BY FRED BLOSSER
When it opened in theaters some 55 years ago, on July 13, 1960, producer/director Irwin Allen’s “The Lost World” promised 96 minutes of exotic, CinemaScope, Color by DeLuxe fantasy adventure about dinosaurs and modern-day explorers in a remote corner of the world. As difficult as it may be for older filmgoers to remember today, and for younger ones to even imagine, widescreen cinematography and sumptuous color were powerful draws in that era before home theater, 500 cable channels, and streaming video. The TV set in your living room would only pick up three or four stations at best on a small black-and-white screen. A night out at the movies in CinemaScope and air conditioning was a big treat for most families. Talk about a lost world. Ten-year-olds were further primed by a Dell movie-tie-in comic book with its cover photo of a fearsome giant reptile emerging from a sinister fog: “Fantastic adventures of an expedition to a lost land of prehistoric animals and fierce headhunters!”
The enticements worked and Allen’s movie did good business, but its reviews failed to match its commercial success. The critics, who had little use for science fiction anyway in that era before the genre became big entertainment business, derided nearly every aspect of the film. Some of their points were valid. By filming on studio backlots and using stock footage to cut costs, Allen compromised the classy value of Winton Hoch’s expansive widescreen cinematography. The script by Allen and his frequent collaborator, one-time Alfred Hitchcock scenarist Charles Bennett, leaned heavily on conventional Hollywood plot elements to pad out Conan Doyle’s rousing but rather dramatically thin source material. Those might not have been serious liabilities five or ten years earlier, but Hollywood was already moving in the direction of greater realism, at least in terms of filming in authentic exotic locations rather than a sound stage. Most small-town audiences probably didn’t care, but their comments didn’t enter the permanent record. The newspaper and magazine reviews did. Today, compared with the level of lifelike detail that modern CGI can produce, the sets look even cruder in the jungle scenes.
Worse for special effects purists, Allen dashed hopes that the movie would employ the magic of stop-motion animation that had distinguished First National Pictures’ original, silent-screen version of “The Lost World” in 1925. Instead, as another way to save money and time, the production substituted tricked-out lizards for the ingenious, articulated model dinosaurs that Willis O’Brien had built and animated for the 1925 film. O’Brien was credited as a “technical expert” for the 1960 film, but the work really was done by Fox’s in-house team of L.B. Abbott, James B. Gordon, and Emil Kosa Jr. When “The Lost World” ran on TV from the late 1960s through the ‘80s, it suffered even further: pan-and-scan conversion ruined Hoch’s cinematography and made the artificiality of the sets even more apparent. It didn’t help that Allen recycled footage from the movie for his TV series “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” (1964-68) and “The Time Tunnel” (1966-67). The practice confirmed Allen’s critical reputation as a crass penny-pincher and may have conflated the movie with those childish TV shows in viewers’ memories.
In the film, scientist George Edward Challenger (Claude Rains) returns from an expedition to the wilds of the upper Amazon, where he claims to have found an isolated plateau on which dinosaurs have survived into the present. Not having any physical or photographic proof (his photos were lost when his canoe overturned on the return trip), and already regarded by his staid colleagues as an egotistical gadfly, he is met with disbelief. He proposes to launch a return expedition, joined by his skeptical rival Professor Summerlee (Richard Haydn) and globe-trotting sportsman Lord John Roxton (Michael Rennie). As a condition for financing the quest, newspaper magnate Stuart Holmes (John Graham) coerces Challenger into taking star reporter Ed Malone (David Hedison) along. Malone will file breaking-news dispatches on the way to the Amazon and beyond -- a prescient 1960 version of today’s reality TV and real-time internet coverage of sensational “infotainment.”
Flying to South America, as represented by the actors in close-up looking out of airplane windows at spectacular stock aerial footage of lush jungles and cascading waterfalls, the expedition reaches an outpost where they are met by guide Costa (Jay Novello) and helicopter pilot Gomez (Fernando Lamas). They also have two unwelcome additions. Holmes’ daughter Jennifer (Jill St. John), has impulsively jetted over without parental knowledge to join her boyfriend Roxton, accompanied by her brother David (Ray Stricklyn). From the outpost, Gomez’ chopper ferries the explorers to the lost plateau. There, a dinosaur wrecks the helicopter, stranding them. After adventures with other dinos, giant spiders, and man-eating venus fly-traps and voracious creeper vines, they are captured by a tribe of cannibals. A gorgeous native girl (Vitina Marcus) helps them escape through the perils of the Graveyard of the Damned and the Lake of Fire (did Lucas and Spielberg see this movie as teens and take notes?). There’s a subplot about a dark secret in Roxton’s recent past and a hunt for diamonds, leading to a confrontation with one of his fellow travelers in a grotto where a gunshot rouses another dinosaur, which eats the most expendable character in the cast. Getting rid of the monster by dumping a cascade of lava on it, the survivors flee the plateau just before the magma sets off a volcanic explosion.
The novel and the 1925 movie ended with Challenger taking a dinosaur back to London, where the creature escapes and causes panic (in the book, a pterodactyl, in the silent film, a Willis O’Brien T-Rex). Allen, in another cost-conscious move (or did he have thoughts about a sequel?), ends with a baby T-Rex, actually a gecko, hatching from an egg, and Challenger jovially promising to take it back as proof for skeptics.
Watching the movie now in a new, high-definition, 1080p Blu-ray disc released in Great Britain by 101 Films, the 2015 viewer is likely to agree with the critics of 1960 that the limitations imposed by Fox’s erratically thrifty budget make it difficult to settle comfortably into the story. The strangling creeper vines are about as convincing as the tentacles of Ed Wood Jr.’s rubber octopus in “Bride of the Monster” (1955). Even in 1960, and probably more so today when everybody can identify a picture of a T-Rex, no one except a three-year-old is going to accept a monitor lizard or a gecko as a tyrannosaur. There’s a passing joke in Steven Spielberg’s “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” (1997) that was probably meant, subliminally, to remind viewers about the presumed technical superiority of modern computer-based practices over older FX in Allen’s namesake movie and others. Eddie Carr (Richard Schiff) expresses surprise when he first sees Spielberg’s realistically detailed CGI dinos on Isla Sorna. “Well, what did you think you were going to see?” asks Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum). “Animals,” Eddie says lamely. “Maybe big iguanas.” The lizards and the human actors are matched pretty well in “The Lost World” in a couple of scenes, but moviegoers demand more realistic effects in the “Jurassic World” era. There’s also the criticism that the use of lizards amounted to animal abuse in scenes where the real reptiles bite and claw each other in the dinosaur fights. Audiences in 1960 were probably not bothered, but it’s likely to give many of us pause in these more enlightened times.
Time has been kinder to other aspects of the movie. The scenes of Rains as the irascible Challenger verbally sparring with Haydn as the haughty Summerlee are little masterpieces of droll acting that fans of dry British humor are likely to enjoy. Too bad the two actors never had a chance to reprise their roles in a sequel, but Haydn and another veteran of classic British stage and screen, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, played similar characters two years later in Allen’s “Five Weeks in a Balloon” (1962). Where yesterday’s critics jabbed at Jill St. John’s heiress plunging into the rain forest in an outfit better suited for a suburban pool party (“Jill St. John, as the daughter of the backer of this junket, is dressed in tight-fitting fuchsia pants and is as out of place here as a manikin in a mudhole,” the New York Times review sniffed), today’s retro fashion admirers are likely to get a charge out of the ensemble. At that, modern reality-show fans would hardly be fazed if the Kardashians or the Hilton sisters appeared in the same get-up on “Celebrity Survivor.” It’s always a pleasure to see classy old-school actors like Rains, Haydn, Rennie, Cinema Retro favorites David Hedison and Jill St. John, Lamas, Novello, and Stricklyn.
The Blu-ray disc from 101 Films is immaculate, the widescreen image and rich colors stunning. This is the best that “The Lost World” has looked since its initial big-screen run. The only extra feature on the disc, which will play only on all-region or Zone B players, is a chapter menu.