Friday, October 11, 2013

Movie Review: The Lost World (1925)

It’s Friday and that means it’s movie night! Yes, today we’re going to look at a dinosaur movie, and this time we’re looking at one of the first. Today’s film is from 1925-yes, dinosaurs not only were before people, but before talkies. This is Harry Hoyt’s adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s the Lost World. Before Harry Potter and its trend of having films made of recent popular books, this film was made only 13 years after the original book was published, and proved more popular.  Every dinosaur fan has  seen this, every fan of special effects owes it to themselves to see it,  and the bizarre history of this film makes it special among even silent films.

Of course, when it comes to adaptations of fiction, you reach a fork in the road when reviewing. You have two questions: first, how well does it hold up as an adaptation of the original story? Second, how well does it hold up as its own film without the original work taken into account?

As an adaptation, let’s just say it’s not alone. You see, this is the first of six films and two television series based on the novel, none of them having much in common in plot and characters. This one might be the best, but it’s still a major deviation and in many ways inferior to the book.

Only two characters are recognizable from their book selves, and fortunately these are the main two-Professor George Challenger and Edward Malone. Malone is an earnest, curious, tenacious, romantic and idealistic reporter, much like in the book and played decently by Lloyd Hughes. Challenger is a bombastic, egoistical, brilliant, aggressive larger-than-life character, ably played by the great Wallace Beery. While Malone isn’t quite as nuanced or sympathetic as in the book, and Challenger seems to fade into the background as soon as the dinosaurs enter the scene, they are a great deal more successful than the other two lead characters. Sir John Roxton, the wry, intrepid, quirky adventurer in the book, comes off as a stiff, boring old man. His only role is to act as the opposite man in the inevitable love triangle. We never see his flashes of wit or action exploits in this version-indeed, it seems that outside of Doyle, none of the filmmakers seem to have much fondness for the character. Summerlee is the weakest of the four in the book, but at least he acts as a level headed foil for Challenger. Here, he barely has much in the way of scenes and could easily have been written out entirely.

There’s also a change with minor characters; Challenger’s stolid butler Austin accompanies them and acts as cockney comedy relief, the treacherous Brazilian helpers are removed entirely, and the loyal “black Hercules” servant Zambo is reduced to merely blackface comic relief.  There are two major additions in terms of characters, however. One is a pet Capuchin monkey who acts as comic relief and as a device to bring about the isolation of their party and their subsequent escape by rope ladder. The other, more significant one, is Paula White, played by Bessie Love. She is the daughter of explorer Maple White, hoping to rescue him from the plateau. In the book, Maple White dies in Challenger’s arms during a flashback and tells him of the titular plateau.  White is inexplicably betrothed to Roxton, falls in love with Malone, shares several tepid romantic scenes but has little to do with the action, and then drives off into the night with Malone at the ending. To quote a Carl Denham, “Isn't there any romance or adventure in the world without having a flapper in it?” Every last adaptation of the story from 1925 to 2005 has an extraneous love interest, all of which come off as entirely gratuitous and bring nothing to the story.

Of course, there is a major change in action set pieces. Other than a shared Allosaur attack, the movie takes a very different approach for the plot. Instead of a marauding colony of apemen and a great war between them and the humans on the plateau, there is only one apeman and his chimpanzee sidekick. He briefly harasses our party a few times before his attempt to pull up their rope ladder leads to his shooting by Roxton. The Iguanodon herd of the original is replaced by a brontosaurus, Apatosaurus simply being the more popular dinosaur. Apatosaurus turns out to be the most significant prehistoric character, knocking off the log bridge and later fighting an Allosaurus. The nightmarish but mineral-rich pterosaur rookery is omitted entirely-Challenger brings home a brontosaur! The rampage scene that makes the climax of the film is well done, brief, and ultimately the prototype for similar rampages by King Kong, Godzilla, and all their gigantic ilk.

Allosaurus is still the main dinosaur villain, but instead of chasing Malone during one night and being brought down by native poison arrow fire later on, it has its share of brutal battles. It makes its debut, instead of the novel’s butchered iguanodon carcass, attacking and killing a trachodon. Like the Apatosaur, Edmontosaurus eclipsed Iguanodon by then. The Allosaurus attacks a herd of Triceratops, but one protective mother drives him off and he meets his fate at the horns of an Agauthamas. Agauthamas is an interesting case-based on dubious ceratopsian skeletal remains then illustrated imaginatively by Charles R Knight. Sculptor Maurice Delgado based his creature, along with all the others, on Knight’s art, and it makes its one and only film appearance. Said Aguathamas is in turn slain by a Tyrannosaurus, making his second film debut as a cameo.  Another Allosaurus fights a brontosaur, but the prey falls off the cliff during the struggle.

Another film invention that precluded many more in the future is the introduction of an erupting volcano and a forest fire. Volcanoes have since become stock in prehistoric tales, but far more spectacular is the world’s first dinosaur stampede. Herds of brontosaurs, Stegosaurus (film debut) Brachiosaurus (not to be seen again on the big screen until Jurassic Park), Triceratops, Agauthamas, Allosaurs, and Tyrannosaurs run around the massive miniature jungle until the sequence (only existing for spectacle’s sake) is over.

The action climax of the book is the battle with the apes and the slaying of two Allosaurs, followed by the falling action of their escape and return to London with a pterosaur in tow. This is replaced-after the fire and Malone and Whites’ declaration of love, the aforementioned brontosaur sequence ends the film. This is a deviation that has nothing to do with the original work, but can be viewed as an improvement.  You could easily argue that this film improves on the original simply by having more dinosaurs in a film than almost any other since. The romance, and most of the other changes are detrimental, but no film has suffered for the inclusion of more dinosaurs.

How does it work as a stand alone film? It’s not much for characters. Challenger is the only interesting character and he has little to do once appearing on the plateau except speaking out paragraphs of exposition. Silent films have inherent problems-no vocal performances limit what acting can be done, dialogue is minimal, and there is no musical score to add much-needed emotion. However, it’s probably the biggest special effects film of the silent era, even more than Metropolis or a Trip to the Moon. With his stop-motion animated dinosaurs, Willis O’Brien practically invented film special effects, a feat that would only be surpassed by his work for King Kong. The dinosaurs are as realistic as they come until Ray Harryhausen picked up the table from his master. They not only look fantastic not only as models but also in motion (Delgado’s models are detailed, aesthetically impressive, and based on the best paleoartist of all time) and act mostly realistically. An Allosaur scratches his jaw, a baby Triceratops seeks after his mother, and she defends him from the predator.  O’Brien fills his models with character and acts through them-Allosaurus and its brontosaur prey glower and sneer at each other, the Apatosaurus sniffs, roars, rears, and meanders its way through London, the Allosaurus snaps indignantly at being chased off by Triceratops and escaped by the brontosaur, and dying dinosaurs writhe in agony, flailing their feet and screaming silently. O'Brien, through his animation, is a far better actor than any of the cast. Imagining this film without O'Brien and Delgado is like imagining Jurassic Park without Phil Tippet, Dennis Muren and ILM.

The film, alas, was lost for decades, and only two nearly-complete versions exist, and each has content the other one hasn’t. For the complete experience, you’ll have to edit both the George Eastman and Film Preservation Associate version. I think the FPA version is better, but they are both excellent restorations of a film that, thanks to the arbitrary nature of the film industry for its first 30 years, was cut down to the bare essentials. This is a very good overview of the many versions in print:

I definitely liked it. Despite much of its problems both as a film and an adaptation, it’s an entertaining film for its dinosaurs alone and definitely a great historical piece. If you like stop motion animation, dinosaurs, or both, this is definitely worth looking for. It’s still the best adaptation of the book in my opinion, has more dinosaur action than most dinosaur films, and by far my favorite silent film. I give it a 75/100.

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