[May 19, 1961] One of our Continents is Missing! (Atlantis: The Lost Continent)

The cinema is one of those eternal joys.  I can’t see it ever dying out, even though doomsayers have been predicting just that for decades.  Radio was the first real competition, especially when movies were silent.  But then Talkies came out around 1930, and radio doesn’t have moving pictures.  Television does, and it seems a stronger contender.  Still, although ticket sales have declined, the film industry has responded by showing the kind of spectacle you can’t see on the small screen.  Epics like The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, Spartacus.

Those definitely provide impetus to hit the movie houses, but I’d go even if the blockbuster never had been invented.  For me, it’s a chance to get away from the world.  My daughter and I (and sometimes my wife) go into that darkened room, redolent with the smell of butter and popcorn.  We’ve got our pop and our candy.  The floor is just a touch disconcertingly sticky.  You don’t have to dress up to go to the movies these days, particularly in California.  The lights go out, the curtains open, and for two hours (or more, if it’s a double-feature or you get a couple of shorts) all of your worries disappear.  It’s a portal beyond reality.

Particularly if, like us, you’re into the fantasy and s-f flicks.  Let’s face it — if I want to see everyday drama, I woun’t bother plunking down a quarter for the privilege.  No, I go to the movies to see something other worldly.  Much of it is subpar, but plenty is good.  Moreover, the best of the genre have comedy and action to rival conventional movies in addition to possessing that element of the Beyond I crave.  Not that I don’t watch mainstream films: I saw Spartacus and Ocean’s 11 last year.  It’s just that I also saw every monster, alien, and space movie that came out in 1960, and I plan to keep up the practice through this decade and beyond.

And tell you all about it…

With that, let me report on last Saturday’s outing.  The Young Traveler and I went to the local drive-in for the latest from George Pal, the wizard who brought us last year’s amazing The Time Machine (winner of the Oscar for Best Special Effects!).  On tap was Atlantis: The Lost Continent, a sumptuous swords and sandals epic a la The Seven Voyages of Sinbad

The pace is quick.  Within five minutes of the movie’s start, our hero, the Greek fisherman, Demetrios, has pulled up a nearly drowned beauty from the ocean.  This most unappreciative and haughty girl is none other than Antillia, Princess of Atlantis.  She demands that Demtrios chauffeur her beyond the Pillars of Herculues into the Atlantic Ocean, back to her home, but the fisherman believes the journey would be suicide. 

Antillia is not to be denied, however, and she steals the man’s boat to make the trip herself — only she is too inept a sailor to outrun Demetrios, who is a powerful swimmer.  The fisherman’s first inclination is to turn the ship back home, but he wavers in the face of Antillia’s charm.  Demetrios agrees to sail to Atlantis if, in return, she agrees to marry him upon their return to Greece.  The deal made, the pair sojourn for a month, enduring storms, gods, and other Mediterranean hazards.  I at first thought that Atlantis would be an Odyssey-esque adventure, and that the lost continent might not figure prominently in the film.  This, of course, was silly.  One does not make a movie about Atlantis without showing its dramatic sinking, especially if that someone is George Pal!

Out in the middle of the ocean, the pair encounter a menacing sea monster.  In a very effective scene, Demetrios attempts to ward off the creature, but his spear bounces off with…a metallic clang!  The sea serpent is, in fact, an Atlantean submarine, the first indication of Atlantis’ super-advanced technology.  The ship’s captain, the wily Zaren, takes the pair aboard and whisks them to Atlantis.

At the continent’s capital, Antillia is joyfully reunited with her father, the well-meaning but doddering King.  Demetrios, however, finds himself in chains, put to work alongside Atlantean slaves mining the powerful energy crystals that are the secret to Atlantis’ strength.  Atlantis, for all its beauty, is built on depravity.  From the Roman-esque gladiatorial games, to the grinding inhumanity toward the non-Atlanteans, including Mengele-esque experiments on the slaves with the aim of turning them into human-beast hybrids.  As if nature itself knows that such an abhorrent state cannot be withstood, the continent is rocked with increasingly violent quakes, and it is foretold that wicked Atlantis shall not survive for long.

Zaren, the true power behind the throne, remains heedless of the warnings of Sonoy, his astrologer, and of Azar, the good-hearted priest (who has turned his back on the pagan gods and has found faith in the True God).  Rather, the wily usurper has concocted a plan to take over the world, crafting a giant beam weapon powered by the mother of all energy crystals.  It is up to Demetrios, Antillia, and Azar to delay Zaren so that the impending natural catastrophe can thwart his plans.

Without giving too much of the ending away, I can confirm that the sinking of Atlantis does occur, and it is magnificent.  Some excellent model work mixed with clever optical effects makes for a satisfying conclusion.  Other noteworthy elements are the score (though there is some recycling of motifs from The Time Machine) and the acting, particularly the performances turned in by John Dall (Zaren, who was in Spartacus) and Paul Frees.  The latter is never seen; rather, his vocal talents are evident throughout.  The versatile Frees, who you’ve assuredly heard in prior films, and will hear in films to come, is the film’s narrator and the looped-over voice of many of the characters. 

Atlantis, a colorful and lovely film, is actually quite dark for its genre.  Perhaps it is because the monsters in Atlantis are humans that the scenes of cruelty and torture are so hard-hitting.  There is definitely a morality about the film — evil places, whether they be called Sodom or Atlantis, no matter the level of technology (or, perhaps, even because of it), shall not be tolerated.  Perhaps there’s a touch of Walter M. Miller in Pal.

While it’s not the tour de force that his last movie was, Atlantis was a solid piece of work that is worth your time.  The first half is better than the last half, but the end is worth sticking around for.  Three and a half stars.

I greatly enjoyed Atlantis, though more for its visuals than its plot. It is more of a movie that leaves you with a taste or feeling, rather than memory of a story.  It shares many aspects of Sinbad, in terms of visuals and feel.  As my dad said, it is very much a sword and sandals movie.

To my dad’s point, there were a few moments that were violent, but overall it’s a pretty tame movie (unless you count an entire civilization collapsing into the ocean not tame.) The special effects were also amazing.  They were as good as the The Time Machine, if not better.  I specifically like the fact that they built an entire mini Atlantis solely to destroy it.  Knowing that it was by George Pal though, I’m not surprised.

Overall I would also give it a solid three and a half.  Not nearly as good as the Time Machine, but still a great movie.  Especially compared to most of the movies we watch.  I highly recommend you go to see it for yourself, for the amazing visuals and for the experience as a whole. 

This is the Young Traveler, signing off.

9 thoughts on “[May 19, 1961] One of our Continents is Missing! (Atlantis: The Lost Continent)”

  1. Thank you both for sharing this movie, and bravo for Geoge Pal for going to such a good source. After all, nothing like having Plato in the writers’ credits. (Thanks for the warning about the dark bits, too.)

    A whole mini Atlantis! Well, the great pictures you’ve shared look like that.

    1. It really was some pretty model and matte painting work, and Pal has gotten better at lava effects since his last movie (which won the Special Effects Oscar this year, by the way).

  2. This definitely sounds like fun. George Pal can usually be relied on for some fun cinema (and he once worked with Heinlein). It’s been getting panned in the trade press, though. They reused a lot of footage from Quo Vadis, maybe a little too much. At a test screening a couple of months ago, one wag responded that his favorite scene was the one where Robert Taylor saved Deborah Kerr from the fire.

    My only complaint would be that they probably ought to have given writing credit to Rider Haggard. It sounds like this hits all the beats of one of his lost civilization stories. Still, it sounds like this one is good for a fun afternoon or evening.

  3. My quick opinion of this one is that it’s not as good as “The Time Machine” or “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.”  That may be a case of praising with faint damn (to twist a phrase) because those two films are very hard to match.  I think the Young Traveler (nice to hear from you) matched my feeling exactly.  I’ve already forgotten much of the story.  (What do you need to know?  Atlantis sinks.  That’s like “A Night to Remember.”  All you need to know is “the boat sinks.”)

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