Core firmly in the silly but satisfying column.

Quotable Movie Line: “You cannot mesmerize me. I’m British!”

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After the 1970s, earthbound lost world movies began to disappear (although the 1990s produced a few versions of Conan Doyle’s The Lost World). Once we got into the 1980s, lost world movies mostly took place on far away planets. Two films I would have liked to have seen completed though were People of the Mist, an unrealized Ray Harryhausen/Michael Winner project, and The Primevals, animator David Allen’s long lost project. Both of these looked like they could have had some real eye-opening set pieces. Perhaps they could have been lost world winners.

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Selected References

Goldner Orville and Turner George E. The Making of King Kong. New York, New York: AS Barnes and Company, Inc. 1975.
Meikle Denis. A History of Horrors- The Rise and Fall of the House of Hammer. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press Inc. 2009.
Harryhausen Ray and Dalton Tony. An Animated Life. New York, New York: Billboard Books, 2004.
Senn, Bryan and Johnson, John. Fantastic Cinema Subject Guide. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 1992.
Warren Bill. Keep Watching the Skies (Two Volume Set). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc, 1982 and 1986.