Let’s play a name association game. When I say “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,” what comes to mind? Sherlock Holmes, I’ll wager. But did you know that, in addition to being a quite accomplished non-fiction writer (his The War in South Africa: Its Causes and Conduct won him a knighthood), Conan Doyle was also a science fiction writer? Contemporary with Edgar Rice Burroughs, Conan Doyle wrote a series of adventures starring the irascible Professor Challenger.
The first one, The Lost World, involves a trip to a remote South American plateau where dinosaurs still thrive. This was the sort of conceit one could get away with in Edwardian times, back when there were still blank areas on the map where dragons might reside. Burroughs, for instance, placed an entire mini-continent in the Pacific Ocean, also populated with dinosaurs, in his Caspak series.
With giant lizards festooned with costume accoutrements now a fad (e.g. Journey to the Center of the Earth), it is no surprise that Hollywood is looking for vehicles to showcase this new advancement in special effects. Hence, The Lost World has found its way onto the silver screen.
Now, I’d been looking forward to this flick, in large part because I mistakenly thought it was going to be a movie about Burroughs’ Pellucidar series (sort of an updated Journey to the Center of the Earth). I don’t know where I got that impression. Nevertheless, Lost World is in color, and it’s a lovely Cinemascope production, so I kept my cinema tickets and, with little difficulty, enticed my daughter to join me for a night at the movies.
Would that I could turn back time.
Every movie starts with a reserve of good will. In this case, Lost World had its esteemed provenance and an exciting premise going for it. It then proceeded to squander this reserve by engaging in an interminable scene in which Professor Challenger announces his discovery of dinosaurs in Amazonia and his intention to launch a second expedition. This takes up nearly a tenth of the movie.
At first, the Professor rejects the few volunteers he receives, with the exception of Lord John Roxton, a (putatively) British adventurer with a California accent. Challenger is later induced to accept reporter Ed Malone at the urging of Malone’s editor, who offers $100,000 to fund the expedition. Challenger’s plummy associate, Professor Summerlee, also tags along.
This meager group is augmented upon arrival in South America by the craven, bearded Costa, and the suave Manuel Gomez (Fernando Lamas). Gomez, despite his unconvincing guitar-playing skills (which the movie showcases as often as it can), is easily the most compelling character in the movie.
The Challenger expedition also expands to include Malone’s editor’s two children, Jennifer and David Holmes. As in Journey to the Center of the Earth, much is made of Jennifer’s gender. Sadly, unlike the strong female lead in last year’s movie, Jennifer is largely relegated to mooning over Roxton, falling in love with Malone, and generally ending up in distress.
Thus completed, the party embarks on a helicopter trip to the prehistoric plateau. Thankfully, the vehicle is far larger on the inside than on the outside, and also whisper-quiet, so the expedition suffers few of the difficulties of associated with air travel.
Upon arriving, we learn that Jennifer has brought along a companion, which my daughter immediately dubbed “Gertrude.” Once again, this character compares poorly to its Journey counterpart, the plucky waterfowl that was several times the Lindenbrook Expedition’s salvation. Gertrude the dog is just an accessory, like a purse or scarf.
That night, Challenger’s camp is assaulted by a rampaging “Brontosaurus,” which looks suspiciously iguana-esque. Gomez’ helicopter is destroyed, stranding the expedition on the plateau. This does little to dampen Challenger’s spirits, however, and the next morning, he leads his party deep into the jungle in search of more prehistoric beasts.
His search soon leads to fruition, though I am beginning to doubt Professor Challenger’s academic credentials. I am reasonably certain, for instance, that dinosaurs were not lizards.
Soon after, Challenger finds a lovely native girl. She is, of course, captured by the party, presumably for later dissection and display, or perhaps as insurance against when provisions are exhausted. The native falls in love with David, though there is never an indication as to why.
The plot thickens slightly upon the discovery of evidence that another expedition preceded Challenger’s. It turns out that Roxton was a member of that party, which had come to the plateau in search of the famed treasure of El Dorado. All but Roxton perished in the endeavor, including a fellow named Santiago. It seems Roxton abandoned Santiago, with whom Gomez had a strong connection. The helicopter pilot even carries a locket with Santiago’s picture. At first, I thought this was going to be a particularly daring and progressive film, but it later develops that Gomez and Santiago were brothers.
The remainder of the film is a sequence of unrelated, action-filled vignettes of unbearable length. First, we are treated to an interminable clash of dinosaurs, exhausting any remaining hopes the audience might have entertained that anything resembling a real dinosaur would appear in the film.
Then, the party is captured by cannibals, who imprison them in their cave pending an invitation to dinner.
The party escapes with the aid of the smitten native girl as well as a member of Roxton’s first expedition, who turns up alive but blind.
But they’re not out of the woods yet. First, the party must spelunk endlessly through the chambers of an active volcano.
And then, on the brink of safety, Gomez brandishes his pistol and vows to avenge his brother. The Argentine is easily subdued, but the party is then visited by another saurian attack. Costa is gobbled up, but Roxton saves Gomez from a similar fate. The balance books now even, Gomez sacrifices himself for the good of the party, killing a dinosaur with a handy lava flow.
The party seems less than aggrieved by the loss of its latin companions. Rather, they delight in having escaped with their lives, a significant number of roughcut diamonds, and a newly hatched “Tyrannosaurus.” The End.
It really is fascinating to compare Lost World to Journey. On the surface, they are surprisingly similar films. Yet the level of craftsmanship is so poor in Lost World, with the possible exception of the cinematography. It just goes to show that “A” status is no guarantee of a movie’s quality, just as “B” status does not necessarily reflect an unworthy effort (e.g. The Wasp Woman).