The Land That Time Forgot (1975)
Directed by Kevin Connor. Starring Doug McClure, John McEnery, Susan Penhaligon, Keith Baron, Anthony Ainley, Bobby Parr.
In A.D. (Anno Dinosauriae) 1975, the old era of low-budget fantasy and science-fiction filmmaking neared its close — although nobody knew it. In 1977, an under-marketed flick called Star Wars forever changed the way studios approached genre movies, elevating them to A-budget, blockbuster, mega-studio super-entertainment with emphasis on attaining photo-realistic effects.
Progress? In a way. But when I look at a movie like 1975’s The Land That Time Forgot, a British adaptation from Amicus Productions (famed for their horror anthologies) of the first third of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s classic “Lost World” novel, I feel a tug of regret that such handmade, analog epics, crafted on tight budgets with intense imagination and invention, have largely suffered extinction. There’s a beautiful innocence to The Land That Time Forgot that makes it an ideal approach to Burroughs’s style. If its effects aren’t “realistic,” they certainly are thrilling and wonders to behold. We shall never see such marvels again.
It’s easy for the general public and the old-guard movie critics who still lumber around major magazines and paperback video guides to dismiss this “rubber dinosaurs and cavemen” film as campy, but The Land That Time Forgot plays it straight — it isn’t camp unless you choose to approach it that way. That’s acceptable, of course; the film belongs to the viewer. But taken as a serious adventure-fantasy, The Land That Time Forgot provides remarkable entertainment, far better than a campy romp. And it’s smart.
You only have to look at the writing credits to see where the intelligence and respect for the material originated. Fantasy and science-fiction novelist Michael Moorcock and artist James Cawthorn adapted the novel for the screen. At the time, Moorcock had entered into one of his most avant-garde phases with the Jerry Cornelius novels. But he remained a Burroughs enthusiast, and had penned some straight homages to the grand old genre author with his “Kane of Old Mars” trilogy. Cawthorn (who, sadly, died three months ago) worked with Moorcock for most of his career, illustrating many of his creations. Moorcock always considered Cawthorn’s visions of his characters as “the most accurate, both in detail and atmosphere.” Cawthorn was also an accomplished fantasy historian, and brought to the script his own understanding of the importance of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
The script only covers Part I of the book, but at the time publishers had separated the complete book into three individual short “novels”: The Land That Time Forgot, The People That Time Forgot, and Out of Time’s Abyss. The movie follows the publication plan of the time and only adapts the first third of the story. However, that provides more than enough material for a ninety-minute film, and Cawthorn and Moorcock make changes to the ending to provide more closure, while leaving room for the sequel that would arrive two years later.
The movie opens with the discovery in Greenland of shipbuilder Bowen Tyler’s manuscript. Tyler (Doug McClure) narrates the bizarre events that have occurred to him, starting with the sinking of the S. S. Montrose and his escape with the girl Lisa Clayton (Susan Penhaligon), a name change from the book’s “Lys.” Lisa and Tyler’s relationship before the boat sinking never gets an explanation, but it doesn’t matter in the larger scheme. Tyler and Lisa find the British survivors of the Montrose crew, and together they seize the German U-boat that sunk them in a surprise swarm attack when the sub surfaces. Tyler takes command from German Captain von Schoenvorts (John McEnery) and pilots for the nearest Allied port. Power onboard changes hands twice, Allied ships fire on the sub when they try to get help, and First Mate Dietz sabotages the equipment. The string of bleak fortune puts the U-33 wandering into the Antarctic Sea with water, food, and fuel running low.
All this adheres close to the novel, with trimming of the British traitor character and a few other excisions. (Bowen’s faithful hound Nobs didn’t make it to the shooting script. I’m fine with that.) But a major change that the script makes to Burroughs is altering the characters of von Schoenvorts and Lisa Clayton. Lys in the novel serves the part of the damsel in distress, and while Lisa does some similar duty here, the script makes her a biologist, allowing her to get drawn into the Caspakian mystery and provide a knowledgeable voice. She also has no previous connection to von Schoenvorts; in the novel, they were once engaged. This weird coincidence drops out of the film version without a hitch.
Captain von Schoenvorts has undergone even more drastic changes. A murderous scoundrel in the novel — what you might expect from a 1918 American book dealing with a German military figure — the screenplay makes the captain an amateur scientist himself who gradually develops camaraderie with Bowen Tyler and works with him to escape from Caspak; the character of Dietz (Anthony Ainley) fills the villainous role instead. Moorcock and Cawthorn purposely muddy the moral waters when von Schoenvorts defends his sinking of a civilian ship because it was carrying weapons that would be used to kill his own people.
Unfortunately, in execution Captain von Schoenvorts falls short. German actor Anton Diffring dubbed McEnery, apparently because of producer dissatisfaction with McEnery’s accent. This damages McEnery’s performance, which was already shaky before the dubbing job. It’s unfortunate that Amicus didn’t cast Peter Cushing, who would star in At the Earth’s Core the next year miscast as a bumbling professor, in the part of von Schoenvorts. He would have excelled in the role.
The first half hour of the film contains no pre-historic action. Like this section of the book, the drama concentrates on the tension aboard the submarine. As a submarine movie, The Land That Time Forgot has plenty of excitement before even a single Cretaceous frond appears, and it’s strange that it never shows up on lists of classic “sub movies,” as if somehow the submarine arriving in a prehistoric land disqualifies it from the genre. It’s not Das Boot, but it certainly torpedoes U-571 and K-19: The Widowmaker in entertainment value.
The magic really begins when the U-33 finds the continent of Caprona in the Antarctic Sea, submerges, and enters the primeval preserve of Caspak on the other side. (The dialogue never uses the word “Caspak” and instead relies on “Caprona.” This bothers me, since Caprona is the continent and Caspak the land inside it, but even I’ll admit that I’m being excessively nitpicky. Moorcock and Cawthorn must have wanted to avoid confusing the audience with two names.) The assaults from the prehistoric creatures start immediately. With a truce between the Germans and Allies on the sub, the passengers set up a base on the shores of Caspak and start trying to refine the crude oil they discover so they get the sub gassed up and out of the dangerous land. (I never understand why they’re in such a hurry to get back to World War I, however. I will take Caspak over the trenches of the Western Front any day.)
But while making the plans for escaping, and between dodging dinosaur attacks and human native raids, Tyler, von Schoenvorts, and Lisa start to make amazing discoveries about Caspak. Most of it they gradually learn from a primitive man named Ahm (Bobby Parr), who claims he belongs to the Bo-lu people.
This is what I find most remarkable about Moorcock and Cawthorn’s script for The Land That Time Forgot. It doesn’t slight the evolutionary concept that Burroughs made integral to the book’s magic. How easy it would have been for an adventure movie geared toward younger viewers to slash out the complex evolutionary background of Caspak, where macro-evolution occurs within the single lifetime of an organism, and instead focus solely on killer creatures and cavemen. But the script emphasizes the biological mystery, and includes concepts introduced in Part II and Part III to increase its presence. The scene of Ahm “rising” to a Sto-lu is remarkable: a silent staging in mist and shadows where Ahm senses the call to move up the human hierarchy, and approaches the Sto-lu to receive his weapon to indicate his new status. It makes perfect shorthand for Burroughs’s longer explanation of how hominids rise up through the ranks of Caspak.
McClure, in a role originally intended for Stuart Whitman, is beefy and mostly wooden as Tyler. Patrick Wayne, who would play Ben McBride in the sequel The People That Time Forgot, fits closer to the ideal of a Burroughs hero and would have made a better choice here. However, McClure gets the work done and like most of the cast takes the material with admirable seriousness. (If I could dream-cast the part with actors from the period, I would put Robert Redford in the role in an instant. Which, of course, could never have actually happened. And as long as I’m dreaming, what about Julie Christie for the Lisa Clayton part? Robert Redford, Julie Christie, and Peter Cushing in… The Land That Time Forgot! Coming this Summer ‘75 in Dream-World.)
The best performance in the human cast comes from Bobby Parr as the Bo-lu Ahm. Ahm’s makeup can’t match Planet of the Apes for quality, but Parr does good physical work and makes the crude language of Caspak extremely expressive.
The real headliners in the cast are special-effects wranglers Roger Dicken and Derek Meddings. Meddings would turn in astonishing miniature work on the James Bond series, especially on The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, and Dicken built the facehugger and chestburster in Alien (although he bickered with designer H. R. Giger over the look; Dicken apparently wasn’t fond of Giger’s surrealistic approach and preferred classic saurian shapes).
Ah, the dinosaurs. That’s what you really want to hear about, isn’t it? That’s why you bought your matinee ticket, right? Well, here they are, and they are worth all the dollar bills or pound notes you paid. And they aren’t men-in-suit effects, as some sources erroneously report. Dicken achieves most of the monster scenes using puppetry mixed with full-scale models. He handles a variety of different dinosaur action scenes that always keep the effects interesting. The “Plesiosaur” (it might be closer to a Mosasaur, but maybe I’m over thinking this) that attacks the U-boat when it emerges in Caspak has a full-sized head for snapping at the people on the conning tower and dragging away the first victim of the lost world. A scale-model Pterodactyl hefts up an unfortunate caveman and flies away — although it manages to do this without flapping its wings once. The crew of the U-33 takes down two Allosaurs puppets with a rifle barrage. And of course we’ll have a sequence where a carnosaur fights with a ceratopsian. This sort of dino vs. dino encounter was standard ever since Charles R. Knight’s painted his famous Tyrannosaur meeting a Triceratops for the Field Museum in Chicago.
Derek Meddings handles the miniature work, and excels with the submarine. He would get even more practice with subs two years later on The Spy Who Loved Me, but even on a fraction of that budget, his subs and ships here look excellent. He also creates some beautiful backdrops and models of Caspak’s landscape that recall the work of artist J. Allen St. John and the previously mentioned Charles R. Knight. Perfectly realistic? No, but gorgeous nonetheless.
Meddings’s work achieves its finest level in the fiery finale, when a volcano rips apart a section of Caspak while Dietz tries to drive off the submarine, leaving Bowen and Lisa behind. Meddings achieves stunning miniature compositions here with a hellish red glow to give the scene an apocalyptic overtone. It’s a wild, almost hysterical climax—and leads to a dour coda surprising for this type of film.
The Land That Time Forgot scored big in theaters in 1975 and netted a tidy profit for Amicus Productions and U.S. distributor American International. Producer John Dark and director Kevin Connor would follow with more Burroughs adaptations in the next two years: At the Earth’s Core and The People That Time Forgot, a direct sequel to this movie. Their fourth film, Warlords of Atlantis, was an Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation in all but name. Both At the Earth’s Core and The People That Time Forgot deserve serious consideration, so look for my takes on both in future posts.
Ryan Harvey is one of the original bloggers for Black Gate, starting in 2008. He received the Writers of the Future Award for his short story “An Acolyte of Black Spires,” and his stories “The Sorrowless Thief” and “Stand at Dubun-Geb” are available in Black Gate online fiction. A further Ahn-Tarqa adventure, “Farewell to Tyrn”, is currently available as an e-book. Ryan lives in Los Angeles. Occasionally, people ask him to talk about Edgar Rice Burroughs or Godzilla in interviews.