AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 103/ 100/ 93/ 64/ 55 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
News reporter Ed Malone’s fiancee Gladys won’t marrry him because he’s not adventurous enough. Elsewhere, Professor Challenger has just returned from an expedition to South America and talks of a plateua inhabited by living dinosaurs but is met with ridicule. To prove himself to Gladys, Ed sets out to interview Challenger, a man who has attacked three reporters already, and finds himself on a return expedition, financed by his newspaper, accompanied by Paula White who’s father had been left behind, sportsman Sir John Roxton, a skeptical professor Summerlee, a black servant Zambo, and Challenger’s butler Austin….
It occured to this dinosaur lover whilst skimming the new Blu-ray releases on Blu-ray.com a couple of weeks ago that he’d never seen the first ever feature length movie to feature prehistoric animals, the 1925 version of The Lost World, and therefore couldn’t resist ordering the new Ficker Alley Blu-ray which is a major restoration of a film which was only previously available in cut down versions. Watching it was a fascinating experience. Even to the eyes of someone like me who watches as many old films as new ones, some of the filmmaking and the special effects are crude – it’s astounding how much effects master Willis O’ Brien has refined and improved his techniques over just a few years when he began to make King Kong – and yet there’s still much to impress by a film which must have seemed incredibly exciting at the time, [especially to some magicians the writer of the novel Sir Arthur Conan Doyle showed some footage to during production] and it proves that they were making movies which can be criticised for prioritising spectacle and thrills over storyline and characterisation decades before it became fashionable for critics to make this complaint. And so much was rehashed in King Kong, from little touches a bipedal dinosaur scratching his ear, to actual scenes like an ape-like creature trying to pull up a rope which the heroine is using to descent from a cliff – not to mention the cinema’s first ever monster rampage in a big city – that it can almost be considered a remake. Even many later efforts like One Million B. C., Unknown Island and The Land That Time Forgot took far more things from this film.
O’ Brien first tried out his stop motion dinosaur technique in the 1918 short The Ghost Of Slumber Mountain. At the same time, movie magnete William Selig tried to set up a film of Sir Arthur Conan Doye’s novel, and the character list, storyboards and plot elements strongly resemble those in the 1925 version. Otherwise, screenwriter Marian Fairfax followed the novel reasonably well at first, then increasingly diverged from it, removing the warring tribes of primitive man and apes, adding the volcano eruption and the character of Paula White, and changing the pterodactly flying away at the end to a brontosaurus loose in London. The film went over budget and over 20 minutes was cut just before release including a cannibal attack [explianing why Zambo’s arm is suddenely in a sling], but was a huge success. However, in 1930, a sound remake was planned so all release prints were destroyed and the originl negative just lost. That remake metamorphisised into King Kong. The dinosaur miniatures were donated to the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles but after many years the rubber models began to sulphurise and disintegrate. They were stored away and accidently sealed between the walls of the facility when a new wing was added. As for the film, it was only seen in a poor quality 55 minute version for many years until 1992 saw the discovery of the original export [many silent films were shot simultaneously by two cameras side by side for domestic and foreign use] print, though it had many defects and scenes missing. Several cuts containing exclusive footage were then released, and the new Blu-ray mixes elements from eleven different versions.
Actual footage of Doyle [who apparently liked the film despite its many changes] outside his house opens the film before we cut to our ‘hero’ Ed proposing to his fiancee for the umpteenth time. She says that she will only marry “A man of great deeds and strange experiences, man who can look death in the face without flinching”. Now if that was me I’d have given up on the silly cow there and then, but Ed wants to impress her and decides to interview this eccentric Challenger fellow, a mission which could be very dangerous indeed. One silly rolling around fight later and Challenger lets Ed come along on his mission because his paper will finance it and they both know sportsman and big game hunter John Roxton who’s also going along. The film has quite a light tone here though some may be disturbed when Challenger puts his nagging wife on top of a cupboard she can’t get down off. Even later there are some comical moments, like the two professors trying to get a tree to bend back and fire a rock, sending Summerlee flying into a muddy pool to Challenger’s laughter. But it does take a while to get to South America and even longer to get to the plateau. This gradual pacing didn’t bother me – after all King Kong did the same thing and Jurassic Park also took ages to reveal its stars – while this was no doubt considered necessary to ease 1925 viewers into an outlandish story – but may annoy some other first time viewers bearing in mind silent films can be hard to get into anyway what with the constant descriptive musical score and the over the top acting. And even this hater of political correctness felt uneasy at the mannerisms and extremely simple nature of the black [though played by a white actor] ‘servant’ Zambo – though his exaggerated dialect, which is altered in some versions, seems intact here and that’s as it should be even if some viewers don’t like it.
Of course the fact that it’s nearly 45 minutes till we see our first dinosaur – though we’re teased early on by some drawings and footage of ‘real’ wildlife – means that the film then becomes virtually one thrill after another. There’s some romance but it’s given short shrift. After no real lead-up, Malone suddenly tries it on with Paula [who’s also lusted after by the far older Roxton]: “We’re as cut off from the world and its obligations and promises as if we were on the Moon”, though it’s she who convinces him to return to Gladys at the end – leading to a very convenient close though one that does tweak the novel’s ending which left Ed totally alone. There’s also an ape-man who lives in a cave with a female chimpanzee who stalks about, plus a pet chimp for comic relief, But it’s really about the dinosaurs, and this movie has tons of them, some of them familiar [Allosaurus, Triceratops, Pteranodon mistakenly identified by Challenger as a Pterodactyl], some not so [Edmontosaurus, Toxodon, Agathaumus]. You get no less than four dino battles, while some attempt has been made to depict their habits realistically, though you still get a few anthropomorphic touches like a Brontosaurus knocking down the log that spans a chasm, seemingly trapping our humans on the plateau, and an Allosaurus doing a double take after pushing a Brontosaurus [probably the same one] off a cliff, moments which belongs in an early Godzilla film. Unfortunately too many of their scenes occur seperately to the human characters, from our viewpoint rather than there’s, the cutting back and forth sometimes making it look like we’re cutting back and forth from two different films, though there’s some early double exposure. Director Harry L. Hoyt’s handling doesn’t always make the most of the material, though there are undoubtedly some fine shots, like a nighttime Allosaurus attack where you just see its eyes.
Location footage and and studio settings merge rather well to create this lost world. The quality of Marcel Delgado’s models and Willis O, Brien’s animation varies. It’s clear that some had far more time spent on them than others. For each jerky bit, each simplistic clay-like model, you get a smooth piece of animation and a really impressive, detailed creature. The volcanic eruption needed some footage of lava spreading to really sell it and relies too much on smoke, but there are some impressive shots of fire spreading and dinosaurs perishing. The Brontosaurus escaping its cage unforgiveably takes place offscreen, and the shots that put the dinosaur into the picture are lingered on a little bit too long even if you take into account this was the first time they were attempting this kind of effect, but there’s an impressive number of extras and the creature never does anything a Brontosaurus [a herbivore] probably wouldn’t do except for perhaps the ending when, having collapsed London Bridge, it swims off, presumably back to South America.
The characters are reasonably well defined and most of the cast do a decent job. Lloyd Hughes was supposedly a reluctant leading man which makes him quite ideal to play Malone the reluctant hero, while Wallace Beery is a perfect Challenger personality-wise though he doesn’t look much like the book’s character. Despite supposeely being a tough explorer and the screenwriter being a womn, all Bessie Love seems to do is simper throughout. The Flicker Alley Blu-ray comes with an okay Robert Isreal score that is sometimes effective and sometimes awkward like the oddly upbeat music heard during the Brontosaurus rampage, though is no doubt close to what the original score would have been like. This release is still probably the version of the fim to buy and it’s officially region free too. Don’t expect Jurassic Park or even One Million Years B. C.- all of the techniques in The Lost World would be substantially improved and some of them quite soon in King Kong [the greatest giant monster movie of them all]- but one can still admire the ambition, the innovation, and the sheer -and rather modern – “let’s give ’em as many thrills nd as much spectacle as possible” attitude on display.