I first encountered, The Last Dinosaur, as a movie of the week on ABC TV back in 1978 or 1979, I can't remember. But I remember being both thrilled and terrified by the tale of a small group of explorers thrust unto a veritable land that time forgot and forced to face off against the best damn dinosaur monster I'd ever seen in my surprisingly monster-heavy preteen years. The Last Dinosaur lacked much of the light-heartedness and/or gee-whiz science fiction of the usual Toho/Daiei monster films, the characters all spoke English, and the film was played dead-to-rights straight with no comic relief. To a 9 year old this was simply amazing, more so was the utterly (for the time) realistic tyrannosaurus monster that terrorizes the cast.
Remember though, I was 9.
The film, a Rankin Bass/Tsuburaya coproduction, builds on the success of a previous Rankin Bass/Toho corproduction from the mid 1960s with King Kong Escapes, and became the cornerstone in a four-film deal including The Bushido Blade (1978) The Ivory Ape (1980) and The Bermuda Depths (1977). The Last Dinosaur seems to be the budget buster of the four, while The Bermuda Depths features a giant turtle, the other films are either a sort of standard samurai epic and a man in a gorilla suit movie. The Bushido Blade also stars Richard Boone in his last film performance.
The Last Dinosaur is not as original in story as I thought it was back in those halcyon days of ten-cent cokes and Fat Albert cartoons. There's another film, released to theaters via Amicus two years earlier that covers almost exactly the same ground, with considerably more literary cache, that is "The Land that Time Forgot" based on the very famous novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs and starring Doug McClure (You may remember him from such films as "The People that Time Forgot" and er... "Warlords of Atlantis".)
Only, in The People that Time Forgot we're treated to a survival story set during WW1 with all the intrigue and back stabbing and scientific verve that that age in the early 20th century could offer. What we get in The Last Dinosaur is a sort of ham-handed Moby Dick type tale of Maston Thrust (a REALLY tired looking Richard Boone) the richest man in the world, owner of "Thrust Industries" a gigantic oil company, and the last in a very long line of world famous big game hunters, trying to bring down the last Tyrannosaurus Rex before it eats him and his four friends.
Since he's hunted every dangerous animal on Earth, he's taken to hunting and loving pretty ladies who, considering the astonishingly awful shape Richard Boone was in at the time, probably needed to be paid in huge amounts of troy gold just to sit in the same room with him.
Basically, he's rich, and very, very bored. What do very rich and very bored men do in joint Rankin Bass/Tsubaraya coproductions? Why, they finance an expedition to, er – I can't even remember – but to get there they take a special giant atomic laser equipped drill machine and drive it into the Earth's mantle.
We pick up the story of the Polar Borer project after the 5th expedition during which four of the five crewmen were killed and eaten by a Tyrannosaurus Rex. See, they'd popped out in this volcanically heated lake hidden within a polar valley and protected from the outside world by giant glaciers. Naturally, Thrust wants to go back an convinces the survivor of Polar Borer 5, Chuck, to return with him, his Masaii hunting buddy Bunta, a Japanese scientist, Dr. Kawamoto, and a hanger-on Pulitzer Prize winning photographer, Francesca (Joan Van Ark) who sleeps her way into the expedition. Yeesh.
Thrust promises everyone that he plans only to take still and moving pictures of the animals of this lost area somewhere in the vastness of the polar icy-wasteland.
Before long the cast is roaming around the hidden tropical forest, dodging "Robustus" cave people, trying to find enough food to stay alive, and figure out whether or not they can get back to modern, unhidden, regular non-dinosaur society.
All in all it's not a terrible film by any measure, but the material is pretty dated and some of the astonishing continuity errors render the middle third of the film very easy to poke holes in and fun at. Actually, there's a huge confuse-o-jump after the first act. Once the Tyrannosaurus Rex chases off Maston, Bunta, Frankie, and Chuck it chows down on Dr. Kawamoto, trashes the camp, and makes off with the Polar Borer, we cut to 4 months later. MONTHS! Where the men are armed with spears and shields made from detritus from the camp an fighting off the Robustus tribe over a dwindling amount of wild game. It's like there's a whole scene missing here that takes us from that wrecked camp to the new camp-in-a-cave where the division of labor is the men hunt and Frankie does everthing else. She's also apparently in a relationship with Chuck. None of it makes any sort of narrative sense. The second act is largely Tyrannosaurus free and concentrates on the growing survival problems of the cast, finding food, realizing they are trapped forever, making friends with/taming a Robustus girl for Maston to mate with (Yeesh again!) etc...
It's not until Chuck finds the Polar Borer and a way back that the movie returns to the story of Maston and his lust for dinosaur murder.
The special effects by Tsuburaya Production are generally very good for "suitmation" stuff, though the Tyrannosaurus changes size in almost every single scene. The creatures in The Last Dinosaur appear to be modeled on the Charles R. Knight murals at the Chicago Field Museum (circa 1931) and The Age of Reptiles (1947) by Rudolph Zalinger from the Peabody Museum of Natural History and seems almost unusually mundane for monsters coming out of the Tsuburaya shop – All of the monsters are dark gray/black, for example. At the time dinosaurs were almost always portrayed as either all green or all gray, even in paleontology books. The monsters are all very upright, with the Tyrannosaurus adopting the, since disproved, vertical back stance and dragging tail of early dinosaur construction and depiction.
And it's not Tsuburaya's guys don't have experience with two-legged dinosaurs to draw from – Gorosaurus is the colorful, dynamic, go-to-T-Rex from that shop and already appeared in a Rankin/Bass film, King Kong Escapes – but the dinosaurs lack in colorful whimsy here they make up for in perceived realism and in the case of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, intelligent menace. Shot always in slow motion, and occasionally matted into the scene, the dinosaurs almost always look like they belong in the same movie and same frame as the main characters. Special effects director Kazuo Ohashi strives to keep the monster action realistic so there are no kangaroo kicks, no whipping opponents around by their tails, or anything else you might expect from a Japanese monster film.
The Tyrannosaurus gets its voice from a combination of Godzilla's roar and Gorosaurus' grunt (in case you were wondering).
The three dinosaurs making long enough appearances to warrant mention here are a triceratops, a sort of protoceratop, and Tyrannosaurus Rex. We also get a few poorly matted flying reptiles (stock in trade for long shots of the ecosystem for every single dinosaur movie ever made) and a big turtle. That's not a whole lot of game for a monster film, but it's enough to keep things moving along. Only the Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops fight, so if you're looking for a series of big monster battles, it doesn't really satisfy, but again, this is all played as straight drama so diversions for things like two giant theropods wailing on each other isn't really in keeping with the script, that of Maston Thrust hunting down the killer of his friend (and several employees) to finally exceed the legacy of his forbears.
The script, by William Overgard doesn't know whether to play the film as a straight survival piece or a Moby Dick piece and settles on a mundane mix of the two, and that's a shame as with more emphasis on Maston's growing mania about killing the T-Rex we could have had a REALLY fun 106 minutes. Instead we get a just entertaining one. When Richard Boone lets loose we get a few nice glimpses of what this film could have been. The romantic love triangle between Maston, Frankie, and Chuck is never explored either as the script allows Maston to just step aside and let the supremely annoying Chuck shack up with Frankie. If he were a true alpha male as portrayed in the scrap book shown earlier he'd have sent Chuck off to be eaten and taken Francesca for himself.
Richard Boone was already way beyond his prime as a leading man in films and from the Have Gun Will Travel TV show, but he brings a level of professionalism to the role of Maston Thrust you usually can't get in this sort of film. Joan Van Ark as Francesca is insufferable, she's a strong woman character which is good, and meant to be a foil for Boone's Thrust, but the script pairs her unbelievably with Chuck. She's not got much in range either, she's either happy and settled with the life that this prehistoric throwback land has for her, or she's goofing around with Maston. I get that she's supposed to be a war correspondent and that they have some really good crazy-filter that makes even the most ridiculous and horrible crap bearable for journalism's sake, but she loses her camera ten minutes after they arrive and she greets every challenge with brain-damaged optimism from then on.
Steven Keats was a veteran of several TV roles and TV movies by the time The Last Dinosaur came around and he's just awful, whiny, annoying, confrontational for no good reason, and playing his part as overtly sentimental and thoughtful, again to offset Richard Boone's ancient machismo. He tries really hard to chew the scenery but never manages to rise above annoying. Mrs. McLargehuge found herself wishing he'd be eaten or stomped on right from the first scene.
Directed by Alexander Grassoff, best know for directing "CHiPs" and other TV action and light drama shows, is almost strictly as if he was knew this was going to be TV movie – though at the time of production it had a theatrical commitment – and it suffers for it. His style is absolutely a product of 1970s TV. Grassoff went on to direct the most dated of all TV edutainment forms, the ABC After School Special, where bone-headed teens would get killed in drunken van driving accidents, get date raped after the prom following a single bottle of snozzberry wine cooler, realize they hate their mother after trying "reefer" at a party, or becoming a bell-tower-shooter due to a bad case of dyslexia.
The differences between this as a 1:33/1 TV Ratio and the 2:35/1 widescreen are negligible. Both directors keep the action solely in the center third of the screen. The Japanese side of the directors chair was handled by Tsugunobu Kotani. He went on to direct all of the other Rankin-Bass/Tsuburaya films that followed.
I have no idea where this was filmed but Tsuburaya's involvement suggests Japan. Much of the film takes place outdoors and they clearly weren't filming the bulk of the movie in a set somewhere. We get some nice scenery, the lake where the Polar Borer first surfaces is neat, the dark pine forest where the final confrontation happens is lush and very pretty. But we don't come to these movies for the scenery, usually, so it's moot.
The Last Dinosaur is finally available on DVD from Warner Brothers as part of their Warner Archive program – essentially a DVD print to order service for the films in their catalog that have limited appeal. Therefore The Last Dinosaur comes 0-extras, none, nada, not even a background graphic for the title page. That said, the picture is nice and crisp and for the first time in the US, in original widescreen. It's also the original 106 minute length, never before seen in the United States.
We've come a long, long way in both film-making and dinosaur theories since The Last Dinosaur was made but it's definitely nice to step back and see how the world saw and depicted these cretaceous denizens.