Discovering Journey to the Beginning of Time, Karel Zeman’s Classic Sci-Fi Film

Jurassic Park appeared in theaters in June of 1993, when I was five years old. I was dinosaur-obsessed to an intense degree; I played with toy tyrannosauruses, ate dinosaur-themed candy, and read dinosaur picture books. Somehow I contrived to learn the Latin names of various saurians; I figured it was good training for my inevitable career as a paleontologist. In pursuit of that future, I even dug up the backyard in search of dino bones. Given this level of obsession, I was heartbroken to learn that my parents would not let me go see the new dinosaur movie. I didn’t quite understand that Spielberg’s film was about people running from dinosaurs that wanted to eat them. Who needs menace and suspense when there were dinosaurs? I would have been perfectly happy watching a dinosaur movie where nothing went wrong and no one was imperilled. I just wanted to see dinosaurs in motion. It took more than twenty-five years for me to discover that the movie five-year-old Matt really wanted to see was Czech director Karel Zeman’s Journey to the Beginning of Time.

Of the four Zeman films I’ve had the pleasure of seeing, Journey to the Beginning of Time is the one I liked least, though that may be my own fault. Though I don’t know that Zeman ever directed a film that’s unsuitable for children, movies like The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, The Jester’s Tale, and Invention for Destruction (often shown as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne) are more sophisticated: They’re mannered in their artifice and wry in their wondrousness. The guilelessness and innocence of Journey left me wishing that I’d encountered the film as a child. As old-fashioned as the effects are, I’m sure it would have driven all thoughts of Jurassic Park from my young mind. It may be the world’s most innocent creature feature.

Four boys—Jirka, Tonik, Petr, and Jenda—are exploring a river. The youngest, Jirka, is entranced by a trilobite fossil and expresses his desire to see a live creature. His three companions can’t quite explain that they’re long extinct, so they decide to take him back in time by piloting their boat through a cliffside cave. Zeman doesn’t concern himself with logic: The cave should go back in time, so it does. After all, narrator Petr determines, the characters in Journey to the Center of the Earth get to see vanished prehistoric creatures, and pretty much everything Jules Verne wrote about came true.

The river threads its way backwards through the millennia: When the children first emerge from the cave, they must put on gloves and caps to warm themselves against the Ice Age they’ve rowed into. Fortunately for them, they’re proper little scouts, ready to set up tents, build fires, and scavenge for food. After a night in the Ice Age, the kids get back in the boat and row a few hundred thousand years further back. So goes the whole movie: The kids row on the river of time, head ashore for an adventure, stay the night, and repeat the process. They encounter mammoths in one era and dinosaurs in the next; they’re swarmed by insects in one and dive-bombed by pterodactyls in another. Their journey ends when they at last reach the sea from which life first emerged and Jirka gets to hold a living trilobite.

A few animals—a tiger of some sort and a pterodactyl come to mind—provide moments of fright for the intrepid kids, but for the most part, they observe in safety. And “observe” is the right word: They take photos with their folding accordion camera, they sketch, and every night of their adventure they record the day’s sights in their expedition logbook. When they encounter a dead stegosaurus, they climb and prod as any child would, but they also take pains to measure the height and width of its back plates.

Though Petr, Jirka, and the rest are rarely in danger, Zeman doesn’t lull the viewer. For excitement, there’s a memorable dinosaur fight witnessed by the kids from a distance and by the audience in close-up, as well as a detour through an absent caveman’s cave, but even the most earnestly educational moments, like a potted summary of the geologic eras the boys will traverse, are charming. In any case, just like the kids, we’re here to observe. Even if we never suspend disbelief, we relish the puppetry and the stop motion, the matte paintings and inserts, the sets and the scenery. Zeman knows he can’t persuade his viewers they’re seeing something real, so he persuades them into seeing something beautiful.

Second Run’s supplemental features are several and rich. The highlight is an interview with Kung Fu Panda director John Stevenson, who recounts his lifelong fascination with the film. Stevenson’s love for the film and admiration of Zeman are obvious; his enthusiasm is infectious and his knowledge encyclopedic. As an animator himself, he can point out some of Zeman’s unusual techniques, including portraying the same creature with different tools for different shots and some fancy manipulation of matte paintings and backdrops. Though he’s a grown man and an accomplished filmmaker, Stevenson retains a childlike glee in the dinosaurs. Plastic dinosaurs sit on the table beside him; he wears a dinosaur-patterned shirt.

Also included in Second Run’s package is a booklet with a fine contextualizing essay by Michael Brooke, who places Journey in the larger contexts of Zeman’s career, Czech cinema, and creature features. The booklet also includes advertising material from the film’s American release. In the mid-1950s, relatively few commercial films from the non-Anglophone world traveled to the U.S. uncut and undubbed, and Journey was no exception. The American producer, evidently concerned that no right-thinking parent would take their child to a film that had stepped from behind the Iron Curtain, anglicized the names of the actors and crew, inserted a prologue in the American Museum of Natural History, and announced that the four leads were all “New York schoolboys.” Who knows? Perhaps most children in the audience believed. Though I’d recommend watching the original version, Second Run is nothing if not thorough, and a reconstruction of the American cut of the film is included on the disc.

 

Journey to the Beginning of Time can be purchased direct from Second Run, which will ship internationally. The Blu-Ray is region-free and will play on American devices. The Criterion Collection will be releasing Journey in the United States in February in a box set that also includes Invention for Destruction and The Fabulous Baron Munchausen.

Matt Keeley reads too much and watches too many movies. You can find him on Twitter at @mattkeeley.

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