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Is Plesiosaurus a common dish in the British Navy, Mr Olson?

Movie

The Land That Time Forgot
(1975)

 

Perhaps the question shouldn’t be why Amicus decided to make these cheap and cheerful adaptations of Edgar Rice Burroughs stories during the mid-70s (also including the sequel and At the Earth’s Core) but why no one was tempted to do so before. A litany of Tarzan variations all but excluded any of the writer’s other works. And the recent failure of John Carter may have dented further forays into Burroughs outside of the vine-swinger. But someone really needs to look into bringing his Caspak Trilogy to life once more. That is, someone outside of Asylum, the ultimate modern-day perpetrators of cheap and tatty knock-offs. Even beset by Doug McClure at every turn, it’s quite clear that The Land That Time Forgot has something special going for it; it’s the perfect movie for an eight-year old. Lost continents, U-boats, dinosaurs, volcanoes, and cavemen. What more could you want?

Which may be why everything in Steven Spielberg’s career points to this as the movie he never made but clearly should have. It’s perhaps significant this came out the same year as Jaws, the shape of blockbusters to come. The type of movie that is Land, with its solid but very definitely miniature work (from Bond man Derek Meddings), obvious and frequently laughable puppet dinosaurs and American “star” on the cheap, illustrates a form of (British) movie making on its way out. The only surprising aspect is that there was enough cash for a location shoot in more exotic climes than a Welsh field (filming in the Canary Islands doesn’t prevent very much of the era day-for-night filming).  In a few years’ time, Spielberg would introduce his own rugged American adventurer, one who would also surround himself with British allies and German foes; the main difference is encounters would be set about twenty years later than the 1916 setting of Land. Fast-forward another decade and the ‘berg would deliver Jurassic Park; still the last word in immaculately rendered dinosaurs.

Amicus was best known for its anthology Horror movies, occasionally putting a foot in other genre waters (the mid-60s Doctor Who Dalek films with Peter Cushing). By the time they turned to Burroughs, the traditional “heritage” horror market was on its last legs. Hammer had all but ceased film production, and a trio of Doug McClure pictures would be Amicus’ slightly stolid farewell.

But why McClure, now very differently immortalised by The Simpsons’ Troy McClure (an amalgam with Troy Donahue)? It appears to be symptomatic casting of a period in British cinema where an American “name” actor (usually nothing of the sort, rather a performer with some sort of profile; his came from the TV series The Virginian) was considered necessary to attract American cinemagoers. It’s easy to see why The Simpsons affectionately took the piss. McClure’s slightly wooden, granite-jawed, fists-first performances are memorable for their prevailing cheesiness. Yet revisiting the movie, I noticed that he’s really not quite as macho sounding on the narration; beneath it all, Doug’s a sensitive flower attempting to break out.

Of course, with McClure’s Bowen Tyler on board, everyone looks to the American for leadership; that is, the crews of both the British merchant ship and the U-boat that sunk it. And the rest of the cast can only look good in the reflection of Doug’s sweaty brow. John McEnery is the rare sympathetic German, as Captain Von Schoenvorts. Rather ignominiously, got-to Nazi performer Anton Diffring dubbed McEnery.

In the novel, Von Schoenvorts is a bit of a ruthless bastard, but screenwriters Michael Moorcock (this was one of only two film projects for the author) and James Cawthorn go to some lengths to show his sensitive side. Yes, he may have torpedoed a ship full of innocent women and children, but it carried a “hold full of arms and ammunition that would be used to kill women and children in my country”. His interest in this new continent is scientific and anthropological and, while he’s quite willing to shoot things or blow them up, his first impulse is to study them (“He’s not an animal!” he insists of caveman Ahm).

The nastiness is saved for an actor soon to spend nearly a decade hamming it up as a new incarnation of Doctor Who’s Master, Anthony Ainley. Ainley plays Von Schoenvorts’ Number Two Dietz (who barely registers in the novel but is here infused with the Captain’s less desirable characteristics). He beats up cave men and shows general intolerance for all, leading to a memorable dust-up in an oily swamp with Declan Mullholland’s Olson (Doug laughs himself silly at this fight; Von Schoenvorts is less impressed). It’s unfortunate that a relatively low key and hissable sadist is shorn of all common sense in the final reel. Having waxed lyrical about the great navigational skills of his commander, Dietz only goes and shoots him when the urge to hightail it becomes too much. Rather short-sighted.

The other notables are a couple of actors who also had or would also go on to appear in Doctor Who. Keith Barron, best known for lame sitcoms like Duty Free, in an unusually tough guy role as Bradley, the captain of the sunken ship. And Susan Penhaligon, who started her career with a memorable turn in Under Milk Wood but later tended to get less than great parts. Lisa Clayton is supposed to be a freethinking biologist but, the odd scene aside, she’s merely there adorn Doug’s protective shoulder guards.

The only other performer to leave much impression is Bobby Parr as beetle-browed Neanderthal Ahm. He’s the spit of John C Reilly, and Parr makes his monosyllabic grunts rather affecting. Right up to the point where he’s carried off in the beak of a giant papier-mâché pterodactyl (an unintended hilarious moment).

Burroughs’ novel, with its lost world filled with extinct creatures, owes something to Jules Verne and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (whose story was, of course, named checked in Spielberg’s first Jurassic Park sequel). Made in the mid-70s, it has the feel of a classic throwback period adventure, exactly the kind of thing Spielberg and Lucas would adopt, with considerably more panache and resources, in a mere few years. But Burroughs’ Caspak series was published in 1918, and the wartime setup finds him attempting a veneer of verisimilitude to counterpoint the more outlandish aspects.

So the film, adopting the message-in-a -bottle flashback structure of the novel, finds Tyler recounting his unbelievable tale. Pseudo-science and invented history are effectively employed to encourage the notion that there really could be an untouched realm just out of sight. It’s a highly effective device; to prop up a mystery on a legend. Thus, Von Schoenvorts cites the Italian navigator Caproni, who found a new continent in the South Seas, where he “could make no landing”. If only he’d owned a submarine, eh? Since the only access appears to be an underwater channel. Even with the creakiness of forty years’ hindsight, this is an evocative scenario; an ice-shrouded oceanic expanse that gives way to a tropical interior, itself a volcanic crater 200 miles across.

It’s worth noting too that, for a ninety-minute movie, the first third takes place on or around the U-boat. There are take-overs and counter-take-overs, sabotage of navigational instruments and all sorts of boy’s own adventuring and stereotypes. It’s only Von Schoenvorts who encourages a slightly more nuanced reading. It is he who proposes they “forget our differences and work together”. Tyler’s not the thinking type; he even speaks the way the producers think (“Keep an eye on those monsters” he instructs, when any fool can tell they’re dinosaurs).

Von SchoenvortsIt’s the same in the microscopic world. Creatures at every stage of evolutionary development… Millions of years of evolution embraced on this island. 

And it’s von Schoenvorts, more than Lisa, who takes charge of Burroughs’ whacked-out science (applying his “German metaphysics”). He very sensibly instructs that there is to be no drinking of the water until they find some free of microorganisms (anything with a gap of millions of years in the evolutionary chain could be inimical to humans, so they probably shouldn’t eat dinosaur meat either). This is an environment where fast-track evolution is possible, it seems. Life develops from eggs in a rich biological cocktail of volcanic water and proceeds to develop from fish to mammals to humans.

At some (every?) point in the process the females produce eggs in the waters that continue the process (we see this during a curious long shot in the movie, where some lady cave women spawn in an elevated hot-crossed bun shaped swimming pool. Ahm receives a telepathic signal to migrate with his caveman pals and, instinctively or otherwise, knows that there can be no going back (south); “The further we go upstream, the fewer organisms there are, and the simpler”.

Von SchoenvortsWe are too late. Caprona has won. You cannot go back… to the beginning.

Land climaxes with the volcano erupting and most of the participants getting blown up or drowned. It seems this wasn’t part of the original Moorcock and Cawthorn draft. Rather, it came at the behest of explosion-orientated producers.  It all comes rather suddenly, as if the arrival of the destructive forces of humankind has accelerated the demise of this environment (although a variation remains in the sequel). Indeed, it is very notable that as soon as humans arrive in this (admittedly unwelcoming) locale they embark on an all-out destruction derby (perhaps unsurprising since, until their truce, the Brits and Germans were dispatching each other with vigour). Dinosaurs are shot (they are remarkably prone to bullets), blown up and generally reduced to cannon fodder.

By the final reel, cavemen are also being gunned down left right and centre. The visitors’ remit is “hunting, building, refining” and they have established a small settlement in no time at all (how long do they stay there?), plundering the land’s oil reserves (to fuel the expedition home).

The picture leaves Bowen and Lisa in a highly unresolved situation, one I remember making quite an impact as a nipper. They are required to move “ever northward, ever forward” and we last see them clad in animal skins in a snowy, inhospitable clime. It’s comforting to know that they remained chaste for a time before exchanging vows “beneath the eyes of God”; there’s to be no shagging out of wedlock in Caprona. I’m not sure I’d want to chance the desolate wilderness; somewhere toastier, back along the trail, would have been preferable. If the slightly bleak open ending has shades of The Planet of the Apes, the sequel confirms this; McClure returns in a supporting role as a Z-grade version of Chuck Heston in Beneath the Planet of the Apes.

Kevin Connor’s direction is typical of the unfussy, unvarnished approach to much British cinema during this period (from Bond films down). He has little real affinity for the material, but to his credit he doesn’t hang about. This was his second feature, and also his second for Amicus, after graduating to director from editor with From Beyond the Grave. For all the shoestring quality, the occasional moment of dinosaur front projection or matte painting achieves the desired effect.

Spielberg might have had millions of dollars to get his dinosaurs just so, and he may have resisted any urges to have them killed by anyone but fellow dinosaurs (a daft move, since they are the “monsters” of the piece), but such expansive production also leaves his creations free of individuality. The puppeteers who bring Land’s dinos to life must surely have empathised with the mistreatment they were receiving, as they manage to elicit sympathy and personality belying the rather rudimentary staging. You can get behind a triceratops skewering an Allosaurus in the belly, since it’s protecting its eggs, but the Allosaurus dies in such an affecting manner you can’t help but feel a little sad. And when the vicious bastards blow up a poor Stegosaurus, for reasons I couldn’t quite discern, I know whose side I’m on. There are nice individual moments along the way too, such as a dinosaur eating in the dark.

I wonder if today’s eight-year old would be as enraptured by The Land That Time Forgot, or they’d be repelled by its tackiness. You’ll get no arguments that this is some kind of neglected classic, but it is a movie where appreciation is in the age of the beholder. A scrappy leading man, special effects no one was claiming to be all that at the time, perfunctory direction and a standard issue score from Amicus regular Douglas Gamley. But its defining pulpiness makes it perfect fodder for a flight of the imagination to forgotten realms and exotic creatures. Now that every movie is an identikit CGI thoroughfare, the homemade quirks of this kind of picture have pleasures all their own. That said, and as suggested earlier, this is ripe for a remake. But preferably from a helmer with more of a vision than bigger, more overblown (see Peter Jackson’s King Kong). What’s needed is the kind of reality-based fantasy flair seen from early Spielberg (pre-1982). Unfortunately, today’s cinema tends to come off even less convincingly than a man with his hand up a Stegosaurus.

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