The Lost World (1960)

I was watching an old movie on Film4 on Sunday evening that brought back many good old memories for me. It was one of those oldies that I’d first seen way back when I was a kid, sometime during the first seven or eight years of my life, and is one that I hadn’t seen in many, many years.

The film in question was the second cinema version (1960) of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic 1912 novel The Lost World (the first version was the 1925 silent movie classic). The story involves an expedition to one of those “lost” regions of the world which were so popular back in the days before pretty much the entire world was explored and mapped. “Lost World” stories were very popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Lost civilizations in the jungles of darkest Africa and South America, beneath the sea, at the Earth’s core, indeed anywhere as yet unexplored, which could still harbour exciting adventures and unknown mysteries.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story was originally published as a serial in the Strand Magazine during the months of April–November 1912, and it took an expedition of explorers and scientists to South America, and up into the deepest, most unexplored regions of the Amazon, to a previously undiscovered plateau, where dinosaurs and other extinct prehistoric creatures had survived and still thrived. There were also cannibalistic native humans, who proved to be more dangerous than the dinosaurs, and who had wiped out a previous expedition.

The 1960 film adapts the original novel very loosely, taking a lot of liberties. And it was produced by Irwin Allen, king of the cheap and cheerful (in other words, terrible) special effects. Huge chunks of stock footage were later lifted from this film and just plonked down wholesale into several of Allen’s 1960’s television series, notably Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Land of the Giants and The Time Tunnel. Irwin Allen was the biggest cheapskate ever in the history of sci-fi television and cinema. He’s right up there alongside Ed Wood and Plan 9 from Outer Space. 🙂

Did I mention that the SFX are dire? Even for 1960, the special effects are terrible, and, by comparison, the ancient 1925 silent version, with the legendary Willis O’Brien producing the effects, was far superior technically. And O’Brien’s dinosaurs were proper dinosaurs, too. The 1960 film? Dinosaurs? Don’t make me laugh. The “dinosaurs” were a bunch of iguanas, monitor lizards and a baby alligator, all with bumps and horns glued to them. “Triceratops” was the baby alligator. “Stegosaurus” was a monitor lizard. “Iguanodon” (a bipedal dinosaur) was a four-legged iguana lizard (Allen must’ve looked at the names and thought “Iguana = Iguanodon”). And worst of all, “Tyrannosaurus”, the most famous dinosaur of all, the fearsome alpha predator, was played by a four-legged monitor lizard with glued-on horns and fins (Tyrannosaurus was two-legged and had neither horns nor fins). Even as a seven or eight year-old child, I knew my dinosaurs, and found these pathetic attempts totally hilarious. Anyone over the age of five these days would be howling with derision.

After all that slagging off, what is there good that can be said about the film? Granted that it is pretty lame by modern cinema standards, most of the criticisms are on the technical and SFX side of things. There is still an old-fashioned charm to this old movie, and it is certainly fun to watch. And even the so-called “dinosaurs” are hilarious, in a rather pathetic (“they aren’t dinosaurs!”) way. But the biggest redeeming feature of the film is definitely the cast, which included a number of big names – Michael Rennie, Claude Rains (as the cantankerous and hilarious Professor Challenger, the real star of the film), David Hedison and Jill St. John. They all played their parts straight and extremely well, which most likely elevated the film to a higher rating than it should otherwise have received (in my book, at least).

But most of the attraction for me is certainly on a personal level, namely the life-long nostalgia effect that links me to this film. I saw it at a very early age and it left a lasting impact on me, which led to bigger, better things. It lead directly to me reading the vastly superior original novel shortly afterwards at about age eight or nine, just as seeing George Pal’s classic 1960 cinema version of The Time Machine had led to me reading the original H. G. Wells novel a year or so before reading The Lost World.

Watching The Lost World for the first time all those years ago, was one of those formative encounters that helped lay the foundations that made me the geek that I am today. The film may not have dated very well by twenty-first century standards, but it still holds that old charm and nostalgia for me, and I’ll always make sure to watch it occasionally on TV when it gets shown every few years.

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