Thursday, September 11, 2014

Movie AND book review: At the Earth's core (book 1914, film 1975)

There are no dinosaurs in this movie. Nor in the book. But don’t panic-we’ll find something prehistoric!

It’s a real shame that of the three series of pulp novels that Edgar Rice Burroughs penned, only Tarzan ever took off into other mediums. The others didn’t have as strong a central character, but made up for it in worldbuilding. I suspect that it was budget that really made Tarzan the preferable screen adventure; jungle sets, trained animals, gorilla suits, and black extras were cheap, while aliens and prehistoric creatures were far too complicated. It took until 2012 that a Barsoom movie was made. However, when Burrough’s Land That Time Forgot was made into a film in 1975, it proved to be successful enough to warrant two sequels and a production of At the Earth’s Core.
So today, I’ll be taking on the film of the first book of the Pellucidar series, and I’ll discuss the book while I’m at it.

The film was directed by Kevin Conner, a long-running director of B-budget films in the UK.  This film had three stars as the three main characters. First is Anglo-American actor Doug McClure as David Innes; you may remember him from TV shows The Virginian, The Overland Trail, Checkmate, and Out of This World.  Supporting him is British legend Peter Cushing in a rare comedic role as Abner Perry, and a fellow Hammer star Caroline Munro as Dian. 

The credits open over molten metal in a forge, invoking volcanoes, a primeval cliché and connected with the geologic theme of the movie.  We pan over to see the Iron Mole (named as such by Dr. Perry in the book and David in the film), a subterranean transport armed with a giant drill. We’re introduced to David and Perry as they do a public test of the Mole. Films don’t exposit in the same efficient way as books, so it only establishes the characters and their relationship. Unlike the routine, private affair in the novel, this test is performed in front of a large crowd, complete with orchestra, ribbons and stands.

As in the novel, the mole goes in too fast and too deep, losing control. The passengers pass out from heat as they pierce the mantle, and then are briefly chilled by an unexplained cold spot. They emerge into a jungle swamp, as represented by a jungle set and magenta sky. The set is rather decent-a step above Lost Continent but not quite as deep or elaborate as the Lost World or King Kong.  In the novel, the underground sky is still blue and the light is still white as a part of the core spun off and created a sort of sun for Pellucidar. In the film, the sky is magenta because the sky is illuminated by the magma below and above Pellucidar.

David and Perry are immediately accosted by a prehistoric beast that chases them up a tree.  In the book, it’s Megatherium; still going strong despite being described by Owen and Darwin.  Perhaps Burroughs was inspired by his native Chicago’s acquisition of a Megatherium for the World Colombian Exposition (said Megatherium is still there). In the film, however, the giant sloth is replaced by a giant reptilian humanoid with a birdlike head.  Yes, this is the major difference. In the book, there are fantasy creatures, but most of the animals are prehistoric mammals and reptiles. In the movie, the pterodactyl villains Mahars are the only survivors; the rest are pure fantasy, loosely based on prehistoric animals but ultimately invented. This is a double edged sword-the truly alien fantasy creatures are at least interesting to watch and unlike anything outside a Japanese kaiju or Tokusatsu film, but the prehistoric animals of the novel have more charm and more realism. 

In the book, they are first captured by hairless but tailed monkey-men and their pet hyenodons but in turn are captured by the sasquatch-like Sagoths. However, the towering apemen are replaced by short pig-snouted humanoids which are less intimidating and more comical. While in the book, David and Perry learn the languages of gilaks (humans) and Sagoths, here the Sagoths speak in what sounds like human speech edited electronically.

As in the books, David and Perry are taken prisoner and meet some other humans as they are marched to Mahar city of Phutra as slaves.  The characters are the villainous Hooja the Sly, the elder Ghak the Hairy, and Princess Dian the Beautiful.  Dian is sympathetic and befriends David and Perry. While her exposition is trimmed from the book, she does introduce the characters to Pellucidar, the Sagoths, and the Mahars. She is accosted by Hooja, but David defends her. He breaches Pellucidar social code, however, by failing to claim Dian. She rejects him and both Hooja and Dian flee when the slaves are attacked by two huge creatures. They seem to be loosely based on brontotheres based on their heads, but they’re bipeds with gaping maws full of sharp teeth. They eat a prisoner but then fight among themselves.  In the book, there is no such incident-Hooja and Dian escape when the Sagoths go underground briefly. 

Ghak provides exposition to David, introducing an unseen character of Jubal the Ugly, explaining the social customs of Pellucidar and David’s mistake with Dian. This is all Ghak does in the film, whereas the novel’s Ghak is a noble and capable ally who fights and runs with David and protects Perry from the Mahars. They are then taken to Phutra, changed from a Roman-style metropolis to a vast underground labyrinth. In a touch of spectacle, the filmmakers add a lava moat and stone drawbridge.

Here we finally meet the villains, the Mahars.  Giant, sentient pterosaurs are a spectacular concept with a lot of potential for menace. However, in this film, they are portrayed by men in very cheap suits, with their flight performed by wires. They look like something out of a 50’s horror film, not a 70s sci-fi/fantasy epic. They take no notice of the new prisoners and assign David to the quarry and Perry is sent to the archives (in the book, their justification is from David’s explaining Perry’s constant praying  as sorcery). Perry exposits on the Mahars and reveals the Macguffin for the plot; in the novel it’s a book of secrets that allows the Mahars to reproduce. In the film it’s the Mahar’s eggs-should they fall, they not only destroy the race but begin a chain reaction of volcanism to destroy Phutra.  The slaves are kept in the novel as a workforce; in the film they are especially needed to maintain the tunnels of lava from destroying the city.

David escapes the quarry by brawling his way out- in the book the escape is far more spectacular as the prisoners witness an execution of two nameless humans to a bull aurochs and a saber toothed tiger. The would-be victims trick the animals into attacking each other and escape in the chaos, exploited by David.  It seems as if the budget of the film once again failed to match Burrough’s imagination. This is further established by David’s meeting with Ja the Mezop (island people). In the novel, they fight over a canoe and are menaced by a giant sea serpent. In the film, they fight over meat and are attacked by a carnivorous plant.  In either case, David saves Ja and they become friends.
Ja takes David to the feeding chamber of the Mahars, where the pterosaurs hypnotize human slaves into submission before consuming them.   “They got to be destroyed” David vows, but the two are separated. In the film, David goes into a tunnel before being captured by Sagoths with Ja. In the book, David swims through an underwater passage where Ja must save him from a “Labyrinthodon” (probably based on Mastodonsaurus and Cyclotosaurus) before David turns himself in to the Mahars to rescue Perry. 

David’s fate differs as well-in the novel, David is interrogated by the Mahars and sent underground for vivisection. He picks the lock, steals the book, kills sleeping Mahars, and he, Perry, and Ghak escape.  In the film, David and Ja are sent to the arena to battle a giant carnivorous reptile resembling an early therapsid like Anteosaurus or Eotitanosuchus. David slays the beast, and Ja slays an enraged Mahar.  Instead of just Perry and Ghak, the entire human slave populace rises in revolt and flees. 
The novel logically has the Mahars try to capture them with Sagoths and Thipdars (nonsentient pterosaur pets) who are driven off by David’s archery and a cave bear. The film instead immediately jumps to David meeting Dian again. The novel’s scene has David kill a thipdar attacking her before they walk to Amoz, where Dian is from. The film has Dian being menaced by Hooja (like Ja, he is a minor prescence in the first book, being a major character in the second) before Hooja is scared off by a giant toadlike lizard spewing fire. Perry creates a bow on the spot and shoots down the creature.
The plot threads of book and film converge again, this time of David facing Dian’s suitor, the giant brute Jubal the Strong.  In the film, Doc is there to witness the encounter -“Never mind Queensbury rules!” he calls out.  Jubal falls to David’s intelligence and resourcefulness, and Dian finally reconciles with him (the film does away with a rather dated misogynistic scene of David practically forcing himself on Dian to court her)

The final sequences are entirely different as well. The novel has Perry, Ghak, Dian and David meet with Dian’s brother Dacor the Strong. Ghak goes to his people, the Sari, and they join forces with Dian and Dacor’s Amoz. David and Dian give speeches rallying all humans to join together to defeat the Mahrs, Perry makes swords and bows for the people and teaches them in their use, and together they fight off an army of Sagoths and Mahars. As David goes to the surface to get supplies and books, Hooja switches Dian with a captive Mahar. The book ends with a cliffhanger of David in the Sahara preparing to return to Pellucidar. 

The film’s version is far more climactic. Ra gives the speeches this time, and the unnamed tribes unite and David and Perry arm them with bows. David plans his attack on Phutra but is overheard by Hooja, who is captured by the Mahars.  Dian and Perry chased Hooja but in turn are captured and prepared for sacrifice. David and Ra lead the attack, fighting the Sagoths but are separated when the Mahars raise the bridge. Ja escapes to the main lava chamber, dropping the eggs, collapsing the tunnels, and lowering the drawbridge at the cost of his life. 

Perry and Dian are defiant-“You cannot mesmerize me! I’m British!”  but are hypnotized and about to be eaten when David and the tribesmen burst into the chamber and shoot down the Mahars.  Hooja doesn’t escape to the sequel to fall to Perry’s cannonfire, but instead is devoured by one of the arena monsters as the city collapses. 

Back at Amoz, the united tribes celebrate. David and Perry decide to go home, but Dian insists on staying in Pellucidar. She is appointed queen while the two men ride the Iron Mole back home, emerging at the White House lawn. 

Like the 2012 John Carter of Mars, this film leaves opening for a sequel but still insists on having a closed story and pastiches the first story arc of Pellucidar into a single film.  It’s a mixed bag-the fantasy creatures and purple sky make Pellucidar seem very alien, with nothing recognizable or familiar other than the humans, but still doesn’t look prehistoric. The novel, not being restricted by budget, puts in far more action and spectacle in the story. Many exciting sequences are cut out or reduced in scope due to the budget.

On the other hand, the film trims out unnecessary scenes like the geography of Pellucidar, the monkey-people who capture David and Perry, and Ja taking David to Mezop, as well as the misogyny and racism of Burrough’s time.  

The acting is solid. While McClure and Munro don’t have any chemistry, they’re both charismatic and likeable. Peter Cushing rarely does comedy, and the comedy is rather broad, but he is fun to watch and you can see genuine effort in his timing and delivery.  The other actors are serviceable, as is the direction.  The action moves at a fair clip, and shots are well set up.

The real problem is the budget. The effects are men in suits, most of the film takes place in caverns, and the use of lava doesn’t add much in the way of spectacle.  As said before, the prehistoric feel is utterly lost. The Mahars and Sagoths simply can’t be taken seriously as villains, and the creatures are never believable. Phil Tippet or David Allen could have saved this film, let alone Jim Dansforth or Ray Harryhausen himself. 

It’s paradoxically easy to watch, but hard to really care about or remember. Most of the uniqueness comes from what’s left of Burrough’s setting and the bizarre denizens of Pellucidar. It’s not hard to watch like Lost Continent or King Dinosaur; it never gets boring or tries patience. It’s very much like John Carter of Mars, only trading in the actors for effects.   The change of turning multiple books into a single movie, in both cases, turned out a very uneven film.   The pacing is fast, but it seems to speed up in the last part of the film. I do give the filmmakers credit for adding some urgency to final fall of the Mahars-having Dian and Perry under threat of grisly death packs more emotion than simply having the gilaks shoot them down with muskets and cannon.  On the other hand, the collapse of the city just seems like a deus ex machina. As you’ve probably guessed, I’m not overfond of forcing geologic events in prehistoric movies and while this film does integrate the volcanic eruption into the plot, it seems like a forced cliché rather than something organic or even related to Burrough’s original work. 

Ultimately, I'd give the book a 76/100 and the film 62/100. It’s passable and painless, but also very goofy and by no means a classic. I recommend it for a background at parties or if you and your friends want to do some improvised MST3k.  Perhaps someone someday will make a good film out of it-with just enough action elements from the book and the climax but with some better characters, a more coherent setting, and of course with the misogyny and racism clipped out.  Alas, I’m not a filmmaker. I’m just a fan of prehistoric animals and pulp novels. Just don’t expect any dinosaurs.

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