Sunday, September 28, 2008

CULT (TV) MOVIE REVIEW: The Last Dinosaur (1977)

Can a badly dated B movie about rampaging dinosaurs actually be more than just a badly-dated B movie about rampaging dinosaurs? That is the paramount question one must confront during an attentive viewing of the 1977 Rankin/Bass television movie, The Last Dinosaur.

Or to put it another way, -- per This is Spinal Tap -- there's a fine line between stupid and clever.

And yes, The Last Dinosaur navigates that line. With giant, clompy Tyrannosaurus feet.

Because, as dopey and inconsequential as The Last Dinosaur may appear at first glance, with the seventies era man-in-suit monsters and wacky fantasy premise (tropical paradise discovered in the polar ice caps!), this Japanese/American co-production also (rather surprisingly...) fulfills one criterion I apply to the finest genre movies. It states something important about the cultural context in which it was crafted; it reveals to us something important about the times; in this case the turbulent 1970s.

Specifically, the titular last dinosaur here is not merely a rogue tyrannosaurus dominating a land that time forgot; but rather the film's protagonist, a raging male chauvinist, an alpha male of excessive virility and masculinity, the appropriately (if humorously...) named Maston Thrust (played by a drunk-seeming Richard Boone).

As the film's boozy theme song notes, "there's nothing new" (for this manly throwback) in an emasculating modern world; one that no longer recognizes his (macho) form of supremacy and domination. So Thrust is literally a "dinosaur" of the late twentieth century, and thus the movie concerns the twilight of unquestioned white male supremacy in the age of ascendant women's lib; and the age immediately preceding stifling political correctness.

But before I excavate too deeply into The Last Dinosaur's deeper meaning, I want to recount the plot for those who haven't seen the film (which aired on American TV on February 11, 1977), or who haven't seen it in a while.

As the film opens, big game hunter, Maston Thrust is feeling noticeably past his prime, seeking his last hurrah. During the film's opening credits, Thrust's latest one night stand (whom he soon ditches...) leafs through his impressive photo album of memories, and we see Thrust's biography in photographs, in images. It is a life of exceptional accomplishment: enlistment in the U.S. Army, battling the Nazis in World War II, setting up a robust and successful global oil exploration company (Thrust Industries), leading safari expeditions to Africa -- even battling with namby-pamby animal rights activists.

Thrust, the great white hunter, soon pinpoints his white whale -- his much-sought after last hurrah -- in the surprising form of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. You see, one of Thrust's drilling expeditions, while ensconced on a phallic-shaped laser drill/vehicle called a "polar borer," has discovered a prehistoric refuge in the polar caps. The only survivor of that mission is prissy, effete "seventies"-style man Chuck Wave (Steve Keats), who saw his four companions eaten by the T-Rex. It was, Wave claims "an enormous animal." Twenty-feet high, forty-feet long, and weighing eight tons, the Tyrannosaurus is, according to Thrust, "the greatest carnivore that ever lived" and the "king of dinosaurs." The dinosaur represents a challenge Thrust can't ignore. He considers himself a king among men, after all.

Accordingly, Maston assembles an expedition to return to the prehistoric land and "study" the beast. Said expedition includes Nobel prize winning scientist Dr. Kawamoto (Tetsu Nakamura), a Masai tracker named Bunta (Luther Rackley) and Wave himself. A female photographer, Francisca "Frankie" Banks (Joan Van Ark) is also assigned to join Thrust on the voyage, but he blocks her participation with blatant and forceful chauvinism. "There's no woman going on this trip!" he barks. "I've never taken a woman on safari before!"

But Frankie is wily, and knows how to ingratiate herself with Thrust. At a party celebrating the group's departure (at a Japanese restaurant), this professional gal dresses up as a Japanese servant girl, and then seductively disrobes for Maston under a pagoda. Thrust is tantalized by the attention of the young, attractive woman, and then Frankie takes him back to her boudoir for more convincing. There, while they are in bed together smooching, Frankie surprises Mast by showing a slide show of her photographs. He was expecting to get laid, (and the movie chickens out and doesn't show us if they have sex or not; but the implication is that they did.)

Anyway, the expedition (with Frankie along, naturally...) travels to the prehistoric world, and things quickly go awry. The T-Rex soon crushes poor Dr. Kawamoto underfoot and wrecks the polar borer, rolling it into a vast dinosaur bone yard.

The expedition is trapped for a long time in this perilous world. As the months go by, the marooned 20th century folk devolve after a fashion. They learn to hunt, to skin animals, and to survive without modern conveniences. They must fight for the available food with a local caveman tribe.

A cave woman, nicknamed Hazel (don't ask...) joins the ad-hoc family, as Thrust becomes increasingly obsessed, Ahab-style, with hunting and killing the murderous T-Rex. Thrust constructs a cross-bow and -- eventually -- a giant catapult -- to combat his own personal Moby Dick.

Frankie, now reduced to role of cave mother --- cooking in the cave for the hunters (the men: Wave, Bunta and Maston) -- also finds herself increasingly attracted to Wave, who -- at the very least -- seems to respect her mind. This change of fortune upsets macho Thrust, who wants Frankie to remain the Eve to his Adam in this strange, lost-in-time world.

"Here's where life is. Pure and simple," Thrust tells her. "What's back there for you? Confusion?" If you're paying attention at this point, you realize what this dialogue really means: back in the twentieth century world (where she is an accomplished and prize-winning photo-journalist), Thrust believes Frankie can't be the "real" woman that she is here, in this prehistoric world (where she fills her biological imperative of serving man, apparently). Frankie ultimately rejects this argument.

In the end, the T-Rex survives the catapult, and Wave repairs the polar borer. Wave and Frankie return home, leaving Maston Thrust -- the throwback -- in his real natural environment: the prehistoric world. It is there, finally, in The Last Dinosaur's closing sequence that Thrust meets Hazel's (the cave woman's) come-hither eyes. The camera pertinently cuts to two extended "freeze frames" (a la Jules & Jim): one for each character. This technique establishes the connection between the character.

What this "extended moment" represents, essentially, in terms of film grammar, is that Maston has indeed found his suitable mate; one who will always acknowledge his male superiority and not travel outside the bounds of the traditional male/female roles he clearly prefers. Not coincidentally, it was Hazel who -- sometime earlier in the film -- went to Maston's bed (in a cave) and returned to him his rifle site...a device by which he could "see" better. What she was doing with that site, actually, was giving Thrust the means to see her; perhaps. An option other than the "modern" woman, Frankie who has not been so steadfast.

So what are we to make of all this? Well, for just a moment, consider the mid-1970s, the era this film emerged from. This was the epoch of the ERA (which was up for a vote in the House of Representatives in 1971; and in the Senate by 1972). This was the epoch of the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision (1973), and the battle for a woman to have a say in reproductive rights (a battle joined in earnest with the wide distribution of the birth control pill in 1960).

This was the age of feminism on blazing intellectual and political "second wave" ascent. Prominent feminists in the culture included Gloria Steinem (a founder of the National Women's Political Caucus in 1971), Shulamith Firestone (author of The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution [1970]), Germaine Greer (The Female Eunuch [1970]), and Kate Milett (Sexual Politics [1970]).

The old fashioned dominant white male -- the Don Draper of AMC's Mad Men, for instance -- had to reckon with a tectonic shift in culture and, for the first time, charges of sexism. Accordingly, The Last Dinosaur is about the last gasp of honest, unadulterated American machismo (and chauvinism) as a pointedly anti-feminist response.

At film's conclusion, Frankie says compassionately of the T-Rex, "It's the last one." Thrust's response is illuminating. He says: "So am I." He positions himself as the last of his species then, the last "macho man." Thrust is an unapologetic hunter (and therefore enemy of animal rights activists), an unapologetic womanizer (as seen by his treatment of his one-night-stand; whom he literally tells to suck on a bullet...) and so the film establishes that he cannot survive as "the last one" in a modern, equal-rights culture. Therefore, The Last Dinosaur strands Thrust in a world more to his liking -- literally a prehistoric world. It is there, with a pointedly un-liberated cave-woman as his mate, that he will spend the rest of his days.

Frankie, by contrast, is a liberated contemporary woman of the disco decade. She experiences a taste of life as a prehistoric domestic woman (a metaphor for marriage?) and doesn't much care for it. She adheres to modern values ("After all we've been through, I'd like to think that we're still civilized enough to be compassionate."), and more importantly -- in her seduction of Thrust for her own means and ends, proves herself a heroine in the true spirit of Germaine Greer. Where Greer worried that "women have somehow been separated from their libido, from their faculty of desire, from their sexuality," Frankie freely expresses (and revels) in her sexuality with both Wave and Maston Thrust. She is attracted to both men, but ultimately whom she chooses as a mate (Wave) is her choice, not that of either man. She hightails it back to the 20th century, leaving Thrust, the last of his breed, behind.

I write often here about the ways a film's form (the choice of shots, the selection of soundtrack, etc.) can and should reflect a form's thematic content. Look - for just a moment - beneath the rubbery monsters in The Last Dinosaur, and you'll see what I did: that the film's themes are reflected by the film's shape. In particular, The Last Dinosaur finds methods to associate Thrust with machismo (and then tie that machismo to a fading, dying age). From the selection of his name (we all know what thrusting regards, don't we?), we understand something about Maston. His conveyance - the polar "borer" is another phallic reference (one literally knocked around by Thrust's competitor in "size" for dominance, the T-Rex). And the film's oddly-captivating theme song explicitly equates Thrust with "the last dinosaur." In fact, the entire film is scored (by Maury Laws) in counter-intuitive but highly-effective fashion: as a kind of folksy, tragic (and yet highly sentimental) requiem for a man who has outlived his time, and his usefulness. The only place for Thrust and his views is...the past.

I've already commented on the deployment here of freeze frames, and how they are utilized to explicitly (and visually) establish the burgeoning connection between Thrust and Hazel, yet there are other visual flourishes as well. For instance, when the group is defeated by the dinosaur and their polar borer taken away (a castration for Thrust?), the film cuts to an impressive (and slow...) pull-back that lets the reality of their entrapment (and alienation from their environment) settle in.

Slow-motion photography is utilized during the climax, to squeeze out the suspense. And even though the titular dinosaur is clearly but a man in a rubbery suit, the film doesn't make the same mistake as many monster movies do. It remembers to often shoot the beast from an extreme low angle (rather than eye level...) to forge a sense of power and menace. I've ribbed the antiquated special effects here quite a bit, but I must state this too: some of the composites between live actors and (admittedly-fake looking dinosaur) are absolutely exceptional. The composites hold up gloriously, even if the monster costumes don't. Hopefully you can see this from some of the photos I've posted. I defy you to find the matte lines.

I could have written this review entirely about The Last Dinosaur's consistent literary allusions to Melville's Moby Dick had I wanted to, but I felt that the battle of the sexes angle was much more trenchant to an understanding of the film's heart. The Last Dinosaur, for all the hammy performances, creaky zooms, cheesy effects and portentous dialogue, serves as a relatively unique social commentary about the end of a roiling era; about the twilight of the macho white man's cultural dominance. As this film points out, he was rapidly becoming an endangered species who - in the 1970s (and before Reagan, anyway...) - was finding himself more and more out-of-step with modern Western culture (where sensitive Alan Alda would soon be held up as a paragon of type). But make no mistake, the film doesn't glorify Maston Thrust. He's not a role model. The film exiles him to pre-history because he can't change; because he can't grow. Still, as Thrust himself seems to realize, he'd rather rule in Hell than serve (or be caged...) in 20th century heaven.

So hell yeah, The Last Dinosaur is an old fashioned, retro monster movie, but in playing on more than one thematic level (and with a modicum of good film style) it certainly fits my definition of B movie (low budget) classic. This is every bit the film I wanted Dinosaurus! (1960) to be just a few weeks ago. An effort that - though undeniably dated and passe - nonetheless has some red meat on those dinosaur bones.


  1. Anonymous7:52 PM

    It's refreshing to read a serious review of this film . I remember seeing this as a primetime network movie in '78 (when I was in elementary school). Even then, kids were aware that the film had some very cheesy moments ( especially the rock denting the rubber head of the dino ). I still found it hugely entertaining as with another lost world film "The People Time Forgot". When I originally saw it, I didn't pay much attention to the women's lib stuff. It seemed to be such a part of the 70's, it wasn't that big a deal ( even Donnie and Marie always traded lame jokes about women's lib).

    Seeing it again recently, I was impressed by some of the sfx composites, though the blue screen work wasn't up to today's standards. I was puzzled by the casting of Richard Boone. Not to be cruel, but he's rather ugly... and he's supposed to be such a ladies man! In no way would Joan Van Ark be attracted to him other than as a father-figure type. I was also unsympathetic with Boone's obssessiion of killing such a rare and valuable animal. He obviously doesn't believe in protecting endangered species!

    This film should also be noted as a huge improvement over another Rankin Bass-Japanese coproduction "King Kong Escapes" from a decade earlier.

  2. Anonymous3:41 AM

    I agree whole heartedly with the previous comment: it is undeniably refreshing to see a review of this movie that doesn't reduce it to garbage that is comparable with "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians". This is a definitive modern (relative to the times) retelling of Melville's tale of a man and his obsessions. On a personal note, though, I sometimes had wished that Thrust would have had succumbed much the way Ahab did at the end of The White Whale: destroyed utterly, not by what he pursued, but by himself and obsession. It simply seems a better ending, to me anyway.
    It is my great relief and sometimes sorrow that this movie hasn't been put on the list of remakes yet. Even today, in some strange and rather surprising way, this film has a message we should take to heart.

  3. Anonymous3:42 AM

    I agree whole heartedly with the previous comment: it is undeniably refreshing to see a review of this movie that doesn't reduce it to garbage that is comparable with "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians". This is a definitive modern (relative to the times) retelling of Melville's tale of a man and his obsessions. On a personal note, though, I sometimes had wished that Thrust would have had succumbed much the way Ahab did at the end of The White Whale: destroyed utterly, not by what he pursued, but by himself and obsession. It simply seems a better ending, to me anyway.
    It is my great relief and sometimes sorrow that this movie hasn't been put on the list of remakes yet. Even today, in some strange and rather surprising way, this film has a message we should take to heart.

  4. Anonymous10:56 PM

    The definitve modern version of Melville's tale? Naw, that honor would have to go to the next year's Rankin/Bass monster movie, the Bermuda depths. Carl Weathers' character really IS destroyed by his obsession in that one when the archelon drags him to his doom.

    They really should re-make The Last Dinosaur.Like Land of the Lost, which was into its crummy third season by that time, the substance of the film far outweighs the cheesy visual effects. Unfortunately, it's the cheesy visuals everyone seems to remember.

  5. JKM,

    Just to let you know this film has finally been given a legit DVD release via Warner Bros. Archive Collection:

  6. J.D.

    Thank you so much for that outstanding news. Glad to see "The Last Dinosaur" has resurfaced officially!

    All my best,