Trailer for At the Earth's Core.
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.