The Lost World [DVD]
Director : Irwin Allen
Screenplay : Charles Bennett & Irwin Allen (based on the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1960
Stars : Michael Rennie (Lord John Roxton), Jill St. John (Jennifer Holmes), David Hedison (Ed Malone), Claude Rains (Professor George Edward Challenger), Fernando Lamas (Manuel Gomez), Richard Haydn (Professor Summerlee), Ray Stricklyn (David Holmes), Jay Novello (Costa), Vitina Marcus (Native Girl), Ian Wolfe (Burton White)
When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, best known as the creator of the intrepid detective Sherlock Holmes, first published his novel The Lost World in 1912, it was an adventure story so grandiose that the reviewer in The New York Times couldn't quite decide if it was a new high in “the possibilities of weird and amazing fiction” or a tongue-in-cheek “caricature of novels of adventure.” Either way, the novel worked, particularly because, as a trained scientist, Doyle was able to give it a coating of scientific veneer that made its outlandish story of a lost world of dinosaurs, humanoids, and ape-men living deep in the Amazonian jungle quite believable. The story's plausibility was also aided by the fact that the Amazon, despite having been explored by Europeans since the 16th century, was still a distant and remote location in the Western mindset, filled with vast expanses of dense jungle that had yet to be penetrated by “civilization.”
The Lost World gained additional notoriety when Doyle appeared in 1922 before the American Society of Magicians with film footage of what he claimed were extinct animals. For years Doyle had been a slavish devotee of spiritualism and had been giving presentations in which he claimed to have photographs of spirits and other supernatural phenomenon, so his audience had no idea whether to take him seriously. It was, of course, a hoax, and Doyle cleared it all up in a letter the following day to Harry Houdini in which he explained that the images were taken from a forthcoming film version of The Lost World (they were actually experimental shots). Unfortunately, while Doyle's little prank made for great publicity, it also threatened the production because Herbert M. Dawley, who claimed to be the creator of the stop-motion effects used to create the dinosaurs, sued Doyle for unlawful use of his patented effects. It turned out that Dawley was trying to lay claim to the effects work pioneered by Willis O'Brien, whom Dawley had hired to make a short film in 1918 called The Ghost of Slumber Mountain.
The Lost World was finally completed and released in 1925, and O'Brien rightfully entered the annals of cinema history, while Dawley did not. The Lost World represents the first feature-length use of O'Brien's stop-motion animation process, and it was a marvel to those who had never seen such feats of cinematic wizardry before. Although not as sophisticated as his later work in the similarly themed King Kong (1933), O'Brien's effects in The Lost World are frequently impressive, so much so that Mordaunt Hall, the critic for The New York Times, described them as being “as awesome as anything that has ever been shown in shadow form.” O'Brien's ability to generate the illusion of emotion in his prehistoric animated creatures is uncanny, even in slightly primitive form. He sells the images with the little details, such as the dinosaurs chewing leaves horizontally like cows and their nasal passages opening and closing as they breathe.
Following Doyle's novel closely, at least in the opening passages, the story in The Lost World involves an exploration into the Amazonian jungle to discover a high-reaching plateau whose isolation has supposedly resulted in a break in the evolutionary cycle, allowing prehistoric beasts to continue living unabated. An eccentric and combative scientist named Professor Challenger (the great Wallace Beery) claims to have already witnessed the dinosaurs, and when he is jeered at a presentation at the London Zoological Society, he challenges others to join him on an expedition to prove his claims. He is joined by Professor Summerlee (Arthur Hoyt), his chief critic and rival; Sir John Roxton (Lewis Stone), a wealthy adventurer; Edward Malone (Lloyd Hughes), a love-struck young newspaper reporter who wants to impress his would-be fiancée (Alma Bennett) with feats of daring; and Paula White (Bessie White), the daughter of a previous explorer who disappeared.
Once they arrive at the isolated Amazonian plateau, the film picks up considerable steam as the explorers are threatened by all manner of dinosaurs, including an irritable Brontosaurus who knocks over the log bridge they used to get to the plateau and a stampede of dinosaurs fleeing an erupting volcano. The action is ably choreographed by veteran director Harry O. Hoyt, who unfortunately fumbles with the film's human dimension, particularly the growing romance between Malone and Paula. The film also stumbles in its presentation of a violent ape-man (Bull Montana), who follows the explorers and causes havoc when they try to escape down the steep wall of the plateau. The ape-man is accompanied by a chimp, thus it becomes confusing as to whether he is supposed to represent a “missing link” or if he is simply an actor in very bad ape make-up.
Even with those weaknesses, The Lost World is an intriguing and enjoyable silent film, one that was almost lost forever because all prints were ordered destroyed in preparation for an immediate sound remake that never materialized. It wasn't until more than three decades later that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's story would reach the big screen again, this time under the guidance of producer/director Irwin Allen, who had not yet attained his “master of disaster” persona with films like The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). Allen's version of The Lost World, which was shot in lavish color and CinemaScope, has all the strengths and weaknesses of any Allen production. It is big, loud, and ambitious, designed primarily to jolt the audience with as much action and danger as possible, but it also stumbles into campiness and unintended hilarity at all the wrong moments.
Allen's version of the story follows roughly the same trajectory as the silent version, although it wisely eliminates the subplot involving Malone's romantic motivation for joining the expedition. Now played by David Hedison, Malone is still a London reporter, and Professor Challenger (Claude Rains) is still a cantankerous old coot known for attacking reporters who invade his “privacy.” Allen and coscreenwriter Charles Bennett still feel the need to shoehorn in romance, though, so they devise a love-triangle plot involving Malone, Lord John Roxton (Michael Rennie), and Jennifer Holmes (Jill St. John), the aggressive daughter of the newspaper magnate who is funding the expedition.
Jennifer is intended, I suppose, to represent a liberated woman. She won't be pinned down by the men around her who feel that adventure is too much for the feminine sensibility, but Allen undermines such progressivism repeatedly with Jennifer's ridiculously pretty outfits, which range from a flowing purple nightgown to tight pink slacks (not to mention her carrying a color-coordinated miniature poodle with her everywhere). Granted, one could argue that such costuming simply reflects 1960s female fashions, but there is no excuse for including them in an adventure story except to keep the female object as objectified as possible, regardless of protestations regarding her equality among the men.
Allen includes Doyle's original idea that the plateau is also home to unevolved humans, although he removes all references to the hominids, thus ridding the film of any possibility of an actor in bad ape make-up. But, again, this becomes mere pretense for campiness and female subjugation as Allen forces into the story a sexy, barely dressed, unnamed, and apparently mute native girl (Vitina Marcus) who is trying to break free from her violent, cannibalistic tribe, which ends up taking the explorers captive and threatening to sacrifice and/or eat them.
However bad the native girl's presence may be, it in no way compares with Allen's most colossal mistake, which is foregoing the use of stop-motion animation to create the dinosaurs and instead going with actual reptiles shot at high speed on miniature sets. Yes, this removes any of the jerkiness associated with stop-motion, but it also eliminates any possibility of making them look like actual dinosaurs. It also makes Professor Challenger look patently ridiculous as he names off specific, familiar species of dinosaurs and is then faced by a Gila monster that even a third-grader would recognize as having no resemblance to a Brontosaurus. No matter how many sound effects are added and clever camera angles utilized, when it comes time for the big dinosaur smack-down, there is no getting around the fact that it looks like a lizard and a baby alligator with glued-on spines and horns. Most likely a budgetary concession (lizards, after all, aren't unionized), this is one shortcoming that produces infinitely more laughs than excitement.
|The Lost World DVD|
|This two-disc DVD set contains both the 1925 and 1960 versions of The Lost World|
|Aspect Ratio||1.33:1 (1925 version)|
2.35:1 (1960 version)
|Anamorphic||Yes (1960 version)|
|Distributor||20th Century Fox Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||September 11, 2007|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
| Given the passage of time and the near loss of the original 1925 version of The Lost World, it is a miracle that we have it in anything close to a complete version. There have been several restorations and reconstructions of The Lost World over the years, but the one included here is, as far as my research indicates, the most complete. The version included in this set is the George Eastman House reconstruction, which was done back in 2000, but has not been made available on home video until now. It is supposed to run roughly 100 minutes at the proper silent film speed of 18 fps, but apparently the transfer was made at 24 fps, resulting in a running time of 75 minutes (and motion that looks a little too fast, which is unfortunate). |
The visual quality of the film varies because it was reconstructed from at least five different sources. Thus, some scenes in the 1925 version are virtually pristine, while others have scratches and damage, although no more than can be expected from a film of this age. The image has the original tints, so different scenes are blue, green, or amber. All in all, it's an excellent transfer of a film that is more than 80 years old.
The 1960 version of The Lost World has been given an anamorphic widescreen transfer that preserves its 'Scope aspect ratio for the first time on home video and brings out all the bold hues of its gaudy Technicolor palette. The image is sometimes just a tad soft, usually in the process shots, which is inherent to the source material. The image is incredibly clean, with only minimal traces of dirt or wear.
In terms of the soundtrack, the 1925 version of the film offers only one option, which is a traditional organ score newly composed and performed by Philip Carli and presented in a nice two-channel mix. The 1960 version offers a deep, thundering four-channel surround mix that is more than worth it once the faux dinosaurs step on screen. Hokey as they look, the sound mixers have done an incredible job of giving their roars weight and depth in the surround mix (and does anyone else think that one of them sounds suspiciously like a TIE fighter from Star Wars?).
|The first disc contains several circa-1960 featurettes. “Footprints in the Sands of Time” is a three-minute advertisement for the film that is masquerading as an educational film about the discovery of dinosaur bones. The one-minute episode of “Fox Movietone News” covers a youth group's excitement at getting to see The Lost World with star David Hedison. There is also an original theatrical trailer in anamorphic widescreen, as well as five stills galleries: an interactive press book, production photos, advertising, illustrations, and the complete comic book adaptation. With the exception of the interactive press book, all of the stills galleries run as preset slideshows, so if you want to examine any individual image, you need to use the pause button (the slideshows are fast). The second disc contains a fragment of an original theatrical trailer for the silent version of The Lost World, as well as seven minutes of stop-motion outtakes and tests that longtime fans of the film are sure to savor.|
Copyright © 2007 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment