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Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Land Unknown

To start off this Digression Week, we return to 1957. Universal's B-wing produced a rather major effort (for a B movie), with The Land Unknown (LU). It was yet another iteration of the "lost world" sub-genre. While not the best of the lot, it was not the worst either. As with the others, some undiscovered spot on the earth contains a sampler of primeval earth, into which a small band of 20th century must survive. More on that in the Notes section. Second-teir actors, stock footage and less-expensive effects mark LU as a B movie. Yet, more elaborate sets, models, props and matte art, give LU a larger-budget "A" feel.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Some navy brass in Washington brief men who will embark on a survey mission to Antarctica. A pretty lady reporter will accompany them. They are told of, and show films of the 1946-47 Admiral Byrd expedition, whose work they will expand upon. The goal is to find more natural resources. Coal. Minerals. Uranium. After stock footage of steaming ships, Commander Roberts, the pretty reporter, Maggie, pilot Jack and mechanic Steve, take off in a helicopter for a first photo survey. A storm brews up. Jack's only option is to fly through it. Amid the foggy clouds, something swoops at them, hitting and damaging the chopper. They descend and keep descending, finally landing 3000' below sea level. Outside, it is warm, humid and tropical. They rest for the night. Next morning, the air is clear and they see the primeval tropical landscape. They see "dinosaurs" too, a couple of death-roll fighting monitor lizards, the dead pteranodon that hit their chopper. They find a cute little tarsier and Alan blathers evolution talk about it becoming a Mozart in 50 million years. A carnivorous plant eats the tarsier. A T-rex chases them back into the chopper, whose whirling blades save them. They find their camp ransacked. A "caveman" abducts Maggie. The boys give chase. Cavey says Maggie is his. The boys interrupt him in mid-maul. Foiled (at gunpoint) he says he is Dr. Carl Hunter, sole survivor of a crash 10 years ago. Carl says his old wreck has a part they can fix the chopper with, but will only trade it for Maggie. No, say the boys, and all leave. Later, Maggie gets separated from Alan, and the carnivorous plant almost gets her. Carl saves her. She faints. He disappears. The boys look in vain for Carl's wreck. Maggie decides to give herself to Carl to save the others. En route, a plesiosaur almost gets her, but Carl saves the day with fire. He carries the (again) fainted Maggie up to his cave. Steve fights Carl without much success until Alan and Jack arrive. Carl falls and hits his head on a stone table. He surrenders and gives them a map to his wreck. Maggie dabs Carl's wound. The boys get the chopper fixed. The plesiosaur, angry about Carl's fire in its mouth, scares Maggie into a faint again. Carl puts her in his canoe to take her to Alan. The chopper takes off just as Rex shows up again. They see the canoe and hoist Maggie up. The vengeful plesiosaur attacks Carl and knocks him out, then goes for the chopper. Steve fires a flare into its mouth. They hoist up limp Carl and fly away. Back at the convoy, they run out of gas and have to ditch near the ship. All aboard safely, Maggie and Alan exchange oblique talk of marriage. Kiss. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
As lost-world dinosaur movies go, LU is pretty well paced. The sets are impressive, as is the matte art. The interweaving of actual history makes the script somewhat clever. The stock footage actually has some interesting moments, like DC-3s taking off from a carrier with rocket assist! A rare stock footage treat!

Cold War Angle
There's not much mention of Cold War themes, beyond the hint that if Antarctica had uranium deposits, it was important for America to get there first.

B, for Lack of Harryhausen -- The "dinosaurs" are all that keep LU from being an A-grade movie. They used a couple of monitor lizards, fighting amid miniature landscape, but this effect was old-stuff in the 1940s. There is an almost-embarrassing T-Rex, which is clearly a man inside a poorly formed rubber-suit. The head is okay, but from the neck down, he looks like a geriatric Rex hobbling down a nursing home hallway. The plesiosaur is better, but so clearly a large mechanical prop that there's no magic. The badly done dinos let much of the wind out of LU's sails.

Lost Plane -- A clever bit of history weaving was to have Carl say he was the survivor of a plane lost in the Antarctic 10 years earlier. The other three were dead. There was a plane lost in the Byrd expedition in 1946. The PBM went down in a snow storm. 3 men died. One wonders if audiences in 1957 would have had just enough of a vague memory of a lone lost antarctic plane in '47 to have connected those dots. In the real history, six other men survived and were rescued 13 days later.

The Castaways -- Jock Mahoney stars as Commander Harold Roberts, (Although, Maggie calls him "Alan" on numerous occasions). He is a fairly 2-dimensional heroic leader character. Shirley Patterson plays the lady reporter Maggie. Aside from being the usual eye candy / damsel-in-distress. Her character is the 2-dimensional female match for Alan. She gets rescued a lot, faints a lot, and men fight over the rights to possess her. Pilot Jack and mechanic Steve are a bit less flat. The Dr. Hunter character is more interesting. As the 20th century civilized man of science -- turned into a brutish (and lusty) savage, he actually serves as an interesting antidote to all of Alan's pollyanna science blather about evolution producing Mozarts and Shakespears.

Star Chopper -- The sixth castaway is the helicopter itself. The horsey-looking Sikorsky S-51 (or H-5, if your prefer) was the first real US military chopper. The Byrd Expedition had two S-51s. The producers used one in LU, (even though they were obsolete by the mid 50s), to take advantage of stock footage. The writers even had the castaway's chopper run out of fuel at the last minute and have to ditch. This was pointless for the plot, but let them include footage of the ditching of one of Byrd's S-51s. Actually, the real S-51 crashed on take-off, not landing. The pilot veered off the deck before gaining enough height. Without the cushion effect of the deck, he just dropped into the sea off the port side. Rare footage.

Nazis and Saucers and Secrets, Oh My! -- An intriguing bit of back story to the original Byrd Expedition, provides a very sci-fi connection. Why, conspiracy theorists asked, was such a huge military 'scientific' expedition so hastily mounted just a year after the war ended? The conspiracy theory runs like this: Before the war, the Nazis explored part of the antarctic coast, naming it New Swabia. There, they constructed some underground bases. Nazi scientists were working on a flying saucer, based on a crashed UFO found in Bavaria in 1938. As the war was going badly, U-boats ferried Nazi scientists and big-wigs to the hidden bases in New Swabia to continue work on the ├╝ber-weapon saucers. Admiral Byrd was sent to find those saucers, root out those Nazis. Supposedly, Byrd himself met with some aliens (who looked perfectly human, not Roswell "grays") during a "missing" three hours of a flight. Shortly afterward, the Byrd Expedition was called off early, without much explanation. Now, there is a prime sci-fi movie story line in need of a producer.

Bottom line? LU is a worthy member of the "lost world" sub-genre. It is visually well done, except for the dinosaurs, and well paced. Knowing some of the history of the Byrd Expedition enhances the story.

1 comment:

Blaze said...

As I read your synopsis, it all came back to me. I saw "Land Unknown" sometime in the 1960's, probably around 8 or 9 years old.

It wasn't the lousy dinosaur effects that frustrated me so much as their infrequency. Back then, and now, I don't watch a movie like this for ponderous profundities on "man's place in the universe" or chauvinistic romance/mush. I watch them for dinosaurs and sci-fi adventure.

I do recall being impressed with rotating chopper blade keeping the TRex at bay.