Warlords of Atlantis
aka Warlords of the Deep
What’s the deal with the space alien Atlanteans? Star Wars would be my guess. Albeit, screenwriter Brian Hayles had history with Martians (see Doctor Who’s Ice Warriors). As with all ’70s period movies featuring Troy McClure and muppet dinosaurs, Warlords of Atlantis is pretty good with its set up and becomes progressively less so as it continues. This one was apparently the fifteenth-most-popular movie at the UK box office in 1978 (although this site presumably wasn’t told). But then, this was the era of Confessions movies breaking records. Par for the course, it reliably showcases Troy’s Doug’s particular brand of American brawn at the expense of the stuffy Brits. He has mutton chops to die for and even lets us see his tightly untoned chestage. Did people ever go to see a McClure movie for McClure? Or was he forever a distant third behind the muppet dinosaurs and anonymous totty?
The potential for Warlords of Atlantis to have been written/rewritten in the wake of Star Wars may simply be cynicism on my part (it filmed in October 1977; Star Wars wasn’t released in the UK until 1978, although its status as a phenomenon was everywhere). But a nominal attempt to cash in on a nascent sci-fi boom would make some sense of the otherwise daffy conception of Atlantis as a Martian colony. Perhaps coincidentally, Warlords of Atlantis was released in the UK a year to the day after Star Wars’ US debut. Aside from the space part, the picture follows the lost-world template of The Land that Time Forgot and At the Earth’s Core (both Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations) quite closely, but with added intent to besmirch Atlanteans as unfeeling bastards.
An Atlantis inhabited by individuals of superior learning, intellect and mental faculties (this lot practise levitation), who utilise a technology based on crystals, is common to many accounts (including Edgar Cayce). That, and a submerged state for the civilisation. We’re told there are/were seven cities, two of which are “lost beneath the waves of the outer limits, forever”, while the third city Troy is in ruins. More fortunate are the city of Vaar and the royal city of Chinqua.
Atmir: Plato was not always right.
This Atlantis features both an underground, airbreathing environment and humans adapted to subaquatic conditions, so a blend of two common storytelling depictions. The gill-equipped come via surgeries, suggesting, along with a pet octopus (the Sentinel) that, of all inspirations, Hayles had been watching Doctor Who’s The Underwater Menace. Derivative as this may seem, the ET part is quite distinctive. They arrived here, presumably millennia ago: “from a dying planet, we journeyed across space… we brought our cities, our way of life, our power and abilities”, but they found themselves “trapped in a world so primitive and retarded, it had barely evolved primitive life forms”. Quite what happened to their spacefaring technology and skills isn’t revealed, less still why they need to nurture the abilities of retarded humans to “break the chains that bind us to this petty planet”.
Their plan – not entirely unlike Scaroth in the following year’s City of Death – is to alter mankind’s destiny, guided by their minds, in order to develop neutron energy. Charles Aitken (Peter Gilmore) is shown visions of World Wars and nukes via a crystalline helmet; they need to harness this energy in order to return to the stars (for some reason, in his befuddled state, Aitken perceives this as science creating “a utopia, a perfect society”, at least until Doug’s Greg socks him on the jaw and sets him right about things: “When are you scientists going to learn?”)
A few of these background and motivational points warrant consideration. If the Atlantis part is an obvious smear, these are nevertheless advanced ETs living beneath the Earth who perform genetic experiments on humans. They refer to their hall of conversation as “the playground of the Elite”, while advising that “The ruling class must always survive” (“Oh yes… how very democratic” Aitken responds). Global destruction is to be engineered intermittently by this Elite, for their ultimate benefit.
This wouldn’t be a Kevin Connor/McClure picture without some ropey but agreeable monsters. The octopus is particularly unpersuasive, especially when its grappling with sailing vessel The Texas Rose, but there’s also a plesiosaurus-type thing breaking into the diving bell, a millipede-type thing with flippers called Mogdaan, and Zaargs, equipped with protective spiky shells.
Most nefarious are the humans, though, with Shane Rimmer’s captain revealed as a bad ’un who wants to make off with the Atlantean gold relics (for some reason, crewmen John Ratzenberger and Hal Galili are allowed to survive the ordeal, despite being murderous stinkers). The Atlanteans are headlined by Michael Gothard, of the likes of The Last Valley, For Your Eyes Only and Lifeforce, as Atmir, ably supported by Cyd Charrise’s Atsil, her indomitable pins prominently displayed at all times (Time Out pruriently took offence at the copious coverage of her 56-year-old legs, rather than, rightly, revering them).
In amongst all this is a survivor of the Marie Celeste (Robert Brown) and some forgettable totty (Lea Brodie) who catches lusty Doug’s eye. Alas, he has to leave her gilly self behind. Doug’s a lug, obviously, but Gilmore acquits himself agreeably; he’s pretty much in the Cushing At the Earth’s Core role but with added brute strength. Cushing was supposed to appear as Atraxon, but prior commitments saw him replaced by Daniel Massey.
Connor would complete one more in this fantasy line (Arabian Adventure) before going on to carve out a comfortable TV niche for himself. Doug already was pretty much a TV guy, aside from these flicks. Warlords of Atlantis is quite engaging for the first half hour, then, and not so much after that (arrive, capture, escape). Nevertheless, the eccentric Atlantean origins and plan, and the curious ability of the Doug’s diving bell to transform itself into a directional submarine when required, momentarily provoke interest. In terms of Atlantis depictions, Warlords is arguably blasphemous. In the Connor/McClure ranks, it isn’t a patch on The Land that Time Forgot. As posters go, though, it’s dynamite.