British production house Amicus and its US distributor/co-financier AIP both found themselves with a surprise hit on their hands in 1975, with the release of this low budget dinosaur monster movie shot at Shepperton Studios and on the backlots of Pinewood, starring Doug McClure in the first of what became a short series of 1970s British-made flicks to take their inspiration from the fevered imagination of American pulp fiction novelist Edgar Rice Burroughs. Based on the first serialised novel in what became a trilogy of related tales, and published in 1918 under the title “The Lost U-Boat” (the combined trilogy was later re-published as “The Land that Time Forgot” in 1924), the film’s screenplay was co-written by acclaimed science fiction author Michael Moorcock, although it follows Burroughs’ original pretty closely -- even down to the inclusion of the author’s framing device in which the entire tale is recounted from a found manuscript read from a canister that’s been washed up on the rocky shores of Greenland after being picked up by a sailor at the start of the film. The first half-hour of the movie was directed with considerably flair by Kevin Conner as a straight, tough and un-ironic war-time sea adventure which takes place in 1916 during the height of the First Wold War and gives no clue as to the fantasy turn the adventure is to take after the first act; it was only Conner’s second movie in the director’s seat after having recently been given his big break by Milton Subotsky on the previous year’s Amicus horror anthology “From Beyond the Grave”.
When British merchant ship, the SS Montrose, is torpedoed in the English Channel by a German U-boat commanded by the ruthless Captain von Schoenvorts (John McEnery, later re-dubbed by Anton Diffing), the only survivors besides Bradley the ship’s Captain (Keith Barron) and a handful of his crew are American naval shipbuilding expert Bowen Tyler (Doug McClure) and pretty English biologist Lisa Clayton (Susan Penhaligon). Happy to have added another casualty to his submarine’s wreckage total, Schoenvorts doesn’t hang around to pick up any possible casualties among the flotsam, but regrets it later when Tyler (who just happens to be an expert in German submarine design!) and Bradley organise the lifeboat survivors into a raiding party after the U-Boat surfaces nearby, under cover of thick fog, to re-charge its batteries. The handful of angry Brits and one American manage to take control of the craft after a violent struggle, during which several crew on both sides are killed; but the German chief officer, Dietz (Anthony Ainley) is still able to destroy the sub’s radio equipment, which means that when the commandeered U-Boat tries to rendezvous with a nearby British warship, it is unable to communicate its status as a captured enemy vessel and is instead attacked.
Captain Bradley determines to limp the now-damaged submarine into the nearest neutral American port he can find, but the ever-cunning Dietz has already fixed the on-board compass with a magnet so that the vessel ends up traveling in the wrong direction for several days and pitches up in the South-Seas, where Dietz and Schoenvorts know a German supply ship has been stationed just off the coast of South America. The Germans bide their time and eventually manage to wrest back control of the U-Boat from their captors; they are just about to dock with the supply ship when Lisa (who has been given free rein of the sub by the chivalrous Schoenvorts) frees Tyler and the British sailors from the hold. They manage to overpower the complacent German crew once more and use the sub’s weapons system to torpedo and destroy the German ship -- which leaves the allies back in control, but now with only limited fuel and few remaining food rations. After drifting for some time, lost somewhere around the Antarctic regions, the sub ends up encountering a mysterious icy landmass protected by towering rock faces which the historically-minded Schoenvorts claims must be the same one that was once reported by an Italian explorer called Caproni back in the 18th century. Caproni’s wondrous tales of this mysterious land, christened Caprona, had since been dismissed as pure fantasy by modern cartographers because they were never able to verify his claims. But after the sub follows a freshwater current into an underwater cavern and emerges on the other side in a prehistoric wilderness, populated by creatures from every era of Earth’s evolutionary history, both German, American and British alike realise that they have been catapulted into a strange new world of danger: the island is like a geological museum exhibit where all the ages of Earth’s history have been frozen side-by-side in a laboratory that exists outside of time. Now the crew must set aside their antagonisms and learn to work together if they are to survive and find a way back to their own world.
“The Land that Time Forgot” is itself now a kind of museum piece of course, one that’s nostalgically defined by its simple down-to-earth approach to classic early 20th century storytelling and an old-fashioned reliance on creaky process photography that spurns Ray Harryhausen-style stop motion effects for simpler wire-controlled model dinosaurs which are shown here amusingly articulating away in amongst cute miniature mock-up sets; there’s even a glove puppet Plesiosaurus used to attack the submarine at one point, carrying away one particularly negligent crew member in its built-to-scale-for-a-close-up but otherwise un-movingly rigid maw. In fact, most of the same techniques were used on the 1974 DOCTOR WHO story “Invasion of the Dinosaurs”, but on a ropey BBC effects budget which didn’t allow for extravagances such as the life-sized Pterodactyl model seen here dangling on obvious wires at one point, but which still make this film look like “Avatar” by comparison!
Such a lowly British production may well have been forced to substitute a sand pit in Reading and Pinewood’s overgrown backlot for the prehistoric wilderness, but Kevin Conner executes the action with considerable brio nonetheless. These days, modern Hollywood treats this sort of effects-laden kiddie fare in the same grandiose way as it does the trials and tribulations of Golden Age Marvel and DC comic strip heroes: like epically portentous Wagnerian opera that needs at least three hours and a cast headed by Johnny Depp in order to spin an overly complex yarn out of what should be relatively straightforward morning matinee fantasy material. Here, we have eighty-six minutes of action that actually feels like a breath of fresh air because of its uncomplicated directness, giving us a first act of surprisingly authentic war-time drama followed by a typical Lost World-style adventure in which the combined British and German crew set out to find drinkable water and have all sorts of run-ins with the various monsters as well as many evolutionary stages of early human that also live alongside a dinosaur population which freely mixes species from different geological periods.
Susan Penhaligon’s pretty biologist, Lisa Clayton, functions not just as a damsel to be kidnapped by mono-browed cavemen and rescued by a doughty Doug McClure, but also to provide a thinly sketched rationale for why the various warring humanoid tribes of Caprona appear to encompass inhabitants made up of different species, and why other life forms still exist side-by-side when they actually appeared separated by millions of years of evolution in Earth’s geological record. Taken from Burroughs’ original source (where it was more completely elaborated across the totality of all three novels in the series), the theory is posited that each individual organism on the island goes through a kind of developmental recapitulation of increasing evolutionary complexity as it migrates down river across its life-span, although the exact reasoning always remains quite vague in the movie, which soon becomes more interested in bringing about an explosive finale full of molten lava flows and destructive volcanic eruptions.
The fixity or otherwise of Man’s warlike nature is understandably a central concern in Burroughs’ fiction from this period, the carnage of the Great War inevitably focusing the flow of his imagination on themes surrounding the idea of a human nature fixed by biology yet marked by natural mechanisms which demand constant change. Biologist Lisa Clayton and cultured U-Boat Captain von Schoenvorts articulate these tensions before the sub ever reaches the island during the on-board struggle between the Germans and the Allied survivors for control of the vessel. While enjoying his hospitality in Schoenvorts’ book-lined cabin, Clayton questions how a man as refined as he can also willingly inflict such devastation on others without compunction. The Captain replies that it is nature which has taught him that life is founded on killing and destruction.
In fact, it is Schoenvorts who quickly decides that his German crew must work alongside their former enemies in order to survive their stay on the island; co-operation and altruism are equally a part of human nature, but one has to reach a higher level of sophistication before they appear, as the survivors discover when they find themselves caught up in inter-tribal warfare taking place between different island native groupings. Even so, the modern humans are able to befriend a primitive Neanderthal man (Bobby Parr); it is Anthony Ainley’s German officer Dietz who eventually proves unable to rise to the challenge of overcoming nationalistic animosity towards his British and American companions, and disaster is eventually brought about in a surprisingly downbeat ending because of it. These primitive atavisms eventually prove too overwhelming to escape, it seems: a notion which must have seemed hard to spurn in the troubled period between the start of the First World War and the inter-war years when Burroughs’ fictional world-making flourished. With its rousing romantic score by Amicus go-to man Douglas Gamley, “The Land that Time Forgot” is a throwback to the classic adventure narrative form, which still casts an alluring spell for those who grew up with these films.
The Studio Canal DVD provides an excellent transfer in the film’s 1.85:1 aspect ratio and two short interviews with actress Susan Penhaligon and director Kevin Conner, both running around the five minute mark, are also included as extras. There’s also a gallery of production stills for this film and “At The Earth’s Core”. Penhaligon and Conner both talk about Doug McClure and the difference in approach taken between this demanding TV and movie star from Hollywood and the more unassuming British style of filmmaking; although they also say that the actor was a delight to work with.
Penhaligon also mentions how she probably regrets in retrospect turning down a place at the Royal Shakespeare Company in order to make what is after all just ‘a monster movie’ but that no less a luminary than Judy Dench told her that, faced with the choice between the RSC and a monster movie, she’s take the monster movie every time!
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