Part 2: Out of Time, Out of Place
Written by Monster Awareness Month team member: Robert Hood
In the history of cinema, dinosaurs have mostly been seen as monsters, and giant ones at that, despite having a reality as “natural” creatures (see “The First Giant Monsters Part 1”). But monsters are only monsters in relation to humanity — and humanity and dinosaurs were never historically co-existent. So on film how do the two get together?
Despite the bronto-rampage in the climax of the film that arguably started it all, 1925’s The Lost World, very rarely do cinematic dinosaurs as such appear in our cities. Full-on urban assault is generally left to later nuclear-spawned saurian mutants such as Godzilla (though there are significant exceptions, not the least of which is the fictional Rhedosaur of 1953’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, which is in fact awakened from his lengthy sleep under the ice, and irradiated, by a nuclear blast). Instead dino-films tend to put dinosaurs in the same timeframe as humans in various other ways.
Some dino-films simply violate known chronologies and pretend that dinosaurs and homo sapiens were, at some point, contemporaries. Films such as One Million B.C. (US-1940; dir. Hal Roach and Hal Roach Jr.) and When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (UK-1970; dir. Val Guest) supposedly depict prehistoric times but allow “cavemen” (who generally bear little onscreen resemblance to early hominids) and dinosaurs to co-exist — a synchronicity that never happened in reality.
This form of fantasy descends from early silent novelty films designed to showcase the “tricks” of the new, developing media, such as D.W. Griffith’s 1912-13 Brute Force [aka The Primitive Man/Prehistoric Days], Willis O’Brien’s 1915 five-minute short The Dinosaur and the Missing Link, and his ten-minute R.F.D. 10,000 B.C. (1917). In due course, taking the idea only slightly more seriously and adding something vaguely resembling characterisation and a plot, we get Raquel Welch in a fur bikini being menaced by a triceratops, an allosaurus, a giant turtle and a pterodactyl (in Hammer’s 1966 prehistoric-tribe remake One Million Years B.C., dir. Don Chaffey) — all except Raquel skilfully animated by Willis O’Brien’s successor, Ray Harryhausen.
More commonly, however, dino-films that depict dinosaurs co-existing with humanity follow the famous dino-novels of Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle by locating the prehistoric enclaves in contemporary times but in places distant from humanity, lost in obscure corners (or depths) of the globe.
Following the first discovery and identification of dinosaurs in the mid 19th century — and given the massive interest they provoked — it’s hardly surprising that they began to appear in fiction. Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) was the first significant work to bring man and prehistoric beasts together in the contemporary world, albeit far from, indeed deep below, human civilisation — a “lost world”, as it were, entered through Freudian caverns of great psychological (and paleontological) significance (see Allen A. Debus’ books on the development of the idea of the dinosaur, as referenced at the end).
The idea that the Earth is hollow wasn’t a new one when Verne wrote his novel, but filling the hollow with remnants of the prehistoric past was reasonably innovative — though of course not a great stretch. Fossils are associated with caverns and being buried deep in the ground, and real-world interaction with the prehistoric past is associated with geological excavation. Later Edgar Rice Burroughs would also invent a subterranean world existing at the centre of the Earth, this one called Pellucidar. Along with human “civilisations”, it too would be the home of saurian monsters, and Burroughs’ most famous character, Tarzan, would be an occasional visitor. At the Earth’s Core (UK/US-1976; dir. Kevin Connor) brought this particular subterranean slice of anomalous prehistory to the screen.
Oddly, though Verne’s novel would be first made into a short film in 1909 (Voyage au Centre de la Terre), it wasn’t given the full treatment until the big budget 1959 Journey to the Center of the Earth (dir. Henry Levin), starring Pat Boone, James Mason and Arlene Dahl. This film sticks to the book in its essentials, though there are more land “dinosaurs” in evidence than in the book — played by ordinary lizards with frills and horns pasted onto them and photographically enlarged. The dorsel fans are suggestive of the Dimetrodon, which is fair enough as the Dimetrodon was a Pelycosaur (a lizard-like animal) rather than a dinosaur, dating from the earlier Permian period. Though only about 11.5 feet (3.5 m) long, the Dimetrodon was a dominant carnivore of the period and at least sported the side-oriented “lizard legs” of modern reptiles (unlike dinosaurs, whose skeletal remains show them to have had a straight beneath-the-torso bone structure), making the enlarged lizards a reasonable SFX choice.
A few other versions of Verne’s novel would be made over the decades, though none as successfully as this one. Generally Verne’s novel serves only as a conceptual starting point for these films; the most recent, Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D (US-2008; dir. Eric Brevig), undertaken with tongue-in-cheek bravado by Brendan Fraser, is no exception.
After Journey to the Centre of the Earth came other stories of prehistoric enclaves in the modern world, though the most significant would prove to be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912). This novel included many of the most iconic dinosaurs; Verne’s marine giants, his Plesiosaurs and Ichthyosaurs, are technically — like Pterodactyls and other Pterosaurs — not part of the Superorder Dinosauria, even though they may be referred to as “dinosaurs” informally. Other than these, Verne’s novel does not refer to any of the culturally dominant dinosaurs and includes mammals such as the Mastodon. Of course in the realm of popular culture it is somewhat precious to argue about what constitutes a dinosaur and what doesn’t. Later so-called dinosaurs on film would bear much less relationship to “real” dinosaurs than those of the early cinema (until the technical advances of Jurassic Park brought back a passion for scientific accuracy, at any rate). And once they started to mutate, all bets were off. By then, the “dinosaur” had become a totally fictional construct, absorbed into the cultural imagination of the 20th century. In this context, the term “dinosaur” meant less “of the scientific genus Dinosauria” and more “giant prehistoric lizard” — in which case violation of scientific accuracy had become irrelevant.
The Lost World of Conan Doyle’s novel was not subterranean, but atop a vast plateau in the unexplored upper reaches of the Amazon.
“What is there?” [Roxton] would cry, pointing to the north. “Wood and marsh and unpenetrated jungle. Who knows what it may shelter? And there to the south? A wilderness of swampy forests, where no white man has ever been. The unknown is up against us on every side. Outside the narrow lines of the rivers what does anyone know? Who will say what is possible in such a country? (from The Lost World)
This was a common enough appeal when Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his first Professor Challenger novel. It spoke to ordinary geographical possibility of a kind that is less conceivable these days, when there are few places on Earth left, outside the ocean’s profoundest depths, that humanity hasn’t explored, colonized and even trashed. Eventually more elaborate means of hiding a “lost” reality would need to be invented — via temporal displacement, space travel, spatial rifts, or military conspiracy. But for the moment, distance was enough. During the first decade or so of giant monster films, the mystery of distance and the darkness of the unknown places of the Earth — the fascination of a world that was still untamed and imaginatively fertile — would provide the starting point for bringing Man and Giant Monster together.
The novel of The Lost World is the story of an irascible scientist, the appropriately named Professor George Edward Challenger, whose claims of a “lost world” in the Brazilian jungles — one inhabited by survivors from prehistoric times — provokes much scorn and the eventual formation of an expedition to once-and-for-all establish his credibility. The story is told by a journalist, Edward Malone, who goes along for the ride largely to prove himself adventurous and worthy of his somewhat self-centred and trivial Gladys’ attention. The expedition reaches the vast plateau deep in the jungle and is confronted by pterodactyls, dinosaurs, primeval subhumans, chasms, caves and volcanic tar pits — not to forget the treachery of some of their own party. After initially being trapped on the plateau and after much adventure, they escape and return to England with a specimen that proves their story of a prehistoric enclave, to much renown.
The first film of Conan Doyle’s novel, The Lost World (US-1925; dir. Harry O. Hoyt) followed what is now a commonplace tradition of Hollywood adaptation: it changed things. In the novel, the loud, obnoxious and brilliant Professor Challenger — concerned to prove his veracity — brings back a pterodactyl egg that hatches and thus silences his critics and academic opponents. For the purposes of cinema, where the narrative requires greater melodrama, this wasn’t enough. Instead, Challenger (played by a loudly eccentric Wallace Beery) and his comrades fortuitously capture a fully grown brontosaurus and arrange (thanks to a few vague statements and a convenient cut) to get it back to London. Once there, it escapes from its confinement and goes on a rampage through the streets. Crowds flee screaming, the authorities fire at it in vain, it treads on cars, smashes buildings and assorted landmarks, and in the end plunges into the Thames when London Bridge collapses under its weight. The populace watch as it disappears out to sea. There is an iconic, even ironic, moment in the final scene when the brontosaurus turns to examine a ship in the background, as though contemplating whether to adopt the more aggressive stance that later sea-borne monsters would take — but instead decides against it and simply swims on, leaving ship-sinking to Godzilla and his mates.
This whole bronto-sequence would provide a template for future giant monster films, starting with King Kong: the monster brought to civilization by human machinations (usually as a result of hubris or greed) and thence let loose to cause havoc. Here it provides a climactic finish to the film, which is more centrally focused on the lost world itself; in King Kong it would become the centre of the narrative, with so much symbolic resonance that commentators are still finding new ways to define its underlying fascination.
Other lost worlds would follow from Verne’s and Conan Doyle’s: King Kong’s prehistoric survivals on unexplored islands (such as in Unknown Island, 1948, and assorted versions of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Land That Time Forgot), deep within impenetrable jungles (Lost Continent, 1951), in remote valleys (The Land Unknown, 1957), in post-apocalyptic futures (A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell, 1990) and of course on other worlds (King Dinosaur, 1955; Planet of Dinosaurs, 1978). Eventually time travel would give contemporary humanity access to the prehistoric world across time (Journey to the Center of Time, 1967; A Sound of Thunder, 2005) or quantum physics and temporal-spatial anomalies would allow access, either deliberate or accidental (for example, the TV series “Primeval”, 2006-2011).
And Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (1993) series would allow modern man to interact with the prehistoric lost world by re-creating ancient life via genetic cloning. Here, in Spielberg’s 1993 film of Crichton’s novel — and even more particularly in the sequel, 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park — the “lost world” of the dino-cinema becomes, not without a certain irony, a high-tech amusement park for irresponsible businessmen and the curious public.
- Reference: Allen A. Debus, Dinosaurs in Fantastic Fiction (McFarland, 2006) and earlier Paleoimagery: The Evolution of Dinosaurs in Art (McFarland, 2002, with Diane E. Debus)
Next: Giant Monster vs Giant Monster