dir. Irwin Allen
1960 / 20th Century Fox / 96′
written by Irwin Allen and Charles Bennett
from the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
director of photography Winton C. Hoch
music by Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter
starring Claude Raines, David Hedison, Jill St. John, Michael Rennie, Fernando Lamas, Richard Haydn and Vitina Marcus
The Lost World is available on both standalone 2-disc DVD and as part of a budget-priced 75th anniversary four-film DVD set (the latter version omits the second disc, which features the George Eastman House restoration of the 1925 The Lost World, as well as a trailer fragment and several minutes of effects outtakes, but pairs the feature with three others – Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Fantastic Voyage and The Towering Inferno).
Playing as a sort of matinee-ready follow-up to 20th Century Fox’s successful Journey to the Center of the Earth from the year before, Irwin Allen’s The Lost World is big, colorful, and dumb in more or less equal measure. The screenplay by Allen and frequent collaborator Charles Bennett (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea), freely adapted from the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novel with some allusions to First National’s classic silent version thrown in for good measure, may propel Doyle’s early-century action into more modern times, but the film’s effects production remains positively prehistoric. This is perhaps the slurpasaur epic, second only to Hal Roach’s One Million B.C. in its wholesale embarrassment / abuse of large lizards and others of their ilk. It’s really a dreadful show by most measures, a fact compounded by a stirringly awful turn from Jill St. John (Diamonds Are Forever), but Winton C. Hoch’s vivid CinemaScope photography and Allen’s own sense for pure stupid spectacle (this may be the genesis of his go-to suspense setup – the ledge) keep it from being a total bore.
The tale begins in London where, shortly after bopping bothersome American newsman Ed Malone (David Hedison) over the head with an umbrella, the imminent and irascible Professor Challenger (the wonderful Claude Rains, horribly miscast) heads to a meeting of the resident Zoological Society to make a shocking announcement: He has discovered an unscalable plateau hidden deep within the forests of the Amazon, a plateau populated by the living descendants of animals thought extinct since the Jurassic Age. In other words, “Live dinosaurs!”
With nothing to show for himself, his photographs and journals having been lost in an accident on the return voyage, Challenger proposes that a new expedition be mounted to his lost world, to be manned by himself, the ZSL’s own Professor Summerlee (Richard Haydn, well chosen as Challenger’s condescending professional rival), and two unbiased volunteers. Stepping up to the challenge are Lord John Roxton (Michael Rennie!), renowned big game hunter, explorer, and philanderer, and, much to Challenger’s chagrin, reporter Ed Malone, whose boss immediately fronts $100,000 for the expedition’s expenses. With the money and team in order the trip into the Amazon begins, where its roster of personnel quickly bloats beyond all recognition. Aside from the necessary addition of helicopter pilot Gomez (Fernando Lamas!) the expedition takes on the useless and slimy local profiteer Costa (character player Jay Novello, wasted in his role) as well as Roxton’s headstrong love interest Jennifer Holmes (a dreadful Jill St. John) and her brother David, the two children of Malone’s wealthy news-baron employer.
Gorged on superfluous humanity, the Challenger expedition hobbles its way to the isolated plateau and, with its helicopter destroyed by a wandering brontosaurus (amusingly identified by Challenger without him having had an opportunity to see it), quickly becomes stranded there. Taking refuge in a spacious cave, the team members set out to investigate their surroundings and happen upon an example of native wildlife far more interesting than dinosaurs – the beautiful Vitina Marcus as a mini-dressed tribeswoman. Unfortunately her existence suggests that more of her kind are living on the plateau, and soon the expedition finds itself contending not only with dinosaurs and other giant flora and fauna, but a tribe of monster-worshiping cannibal natives as well…
While several oft-omitted elements of the original novel found their way into this The Lost World in heavily adapted forms, including subplots involving diamonds, capture by natives, and even a dramatic conflict between Roxton and Gomez (in the novel this was the method by which the expedition was stranded, and was replaced by a brontosaurus in the 1925 film – this The Lost World keeps both), those hoping that Allen and Bennet’s writing might stick close to the source should look elsewhere. Indeed, the closest Allen’s production comes to honoring the author’s intentions is to put his name above the title card – which summarily bursts into flames. Perhaps the most grievous wound inflicted upon the material, besides the inclusion of Frosty the poodle in the character roster, is a love triangle revolving around the dull Jennifer Holmes and the backwards sexual politics that come with it. The Lost World, like From Hell It Came, is another of those films in which a woman tries to prove herself in “a man’s world” only to be happily put in her place by the final reel. The overtly objectified Vitina Marcus doesn’t escape either, being so much eye-candy that the film neglects to even name her. After an attempted rape by the sleazy Costa is thwarted young David pulls Marcus aside. “We’re not all like that,” he assures, before losing all credibility with his follow-up. “You know, you’re kinda nice!”
Ultimately more problematic than any of that is that Allen and Bennet have populated their The Lost World with such unlikable characters (not to mention that damned dog). It’s impossible not to like Claude Rains’ as Professor Challenger, miscast though he is in the role of the boorish and confrontational zoologist, and at least Gomez is granted a justifiable reason (spoiler: the death of his beloved brother due to Roxton’s negligence) for being such a jerk. Otherwise this is pretty rough going, compounded by the lackluster quality of the writing itself and Allen’s own uninspired direction. Seemingly at a loss for blocking the action in any interesting way, Allen resorts time and again to having his cast wander into a single and double-file lines to fill the frame. Winton Hoch’s vivid CinemaScope photography helps to distract from some of the deficiencies – Hoch had worked with Allen previously on The Big Circus, and would go on to photograph Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Five Weeks in a Balloon as well as episodes of several of Allen’s television series. More than just an award-winning director of photography, Hoch had helped to develop the three-strip Technicolor process as a lab tech in the 1930s. When it came to color on film he obviously knew his stuff.
Like the majority of Irwin Allen productions the issues of writing and characterization are all secondary to the spectacle of the thing, and The Lost World has spectacle to spare. Aside from the expected encounters with dinosaurs and cave-people Allen also treated audiences to one of his first daring ledge-walks (watch out for those obvious fall-away rocks!) as well as a climactic volcanic eruption and a gaggle of man-eating plants. Though Willis O’Brien receives credit as an effects technician (just what he contributed, if anything, is unclear – sadly this appears to have been his final on-screen credit) his time-consuming stop motion animation process went unused here, and the dinosaurs were instead brought to life through the dubious slurpasaur technique. Used to reasonably good effect in Fox’s earlier Journey to the Center of the Earth and here managed by the same studio effects techs (L.B. Abbott, James B. Gordon, and Emil Kosa Jr.), The Lost World features monitor lizards, iguanas, alligators, and geckos in a variety of rubber appliances. Though close inspection reveals the detail with which the technique was carried out (a lot of work went into matching colors, scale patterns and so forth) it never goes so far as to work – convincing an audience that a Nile monitor topped off with a triceratops’ frill and a stegosaurus’ back plates is anything other than what it looks to be is a losing battle.
The dependence on slurpasaur effects is perhaps the show’s greatest handicap, particularly for modern viewers with higher sensitivity to animal cruelty. There’s little doubt that at least some of the costumed reptiles were outright killed for the production – one is sunk into a bubbling pool and doused with smoldering lava-substitute, while an homage to the star dinosaur battle from One Million B.C. concludes with technicians hurling the participants over a ledge. These scenes were enough to leave a bad taste in my mouth even as a child, and certainly hasn’t grown on me since then. Allen trotted out this dinosaur footage at every opportunity during his television career, from The Time Tunnel to Land of the Giants, and even re-cast Vitina Marcus in her familiar cave-girl role in Turn Back the Clock, a season one episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea that replays the events of The Lost World wholesale.
So what are we left with after all this? A well-shot but poorly conceived adaptation of a classic novel that’s loaded with unlikable characters and largely dependent on animal abuse for its thrills. This is one of those cases where I should by all rights hate the film, big and stupid and reprehensible as it can be, but for some intangible reason I don’t hate Irwin Allen’s The Lost World at all. Contemporary audiences apparently agreed. Though it received only middling critical attention the modestly budgeted The Lost World made a mint for both Allen and 20th Century Fox upon its release, fast-tracking Allen’s far more substantial (if no less dumb) Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and setting the stage for his successful stint as a producer of 60s fantasy television.
Whether you’ve picked it up on its own or as part of the company’s recent spate of 75th anniversary DVD multipacks (as I did, netting The Lost World and 3 co-features, each on their own disc, for just under $10), 20th Century Fox’s DVD edition of Irwin Allen’s The Lost World is certainly a looker – if I’m not mistaken this is the first time the film has been available on home video in its original CinemaScope 2.35:1 ratio.
Aside from some modest edge enhancement, a bit of minor damage (just some speckling, light scratching and dirt – nothing unexpected for a film of this vintage) and the odd errant reel change marker, there’s very little that can be held against Fox’s presentation of Irwin Allen’s schlockterpiece. From dense green foliage punctuated with brilliant blue and red flowers to the glowing reds of a lava chamber to the ridiculous jungle attire of Jill St. John (and her salmon pink luggage), the DeLuxe color is surprisingly bold, only falling flat during the occasional optical work (as when the Challenger expedition spots their first… ehem… dinosaur). To that end DVD Savant wrote of some anomalous color timing, but I didn’t notice anything untoward – note that I’ve only ever seen the film on VHS previously, and never theatrically, so make of that what you will. Contrast is at healthy levels throughout and detail is quite strong, particularly during the miniature photography. Even with a bit of obvious haloing this gave a strong presentation upscaled on my HD set, and the technical specs are unexpectedly robust – the Mpeg-2 encode clocks in with a high average bitrate of just over 8 Mbps.
Audio is less impressive, but gets the job done. The feature is accompanied by two stereo tracks in the original English – the original 4-track stereo mixed as Dolby Digital 3.1 surround as well as a standard Dolby Digital 2.0. There’s some strange directional stuff going on with the 3.1 option at times, with dialogue occasionally feeling as though it’s coming through on the wrong channel, but this didn’t bother me so much as how frail it sounded overall. Paul Sawtell and Bert Schefter’s strong score comes through well enough, as do the dinosaur roars (mostly recycled from Fox’s earlier Journey to the Center of the Earth) and other effects, but the dialogue can sound quite thin and weak. The 2.0 track does nothing to improve on that front, and I assume it’s just a fault of the original recording. Monophonic dubs in Spanish and French are also included, as are optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
Film-specific supplements are light, but appreciated. A three-minute vintage featurette – Footprints on the Sands of Time - and a brief excerpt from Fox Movietone News (just under a minute) round out the documentary material, with an original theatrical trailer rounding out the video supplements as a whole. The best extras of the bunch are a set of comprehensive image galleries that cover pre-production artwork and film stills as well as ad art, an “interactive” press book, and Dell’s tie-in comic adaptation. There’s some terrific stuff here, especially with regards to the pre-production illustrations, though Fox impairs itself needlessly in making the galleries practically unmaneuverable. Those with the 2-disc standalone edition will also be treated to the George Eastman House restoration of the classic 1925 The Lost World, which runs 76 minutes, as well as some outtake footage and a trailer fragment for that (vastly superior) version of the story.
The $20 retail price attached to the stand-alone 2-disc DVD of Irwin Allen’s The Lost World seems a little steep to this bean counter, but you really can’t go wrong with the Studio Classics four-pack (unless you’re just after the GEH restoration of the 1925 film). This makes for a decent brain-off double bill played back to back with the much better Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and its demonstrable awfulness lends it some unexpected charm. Whichever edition you choose the Fox DVD is good stuff, a few caveats aside, and fans will definitely want to indulge.