By 1978, Amicus Productions was no more, but that didn’t impede former Amicus producer John Dark from teaming up once again with British director Kevin Conner and American leading man Doug McClure for yet another lavish fantasy monster adventure movie in a similar vein to the three they’d made for the famous British production house a few years before (particularly the Victorian-set “At The Earth’s Core”), but this time based on a completely original story which instead sought to ape the style of all those Edgar Rice Burroughs fantasy tales which had provided the source material for their earlier efforts. With support from Columbia Pictures, a budget of $2 million dollars and a screenplay by British screenwriter Brian Hayles, “Warlords of Atlantis” ends up stuck somewhere between attempting to re-create the quaint atmosphere of a particular style of British matinee fantasy B-movie fare that was already rapidly going out of fashion by that point, and competing with the modern blockbuster variety, which, by the end of the seventies, was producing spectacles such as “Jaws”, “Superman” and “Star Wars”. All the rubbery miniature monsters, unconvincing process photography sequences, matte painted backgrounds and outmoded in-camera trickery used to produce the effects in the other Amicus films are still being used here with varying results, but the whole thing is noticeably on a much grander scale, with location work in Malta and vast, impressively designed sets built at Pinewood. Hayles is probably best remembered for having created the Ice Warriors for DOCTOR WHO, including them in four out of a total of six stories he wrote for the show during the sixties and seventies. He was also involved in writing for cult British series such as “Doomwatch” and “Public Eye” and he later wrote the screenplay for the non-Hammer Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee horror team-up “Nothing But The Night”. His work here hints at all sorts of frustratingly undeveloped themes which indicate an acute awareness of the history behind the scientific romance and fantasy adventure genres the film’s narrative sets out to mimic, and how their often utopian ideas about the future perfectibility of human society (expressed in the work of authors such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne and H. G. Wells) influenced a scientific reality which turned out much less happily than they’d imagined it would. Ultimately though, the story spends most of its time on set-piece confrontations with wire operated sea monsters, giant octopi and lumbering, armoured dinosaur-like creatures (at one stage flying piranhas menace the protagonists as well) and all the usual ‘capture-escape-recapture’ plot points expected of such material appear in their usual places, making the film feel excessively derivative. Once again, there are many elements here which feel like they would have been much more at home in a 1960s DOCTOR WHO adventure, only here they're wheeled out on a lavish scale; meanwhile the ideas which seem to really motivate the story remain buried in amongst a more superficial monster movie iconography that now looks hopelessly out of date anyway.
At the end of the 19th century, elderly Professor Aitken (Donald Bisset) and his explorer son Charles (Peter Gilmore of “The Onedin Line”) set out on the schooner ‘The Texas Rose’ in search of the secret treasures of the lost city of Atlantis, telling their American engineer friend Greg Collinson (Doug McClure) and the rest of the British crew, that the iron submersible diving bell Collinson has invented for the occasion is to be used purely as a means of observing the sea life of the Atlantic ocean. Charles and Greg descend in the contraption, but are attacked by a prehistoric sea creature that pokes its rubbery head up through the opening in the bottom of the bell. After eventually fighting it off, they next come upon an elaborately carved obelisk made out of solid gold on the seabed, bringing it to the surface to be taken back to land later on. Now realising that the British father and son exploring team have not been truthful about the real purpose of the expedition, Captain Daniels (Shane Rimmer) warns of mutiny if they don’t offer the crew an extra bonus for their efforts and sure enough, the three grasping deck-hands -- Grogan (Hal Galili), Fenn (John Ratzenberger) and Jacko (Derry Power) -- cut the line from the diving bell to the ship during an attempt to steal the gold statue.
During the course of their mutiny, professor Aitken is shot and badly injured, but the treacherous three’s plan is thwarted when the ship is attacked by a giant octopus which attaches its self to the side of the ship and grabs the mutineers and Captain Daniels, dragging all four over the side. Meanwhile, Charles and Greg are washed up in a vast underground grotto filled with light, which somehow exists in an underground cave system beneath the waves. They are soon joined by their four crewmen, unaware of the three deck hands’ responsibility for the diving bell becoming separated from the ship in the first place.
The little group is confronted by a tall male blonde Atlantian in a silver tunic and flowing white cape, who also sports a rather severe fringe. He calls himself Amir (Michael Gothard), later to be identified as one of an Aryian ‘master race’ of Martians, who first came to Earth in the form of alien energy attached to an asteroid that crashed on the surface of the planet while man was still only at the primitive caveman stage of his development. He’s accompanied by a troop of spear-carrying guardian warriors with faceless, metallic-looking heads, who escort the group to one of the seven cities which comprises Atlantis. To get there, the group has to pass another dragon-like swamp monster that guards a causeway they must cross en route, while all around tower the vast, turreted ivory-sheened walls of a megalopolis of Atlantian cities which can be seen in the distance, stretching into the golden skies of the horizon.
The full-sized rubber octopus which ‘attacks’ the Texas Rose in a flurry of rubbery tentacles, and the clearly tiny puppet monsters which menace the travellers with the aid of blow-up process photography, may look rather embarrassing these days considering the aspirations the film harboured towards blockbuster status, but the splendid matte paintings of Cliff Culley, stylish production design of Elliot Scott and art direction of Jack Maxsted betray the influence of classic weird fiction writers such as H.P. Lovecraft in their portrayal of the Atlantian alien underworld as an advanced pastel-shaded fairy land full of wondrous castles and classical architecture executed on a grand scale. The vast courts and hallways of the city our rag-tag band of Victorian heroes get led to are imaginatively rendered on screen and comprise of airy domes full of plashing pools and fountains where the Atlantian elite get to relax in luxury; or bizarre, dimly-lit meditating centres where silent white-robed monks train their occult powers of mind while levitating around the smooth stone walls!
The apparently benign aliens soon reveal a darker side to their natures, though, when the group is separated according to what the Atlantian overlords consider their intellectual worth. Greg and the other seamen are placed with the worker class, which turns out to be comprised of other kidnapped humans, brought to the cities as slave labour from other shipping which has gone missing down the years, and which includes among it the Captain of the Mary Celeste (Robert Brown) and his beautiful daughter Delphine (Lea Brodie). The new visitors learn to their horror that the human population has been surgically operated on by the Atlantians to give them gills behind the ears -- thus rendering them unable to survive outside of the Atlantians’ underwater realm -- meaning escape for them is intrinsically impossible!
While Greg, Captain Briggs and the Texas Rose’s other crew members (who now suddenly become the film’s comedy relief, when not long previously they were potential murderers and thieves!) are imprisoned in dungeons high up in one of the towers of the walled city, Peter Gilmore’s affable Victorian gentleman scientist Charles is identified as an ‘alpha’ of his party because of his scientific expertise and inducted into the dreamy paradise where dwells the city elite by the highest ranking Atlantians, played by a leggy Cyd Charisse and bewigged Daniel Massey. Here we learn that the aliens have been manipulating the development of human society since its earliest beginnings in order to bring it to a stage advanced enough for the development of the nucleus-splitting technology that will one day allow the aliens to return to their Martian home. The Atlantians allow Charles a glimpse of the future they aim to bring about for humanity as a means of persuading him to join them, placing a crystal helmet on his head which fills his mind with visions of Earth’s future. Charles is mesmerised by the images of a perfect society the Martian mind helmet endows him with – but the viewer witnesses scenes of Nazi atrocities and WW2 destruction! Greg has to smash the headgear and knock Charles out in order to bring him to his senses.
The Atlantian city turns out to be under constant threat of attack from large prehistoric-type creatures called Zaargs, which provide the cover for the humans to escape with the help of Delphine, as the armour-plated behemoths scale the vast city walls. On their journey back to the surface the party encounters yet more monsters while the Atlantians send their faceless guards in hot pursuit (which have also been created, Cyberman-like, from converted human slaves). “Warlords of Atlantis” cracks along at an acceptable pace although all its most intriguing ideas, involving the alien manipulation of human destiny etc., are lightly skated over in favour of yet more dabblings with swamp monsters, flying piranhas and giant rubber octopi. Today it plays as no more than a mildly diverting period-set adventure B movie despite its concentration on one-time ‘spectacular’ special effects set-pieces. Characterisation is almost non-existent: the working class deckhands conform to Victorian stereotypes of lower class criminality and Charles’s flirtation with the attractions of Nazi perfection are forgotten about as suddenly as they were introduced. Doug McClure is particularly bland as the standard action hero type. This doesn’t have the same charm as the Amicus flicks it aims to imitate then, but fans of good old-fashioned monster movies with quaint effects and broad performances will doubtless appreciate the effort. The Studio Canal disc is another bare bones affair, but with a nice transfer in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio and bearing clear mono audio.