Saturday 20 July 2013

The Lost World
(Harry O. Hoyt, 1925)

It may not be readily apparent based on my writings thus far on this weblog, but over the past few years I’ve developed an inexplicable fondness for what I suppose you might call ‘lost world / explorer type adventure movies’. An overly specific designation perhaps, but necessarily so. I mean, if I just said “jungle movies” or something, chances are that would immediately conjure images of Tarzan, and fur-bikinied jungle girls, and strange exploitation quickies about women being menaced by guys in gorilla suits, and those sleazy, cut price cannibal / amazon movies that Eurocine and Jess Franco were churning out in the ‘80s… all of which are fine ways to pass an evening, I’m sure, but they’re not quite what I’m getting at. Plus, the intrepid explorers in the stories I'm talking about here are not always confined to the jungle - deserts, inaccessible mountain ranges and the bottom of the ocean all provide equally rousing backgrounds to their adventures.

But if I just said “adventure movies”, well, that would open up the field to swashbuckling films, pirate films and light-hearted historical capers of all descriptions. So no, what I mean is that particular tradition of lost world / lost continent / lost something or other tales, in which great white heroes of safari-suited colonial oppression travel to uncharted realms, treading upon ground untouched by man for millions of years (the natives just can’t be bothered, y’see) and encountering, well… dinosaurs, usually. I mean that’s what we paid our money for right?

What really gets me about these movies though (and likewise the books and serials that inspired them) isn’t just the opportunity to witness an endless parade of stop motion beasties, random wild life stock footage and square-jawed character actors smoking pipes and looking stern. Rather it’s the palpable feeling of wistfulness and nostalgia generated by a form of fantastic story-telling that has been rendered entirely obsolete by the social, scientific and technological advancements of the past hundred years.

For me at least, this nostalgia relates not so much to the abhorrent notions of Western imperialism and Caucasian manifest destiny that underpin these tales (in fact these regrettable ideologies are often addressed in these stories in such a quaint and off-hand manner they almost become perversely charming), but to the almost total disappearance of the glimmer of speculative plausibility that used to fire the imagination of their original audiences.

When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote ‘The Lost World’ in 1912, ok, it perhaps wasn’t likely that there was an untouched plateau sitting in the depths of the Amazon basin inhabited by giant prehistoric creatures… but it certainly wasn’t impossible. The book was inspired by a 1911 lecture presented to the Royal Geographic Society by renowned explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett, during which he reported seeing “monstrous tracks of unknown origin” whilst undertaking a survey of the Huanchaca Plateau in Bolivia. And who else, back in 1911, was really in a position to cast doubt on his assertions? Have YOU surveyed the entire region by aeroplane, he, like Conan Doyle’s aptly-named protagonist Professor Challenger, may well have asked his audience. Have the Royal Geographic Survey succeeded in compiling a detailed map? Have any groundsmen staked out the terrain beneath those untold hundreds of miles of forest canopy?

Well, no, but I’d damn well like to give it a try, the eager young reader would be primed to respond, and a million dreams of adventures into The Unknown were born; dreams that have gradually faded ever since, as the world has become smaller, more heavily populated and more freely accessible, and that are now snuffed out entirely, rendered dead on arrival in the era of GPS, Google Earth and gap year geography students goofing around on Skype from the depths of the rainforest.

Could there still be an untouched plateau, deep in the heart of – well no, there couldn’t, we’d have found it already - end of story. We can relocate our mysteries and monsters to outer space or other dimensions or, at a push, to the bottom of the ocean or the wilds of Antarctica - but it’s no substitute really. On dry land at least, The Unknown is no more, and that spine-shivering sense of adventure that began when mediaeval cartographers first scrawled ‘here be dragons’ across their charts has finally been extinguished, leaving only these foggy tales of rampant brontosaurs and unconvincing ape-men as a final memorial.

As befits the somewhat wistful feeling evoked by these stories, I guess it follows that I often tend to enjoy cranky, flawed and ill-conceived entries in the canon to the big successes, and as such, what better place to begin such an examination than with First National Pictures’ 1925 adaptation of ‘The Lost World’ - a grand commercial failure in its day, now primarily viewed merely as a curio - a rather cranky warm-up for the formula that stop motion maestro Willis O’Brien would perfect a few years later on ‘King Kong’.

‘Kong’, it must be admitted, is a vastly more accomplished entertainment in every way, but somehow, in my usual bloody-minded, underdog-supporting fashion, I actually find ‘The Lost World’ more enjoyable. Great though ‘Kong’ is, these days it just seems so… over-familiar, with such a flat, brash, under-developed kind of narrative, exhibiting none of the rambling, discursive strangeness of its predecessor.

And it’s worth noting at this point that when I describe ‘The Lost World’ as "rambling" and "discursive", that’s based on the experience of only watching about one half of the material that comprised the original theatrical cut. Actually, there have been so many alternate presentations of this film over the years, so many rumours of lost reels, destroyed negatives and unconfirmed running times, that just trying to piece together what the hell is going on with the versions available to us today is a bit of a challenge. But most likely, the story goes something like this:

Originally running around two hours, ‘The Lost World’ was brutally chopped up by its distributors after it initially flopped, doing the rounds in subsequent years as a 30-something minute short (presumably consisting entirely of dinosaur action), before eventually being restored to a shaky 64 minute feature that turned up on a slew of public domain releases in the ‘90s. (1) A slightly more complete restoration emerged later, bulking things up to around 90 minutes, but it was the 64 minute cut that I ended up watching prior to this review, and… well, I was quite happy with it, to be honest.
Normally of course, I’d be appalled at such wholesale butchery of a motion picture, but in this case, I found that the one hour hack job hit the spot quite nicely. I’m assuming all the dinosaur footage and action/running around stuff stayed in (for indeed, there is enough of it to satisfy even the most rabid monster fan), but so seemingly did all of the necessary plot info, and the introductions, motivations and developments of the central characters, the threads of the various sub-plots and diversions etc. – are all also present and correct, making me wonder just what the hell the missing extra hour might have consisted of. Having sat through a number of arse-aching Silent Era ‘epics’ over the years – all seemingly falling victim to the fallacy that greater length equalled greater prestige – I fear the answer might simply be: an awful lot of faffing around.

As you might imagine, relatively little faffing remians in the 64 minute cut, and if the opening scenes that bring us to Professor Challenger’s pivotal lecture at the Royal Society seem a little choppy and meandering, all doubts are put to rest as soon as we get a look at the Professor himself and realise that THIS GUY is about to launch a daring expedition into the prehistoric unknown:

The guy in question is of course veteran Hollywood hellraiser Wallace Beery, and his singularly rousing performance is only one of the things that help make the scene depicting Challenger’s lecture so much fun.

“Bring on your mastodons! Bring on your mammoths!” demand the crowd of jeering, football rattle waving Edwardian students, before the Professor takes the stage to lay out his evidence for the existence of a lost Amazonian plateau rich in prehistoric flora & fuana, and of his plan to lead a rescue party in search of his unfortunate colleague Professor White, who has disappeared shortly after posting home the tantalising reports of his discoveries. It’s a shame that the 64 minute ‘Lost World’ doesn’t allow us to actually see these reports, instead cutting straight to the ‘WHO’S WITH ME?’ part of the presentation, as Challenger – having presumably reduced his critics to a state of cowed submission - canvasses for volunteers to join him on his perilous mission.

Happily, those who step up to the plate are exactly the crew the conventions of a lost world explorer type movie demands. Reporter and anxious ninny Lloyd Hughes takes on the juvenile lead / audience surrogate role, his character’s fiancée having apparently demanded that he must prove his manhood by facing some exotic dangers prior to their marriage; an unusual request perhaps, but observing Hughes’ chinless mugging here, I think I kinda get where she’s coming from. Lewis Stone meanwhile essays the obligatory safari-suited great white hunter Sir John Roxton, and does a very fine and dignified job of it too, whilst some other guy is an absent-minded, elderly scientist type (he’s probably a geologist or something, I forget, and presumably included to provide a contrast to Beery’s brow-furrowing human wrecking ball), and most importantly, Miss Bessie Love is on hand to add some glamour to proceedings, as the daughter of the missing Professor White, braving the travails of the tropics in search of her father. (2)

As an interesting aside, Love’s character, and the notion that Challenger’s expedition was launched with the intention of tracking down her father, is an addition to Conan Doyle’s source text, and a slightly unnecessary one you might think – perhaps merely a convoluted justification for including a new heroine and giving her a reason to accompany the chaps into the jungle. Actually though, a spot of Wikipedia-based “research” reveals that this alteration to the story in fact served to give the film a bit of a contemporary twist.

You see, Percy Harrison Fawcett, the man whose lectures inspired the original novel, disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1925, whilst leading an expedition in search of an ancient lost city, provisional named “Z”, that he fervently believed to be located in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil. The subject of much publicity and speculation at the time, Fawcett’s disappearance prompted numerous ill-fated ‘rescue missions’ in the years that followed, and it initially struck me as likely that the alteration to ‘The Lost World’s storyline must have been undertaken as a timely, if perhaps slightly distasteful, reference to these events. However, IMDB states that the film premiered in February 1925 – several months prior Fawcett’s final communications - so, assuming these dates are accurate, I suppose we should probably view the film’s script more as an eerie premonition of the explorer’s fate than as an exploitative cash-in. (3)

Anyway, getting back to the movie, we all know what’s coming next, so why waste time in getting there, eh? Before we know it, our intrepid band is kayaking down the Amazon with the help of their obligatory retinue of comic relief servants (a cockney, a bloke in black-face and a pet monkey are all on hand). Plentiful insert shots of mangy tigers, sloths, apes and so forth abound, providing the ‘wildlife footage’ angle that inevitably accompanied jungle tales prior to the era of TV wildlife documentaries, with some beasties (a big snake, primarily) even sharing shots with the actors amid the back-lot greenery and dry ice swamp smoke.

Soon the infamous plateau is in sight, and the proto-monster kids in the audience can rejoice, as they finally start to get what they paid for. Our initial monster sighting – a pterodactyl - has a bit of an Oliver Postgate look to it – shoddy and clumsily animated with a sort of jerky, one-frame-in-three style of motion, but pretty charming at the same time. Disappointingly for those who demand accuracy in their monsters, the rest of the creatures we’ll soon we introduced to largely follow suit, and actually, the dodginess of the monster effects is probably one of ‘The Lost World’s biggest pitfalls as regards its failure to really enter the canon as a pioneering monster movie.

I suppose on the one hand, we’ve got to remember this WAS 1925, and that this WAS the first time anyone had ever attempted to create ‘realistic’ moving creatures for a film on anything like this scale. But at the same time, given that the technical triumphs of ‘King Kong’ were only eight years away, the limitations of ‘Lost World’s wobbly, plasticine beasties speaks volumes about the astonishing progress O’Brien made with his work in the intervening years.

But thankfully, the questionable quality of 90 year old animated dinosaurs isn’t really a dealbreaker for me, and watching a lovingly rendered Allosaurus (“the most vicious pest of the ancient world”, according to Professor Challenger) going toe to toe with an alpha male Triceratops is a rousing sight irrespective of the level of formal sophistication used to achieve it. In fact, personally find that these scenes are actually enhanced by the jerky movements and rather malleable shapes of the combatants, and, from my own cranky, retrogressive viewpoint at least, they’re far more characterful and fun than the swish beasts of yr latter-day Jurassic Park sequels, just as the scientifically inaccurate stone dinos in Crystal Palace Park remain a lot more personable than their more solemn cousins in the Natural History Museum.

For modern viewers, the momentum of these dinosaur scenes is liable to be hampered not so much by the effects themselves but by the production’s rigorous insistence on fixed camera angles, which sees most of the prehistoric battles take place in static long shots, broken up only by occasional cutaways to leering close-ups dino faces (which are admittedly pretty great), and disconnected shots of our human characters cowering in fear, giving us their best ‘awe’ from amid patches of studio undergrowth. Presumably these drawbacks were imposed by the limitations of O’Brien’s stop motion technique – problems which an additional input of time and imagination would no doubt have solved, as was the case by the time ‘King Kong’ rolled around.

Shots in which monsters and people interact were also clearly a tricky business at this point in time, but although ‘The Lost World’ suffers from a modern POV for including very few of them, the ones that are here are generally very nicely done, particularly during by far my favourite part of the film: the exciting, city-wrecking conclusion!

For yes, after the chaos of the volcanic eruption that precipitates our heroes’ escape from the plateau, they find themselves in the enviable position of being able to trap a dazed and confused brontosaurus, prompting Challenger to decide he’s going to ship it straight back to London in time to hit the chattering classes with the ultimate “I told you so”. As you might expect, things do not go entirely to plan…

If this direct warm up for ‘..Kong’s dramatic conclusion fails to feature buzzing airplanes, tall buildings, imperilled heroines or tenderly and sympathetically portrayed monsters, what is DOES have is the sight of a crudely animated brontosaurus rampaging through the streets of a painstakingly detailed recreation of Edwardian London. And I don’t know about you, but there are few things I can imagine seeing in a motion picture that would please me more than that.

Although the whole London segment adds up to little more than five minutes of screen time (in the 64 minute cut), it’s a gloriously action-packed blue-print for all that would subsequently become required of such sequences. Smash, bash, crash goes the frightened and enraged leviathan, selectively laying waste to the area around Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery, as top-hatted crowds flee in blithering terror! (Look out in particular for the shot in which a life-size dinosaur tail swishes by to knock a crowd of gawpers off their feet – I thought it was great).

Wasting no time, the beast moves on to menace and demolish a public house – ‘The Blue Posts’ – which seems to have attracted its particular displeasure. One brief sequence shows a cloth-capped pub patron (presumably an underworld ruffian of some kind) firing a pistol at the monster’s looming feet as he attempts to save a stricken lady from a stomping – stirring stuff indeed, and a welcome contrast to the rather sedate dino action that transpired back on the plateau.(4)

Rather brilliantly I think, the brontosaur’s haphazard reign of terror reaches its conclusion when it crashes through the surface of Tower Bridge mid-crossing and determinedly swims off down-river towards the coast. At this point, the people of London choose to call it a day and celebrate their victory over the dinosaur, irrespective of the fact that an unhappy prehistoric behemoth will presumably be wrecking havoc in Chatham or Gravesend before the night is through. Because hey, London is safe for now, so let’s all put our feet up and raise a glass to the inadequate weight-bearing capacity of our bridges, for truly, the sloppy standards of British municipal engineering have saved the day once more.

Watching these dazed Londoners celebrate the conclusion of the first of the innumerable urban monster rampages that would follow in the subsequent years feels strange indeed; a mirror perhaps of a few handfuls of perplexed yet overjoyed young silent-era cinema-goers, cheering the awkward birth of a modernist pulp aesthetic of cinematic destruction that would help define the next century of popular culture, just as surely as the fusty, safari-suited adventure tropes that opened the film had defined the previous century’s daydream excursions into the great unknown.

(1) Another version of events claims that the movie was actually a colossal success, and that all the original theatrical prints were destroyed for legal reasons pending completion of a never-to-be-completed sound version, or something like that. But again – who knows.

(2) Appearing here towards the start of a long and varied screen career, Love went on to feature in more interesting flicks than you can shake a stick at, even clocking up ‘old lady’ cameos in the likes of Warren Beatty’s ‘Reds’ and Tony Scott’s ‘The Hunger’ in her declining years, not to mention an walk-on appearance in Jose Larraz’ ‘Vampyres’, of all things.

(3) Apparently described as a “Neitzschean explorer spouting eugenic gibberish” by the Canadian explorer and historian Dr John Hemming, you’ll be pleased to learn that a 1911 portrait of Percy Harrison Fawcett shows him sporting a mighty handle-bar moustache, a pipe, deerstalker hat and a singularly piercing gaze. Lack of dinosaurs notwithstanding, his Wikipedia entry suggests a life more eventful than anything that transpires in ‘The Lost World’.

(4) Central London currently boasts no less than six pubs named ‘The Blue Posts’ – a brief discussion of the theories behind the proliferation of the name plus further details can be found here. I won’t hazard a guess as to which of these establishments the brontosaurus was bothering (assuming it was based on a real location at all), but if any more daring (and bored) Londoners want to examine the screen shots and give it some thought, be my guest.

1 comment:

Artog said...

In reference to footnote 4, I would say the Brontosaurus is rampaging up Broadwick Street and just about to cross Berwick Street.