The Lost World (1960)
Directed by Irwin Allen
Based on The Lost World Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Written by Charles Bennett and Irwin Allen
Starring Michael Rennie, Jill St. John, David Hedison, Claude Rains, Richard Haydn, Ray Stricklyn, Fernando Lamas, and Vitina Marcus
The conceit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World is enthralling. Explorers discover a region that stands apart from the modern world, where evolution stood still; a place where tribes battled apes—sure, he was ripping off Jules Verne to some extent, but who didn’t? And it is Doyle’s title that we use to describe plots that involve isolated pockets of prehistoric life. It’s been filmed many times but only once was it done by the master of disaster, director and producer Irwin Allen.
The expedition is led by Professor Challenger (Claude Rains), an irascible curmudgeon who sciences through belligerence and force of will. For some reason Professor Summerlee (Richard Haydn) would like proof of Challenger’s claim to have seen a living dinosaur at an undisclosed location, and so to settle the matter they take along the renowned big game hunter Lord Roxton (Michael Rennie) and reporter Ed Malone (David Hedison) as objective observers. Tagging along, by virtue of their father’s money are siblings Jennifer (Jill St. John) and David (Ray Stricklyn) Holmes. Local pilot Manuel Gomez (Fernando Lamas) is there to constantly strum his guitar and provide the 3rd act betrayal and redemption.
To call this a good movie would be over-selling it. It is however a fun one, if you enjoy ridiculous soundstage adventures. The characters are largely 1-dimensional caricatures, motivated by broad and generic goals like greed, pride, or love. The sets are garish and wonderful, filled with manufactured rocks and deliciously fake foliage. Best (and worst) of all, the dinosaurs are lizards with crap stuck to them. Best, because they’re adorable and utterly unconvincing. Worst, because Allen makes two of them fight in a re-enactment of the famously oft-lifted scene from One Million B.C., which is uncool to say the least.
I do genuinely love this one, despite the moment of animal cruelty. While the characters are thin, there are plenty of them, and they are largely engaging. Challenger is so outlandishly unruly that he’s a captivating jester. Gomez, who exists to seek vengeance, still gets to do a slow burn throughout the movie. Roxton can be both hardened adventurer and complete cad. Even Jennifer Holmes gets to be brash and combative enough to force her way into the expedition, while also packing completely in pink and bringing along her miniature French poodle. So maybe they’re more like a dimension and a half.
The sets are delightful. One thing Irwin Allen did well in his theatrical films was stretching a budget to good effect. While none of the locations are convincing (aside from some lovely exterior shots, the tarmac, and the lecture hall) they are fully realized. Lots of plants everywhere outside, and thoroughly bumpy rock caverns. Weird angles, torches, and bones dominate the interiors, while the jungle outside is dotted with wide ground flowers that close like traps around unwary professors.
There’s also some rather good webbing. I absolutely want to give the film all due credit for that, because so often webs are awful rope affairs that you can see the knots in. Here there’s an honest-to-goodness funnel that Malone idiotically runs through. I don’t care what I’m chasing or running away from, nothing’s going to get me to point one foot into a giant web tunnel! Even if there’s not a giant spider lurking in there, there could be about a gazillion normal-sized leggy killers waiting to drop on me. The really surprising part is that the native girl (Vitina Marcus) is desperate enough to run through it. Then again, Malone is pretty scary.
There are two giant spiders that turn up in The Lost World. The first is inside the aforementioned funnel. It sort of dangles helplessly in the foreground while the unnamed native girl skirts around it before Malone kills it with one shot from his rifle. The other waggles menacingly for a brief moment while someone takes a breather. Both are the standard red-knee tarantula, preferred spider for filming because of its snazzy appearance and calm demeanor. Weirdly, the one in the web is green. My guess is that this was a victim of the rampant budget-slashing that effected a lot of pictures at the studio at the time. Cleopatra (1963) is infamous for its cost overruns, and the losses were taken out of other budgets. This is why famed animator Willis H. O’Brien had to be let go and the planned stop-motion dinosaurs were replaced by lizards. It’s reasonable to assume that the green spider is a result of initial matting and it was decided that the effect stood up well enough that they could spare the expense of completing the full-color layer.
Since this is an Irwin Allen flick, it’s time to play Spot the Irwin Allen Irregulars. First up is David Hedison. Here, he’s the intrepid reporter Malone, but later he’d serve four seasons aboard the Seaview as Captain Crane in the TV version of Voyage to the Bottom of the
Sea. Michael Rennie turned up in an episode of The Time Tunnel and as the eponymous “The Keeper” in a 2-parter for Lost In Space. Jay Novello guested on an episode of Land of the Giants. Vitina Marcus appeared in two episodes each of The Time Tunnel, Lost In Space, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. One of the Voyage… episodes, “Turn Back the Clock”, used footage from The Lost World that included Marcus and Jill St. John. Marcus reprised her role from the film to provide additional scenes for the show.
So that’s The Lost World, a movie that rolled with a shrinking budget and managed to come out relatively entertaining although somewhat worse for wear. The actors are all great fun, and the clunkiness of the script is almost charming. The whole thing almost makes me want to get reptiles so that I can make them dinosaur costumes. Come to think of it, I could make some for the cats. “Now you’re a tyrannosaurus,” I’d tell one. Then he’d bite me, and a volcano would erupt.