There’s a particular type of film I love that doesn’t always get as much love from other reviewers.
I’m referring to the pulp adventure story, those movies which somehow capture the classic flavor of a Twenties or Thirties adventure novel, with its exotic settings and sensational events, and a plot which takes a few sudden twists and turns. Think of Hammer Films’ 1968 The Lost Continent (based on Dennis Wheatley’s 1938 novel, Uncharted Seas) or the Italian made Island of the Fishmen [L’isola degli uomini pesce] (1979), or Amicus films’ trilogy of Edgar Rice Burroughs films, 1974’s The Land That Time Forgot , At the Earth’s Core (1976) and The People That Time Forgot (1977).
But what most people do not realize is that Amicus actually planned to make a fourth film in the series, but went bankrupt before they could release it.
Unlike Hammer Films, which gave us some quite remarkable Quatermass-inspired Science Fiction films, full of darkness and horror, Amicus’ science fiction was generally aimed at Children. This was particularly true of their two Doctor Who films. The only real exception was the serious drama, The Mind of Mr. Soames.
However, with the market for the sort of traditional Hammer-style horror films faltering, Amicus made one of my all time favorite dinosaur movies, The Land That Time Forgot. It proved so successful that they decided to make a series of such films, all of them, for some reason or other, featuring aging American surf movie actor Doug McClure (one of the two main inspirations for The Simpsons’ “actor Troy McClure”).
Now I’ll confess that the next two aren’t among my favorites although they both have good moments, but I love the final film almost as much as the first one. It starts with a team of scientists, lead by Professor Aitken and his son Charles, who are in the Bermuda Triangle on a scientific expedition to study the ocean’s floor with the help of a high-tech diving bell and diving expert Greg Collinson (McClure).
What they haven’t told everyone else is that they are after the remains of the lost city of Atlantis. But then they find a huge gold pillar, the crew decides to mutiny, a giant octopus attacks the ship, and Charles, Greg, the Captain and the crew all end up in Atlantis.
One of the local rulers welcomes them with almost suspicious friendliness and has his soldiers escort them into the nearest city. They are a dying culture, which came here thousands of years ago, who have guided our development to help them return to their own planet. They plan to convert the crew to live in their atmosphere (which would otherwise kill them in a matter of days) and add them to their vast army of slaves.
But their plans for the highly intelligent Charles are far more sinister — as are their plans for unifying and strengthening our world so we can create the machines they need…
Like the best of these adventure yarns, we start with one series of adventures, as Charles and Greg explore, and we gradually learn what they are really looking for, followed by a wild series of sequence as they crew cut the diving bell’s lines and try to take the ship, just as the octopus attacks. Then we suddenly find ourselves in a radically different situation, as the survivors find themselves in Atlantis, with giant monsters attacking the city. They escape, but are forced to cooperate to survive long enough to get back to the ship.
And, as this is a pulp adventure story, they still have more adventures ahead of them…
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that this was an original story. We get hints of some of Burroughs’ other books, of Bulwer-Lytton’s Vril, and it’s hard to miss the structural similarities to their version of The Land Time Forgot. One could easily forget that it was an original and think that they’d adapted some lesser know Adventure Novel from the Thirties.
Another surprise is how well the creatures were done. While the rod puppet dinosaurs in the original film are reasonably good for the era, — at least for those films which couldn’t afford stop motion — the monsters in the next two films are far worse. Here, they look almost as good as the first film (although it helps that the one set of monsters are heavily armored and aren’t expected to move a lot). The fight with the Giant octopus at the end is a real standout. Yes, we can see that it’s really a puppet, but I can’t think of a better looking giant movie octopus that Ray Harryhausen didn’t animate.
Add to this the incredible, harsh scenery of the Maltese island of Gozo, and a solid cast (which includes a very young John Ratzenberger), incredible production design (particularly once we get into the city of the Atlantean elites), and a script which takes us from one adventure to the next without lagging or faltering along the way.
The critics have never loved this one, but the curious thing is that it proved quite profitable and was one of the top films of the year in the United Kingdom. It’s rather hard to find these days, even though the others in the series are readily available. I suppose this may have more to do with rights than whether people would want to watch it. I suspect these days a lot of you would grumble about the imperfect effects (which are at least as good as those in The Land That Time Forgot) and would prefer some horrible film with perfect digital monsters.
And, yes, we all know Diving Bells don’t work that way.
However, for those of you who, like me, grew up on Godzilla films and Fifties Sci Fi, who are used to smiling at the goofy effects and having a great time watching a film despite them, then you will definitely enjoy this one. Like the best of these pulp adventure films, its takes us from seaboard adventures to underwater peril, to monsters, flying prehistoric Piranha and incredible alien architecture. Yeah, you can see the rods on the octopus, and the Elite city is mostly Matte paintings, but for those of us who love a good creature-filled adventure Movie (and you know who you are) this is all part of the fun.
This is a rollicking, Saturday afternoon popcorn fest, the kind of movie no one seems to know how to make anymore.
It may be hard to find but believe me, it is worth the effort.
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