Saturday, September 05, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Land That Time Forgot (1975)

"You will never forget Edgar Rice Burroughs' The Land That Time Forgot," blared the trailers to this 1975 Amicus film starring Doug McClure.

And you know what?

The advertisements were truthful. I first saw The Land That Time Forgot in theaters in 1975 -- when I was only five years old -- and I have never, ever forgotten the adventurous Kevin Connor film.

In fact, I affectionately count this disco decade "lost world" production as one of my key, youthful "gateway" productions (like 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea [1954], The Golden Voyage of Sinbad [1974], Land of the Lost [1974-1976], Logan's Run [1976] and Space: 1999 [1975-1977]).

What I mean by that "gateway" descriptor is this: a love and enjoyment of these particular visual productions led me to learn more about the genre and to explore science fiction, fantasy and horror in literature, in comics, in film, and on television.

The Land That Time Forgot
, for instance, ignited my life-long love affair with the works of Burroughs and fed my fascination with all-things dinosaur and submarine-related. I was inspired to reflect upon all this childhood stuff by a good post on the subject from B-Sol at Facebook a couple of weeks ago or so (yes; that's how far behind I am at checking my Facebook account...)

Over the years I have returned frequently to The Land That Time Forgot from the perspective of nostalgia. The film was something I enjoyed watching as a child, and so it holds a safe, cherished place in my heart.

However, that fact doesn't mean that the film is actually childish or lacking in quality, like, for instance, the wretched Dinosaurus! (1960), a film I enjoyed as a child but ultimately outgrew upon adult re-viewing. I guess what I'm trying to say is that some movies hold up over time...and some don't, and I'm not so blinded by nostalgia that I can't detect the difference.

And after I watched The Land That Time Forgot again last night for the first time in a few years, I realized that, for the most part, this modestly-budgeted film still holds up really well as solid fantasy entertainment.

Although The Land That Time Forgot's aged dinosaur effects -- accomplished with rubbery puppets -- may appear horribly primitive by today's CGI post-Jurassic Park standards, this 1970s film still boasts a surfeit of impressive qualities, particularly a most welcome sense of wonder. In an age in which our movie blockbusters pummel, bruise and batter us with sound and fury, but not much imagination and wonder, that's no small accomplishment, to be certain.

More than that, The Land That Time Forgot has been shot (by the legendary Alan Hume) and assembled by Connor in more than your typical workman-like fashion. Some of the meticulous composite shots are actually pretty gorgeous, not to mention impactful. Many of the miniatures, produced by Derek Medding, are also convincing...though some shots are notably less effective than others.

Learn the Secret of Evolution

Based on the 1918 book by Edgar Rice Burroughs and adapted for the screen by a young Michael Moorcock, The Land That Time Forgot begins in portentous, enigmatic fashion. The first shot is of a small object -- a thermos -- careening over the side of a high, craggy cliff...and landing in a turbulent, cresting sea.

A montage of views of the rough ocean follow, until the wayward canister arrives at a small fishing community. and an old sailor retrieves it. Inside is a wrinkled, aged manuscript, written by a marooned American, Bowen Tyler (Doug McClure).

Narrated in voice-over -- and commencing with the words "I do not expect anyone to believe the story I am about to relate" -- Tyler's manuscript describes the strange events of June 3, 1916, when German U-Boat-33 torpedoed a British merchant ship, the Montrose on the high sea.

Tyler, a beautiful biologist named Lisa Clayton (Susan Penhaligon), and several crew-members of the British ship survived the attack and managed to commandeer the attacking sub. After several pitched battles between opposing, loyal crews, however, a tender peace was forged with the reasonable U-Boat captain Von Schoenvorts (John McEnery) when it was learned that the ship -- headed due south -- had become irrevocably lost after six days in uncharted waters.

With fuel and supplies low, the submarine happened into a frozen sea. There, it came upon a forbidding, undiscovered continent named Caprona after an explorer who, in 1721, had first spotted it its jagged cliffs. At Tyler's instructions, the sub sailed inland through a subterranean river passage, only to surface in the lagoon of a prehistoric terrain...a world of dinosaurs, volcanoes and lush vegetation.

During the course of his stay there, Tyler learned from Lisa and Von Shoenvorts that the continent was populated not just by prehistoric beasts, but by creatures "at every stage of evolutionary development" including Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon Man (called "Galu").

Tyler and his associates -- for whom the "war in Europe" had now been rendered meaningless -- then braved tyrannosaur attacks, ambushes by cave-man, quick- sand pits and other threats on Caprona before a volcanic eruption that ultimately destroyed the sub and left all but Tyler and Liz dead. The survivors were left to -- much like evolution on Caprona -- "move ever forward;" to explore the island, and if possible, share their miraculous story with the faraway world of 20th century man...

We Must All Work Together

The Land That Time Forgot's inaugural act is -- in many criticals ways -- the film's tightest and most impressively drawn. After the sinking of the British ship in a misty sea, Germans, Brits and Americans are confined to the claustrophobic confines of U-33, and pitted against one another. There's one battle on the deck of the sub, in particularly, which is expertly shot and well-edited.

Connor's camera is deliberately shaky and immediacy-provoking without proving so jerky that the motion hides the action choreography (the case with much of the hand-held work/quick cuts vetted in today's blockbusters). The film's characters -- looking authentically grimy, exhausted and weary -- plot against one another until faced with a common threat that unites them: starvation and death. The impressive and atmospheric live-action submarine scenes that open the picture were shot on H. Stage at Shepperton Studios over a span of a week, and they nicely set up the isolation of the crews..the hunger for landfall and the feel of terra firma.

In some sense, The Land That Time Forgot is also distinctively anti-war in nature, since the British, American and Germans decide to leave behind petty concerns about territory and work together in unison for the common good. This was an idea which had special resonance in 1918 when Burroughs wrote the story, and also highly relevant in 1975...the final year of America's involvement in Vietnam. Together, the "evolved" men of the 20th century combine here --among other qualities -- "German metaphysics" and "British empiricism" in the service of learning about the wonders of Caprona.

Indeed, one of the film's explicit plot threads involves the fact that life in Caprona is constantly evolving, moving forward. As Tyler puts it simply "You cannot go back to the beginning." When a villainous German officer, Dietz (Anthony Ainley) attempts to do just that by reviving the old national feuds, the result is total destruction and annihilation for the warring parties. War belongs in the past, with the dinosaurs, the film seems to suggest, at least implicitly.

The Land That Time Forgot's second act is also strong and direct, focused on the discoveries and dangers of the undiscovered continent and the strange life-forms inhabiting it. Many of the film's most impressive special effects are featured in this portion of the action, particularly some beautiful blending of fantasy matte-paintings with the live-action.

Director Kevin Connor told me in an interview for Filmfax (No. 117, April/June 2008, page 56) that the idea of "shooting on Vista-Vision plates for rear projection was fairly new" at the time of The Land That Time Forgot and that the production shot "all the monster plates over two weeks before main shooting." The approach was, in his words, "a combination of live action and hand puppets."

It's only in the film's cataclysmic, explosive third act climax -- with one threat looming after another -- that Connor's sturdy film tends to appear less than entirely impressive. The careful characterization and plot development give way, inevitably, to fisticuffs, battles and (admittedly-impressive) on-set pyrotechnics. The result is that some level of intimacy is sacrificed, especially as the cool-headed, affable Van Schoenvarts character is relegated to the background. There's just something anti-climactic about this span in the movie (though, as a kid, I loved the action and fireworks...).

This lapse in tone is rectified, however, by the elegiac and picturesque book-end finale (shot on the Island of Skye by Peter Alliwork, an aerial camera man). These moments finds lonely survivors Taylor and Clayton in the frozen north of Caprona, tossing the thermos canister (and manuscript) into the cleansing sea, saying their goodbyes to civilization and the possibility of rescue.

What I took away from The Land That Time Forgot as a child was the thrill of exploring a new and dangerous land...the prehistoric world of the pterodactyl, the diplodocus and the tyrannosaur. As an adult, the film's themes about moving "ever forward" -- away from a history of bloodshed, ignorance and war -- really crystallized for me. On the island of Caprona, World War I era man -- with all his flaws and foibles -- was just one evolutionary step beyond the Neanderthals and the Galu, and not as entirely evolved as man could (and can yet...) be.

In 1975, The Land That Time Forgot proved an unexpected box office hit, and was followed promptly by the Burroughs film At The Earth's Core (1976) -- also starring McClure and directed by Connor -- as well as the (disappointing) direct sequel, The People That Time Forgot (1977). By the time of People, of course, the pop culture had moved on from lost worlds, dinosaurs and the Vietnam conflict, and a small film called Star Wars came to dominate the national imagination. "Our distributors didn't want to spend any large amounts promoting the film, and neither did the backers want to go into huge-budget pictures," Kevin Connor told me about his time adapting Burroughs. "They said there was no money in kids' films! How wrong they were..."

Even with a low-budget and some dated effects, this initial Amicus fantasy outing deserves to be much more than the movie that time forgot. Our pop culture has evolved significantly since The Land That Time Forgot, I suppose, but in this case, "going back" to the prehistoric past is an option I recommend wholeheartedly.

4 comments:

  1. Loved this movie as a child, and it led me to read most of Burrough's wild and wonderful SF. Watched it again recently, and agree that the U-Boat sequences are particularly compelling. The film's strength is in playing the material absolutely straight - it's a great film for kids, one which doesn't talk down to them, or wink at the adults.

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  2. Doug:

    Yep, yep -- I agree. The Land That Time Forgot is a terrific films for kids, and as soon my Joel turns five, I'm putting it on the DVD player for him.

    The first act is undoubtedly the most powerful in the film, and you're right that the movie doesn't talk down, doesn't snark, and doesn't get prurient. All in all, good, adventurous fun.

    Thanks!

    JKM

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  3. It's been ages since I've seen this. Good memories. And I should put in the ol' Netflix queue to show it to my kids. Thanks, JKM.

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  4. I know I'm really late to the party for some of your write-ups John, but better late than never as they say.

    I'm so pleased to see you write so positively about this film. I agree with you wholeheartedly. It is such great science fiction and effects aside is relatively solid start to finish and still remains an engaging piece of work from Connor.

    I also agree that The People That Time Forgot was not as good. Warlords Of Atlantis was decent and more in line with this picture.

    It must have been neat interviewing Connor. I wonder if you had any chance to speak with him about his work on Space:1999? You've had an interesting journey with your Space:1999 connections. A pleasure to read. Tks.

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