[November 21, 1961] Jules Verne on a Budget (Valley of the Dragons)


by Rosemary Benton

Very little deters me from seeking out science fiction films. Even if the venue is a little disreputable I will still venture in. Even when a film is being trashed by critics I’ll still give it a chance. But in the case of Valley of the Dragons I wish I had turned around at the entrance to the seedy theater I found it in. I wish I had heeded the warnings of fellow film reviewers. Valley of the Dragons is this month’s science fiction B-movie and 1961’s third Jules Verne inspired motion picture. It has everything including a story slower than my Greek tortoise, well known bit-role actors and of course copious use of stock footage. But is it still watchable? No.

Set in 1881 Algiers, the motion picture begins with two men facing off in a duel when a comet swipes past Earth, and pulls them to its surface and off into space. Suddenly finding themselves in a new and hostile world, the duelists must put aside their differences in order to outmaneuver a herd of mammoths, roaming giant lizards and bloodthirsty cavemen. Eventually they learn to adapt to their new home and are each adopted by a rival tribe of prehistoric humans. The second half of the film focuses on the emerging romances each man sparks with a cavewoman from his tribe. The script concludes with the tribes learning to come together to better fight for survival on the unforgiving comet. 

The poster for Valley of the Dragons touted several interesting aspects that I was hoping would be delivered. First and foremost, in bold red lettering the poster said that the film was photographed in “Monstascope.” Would this mean that the movie was in an aspect ratio other than 1.37:1? Yes, the film was definitely not 1.37:1, but neither was it CinemaScope with it’s glorious 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Herein lay the first let down of Valley of the Dragons. If I had to hazard a guess I would say it was closer to a 1.85:1 ratio.

Next, the poster advertises the involvement of director and writer Edward Bernds. Bernds is best known for Return of the Fly (1959) and World Without End (1956), although he has made his mark in exploitative films like High School Hellcats (1958) and even comedies like the Blondie Bumstead franchise. Being well versed in such a wide expanse of genres, I was interested to see what Bernds could cook up with subject material as potent as a Jules Verne novel. But despite my initial interest in the setting and the two protagonists, the plot quickly dissolves into painfully cliché storytelling with little in terms of originality. The former being especially true with the ridiculous amount of footage from other movies that Bernds stuffs in. Bernds relies so heavily on repurposed footage of monster fights and special effects that I felt like I was watching a fan-made reimagining of One Million B.C. rather than an original movie that happened to borrow some of its more memorable scenes.

But I can’t say that Valley of the Dragons is completely without charm. Hector Servadac, the only character retained from the original 1877 Verne novel Off On a Comet, fits well into the role of the more logical and methodical of the two protagonists. His monologue theorizing how they came to their current situation is also characteristically in keeping with Jules Verne’s fantastical science.

“There’s only one explanation that fits all the facts as we know them… A heavenly body, a small planet, or a comet perhaps, collided with the Earth and bore us into space carrying an envelope of the Earth’s atmosphere with us.”

It was also fun, as with almost all B-movies, to see how many different films they used stock footage from. At least I found it fun recognizing the various 40s and 50s films meshed together with original footage. But then again, I’ve seen too many movies. I was able to instantly recognize the alligator and monitor lizard fight, not to mention the woolly mammoths and giant iguana, from the 1940 film One Million B.C. It seems strange to me to use widely recognizable footage from a classic like One Million B.C., a movie that is played repeatedly on television, but not knowing the mind of Edward Bernds I can only assume he thought it looked interesting and would shave precious money from the production budget. In the last half hour of the film there is even some Rodan (1956) and Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) footage.

On the subject of saving money, Valley of the Dragons did include one prop that I was surprised and frankly impressed that Bernds employed. After our protagonists begin exploring the strange comet they find themselves on, they stumble into a cave to escape some roaming giant lizards. In this cave exist giant spiders. Very familiar giant spiders in fact. Since having them built for World Without End, Bernds has said that the mechanics nearly never worked and were a constant source of frustration for himself as well as the actors. Despite this, he has continued to employ these props in nearly every one of his science fiction films. It has become nearly a trademark to see these Labrador-sized furry spiders jumping on scientists, adventurers and heroines in an Edward Bernds movie. 

Ultimately Valley of the Dragons has not won me or the critics with either its Jules Verne appeal or its a giant spiders. This might a passable movie for anyone who has not seen a science fiction film over the last twenty years. Or anyone who doesn’t owns a television set and hasn’t seen over half of this movie via reruns of Rodan, One Million B.C. or Cat-Women of the Moon. But for those who are looking for a competent science fiction movie with fun special effects and originality, I would strongly advise looking elsewhere. Valley of the Dragons has its moments, but I can’t say it was worth the price of admission. Edward Bernds may be a competent enough director and writer, but Valley of the Dragons will not go down as a shining moment in his filmography.

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