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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Lost World

Intended as a grand sci-fi/fantasy epic remake of Arthur Conan Doyle's classic novel. The first film adaptation, shot in 1925, was a milestone in many ways, but movie making and special effects had come a long way in 35 years. Irwin Allen's Lost World (LW) & 20th Century Fox version was derailed on the way to greatness, but managed to still be a respectable, (if more modest) A-film. Allen's screenplay followed the book fairly well, telling of Professor Challenger's expedition to a remote plateau in the Amazon upon which dinosaurs still lived. Aside from the paleontological presumptions in the premise, there is little "science" in The Lost World. Nonetheless, dinosaur movies have traditionally been lumped into the sci-fi genre.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Professor Challenger proposes as new expedition to the amazon to prove him right or wrong about seeing dinosaurs. A publisher agrees to bankroll the trip, if his reporter can come along. The party includes Challenger, Professor Summerlee, Sir John Roxton, and Ed Malone, the reporter. In Brazil, they are joined by Gomez, the helicopter pilot, Costa, a local and Jennifer Holmes, daughter of Malone's publisher and keen to marry Roxton. The group land on the remote plateau and make camp. At night, a dinosaur scares them and wrecks the helicopter. After a bit of exploring, the group encounter (capture) a native girl. After encountering some dinosaurs and a giant green spider, the group are captured by native warriors. They're held in a cave pending sacrifice. The native girl helps them escape. In doing so, they come across old blind Burton White, lost from an earlier expedition. White tells them the way out is through several perils. The group press on with warriors close behind. They pass one lake of lave. Gomez pulls a gun on Roxton, revenge for death of his brother in first expedition. Malone throws a bag of diamonds at Gomez. His gun goes off, awakening a dinosaur which eats Costa. Malone and Gomez dislodge a lava flow that kills the dinosaur, but Gomez dies too. The rest make it out a passage to the jungle. Roxton still has some diamonds in his pockets. He gives one to Malone so he can marry Jenny. Challenger has a baby dinosaur to take to London. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The 50s had seen several examples of the dinosaur sub-genre. LW is one of the more lavish ones, owing to color by DeLuxe and CinemaScope. The A-level actors help too. Claude Rains plays the flamboyant Challenger. Michael Rennie plays Roxton, perhaps a bit too cooly. Jill St. John and Vitina Marcus do well as the customary eye candy. David Hedison as Malone and Fernando Lamas as Gomez round out the bill.

Cold War Angle
Unlike what usually befell adaptations of Jules Verne's novels, the writers avoided any grafting in of Cold War elements into Doyle's pre-WWI novel. LW is pure dino-romp.

Remake -- The first film version of LW was a silent movie shot in 1925: screenplay by Marion Fairfax. The film featured stop-motion animated dinosaurs by a young Willis O'Brien. Fairfax followed Doyle's text, but Fairfax added a young woman to the team, Paula White. Ostensibly trying to find her father from the first failed expedition, she provided the love triangle interest between Malone and Roxton.

Variations -- Allen's screenplay tried to stick to Doyle's text as much as Hollywood would allow. It carried on Fairfax's invention of the young woman member of the group as triangle fodder. Fairfax had Doyle's ape men (ape man) but omitted the native humans. Allen had the natives, but no ape men. Allen revived the Gomez/revenge subplot, which Fairfax skipped. Doyle's story had Challenger bringing back a pterodactyl. Fairfax made it a brontosaur who rampaged through London streets (spawning a popular trope). Allen suggested the baby dinosaur traveling to London.

All For the Queen -- Willis O'Brien pitched 20th Century Fox in the late 50s, to do a quality remake of LW. He had gained much experience in the intervening 35 years, so his stop-motion dinosaurs were to be the real stars. Fox bass liked the idea, but by the time the ball started rolling, there was trouble in studioland. Fox's grand epic Cleopatra was underway, but was already 5 million dollars over budget. Cleo would nearly sink 20th Century Fox when it was finally released in 1963. To stay afloat, all other Fox films' budgets were slashed. Allen could no longer afford the grand O'Brien stop-motion.

Fake-osaurus -- Allen's production is often criticized for its "cheap" dinosaurs, which were live monitor lizards and alligators with fins and plates and horns glue onto them. (more on that below) These were already a bit cheesy when used in the 1940 film One Million B.C.. O'Brien is still listed on the credits as "Effects Technician," but all Allen could afford was lizards with glued on extras. Somewhat amusingly, the script still refers to them as brontosaurs and T-Rexes.

Typical Female -- The character of Jennifer Holmes starts out promising. She's a self-assured to the edges of pushy, and is said to be able to out shoot and out ride any man. Yet, when she gets to the Amazon jungle, she's little more than Jungle Barbie, dressed in girlie clothes and screaming frequently. She even does the typical Hollywood trip-and-fall when chased by the dinosaur, so that a man must save her.

Bottom line? FW is a finer example of the not-quite-sci-fi dinosaur sub-genre. The actors are top drawer, even if some of their acting is a bit flat. Nonetheless, FW is a fair adaptation of Doyle's classic adventure novel, given the constraints of Hollywood culture.

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