He doesn’t get it from MY side of the family, Gladys!
1925’s The Lost World is… really, everything a dinosaur movie should be. Like a dinosaur, this classic was once extinct too, existing as mere fragmentary footage and stills, but cinemaphile fossil-hunters have painstakingly excavated bits and pieces from obscure archives and assembled them into a nearly-complete animal. And what a beast it is!
Based on the 1912 novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the film’s script adds a love interest, scraps Doyle’s battle between a tribe of Amazonian Indians and a tribe of ape-men, and puts in waaaay more dinosaurs. This is a very good thing indeed. On the other hand, they change Doyle’s heroic black character Zambo into a grotesque clown played by a white man in blackface. That, however, is pretty much the only painful moment in the film. The rest of it is a jaw-dropping delight. Especially the dinosaurs.
Even before we get to the dinosaurs, however, The Lost World is fun. Handsome Young Dope Edward Malone proposes to his Betty-Boopoid sweetie, who refuses him on the grounds that only a man who has faced danger can win her heart. He ends up volunteering for an expedition to be led by the insanely hot-tempered Professor Challenger, played with scary vigor by Wallace Beery. Challenger claims there are living dinosaurs in the Amazon jungle, and he’s ready to break the jaw of any other scientist who disagrees. In case you think men of science never behaved this way, just google “Cope vs. Marsh” or “Bone Wars” sometime.
Why is Challenger so certain there are dinosaurs? He has the journal of a lost explorer, Maple White, who discovered an isolated plateau high in the Venezuelan jungle. The journal was brought back by White’s daughter, the only English survivor of the expedition. The journal, like Henry Jones Sr.’s Grail Diary, is full of sketches and scientific notes, only the sketches are of dinosaurs instead of grail trivia. Another image borrowed by later filmmakers is the charming map showing our heroes’ progress, with a tiny animated ship skittering like a cockroach from England to South America.
So the party arrives in the Jungle (this was before rain forests): Challenger, Malone, Miss White, a big game hunter named Roxton, a fussy little professor who came along to prove Challenger a liar, Zambo the Offensive Caricature, and an equally offensive Cockney caricature. I should, in all fairness, point out that both the Cockney and Zambo turn out to be heroes, and if this film were made today political correctness would demand that Roxton be portrayed as an eco-villain instead of the kind and gentlemanly fellow he is in Doyle’s story. Perhaps it’s best if you just pretend you’re watching this in 1925, OK?
Right away, the omens are good: our heroes spot a pterodactyl (actually a pteranodon) flying above the high plateau. They climb a cliff, cross to the plateau via a fallen tree bridge, and are promptly trapped there when a brontosaurus throws the fallen tree down the abyss. Hijinks ensue. In addition to all the dinosaurs threatening them, there is an Ape-man resembling a sasquatch with orthodontal problems who pals around with a little chimpanzee. But let me, right here and now, put my hand on my heart and say that master stop-motion animator Willis O’Brien was a god walking this earth in ten-foot strides, like his creations for The Lost World.
Jaded by today’s CGI spectacles, you may watch these little clay figures stump around their little rear-projection model world and be unimpressed. Eighty-four years ago, however, audiences saw them for the first time and believed. This is not an exaggeration. When some of the first completed footage of the models was shown without explanation on one of Doyle’s lecture tours in 1923, there were people who actually thought Doyle had somehow obtained the images of real dinosaurs by mediumistic means. The New York Times opined that the dinosaurs, if faked (!), were masterpieces.
The most magnificent set piece, involving the eruption of a volcano and the subsequent lava flow and fires (and fleeing dinosaurs) was created on a single table set 75 feet long and twice as wide. If you know anything about stop motion animation you will be astounded by the sheer scale of O’Brien’s achievement in the thousands of tiny adjustments to dozens of dinosaur models in one frame, intercut with live action footage. And I defy you not to shiver when our heroes, crouched around their campfire, look up and see a pair of fire-reflecting eyes advancing on them through the primeval darkness… at the level of the treetops.
Watch The Lost World and you will understand that without its pioneering SFX achievements and unforgettable images, there would have been no King Kong eight years later (or any subsequent remakes), no Mighty Joe Young, no Rite of Spring sequence in Fantasia, no Valley of Gwangi or possibly any other Ray Harryhausen film, no Jurassic Parks I, II or III… if you watch closely you’ll realize that even the famous hoaxed picture of the Loch Ness Monster was probably inspired by one particular shot in this film.
Sure, there are anachronisms, with dinosaurs from different eras coexisting on the plateau, and for that matter what’s that African chimpanzee doing in Venezuela? It just adds to the charm. The acting isn’t bad for its time, either, and the casting is perfect, especially Beery as Challenger. Bessie Love’s character is a fragile flower and love object only, but, like I said, it was 1925. It would be easily another fifty years before women in films started grabbing the guns and shooting the monsters themselves. If you can deal with that, and with Zambo, you’ll enjoy the heck out of The Lost World.
Now, be advised: just as the same skeleton can wear its skull on one end and be called a brontosaurus, but wear its skull on the other end and be called an apatosaur, there are two modern restorations of this film and they differ from each other in certain respects. Critical judgment tends to favor the version put together by David Shepard and released through Image Entertainment in 2001, but the George Eastman House version put together in 1996 is also worth watching. You just can’t have too many dinosaurs, can you?