Saturday, 3 October 2015

A Month of Horror!

In celebration of Halloween, Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age is going to be posting a new article every week through October!

Join us over the next four weeks for another four fright-filled films from Roger Corman, Vincent Price, and American International Pictures. Last October we looked at the first five films in their series inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. This year we'll be adding The Raven, The Haunted Palace, The Terror, and my personal favourite of the bunch, The Comedy of Terrors, to the list!

The first will appear on Wednesday, October 7. Happy Haunting!

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Our Adventure in the New Wonderland: Yellowstone 2015

My Dearest Edith: 
When Mr. Carroll wrote that funny book about one of my childish dreams, I little thought the time would ever come when I should sit down to describe scenes and incidents in my actual experience every bit as strange and bewildering. Yet, so it is. am here in a place which, singularly enough, they call Wonderland. Not that that title is by any means inappropriate, for the place is, indeed, a land of wonders; but the coincidence, at least, is somewhat remarkable, for you know what the associations of that word "Wonderland" are to me.
Thus begins a booklet produced by Northern Pacific Railroad intended to draw tourists to the newly created Yellowstone National Park by associating it with the strange wonderland written about by Lewis Carroll in his perennially favourite children's book. Geysers and fumeroles, grand chasms and countless herds of buffalo, untamed wilderness and the caldera of one of the world's ten supervolcanoes... It was dubbed America's best and only truly original idea: the world's first national park. It was everything that Northern Pacific promised, and more.

Native American peoples have been using the rich resources of the Yellowstone region for more than 11,000 years. Obsidian from the caldera of this supervolcano provided the Crow and Shoshone people with material for speartips, arrowheads, and trade with other tribes. Projectile points made from Yellowstone obsidian have been found as far away as the Mississippi. John Colter, a guide for the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806, was ostensibly the first white man to see Yellowstone. In mocking tones, an unbelieving public called it "Colter's Hell." As more and more mountain men ventured into the area and returned to verify Colter's story, public condescension turned into pubic curiousity. Three expeditions were launched between 1869 and 1871. The last of these - the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871 - brought in a veritable army of geologists, botanists, zoologists, meteorologists, ornithologists, mineralogists, photographers, entomologists, statisticians, artists, hunters, and guides, along with an actual military escort. In 1872, the indisputable tract of land called Yellowstone was declared a National Park. Afterwards, Northern Pacific Railway attracted the well-heeled with their promises of a real-life Wonderland.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Warlords of Atlantis (1978)

Trailer for Warlords of Atlantis.

The last film produced by Amicus Productions to adapt a work of Edgar Rice Burroughs, starring Doug McClure, directed by Kevin Connor was 1977's The People That Time Forgot. Unfortunately for Amicus, it literally was their last film. The company dissolved before The People That Time Forgot had been released, giving American International Pictures the sole credit for it. Despite that setback, Connor was not yet done with Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romances. Calling back together his crew and finding a new home at EMI-Columbia, Connor came out with a film in 1978 that didn't adapt Burroughs but still kept very much in the tone of his previous films: Warlords of Atlantis. Though similar in tone, Warlords of Atlantis had its innovations over its predecessors that inched it out ahead.

At some point around the turn of the previous century, a father and son duo of archaeologists (played by Donald Bisset and Peter Gilmore respectively) have booked passage on a vessel bound for the Bermuda Triangle, much to the chagrin of the salty sea captain. Joining them is a master engineer (Doug McClure) with a new type of diving bell fitted out for a plunge into those mysterious waters. Neither of the scientists is prepared to admit to their engineer friend or the ship's crew what their real goal is: the discovery of lost Atlantis. Not very long after the younger scientist, Charles Aitken, and the engineer, Greg Collinson, embark on their voyage beneath the waves, they are attacked by a prehistoric marine monster and discover a golden idol. They take the latter back to the ship, where it inspires mutiny in the crew and lures a gigantic octopus that drags them all down to the sunken city.

Rescued by the Atlanteans, Collinson and the crew are taken to the last remaining "outer city" of Atlantis... The slave quarters. Constantly under assault from the perfidious creatures of the outer swamps, they learn that the oligarchical Atlanteans are fighting a losing battle against consumption by the ooze and sleaze of time. They also learn that every ship's crew that has gone missing in the Bermuda Triangle has ended up as slaves in Atlantis. As a superior mind, Aitken is invited to the inner cities, where the Atlantean master race lives in luxury, supported by their slaves. Using their advanced, otherworldly technologies, they seek to enlist Aitken in their cause to shape human history. Their goal is to push the surface world into brutal wars as the driver for developing the atomic rocket technologies they need to escape their watery tomb.

Unlike most Scientific Romances of the Seventies, Warlords of Atlantis has a high-minded concept that very nearly matches the genre's heyday in the Fifties and Sixties. Films like The Land That Time Forgot and Disney's Island at the Top of the World  were big on adventure but short on the kinds of themes and ideas explored in such films as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Master of the World, or From the Earth to the Moon. There is always room for a nice romp, as in Five Weeks in a Balloon or In Search of the Castaways, but the paucity of substantive ideas in the Seventies did not commend the genre as a whole. Warlords of Atlantis attempts to make up for that lack, mirroring the 1961 George Pal film Atlantis, The Lost Continent in many ways.

The two dominant themes of Warlords of Atlantis (also touched on in various ways in Atlantis, The Lost Continent) is the class-stratification wherein the wealthy must live off the backs of slaves and the connection between warfare and modernity. The former theme of affluence and slavery, as timely as it ever was, is not entirely unexpected in a film about Atlantis, given its pedigree. As I had written previously, Atlantis began as a rhetorical construct of Plato to act as a foil for Athenians in his discourses on the ideal society. Plato's prehistoric Athens represented everything he felt noble in a society, his Atlantis represented everything he found reprehensible. Forthright, courageous, hardened by simplicity, honest, patriotic, his Athenians fought and won a war against the decadent, slothful, affluent but morally impoverished Atlantis, that is before Plato destroyed them both in a cataclysm once their rhetorical usefulness was finished. The Victorians took to Atlantis as representative of everything that had been lost in the rush of the Industrial Revolution, as a connection to the past (represented by the fixation on ruins) and a connection to nature (represented by the fads for ferns and aquariums). Over the Edwardian Era and after the world wars, Atlantis evolved into an anxiety over modern society's decadence. Atlantis became not a representation of everything wrong with society but instead a utopian civilization to be rediscovered, reclaimed, and redeemed. This view of Atlantis had its most recent expression in Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire in which it is saved and literally reempowered while offering masculine empowerment to the enfeebled academic protagonist.

Warlords of Atlantis goes against this grain by showing Atlantis in much the same light as Plato. It is symbolic of the ills of modern society, the affluence of which is based on the exploitation of others. It expresses an even more particular form of this when the Atlanteans program of manipulation, as shown to Aitken, involves the rise to power of the Nazis and the atom bomb. In no uncertain terms we are shown that the greatest driver for technological advancement is war. The enterprise of science and industry, in the West, has been intimately tied to violence and colonialism. Unlike the cautionary stories of the Fifties and Sixties, which were anxious over how the genie of nuclear power ought to be used, Warlords of Atlantis can offer no potentially optimistic outcome or message. Whereas Nemo promised that in "God's good time" humanity may be able to use the power of the atom responsibly, Aitken simply leaves what he has seen where it lay. Two decades on, Western society could see where The Bomb, the Cold War, and Vietnam had led us. There was no salvation to offer this Atlantis, and thus no prescription of salvation to offer 1970's Western society.

To be sure, the film has its flaws. Limitations in the special effects meant that the crew were more frequently the spectators of monster attacks than participants, and the entire movie has the feeling of things happening around the characters rather than to them or by them. Nevertheless, as Scientific Romance films from the Disco Era go, Warlords of Atlantis at least aspires to something greater than most other films from the time period. If not for the marked differences in picture quality and directorial style common to films from the Seventies, one could be forgiven for thinking that Warlords of Atlantis heralded from a decade before.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

At the Earth's Core (1976)

Trailer for At the Earth's Core.

The writings of Edgar Rice Burroughs are great, pulpy, "Mary Sue" adventure stories that tend to follow a more-or-less set formula. Take one bold and courageous man who can easily accomplish any task set before him, place him in a savage environment, have (preferably naked) women fall at his feet, and make him lord over his new domains through brain and brawn. Burroughs' formula is at its best in the Tarzan series, which expresses the tension between civilization and the romance of feral liberty. In that immortal creation, Burroughs tapped into the myth of the Wild Man and reinterpreted it for an industrialized, urbanized, 20th century world from which people were aching to escape.

The formula may not be at its worst, but is certainly at its most transparent, in Burroughs' series of John Carter books. The relative literary value with which Burroughs handled Tarzan (in spite of Kipling's remark that Burroughs was trying to write the worst sorts of books he could get away with) is demolished at the feet of that average Confederate soldier thrust into an environment where he is imbued with the physical attributes of a superman and surrounded by hot, naked, Martian women. His is Edwardian male wish-fulfillment par excellence. Published in 1912 (as was Tarzan of the Apes), Burroughs' A Princess of Mars follows an essential plotline in which the Earth man finds his way into a savage, alien world, is take captive, escapes through strength and guile, fights some monstrosity in gladiatorial combat, rescues and woos the lady fair, and leads a great revolution before finding himself unceremoniously dumped back home... Only to return in the inevitable sequel.

The Tarzan series plays this with more subtlety: its not a whole world at stake, only Tarzan's jungle kingdom and the hand of Jane Porter. Tarzan's origin story is told in two books - Tarzan the Ape Man and The Return of Tarzan - to be followed by two-dozen sequels. It took Burroughs three books to tell the origin of how John Carter became the most awesomest guy in all the universe: A Princess of Mars, The Gods of Mars and Warlord of Mars. Then there is Burroughs' "Pellucidar" series, beginning with 1914's At the Earth's Core and finishing in 1915's Pellucidar before launching into its numerous sequels. It was these two books that Amicus Productions' At the Earth's Core adapted to film in 1976.

The first two Pellucidar novels follow the same outline as the John Carter novels. If you were one of the few who have seen Disney's John Carter film then you are more or less familiar with At the Earth's Core's outline and story beats. Doug McClure takes on his second role as the lead protagonist in a Burroughs adaptation by Amicus, playing the financier David Innes opposite Peter Cushing as Dr. Abner Perry. Together they have constructed the Iron Mole: a drill machine capable of burrowing into the centre of the earth. After the Iron Mole spins out of control on its maiden voyage, it deposits the duo in the weird, underground realm of Pellucidar. They are immediately taken captive and Innes meets the fair Dia, a fellow captive and a princess of Pellucidar. Their captors are a species of telepathic pterosaurs called the Mahar, and eventually David manages to break free of their control. He escapes, meets up with the human natives of Pellucidar, rescues and woos Dia by combat with her unwanted suitors, is thrust into gladiatorial combat against some dinosaur-lizard-monster thing in the Mahar city, and so on and so forth, as Burroughsian stories tend to go.

As much as one might gently chide Burroughs' formula, it works. It is not for nothing that he has endured as one of the greatest genre authors of all time and his works have endured and inspired countless other authors and filmmakers (one of the dropped balls in the marketing of John Carter was not mentioning that it was by the creator of Tarzan and the inspiration behind Star Wars and other such properties). Of all the Amicus productions, At the Earth's Core works the best as lighthearted entertainment hearkening back to the glory days of cinematic Scientific Romances in the Fifties and Sixties. One could easily watch it sandwiched between Master of the World and The Time Machine, War Gods of the Deep and First Men in the Moon, and barely notice any difference. That statement is intended as a compliment.

There are no particularly deep themes to At the Earth's Core. Even at his best, Burroughs could tap into a myth like the Wild Man but never really explore it. For him it was all about the two-fisted action and escapism, which absolutely has its place. Given the war within literary Science Fiction "Fandomtm", where escapism is met with sneering tones by the cultural gatekeepers of the pseudo-intelligentsia, it is worth recollecting Ursula K. LeGuin's paraphrase of Tolkien:
The oldest argument against SF is both the shallowest and the profoundest: the assertion that SF, like all fantasy, is escapist... This statement is shallow when made by the shallow. When an insurance broker tells you that SF doesn’t deal with the Real World, when a chemistry freshman informs you that Science has disproved Myth, when a censor suppresses a book because it doesn’t fit the canons of Socialist Realism, and so forth, that’s not criticism; it’s bigotry. If it’s worth answering, the best answer is given by Tolkien, author, critic, and scholar. Yes, he said, fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape? The moneylenders, the knownothings, the authoritarians have us all in prison; if we value the freedom of the mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can.
That, if anywhere, is where it really stands apart from the films of the Sixties. There is no underlying message concerning atomic anxiety or the Space Race. Like most films of the Seventies, and even the Seventies themselves, it doesn't really know what it's about. It's just a fine, fun, kitschy adventure film.  

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Silent Film Quarterly

If you haven't heard about it yet, it's not too late to pick up an issue of Silent Film Quarterly, a new print magazine devoted to, yes, silent film.

Patterned after classic silent era publications like Moving Picture World and Photoplay, Silent Film Quarterly plans to "focus on lesser-known silent films" and "pay tribute to the unsung heroes of the silent era, as well as the forgotten films of the era's biggest stars."

Original features in Issue 1 include "The Moving Picture World: Where Everything Old Is New Again" by Annette D'Agostino Lloyd, "A Real-Life Cowboy: William S. Hart and the St. Francis Dam Disaster" by E.J. Stephens, and "Letters from the Stars: A Girl's Scrapbook of Mail from the Screen's First Idols" by magazine editor Charles Epting, and "When Silents Roared: Dinosaurs Take the Big Screen" by some guy named Cory Gross. There are also a number of supplementary pieces including original articles from the classic silent film magazines that haven't been reprinted in nearly a century.

Silent Film Quarterly's official website can be found here, and they can be found on Facebook as well.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

The People That Time Forgot (1977)

Trailer for The People that Time Forgot.

I am one of the few people in existence that has a consistent tendency to prefer sequels to the first movie in a series. The Empire Strikes Back, The Lost World: Jurassic Park and even The Matrix Reloaded, are all films I like just that much more. There are obvious exceptions (sorry Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), but for the most part, the first film in a series sets up the world while the sequel explores it to much greater depth. All the introductions are dispensed with and we can move more quickly and more deeply into the underlying concepts. The aforementioned Jurassic Park sequel, I think, asks more interesting questions than its predecessor: yes, okay, we shouldn't toy with cloning, but now that cloning is a reality (both in the world of Jurassic Park and in our own), what are the "natural rights" of cloned lifeforms, if any? My biggest disappointment with Jurassic World was that they didn't really explore the question of what we use genetic engineering for, falling back on the movie cliche that the military would want monsters for bioweapons (in an age of tactical missiles and smart drones). For all its faults, The Matrix Reloaded took the franchise beyond a simplistic dualism of the plucky rebels vs. The Establishment to something far more complex and metaphysical and therefore interesting.

And then there's The People That Time Forgot.

It would be unrealistic to expect any kind of greatness out of this Amicus Productions/American International Pictures film from 1977. The Land That Time Forgot, released two years prior, is no great work of art in its own right, and both films were based on the writings of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who is a more enjoyable and breezy writer than he is a good one. Nevertheless, The Land That Time Forgot left off with the promise of further exploration of this time-lost island with its strange recapitulation of evolutionary history. Closing shots of windswept mountains and glacial wastelands were highly suggestive of an Ice Age setting, where we might have seen Neanderthals and Homo sapiens clash with woolly mammoths and sabretooth cats. Unfortunately The People That Time Forgot completely squandered the opportunity,

Burroughs had the wisdom to use his literary sequels - The People That Time Forgot and Out of Time's Abyss - to shed light on the evolutionary secret of the island and maintain the all-important human-to-prehistoric beast ratio. The cinematic sequel took neither approach. There are prehistoric monsters in the film where required - a stegosaurus, two ceratosaurs, some pterodactyls and a scutosaurus -  and that is it. They serve no essential part to the plot and show up infrequently at best. Neither does the island have the rich jungle environment of the first. Granted, The Land That Time Forgot was mostly jungle plant props against rear-projection screens, but it was something. Where The People That Time Forgot chooses to spend its time is with the various tribespeople of the island.

Even then, with this focus on the tibes, it has little to say or do. The film is a very basic rescue plot: a crew arrives to save Bowen Tyler, the protagonist of the first film, and end up needing to be saved themselves as they get captured by the same nefarious savages who captured him. In a total departure from Burroughs and the whole idea of the island as a recapitulation of evolution, this tribe is not the next stage up in human evolution (us previously having seen the development from Homo erectus to Homo neandertalensis to Homo sapiens). Instead, they are a kind of savage pseudo-Japanese race. The "Nargas" are a violent kingdom whose warriors dress virtually the same as samurai and whose rotund, green-skinned chief sacrifices buxom women to the volcano god.

Any pretense of having anything to do with real history or evolutionary processes is long-gone, as is any promise of real adventure given at the end of The Land That Time Forgot, after we find out what happened to Bowen and Lisa, who was also stranded on the island with him. It's just a weird, and very Seventies, orgy of violence, gunplay, cursing, cavewoman breasts, weird cults and that sort of thing, with few redeeming qualities. They even know it: the trailer literally only shows scenes from the beginning and the end of the movie.

The last DVD release of The Land That Time Forgot includes The People That Time Forgot, so if you trouble yourself to get the one then the other will follow. There would be nothing really to recommend it on its own. It's not the worst move ever, but it is certainly needless and adds nothing to the world of Edgar Rice Burroughs' prehistoric island. 

Saturday, 15 August 2015

The Mysterious Island (1929)

Due to our participation in the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon at the end of June, we were invited to join the Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon on this, the 136th birthday of Ethel Barrymore. Nicknamed the "Royal Family of Hollywood," the Barrymores have comprised four generations of prolific actors, beginning with Maurice Barrymore and Georgiana Emma Drew, a pair of stage actors who wed and begat Hollywood greats Lionel, Ethel, and John "The Great Profile" Barrymore. John begat the actor John Drew Barrymore, who in turn begat Drew Barrymore. Today we will be looking at one of Lionel Barrymore's films, an adaptation (of sorts) of Jules Verne's The Mysterious Island. For the complete list of participating blogs, click on the banner above.

At the end of what is unarguably his most famous novel, Jules Verne sent his tortured mariner Captain Nemo to an apparent death in a mighty maelstrom. The tempest echoed the tempest in Nemo's own soul, but it left behind the question of what might have happened to him after that. Did he survive? How? And what was his story? Why did this mad genius declare war on war, and who was he that he could afford so extravagant a machine of vengeance as the Nautilus?

The answer came a few years later in The Mysterious Island. The story begins much like the Robinson Crusoe type of story does, with a group of Union soldiers and their Confederate prisoner who escaped from a Confederate POW camp via aerostat, only to be blown out to the Pacific and washed ashore on the titular volcanic spit of land, south of French Polynesia and East of New Zealand. While enjoying their tropical getaway, an anonymous observer constantly supplies the Crusoes with the necessaries of survival. Eventually this benefactor is revealed to be Captain Nemo, who survived the maelstrom and has lived out his remaining years in a secret lair beneath the island. There, after fending off pirates from another Verne novel - In Search of the Castaways - Nemo tells his story of love, betrayal, and revolution during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Originally Nemo was supposed to be a Polish revolutionary against Tsarist Russia, but Verne's publisher felt this would alienate the Russian audience and Nemo's identity was left deliberately vague. By The Mysterious Island it was worked out. Evidently Jules Hetzel, the publisher, was less worried about offending English sensibilities by making Nemo an Indian prince by the name of Dakkar. Reconciled to the humanity that Nemo tried to abandon, he dies and his mysterious island immolates itself in a volcanic cataclysm.

The novel's first adaptation to film came in 1916's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Though under the title of its predecessor novel, this film fused the two together. The sequences from Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea imparted some good action scenes and made use of the still-new technique of underwater photography. The sequences from The Mysterious Island provided the dramatic gravitas. After The Great War, the works of Jules Verne unfortunately fell into some disrepute. Verne had always suffered from poor English translations that excised much of his literary and dramatic achievement in favour of two-fisted adventure and technological innovation that would be most appealing to children. By the end of WWI, most of Verne's predictions came true and his work gathered the reputation of simply being outdated... The simple artifacts of grandfather's simpler times. That reputation, despite being consistently overturned in academia since the Sixties and Seventies, still holds a lot of sway, as when Science Fiction author Robert J. Sawyer accused Verne languishing in obscurity because "nothing is less interesting than old technology" (supposedly).  

Consequently, the majority of Verne's books to be adapted to film between the two World Wars were his spy thrillers. The most popular of these was Michael Strogoff: The Courier of the Czar, adapted no less than six times between 1914 and 1943. Luckily for Verne, his body of work was diverse enough to lend itself to non-Science Fiction films. Properly speaking, Verne was not a Science Fiction author in the sense we think of the term today, with space ships and alien babes, futuristic technologies and pretentious social prescriptions. Rather, his works were Scientific Romances, which in the words of Hetzel were intended "to outline all the geographical, geological, physical, and astronomical knowledge amassed by modern science and to recount, in an entertaining and picturesque format...the history of the universe." Michael Strogoff's journey across Siberia was just as good as Captain Nemo's journey under the seas, or Phileas Fogg's travel around the world in 80 days, or the Baltimore Gun Club's trip 'round the moon. Only 20 of his 84 novels and short stories involved any kind of technological speculation. Verne supplied a wanting, literate public with pedagogical adventure in the far-flung locales of the world in the age before Discovery and National Geographic.

There is one outlier to this tendency towards adapting the French author's spy novels: The Mysterious Island, released by MGM in 1929. Whereas Verne was not an author of Science Fiction as we think of it, that genre was becoming established by the late Twenties. There is no bigger example than Fritz Lang's masterpiece Metropolis, released in 1927. He followed that up in 1929 with Frau im Mond ("Woman in the Moon"). Tolstoy's 1923 Science Fiction novel Aelita, or the Decline of Mars was adapted in 1924. More poignantly, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 dinosaur adventure story The Lost World was adapted to film in 1925. There was a distinct possibility that Verne could be rehabilitated as a source for Sci-Fi stories in the age of Art Deco and Radium.

Fitting it into that genre was another feat which renders the use of Verne's title somewhat moot. In this version, Count Andre Dakkar (played by Lionel Barrymore) has created a fleet of two submersible craft to explore the depths of the ocean, where he is sure there exists a form of aquatic man. His volcanic island off the coast of the fictional Eastern European nation of Hetvia is a worker's paradise without class distinctions... So much so that Dakkar's sister, Countess Sonia (Jaqueline Gadsden, billed as Jane Daly), and the engineer Nicolai (Lloyd "Lost World" Hughes) carry on a love affair. None of this sits well with the duplicitous Baron Falon (Montagu Love, who played opposite John Barrymore in Don Juan), who wants the submarines as weapons of war and the Countess as his aristocratic bride. What ensues is a submersible chase to the bottom of the sea and back again, where they encounter sunken wrecks, giant octopi, and strange mer-men that occupy the dark and the cold of 20,000 fathoms. Finally, Dakkar must make the choice to destroy his own creation rather than let it fall into the hands of world's warmongers, who have no desire to create the utopia he has made on his Mysterious Island.

With the only connections to the original novel being the name of Dakkar and the fact that submarines are in it, one wonders why they bothered to call it The Mysterious Island at all. There must have been some mental loops in the decision to ascribe the name of Verne to it for marketing purposes when that name did not carry a whole lot of weight at that time. Inspiration is also taken liberally from Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and I would imagine that the proliferation of Michael Strogoffs had some influence on the decision to set the story in Eastern Europe and dress the cast in generically Russian clothing. An influential Franco-German production of Michael Strogoff, starring Ivan Mosjoukine, had been released only 3 years before.

There is an underlying theme of Old World, European aristocracy versus New World, American egalitarianism, and the use of technology for scientific discovery or for war, and those sorts of things. Nothing is really said or developed about them. They're just there. Lots of rousing action happens, especially when the Hussars under Falon commandeer the island, suppressing the workers while lying in wait for the first of the two submarines to surface from its first test run. The special effects are quite good for the time, and shine when the two submarines find themselves trapped in the underwater chasms belonging to the ancient lost race of marine men. When one of the submarines begins to flood, as submarines in submarine films are wont to do, effects deftly handle the tragedy. The costumes of the mer-men are a bit silly, but that's par for the course.

What is of particular note is that, just as the 1916 20,000 Leagues was an early experiment in underwater photography, Mysterious Island is an early experiment in sound. The advent of Talkies pushed back the completion of the film by several years. Production began in 1926 under the direction of Maurice Tourneur and Benjamin "Witchcraft Through the Ages" Christensen, but after Al Jolson started singing, many silent films were shelved or retooled. Tourneur walked off the set after a dispute with the producers, giving Lucien Hubbard the sole director credit. The entire film had been shot in expensive 2-strip Technicolor (with the coloured print only recently being rediscovered and restored), and then a trio of sound sequences were tacked on to the largely silent film. While it could have been a pointless novelty, Hubbard used sound to great advantage. The first of the sound sequences is right at the beginning: after a short, silent prologue establishing the setting, there is the astonishment of Barrymore and Love talking... Talking!! In the process of wowing audiences with their own voices (thankfully they both had good voices for cinema, unlike many silent era stars), they also got to knock out a good chunk of cumbersome exposition. The next two sequences are ingenious. While on its first test run, Dakkar surprises Falon with a device that allows them to communicate wirelessly with the submarine. They do, to the actual sound of Lloyd Hughes' voice. Later, when all Hell has broken loose, the submarine is lured into a trap by use of the same radio. The communication system is pushed within the film as a wonder of technology, and the theme is driven home by playing the scene out in a wonder of real-life film-making.

Where The Mysterious Island is also notable is that it is sometimes cited as the beginning of the modern age of Scientific Romances in film. No specific date for The Mysterious Island is given, but it is clearly meant to take place before the proliferation of either submarines or radio. This would place it before the early 1900's, as modern submarines had come into their own in the first decade and were employed to devastating effect in WWI (providing a bit of the subtext for Dakkar's reluctance to see his ships used for violence). Radio was already a significant mass medium by the Twenties. Whenever it takes place, it was clearly not modernized in the same way that The Lost World was. One might also quibble about whether 1916's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is the first modern Scientific Romance or the last original one, depending on where one places the end of the Victorian-Edwardian Era. While set in the Victorian Era, much of The Mysterious Island resembles the sleekness of Science Fiction in the Twenties and early Thirties. Nevertheless, Rod Bennett, in his survey Voyages Extraordinaires on Film, argued that it was the first to deliberately set itself in that era:
I think we can say with confidence that the producers of The Mysterious Island were the first filmmakers in history who'd ever dared, with a breathtaking flash of invention, NOT to update a hopelessly out-of-date book. They took Jules Verne's daring predictions about the day-after-tomorrow and turned them into something else entirely—into a huge, elaborate alternate universe story. They created a 19th century of the imagination, where British Imperialists reached the Moon 75 years before Neil Armstrong, and electric submarines prowled the deep while Buffalo Bill was still prowling the West.
Unfortunately that gamble did not pay off for them the way it did for Walt Disney some 25 years later, when his 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was a smash hit that provoked a rash of adaptations from Verne and other 19th century authors. It cost a staggering $1 million to produce (equivalent to $14 million today) and only earned back $55 thousand. To the minds of Hollywood, this only proved how outdated Verne was and even cast a pall over Science Fiction as a genre for a few years. The USSR would try their own version in 1941, Hollywood gave it a go in a 1951 serial that featured an invading army from the planet Mercury, and it finally got its due in 1961's epic effects film by Ray Harryhausen.

The Mysterious Island, while far removed from Jules Verne, is at least worth seeing as a unique window in the development of motion picture arts and sciences. Without further ado, the complete 1929 adaptation of The Mysterious Island...

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The Land That Time Forgot (1975)

Trailer for The Land that Time Forgot.

When asked how good of a film The Land That Time Forgot is, the best answer I can come up with is "as good as can be expected under the circumstances." Produced by Amicus Productions in England, distributed by American International Pictures, starring Doug McClure and boasting a script co-written by Michael Moorcock, this 1975 was not issued into a really great period for the genre of dinosaur films or Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romances. They heyday of Atomic Age films and Ray Harryhausen was long over, and the best model that The Land That Time Forgot had to go off of was Disney's under-ambitious Island at the Top of the World, released in 1974. Both movies attempted to recapture the lightening that were Vernian-style adventure films in the Fifties and Sixties, but lacked the core optimistic, cautionary character of the Atomic Age that really served as their heart. The Seventies were a much different time than the Fifties, shaped by the wars, anxieties, and cultural revolutions that those films of the Fifties warned about. These films mastered the form of their predecessors as well as they could, but lacked the essence. They're not especially bad, any more than any other average film of the Seventies, but they are only as good as can be expected.

Based on the 1918 Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp novel of the same name, The Land That Time Forgot takes place during World War I. A German U-boat patrolling the Atlantic shipping lanes torpedoes a civilian ocean liner being used to smuggle armaments. The surviving crew, including civilian military adviser played by McClure, manage in turn to commandeer the U-boat. As the opposing forces vie for control of the ship, the Germans knock out its navigation, which sends them down to the Antarctic. The extended journey strains their supplies, with the only apparent option being the chance discovery of a phantom island previously seen by a single 18th century Italian explorer.

To their surprise, and our heightened anticipation, this island is a lost world teeming with prehistoric beasts. With the expense of stop-motion animation beyond Amicus' scope and budget, hand-held puppets and marionettes were employed to bring these various monstrosities to life. Roger Dicken, who had worked and would go on to work on such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970), Alien (1979), and The Hunger (1983), took the helm on these dinosaur effects. The result was not necessarily any less convincing than any other method available at the time, and was only undermined by how cartoonishly adorable the dinosaurs are. It is hard to get a sense that McClure and co. are being terrorized by allosaur puppets that are just so darn cute!

Cave men at various stages of evolution are also present in the landscape, and behind them is a rather silly novelty of a premise that had a larger role in Burroughs' novel than in this film. Much like Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, which inspired Burroughs, The Land that Time Forgot was partly an attempt to recapitulate evolutionary history by linking it with geography. Whereas Verne's explorers descended through the Earth's geologic layers until they literally broke through to a prehistoric world, Burroughs' WWI refugees came across an island where evolutionary processes recapitulate through individuals. Actual evolution happens to populations, i.e.: a population of Homo erectus evolves over thousands of years into a population of Homo sapiens, but in The Land that Time Forgot this evolutionary journey happens much more abruptly. Because so little is done with it, it seems that this premise was included simply because it had to be and it was the closest that the film gets to any kind of high concept. Even though The Land That Time Forgot set itself up for a sequel, this premise isn't explored at all in that either.

In addition to its direct sequel in 1977, The Land That Time Forgot was successful enough to prompt another Burroughs adaptation starring Doug McClure, At the Earth's Core, in 1976. He also starred in the EMI-Columbia period piece Warlords of Atlantis, also in 1976, thus laying most of the weight of Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romances in the Seventies on his shoulders. Director Kevin Connor would helm all four of these McClure vehicles, and AIP would release the first three. American International, for their part, distributed a contemporary adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Food of the Gods in 1976 as well, which spawned a pair of Wellsian eco-horror films in Empire of the Ants and The Island of Dr. Moreau the following year.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

The Edwardian Scientific Romances of Amicus Productions

Today's special post is part of the 2nd Annual British Invaders Blogathon, hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts! It is also a sequel of sorts to our post for the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon a few weeks ago, this time focusing on the films of the Seventies. But for this blogathon, click on the banner above to see the line up for a weekend of great posts about great British films. If you're coming in via the blogathon, welcome to Voyages Extraordinaires, a weblog dedicated to Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romances and Retro-Victorian Science Fiction!

The concurrent dawn of the Atomic Age and the Space Age created a fertile environment for the adaptation of works by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells into feature film. Long since considered outdated, these Victorian authors had new life breathed into them by American and British filmmakers who saw in such stories as War of the Worlds, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, First Men in the Moon and Master of the World the potential to address the anxieties and optimism of the Fifties and Sixties from a comfortable distance. As the Sixties drew to a close, however, those anxieties shifted. Interest in outer space effectively dropped off after the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969, and attention turned to Nixon's withdrawal of troops of Vietnam. Civil Rights, Second-Wave Feminism, Stonewall, the Sexual Revolution, and Woodstock were the new frontiers. Science Fiction itself changed with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and those dusty Victorian stories were put back on the shelf.

As the Sixties gave way to the Seventies, a few vain attempts were made to reinvigorate the genre. A dour, vulgar, overlong, and frankly boring adaptation of Verne's Lighthouse at the End of the World was made in 1971 with Kirk Douglas and Yul Brynner. The 1972 British horror film The Asphyx attempted to trap death with its Victorian equipments. Omar Sharif took a turn as Captain Nemo in 1973's critically under-performing The Mysterious Island. Disney made a go with 1974's Island at the Top of the World, based on a modern Canadian Arctic adventure story by Ian Cameron. Though the novel was set in its year of publication, 1961, Disney deliberately backdated it to the Edwardian Era in the hopes of recreating the success of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which was almost single-handedly responsible for that explosion of Scientific Romances two decades before. They were so hopeful that Disney's Imagineers were ready to roll with plans for an entirely new area of Disneyland based on Island at the Top of the World and 20,000 Leagues, to be called "Discovery Bay." This hope was dashed against the incongruous pencil-pushing that cut its budget, reducing its visions of grandeur to something less ambitious and substantially less profitable. While it would have been wonderful to see everything they had planned, the reality is that the fiscal hammer might not have been unfounded. Though possessing its own charms, Island at the Top of the World suffered most for not tapping into the zeitgeist the way 20,000 Leagues did. There are a lot of things going on, but none of it really means anything... A recurring theme for Scientific Romances from this time.

There was one name that had not been touched yet, however. He was one of the great authors of Edwardian Pulp fiction whose work was never very deep or literary to begin with but could keep a very punchy, action-filled pace: Edgar Rice Burroughs. It was to the creator of Tarzan and John Carter that the British company Amicus Productions turned when they gave the genre their shot.

Amicus was the brainchild of American producers Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg, who vacated the U.S. for England around 1960. They set up shop in the storied Shepperton Studios with the earnest desire to produce family films that were distributed either under their own company name or other heavier hitters, beginning with It's Trad, Dad!, Just for Fun, Girl of the Night and Lad: A Dog (1962-63). Their first film, however, was a ghoulish tale of witchcraft and bloodshed titled City of the Dead (1960). Comparing the receipts on City of the Dead to their family films, Amicus realized that horror was the cash cow. Onwards they went through the Sixties and Seventies, producing mostly horror anthology films like Tales from the Crypt (1972) and Vault of Horror (1973), based ostensibly on the famed EC Comics. Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing were Amicus regulars, and one would be forgiven for seeing parallels between the low-budget horror stylings of Amicus and those of American International Pictures. In fact, the two studios collaborated on such films as Vincent Price's Madhouse.

While horror paid the bills, the studio heads still felt the urge to tamer family fare. The most notorious of Amicus' productions are the two "Dr. Who" films starring Peter Cushing: Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks - Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. (1966). These films adapted the televised Doctor Who serials The Daleks and The Dalek Invasion of Earth in full Technicolor, but butchered the story and the franchise in the process. A radio series was planned, and Dr. Who appeared in a comic serial in Doctor Who Magazine, but the feature film series ended after poor receipts for the second film. A third film, based on the serial The Chase was never produced. Perhaps audiences realized that this wasn't the Doctor. But when the gloom started to go off of British bloodletting in the mid-Seventies, Amicus turn again to Science Fiction. More specifically, to the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Trailer for Dr. Who and the Daleks.

The first of three films produced by Amicus to be based on Burroughs' work was The Land That Time Forgot (1975). The novel, published in 1918, takes place on the marine front of World War I, where a German U-boat patrolling the Atlantic shipping lanes torpedoes a civilian ocean liner being used to smuggle armaments. The surviving crew, led by Doug McClure, manage in turn to commandeer the U-boat but knock out its navigation, which sends them down to the Antarctic. The extended journey strains their supplies, with the only apparent option being the chance discovery of a phantom island teeming with prehistoric beasts. Hand-held puppets and marionettes were employed to bring life to these monstrosities, which was not necessarily any less convincing than any other method available at the time. The effects are only undermined by how cartoonishly adorable the dinosaurs are.

Trailer for The Land that Time Forgot.

Cave men at various stages of evolution are also present in the landscape, and behind them is a rather silly premise that had a larger role in Burroughs' novel than in this film. Though boasting a script co-written by Michael Moorcock, The Land That Time Forgot is one of those films that is about as good as it can be under the circumstances. While a major hit for Amicus, it lacked the charm, optimism, and anxiety that served as the heart of genre films from the Atomic Age. Land That Time Forgot, like Island at the Top of the World and the films that followed, mastered the form as well as they could, but lacked the essence.

The next film out of the gate, released in 1976, was At the Earth's Core, based again on the Burroughs novel of the same name. Published in 1914, the novel was the first of Burroughs' series on the prehistoric underground realm of Pellucidar. Tarzan himself would eventually visit the cavernous refugium, and overall it was very much in keeping with Burroughs' running themes of two-fisted men fighting slavering beasts for the honour of nubile, disrobed ladies, be they on Martian fields of war, African jungles, or the centre of the Earth.

In At the Earth's Core, Doug McClure and an aged Peter Cushing drive their 'Iron Mole" machine to Pellucidar and are immediately captured by the Mahars, a species of telepathic pterosaurs who use humans as slaves. McClure makes a break for it, befriends one of the indigenous peoples, woos the princess, and leads a slave revolt that includes, among other things, fighting a monster in the gladiatorial arena. Those familiar with the literary and cinematic John Carter might recognize the basic outline. Nevertheless it is an outline that works, and At the Earth's Core is a fun adventure film. Though the monster suits leave something to be desired, there is a very effective surrealism and creeping weirdness to this underground realm, which in turn accents the charisma of McClure and Cushing.

Trailer for At the Earth's Core.

The last of the Amicus series, and the last Amicus film period, was 1977's The People That Time ForgotThe Land That Time Forgot's cliffhanger ending left off with the promise of further exploration of Burroughs' time-lost island with its strange recapitulation of evolutionary history. With that film's closing shots of mountainous wastelands beset with glacial ice, it all-but telegraphed the probability of seeing woolly mammoths and sabretooth cats. The People That Time Forgot would be a radically different entity, unfortunately.

Unlike Burroughs' literary sequels - The People That Time Forgot and Out of Time's Abyss - the cinematic sequel did nothing to build on that promised "secret of evolution" or maintain the human to prehistoric monster ratio. Where the small handful of dinosaurs and prehistoric reptiles do come out to threaten the protagonists, they serve no essential part to the plot. The true monsters are the green-skinned, samuari-like barbarians with a fetish for sacrificing buxom women to their volcano god. Not living up to even the meager standards of The Land That Time Forgot, The People That Time Forgot ended up as just a discomfiting, and very Seventies, orgy of violence, gunplay, cursing, cavewoman breasts, weird cults and that sort of thing, with few redeeming qualities. Not even Doug McClure had much to do in his returning role.

Trailer for The People That Time Forgot.

Ironically, internal friction between Subotsky and Rosenberg resulted in the dissolution of Amicus Productions in 1977. The team behind the Burroughs trilogy were not about to let that stop them, however. Kevin Conner, director of all three films, teamed back up with Doug McClure for Warlords of Atlantis in 1978. Released under EMI-Columbia, it was not an adaptation of a Burroughs novel but was very much in keeping with the tone and spirit of the trilogy.

Unlike the three films produced by Amicus, Warlords of Atlantis actually does make an attempt at profundity that mirrors the films of the Atomic Age. The Atlanteans are revealed to be aliens trapped on Earth in ages past who have committed themselves to manipulating humanity into developing the technology that will allow them to return to the stars. When the crew of a turn-of-the-century sailing vessel are taken captive, the chief scientist of the bunch (played by Peter Gilmore) is separated from the rest of the group. While the crew are left to toil as slaves for the upper-class Atlanteans, an attempt is made to enlist the scientist to their cause by showing him the unfolding of their plan. Through his brain flash images of the Nazi regime, World War II, and the development of atomic weaponry. In no uncertain terms the Atlanteans state that war is the driver of scientific and technological progress.

Trailer for Warlords of Atlantis.

A general sense of pessimism had been creeping through Western society and American society in particular in the decade leading up to Warlords of Atlantis. President Jimmy Carter took to the airwaves in 1979 to chastise Americans for their sense of malaise:
The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation... We've always believed in something called progress. We've always had a faith that the days of our children would be better than our own. Our people are losing that faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy... The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us. For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years. Two-thirds of our people do not even vote. The productivity of American workers is actually dropping, and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all other people in the Western world. As you know, there is a growing disrespect for government and for churches and for schools, the news media, and other institutions. This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning.
In Britain, the Seventies were marked by the collapse of the "post-war consensus" style of government that had prioritized social programs and Keynesian economics. Deficit spending and labour unrest had brought about a financial crisis in 1976, forcing the sitting government to take out what was, to that point, the largest loan ever granted by the International Monetary Fund. This economic depression hit Britain's youth hard, fermenting the Punk scene with its anthem of "No Future." Widespread strikes and high unemployment culminated in the 1978-1979 "Winter of Discontent" that blew Margaret Thatcher's Tories into a victory in the 1979 election.

Despite Kevin Connor's best attempts - and these four films were only the start of his long career - Scientific Romances simply could not find the footing to respond to an era where OPEC oil crises were a more pressing concern than the Space Race, and more people were worried about getting a job than getting a flying automobile. It was a decidedly unromantic time. Irwin Allen attempted a television revival of Verne's cryogenically frozen mariner in The Return of Captain Nemo in 1978, which interestingly also included Atlantis. A 1977 Spanish production of Jule's Verne's Fabulous Journey to the Center of the Earth happened, but like most genre films of the time was considered a disappointment. One final film rounded out the decade, being the American production Time After Time starring Malcolm Macdowell and David Warner as H.G. Wells and Jack the Ripper on a romp through modern day San Francisco, released in 1979. Like Warlords of Atlantis, Time After Time also attempted a commentary on the way modernity has been shaped by a century of violence. Nevertheless, these films - Amicus' included - had the ultimate effect of heralding the death of Scientific Romances for over a decade. It wouldn't be until the mid-late 1990's that a new "golden age" of retro-Victorian Sci-Fi movies, TV shows, comics, and video games would erupt. Besides, it was hard for anybody to compete with Star Wars (1977) and its progeny. The Eighties belonged less to Jules Verne than to Steven Spielberg. 

Thank you for joining us today for the 2nd Annual British Invaders Blogathon. This post is the kickoff for a summer series exploring each of these films - The Land That Time Forgot, The People That Time Forgot, At Earth's Core, and Warlords of Atlantis - in greater depth. Voyages Extraordinaires publishes biweekly, every other Wednesday, with our review of The Land That Time Forgot coming this week. Please join us!

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Cultural Appropriation, Manifest Destiny, and the New Moralists

Some time ago I wrote a piece on the New Moralists of the progressive Left and their campaign to police art for the "common good." While the row over the cover of the Batgirl comic that spurred on that piece was short-lived, the controversy itself is not. Comedy has become a high profile front of the debate, with no less than Jerry Seinfeld having come out - alongside the likes of Chris Rock, Larry the Cable Guy, and Bill Maher - to say that it is becoming impossible to perform stand-up comedy for the shockingly conservative, reactionary, prudish, and too-easily offended moralists of the Left, especially on college campuses. It is not only art that these New Moralists apparently want to police, but even the cultures of other people. In an ironic recapitulation of the 19th century White Man's Burden, there seems to be a prevalent attitude that the rest of us "savages" outside of the United States of America need to be saved by the wisdom of America's progressive Left. Two incidents, spaced several months apart and seemingly antithetical, provide sad examples of this attitude.

The first was the release of the video game The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. I've made reference to it before, and will summarize it again here. Coming under fire by video game journalists, "cultural critics" and other assorted moral busybodies, this Mediaeval Fantasy game became a touchstone in the issue of minority representation in video games against the still-raging backdrop of GamerGate. The player character and non-player characters were overwhelmingly white, which led to criticism over the lack of people of colour - African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Hispanic-Americans - being represented. One major argument was the apparent incongruity of saying that people of colour would make a Mediaeval Fantasy unrealistic when there are already dragons and magic in it. Were The Witcher 3 just any random Fantasy game a la Fable this would be a valid criticism. But The Witcher 3 is not.

Here is what The Witcher 3 is: a video game designed by the Polish studio CD Projekt RED, directed by Polish directors Konrad Tomaszkiewicz, Mateusz Kanik, and Sebastian Stępień, written by Polish writers Marcin Blacha and Borys Pugacz-Muraszkiewicz, based on a series of books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, featuring themes and ideas drawn from Polish culture, Polish history, and Polish mythology, set in a Fantasy version of Mediaeval Poland. It doesn't just have dragons and magic: it has Polish dragons and Polish magic. It is a Polish Mediaeval Fantasy. Speaking as someone who is not an American, this is how I see the controversy: a bunch of Americans telling Polish people that they are not entitled to their own culture.