April 14, 2014 Leave a comment
- directed by Harry Hoyt
- starring Lloyd Hughes, Wallace Beery, Bessie Love, Lewis Stone, Arthur Hoyt, Alma Bennett
- Maverick scientist Prof. Challenger claims that dinosaurs still exist on a remote Brazilian plateau, and to prove his assertion he leads an expedition up the Amazon.
“My elephant gun might as well be a bean-shooter! We’d need a cannon for that baby.”
The star of The Lost World and the man most responsible for the film’s enduring, iconic status is not billed in the credits above, nor does his name appear in those of the movie itself. The cast was just fine, effectively conveying all of the adventure-by-numbers beats and individual plot threads. Sure, sure. Harry Hoyt for his part is probably a better writer and thinker than director, but he did oversee a great thrill ride of a movie. OK. The only reason a lot of the roads of cinema lead back to The Lost World, though, is the stop-motion and model animation work of special effects innovator Willis O’Brien.
Before WETA, ILM, Cameron, and Trumbull could advance the ball in the modern era, there was the work of Willis O’Brien in The Lost World. Well, technically not, because in this movie he merely established the work that would be polished and perfected eight years later in his true masterwork, King Kong, but still. If an extra boost to his legacy is needed, which it is not, his stop-motion techniques and principles were carried into the 50s and 60s by a protege, the highly influential Ray Harryhausen.
I would contend that, aside from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it wasn’t until four decades after O’Brien’s work in The Lost World and King Kong that the next bullet point on the timeline of technological breakthroughs in film, was placed with 2001: A Space Odyssey. There were countless narrative, structural, genre, and stylistic leaps in those passing decades, and cinematography and acting went through enormous evolutions. Yet special effects and films that planted a flag in the sand signaling a bold new way took only gradual steps forward. Only a few movies in history seemingly came out of nowhere, technologically speaking. 2001 did thanks to the marriage of Douglas Trumbull’s one of a kind effects and the thoughtful and meticulous direction of Stanley Kubrick. Similarly, the borderline insane scope of James Cameron’s ambition mixed with ILM’s ingenuity helped usher in the age of the modern blockbuster with Terminator 2: Judgment Day. We’re still playing on Cameron’s field two decades later believe it or not. Cases can be made for Star Wars, a good chunk of Spielberg, Toy Story, or The Lord of the Rings, but I see them as standing on the shoulders of the giants before them rather than untethered revolutionary works.
Back to the forefather, The Lost World, something very interesting happens along the way as you watch. The production itself acts as a bridge between two eras of possibilities. In one half you have the team of adventurers reaching the plateau confirming the presence of the dinosaurs. These scenes, I cannot imagine how dazzling to witness in 1925, act more as a showcase of O’Brien’s work than a part of the narrative. There is very little integration between the dinosaurs and the human characters, so instead we see the creatures being observed from afar, grazing, flying solo, or fighting each other to the death as the human characters carry out their human side stories—Paula’s quest to rescue her father, Challenger’s for vindication, and Malone’s to achieve true heroism. The danger of being so close to the beasts is implied but really the biggest threat to the group, as long as they remain semi-intelligent and keep their distance, is a pesky carnivorous ape—a person in an ape costume with an actual chimpanzee sidekick—that is actively trying to kill and eat them.
Somewhere along the course of production, leading to a major shift in the movie, O’Brien develops a way for his animated models to share the same frame as the actual film footage, as opposed to being split side by side. And so we are afforded a great, but more crude version of a Kong-New York City-like rampage of a Brontosaurus let loose onto the streets of London, ruining buildings, crashing his head into a window and interrupting a poker game, and demolishing Tower Bridge, before casually making his way out of the city via the River Thames.
Witnessing the destruction of some of London followed by the quiet path of “the monster” down-river, our human characters, having satisfied all of their romantic and professional pursuits over the course of the journey into and out of the Amazon, are borderline serene and content about such an unexpected end. It was personal fulfillment they were after all along; it just took conquering treacherous elements and a bizarre ape-man, and transporting one of the dinosaurs halfway across the world to realize that.
In the case of The Lost World, the distinct split between narrative and technology makes it easy to attribute who was responsible for what. It was an Arthur Conan Doyle novel changed rather dramatically by screenwriter Marion Fairfax, directed and acted not quite remarkably by Hoyt and his cast, with mesmerizing animation work by Willis O’Brien. It’s all easily compartmentalized on screen and slightly disjointed because of that. For all of its modest strengths outside of the dinosaurs, nobody would talk about it after 1925 without those monsters living, breathing, and inhabiting natural space on the screen.