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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

King Dinosaur

Only obscurity has kept King Dinosaur (KD) from being lampooned as one of the "worst movies ever." Other movies, which get tagged with that dubious distinction have better stories and even better acting. However, to kvetch about the imperfection of B-movies is like complaining that Little Leaguers don't play like Major Leaguers. KD did strain the intention of this study -- to find the good, even in bad movies. Writer/Director Bert I. Gordon wanted to do a (fake) dinosaur movie, so he did. Having a good storyline was optional.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A new planet drifts into the solar system and takes up an orbit around the sun close to earth's. It looks habitable. The nations of the world begin a space race to build rockets, in hopes of being the first to planet Nova. Four American scientists are the first to land. They find the atmosphere very close to earth's, so forego the space suits and explore the tall pine woods and meadows in shirt sleeves. The geologist pronounces it a very young "preshistoric" planet. They make a rustic camp for the night. The physician and his fiancee go for a walk, but he trips, rolls down a hill and is attacked by a rubber alligator. Since he's badly mauled by the rubbergator, the biologist and geologist decide to explore the island in the lake and leave the other two at camp. Once on the island, they're attacked by a "giant" iguana. The paleontologist enthuses about seeing a T. Rex, the king of the dinosaurs. It has them holed up in a cave. They manage to fire a signal flare. The other two see it and paddle to the island. While a "giant" gila monster fights the iguana, they rescue the trapped pair. They decide to detonate their atomic power pack to kill the "dinosaurs". This they do, pronounce it a good thing, then happily set back for home. The end.

Why is this movie fun?
To start with, you can't expect KD to be a regular movie. It's a lower budget than the usual low-budget fare, so it's amazing that it exists at all. There are actually some fun nuggets among the many many minutes of stock footage. A tiny plot nugget is that Gordon predicted the space race five years before it actually began.

Cold War Angle
The narrator explains that the nations of the world are racing to the first to 'claim' planet Nova for their civilization. The note of urgent necessity to this race can only find its power in Cold War thinking.

Think B.I.G. -- This was Bert I. Gorgon's first film -- both as writer and director. It's a pretty lame movie, as even B-movies go, but it was his debut. Gordon would go on to create several other (somewhat better) 50s B-grade sci-fi movies: The Amazing Colossal Man, The Beginning of the End, Attack of the Puppet People, Earth vs. The Spider and War of the Colossal Beast. In all of these there is the play of ordinary-sized things being "made" gigantic. In the Puppet People the protagonists are made small, but this still leaves the normal sized villain as the relative giant. Gordon was fascinated with BIG things. KD was his first foray into photo-giantism.

Checkers! -- Many B-films used stock footage of the test firing of the V2 rocket, painted with the big four-square checker pattern. In KD, we see more V2 and Checkers footage than usual. Since Checkers has become like one of the family, this extra footage is like seeing "lost" episode material. Gordon also gives us footage of Checkers' blast off, reversed and superimposed over a pine woods skyline to create a landing. Hard to believe, but this cobbled-up bit of recycled footage would actually get recycled itself in later B-grade scif movies. Sakes!

Mega-stock -- One thing that strikes a 50s sci-fi fan about KD, is the mass quantities of stock footage -- even for a 50s B-film. Shots of assembling V2s, guys in various labs, testing jet engines, bomb tests, radar antennae, the ubiquitous B-47 in rocket-assist take off, some mice in space (supposedly), etc. etc. It seems like nearly half the movie's run time is comprised of stock footage. There is a lot of V2 footage. It seems like Gordon wrote up his story, then found as much pre-existing footage as he could to flesh out his outline. This meant shooting very little new film -- a big budget saver.

Dino-shifting -- You have to give Gordon some credit here. There's a ready market for people-menaced-by-dinosaur movies, but how to get modern folks and dinosaurs together? The "lost" island idea was getting old. King Kong, Lost World, Unknown Island, Lost Continent, etc. etc. had been done to death. Some writers opted to bring the dinosaurs to the modern folk. Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Godzilla, Lost World Gordon's solution was to have a planet with dinosaurs drift close to the earth so we could rocket over there and get menaced. He still had an island of dinosaurs, but the device of a new planet to explain why we'd not found them before. It gives a chance for some sci-fi spin too.

Budgetosarus -- The "dinosaurs" in KD are an alligator, an iguana, a gila monster and (briefly) an armadillo. Unlike in Lost World they're not gussied up with glued on fake fins and spines. They're just plain old earth critters filmed crawling over model landscapes as if they were huge. This would be a hallmark of Bert I. Gordon's work -- the ordinary made to look BIG.

Cave Sweet Cave -- Some of KD was shot in Bronson Canyon, so rightfully looks similar to the cave home of Ro-Man from Robot Monster ('53). Another Ro-Man dejavu are the scenes of the gator and iguana doing the death roll together. One wonders if Gordon had been inspired by Robot Monster.

The Civilized Bomb -- A very curious tidbit in KD comes at the end. The team has a nuclear power pack to drive their remote gear. It can be set to overload and become an "atom bomb." To deal with the "dinosaurs" that menace them, they set it for 30 minutes, then hightail it off the island. Once a safe (?) couple of miles away, the bomb goes off (stock footage of Nevada Test Site mushroom cloud). "We've done it," proclaims Dick. "We've brought civilization to planet Nova." Perhaps Gordon (the writer) meant that killing off the "dinosaurs" made Nova civilized (or civilizable). Perhaps he saw the bomb as the ultimate expression of mankind's progress. Either way, it sounds very strange to 21st century ears.

Bottom line? If you can't handle weak acting or get upset with stock footage, or groan at critters-filmed-as-giants, then avoid King Dinosaur. It will only make you angry. If, however, you're a fan of low-budget sci-fi, it's worth a look, if only to see how much mileage you can get from stock footage. The whole civilized bomb thing is worth puzzling over too.

1 comment:

thingmaker said...

That's not just an ordinary iguana, it rears up on its hind legs to simulate the upright posture of a T Rex... In a few shots... Wires visible...
Actually, my favorite alien monster on the prehistoric planet is the giant mole cricket.