"You can't hypnotize me...I'm British!"
Aside from Tarzan, the fantasy/adventure classics of Edgar Rice Burroughs have not fared so well on film. Since so much of Burroughs' work dates from 75 to 100 years ago, and so many filmmakers, from George Lucas to James Cameron, have been inspired by (some may say begged, borrowed or just plain stole from) him over the years, that when someone tries to do a more-or-less faithful rendition of one of his works, like last year's mega-budget misfire John Carter, the results can come off as stale and overly familiar.
Back in the 1970s, though, the time seemed ripe for Burroughs' patented style of pacy pulp adventure storytelling. The nostalgia boom was still going strong, with various publishing houses releasing massive paperback runs of nearly all of Burroughs books, not to mention stories by Robert E. Howard (featuring Conan, Solomon Kane and other series characters), E.E. Doc Smith's Lensmen novels, reprints of Doc Savage and The Shadow pulps, etc.
In Britain, the independent production company Amicus (most noted for their horror anthologies like From Beyond the Grave, Asylum, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, etal) took a chance and brought three of Burroughs' more memorable novels to the big screen. Amicus, founded by Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg, enjoyed a certain level of success and made some fine genre films. To say their efforts in bringing Burroughs' larger-than-life, elaborate lost worlds to film were not entirely successful would be an understatement. However, the three films in question - The Land that Time Forgot (1975) and its sequel, The People That Time Forgot (1977) (based off the Caspak trilogy) and At the Earth's Core (1976) (the first book in the Pellucidar series) - all have their hearts in the right place and bring plenty of old-fashioned fun to the table. For those of us who saw these movies as youngsters when they first came out, they still hold a certain nostalgic appeal that (just barely) transcends their clumsy monster effects and general silliness, and most of their (many) faults can be blamed on the production teams' trying to do far too much with way too limited means.
American TV star Doug McClure was lured to the U.K. to work in all three of these movies (though his presence is drastically reduced in The People That Time Forgot). The Land that Time Forgot must have been successful enough to warrant another film, and 1976 saw McClure once again back in Burroughs' fantasyland, as realized by the Amicus crew in At the Earth's Core.
The story follows the original 1914 novel in very general outline, though much that makes the book special doesn't translate to the screen, alas. The movie opens as British scientist Abner Perry (Peter Cushing) and his former pupil David Innes (Doug McClure) are about to embark on a trial run of their "Iron Mole," a drilling machine devised to explore beneath the planet's crust. Things quickly go awry and the pair eventually arrive in a vast cave world full of weird plants and even weirder beasties. No sooner have David and Perry left their machine then they are set upon by some strange sort of dinosaur-like creature. Fleeing the monster, they are quickly captured by the pig-faced Sagoths, a humanoid henchman race who do the bidding of the mysterious, reptilian Mahars, who hold dominion over the native human population.
The Sagoths lock David and Abner in chains alongside a number of other humans, including the ravishing Princess Dia (Caroline Munro), and take them to the ancient Mahar city. Along the way, David defends Dia from the depredations of Hooja the Sly One (Sean Lynch), but doesn't realize that local tribal custom dictates that when a man fights over a woman and wins, he may claim her as his own. Dia seems not averse to the idea, but quickly takes offense when the understandably clueless David makes no move in that direction, and from then on, during the remainder of the trek, she and the others give the the two strangers the cold shoulder.
The prisoners finally arrive at the Mahar city and are brought before the winged overlords, who seem to communicate with the Sagoths via telepathy. After a period slaving away in the mines with the other captives, David manages to escape through a disused cave tunnel and encounters Ra, a chieftain of one of the human tribes. In time-honored fashion, the two fight and become fast friends once David rescues Ra from the clutches of a carnivorous plant. Thinking to dissuade David from his plan to free Perry and the rest of the humans from the Mahars' rule, Ra brings him back into the Mahar city to witness their hideous ritual of feasting upon the more comelier female captives. This just strengthens David's resolve to bring the various warring human factions together and eliminate the Mahars for once and all. But first, he is reunited with the lovely Dia and must fight Jubal the Ugly One (Michael Crane), the most ferocious warrior in the land, for her hand...
Let's get this right out of the way - even in the mid-70s, this was cheese-tastic stuff. We're talking ripe Gorganzola, folks. Burroughs' original tale is a terrific piece of pulp storytelling, full of action, derring-do and a plethora of monsters, both of the traditional dinosaur variety plus all manner of other unique and original creations, such as the nasty Mahars. Not only do the creatures in At The Earth's Core not bear any resemblance whatsoever to any sort of dinosaur known to science, they are nearly all portrayed by men in rubber suits. The design of the various monster suits do show some kind of inspired, oddball imagination, but realistic they are not. (Laughable is the word that comes to mind.) Coupled with the entire film taking place on Pinewood sound stages, on cramped jungle or cave sets not greatly more lavish than the average classic Doctor Who serial, and one is left with a general air of goofiness that can't be ignored.
The Mahars prepare to swoop down on their prey.
Will Dia be rescued from their hypnotic gaze in time?
That said, the film still manages to be pretty disarming matinee fodder, thanks mainly to its cast. McClure makes for an agreeable (if slightly pudgy) action hero, but the film really belongs to Peter Cushing and Caroline Munro. Cushing, the esteemed horror star famous for his depictions of cold, steely intelligence in the Hammer Frankenstein films, as well as Sherlock Holmes on film and television, has a total field day here. Some have criticized Cushing for laying the ham on a bit thick as the kindly, doddering professor Perry, but he's far and away the best thing in this film. He knows he's stuck in a bit of silly juvenalia and gets right into the spirit of things with a very broad, charming performance. Whether waving his brolly at a towering monster and exclaiming "Shoo!" or sending a flurry of arrows into the side of a fire-breathing giant frog, Cushing is constantly endearing. He also gets all the best lines, including "You can't hypnotize me - I'm British" and (of the piggish, sadistic Sagoths) "Oh, they're so excitable, like all foreigners"... not to mention the immortal "I have a firm grip upon your trousers, David" (as McClure is leading him out of a cave). Cushing classes up this joint and enjoys an easy rapport with McClure. His presence goes a long way to making the movie as watchable as it is.
Caroline Munro, far and away the film's best special effect.
Something else indispensable to the movie is the appearance of that super sexy 70s siren, Caroline Munro. Miss Munro was one of my very first movie crushes, her dark, sultry looks, alluring curves and feminine demeanor striking an immediate chord with this particular pre-teen male. Catching At the Earth's Core on TV, followed by a school showing of The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), was a heady one-two punch of exotic, scantily-clad pulchritude. I came to these films for the fantastical worlds and monsters, but the lasting image I took away from them was of Caroline Munro in revealing, barely-there clothing. I was one of the many, many fans similarly captivated by Munro and her succession of skimpy outfits. Though she never became a big star, she remains a cult figure for her work in the above two films, plus a handful of others, such as the two Dr. Phibes movies (as Phibes' dear departed wife), Dracula A.D. 1972 (opposite Christopher Lee's Count), Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter (also from Hammer, and reviewed earlier on this site), the Italian Star Wars ripoff Star Crash, and most notably, as bad Bond girl Naomi in the popular 007 extravaganza, The Spy Who Loved Me. Munro isn't actually in that much of At the Earth's Core, but what's there is, as they say, choice. Her role isn't exactly designed to challenge anyone's acting talents, but she more than fulfills the brief, and brings a winning mixture of tremulous vulnerability and royal hauteur to her Pellucidarian princess.
Doug McClure, a long way from THE VIRGINIAN
Cy Grant as Ra
The rest of the cast is decent enough, considering what's required, and the script, by producer Subotsky, is perfectly serviceable for this kind of fare. Director Kevin Connor perhaps wisely keeps the frame tight in on his stars' faces for the most part, which sometimes works in tandem with the cramped feel of the sets to make this feel like a very small lost world, but otherwise does a competent enough job moving the story forward (this clocks in at a brisk 90 minutes). What really lets the side down is the aforementioned poor effects work; it might be unfair to compare this with the marvels of Star Wars which came out a mere year later, as the budget here is surely less than a tenth of that film's, but after Star Wars, effects-heavy films would never be the same, and George Lucas' film pretty much sounded the death knell for the sort of old-fashioned yet cheap monster mayhem seen here.
There's also a number of plot holes and other head-scratching moments (such as how the denizens of Pellucidar manage to speak English, for one...and where exactly did Perry get that bow and arrow? for another.) Taken as a proper adaptation of its far superior source, there's no denying that At the Earth's Core falls way short of the mark.
Still, the sets, colorful lighting, rubber monsters and (actually quite effective) sound design all work together to give the film a strange, otherworldly atmosphere that kind of works in spite of the budgetary shortcomings, resulting in an almost hallucinatory quality; taken on the level of a kind of trippy 70s fever dream, the film remains pretty diverting stuff. It's goofy fun aimed at 10-year-olds, and if - like me - you still have a ghost of that 10-year-old self hanging around, you might enjoy it too.
And, if all else fails, there's always Caroline Munro.
DVD Note: MGM released a pretty nice DVD of At the Earth's Core as part of their Midnight Movies line back in 2001. There's also a double-feature disc of the film, along with War Gods of the Deep. Both are out-of-print but still available from various Amazon Marketplace sellers.
The final collaboration between director John Ford and John Wayne, Donovan's Reef doesn't show any of its participants at the top of their game, but there's always been something about the film's easygoing, loose tropical island vibe that I find eternally charming. I've probably seen the movie at least a dozen times over the years, and it never fails to please in its own shaggy dog way, despite its undeniable faults. It's a film that is content to just amble along, with only the barest wisp of a plot, recycling some of Ford's common preoccupations: knockabout, brawling "Oirish" humor, the poetry found in shared, communal ritual and ceremony, the battle for dominance in male/female relations, an affectionate ribbing - yet absolute acceptance - of the Catholic faith, and pride in brave service during WWII. How much you enjoy it will depend on how much you like the people involved. It's reminiscent of (if nowhere near as good as) Howard Hawks' Hatari, another film which creates a world out of an exotic setting and a group of characters that are just plain good company to spend time with.
The film takes place on the South Seas island of Haleakaloha (presumably somewhere in French Polynesia, but actually filmed in Hawaii), the kind of island paradise that only truly exists in Hollywood fable. The story follows the antics of three former American navy men, Mike "Guns" Donovan (Wayne), Thomas "Boats" Gilhooly (Lee Marvin) and Dr. William Dedham (Jack Warden), who back in the war were the only survivors of a torpedoed destroyer, who landed on the island and fought a vigorous cat-and-mouse game against the occupying Japanese forces there. After the war, both Donovan and Dedham decided to stay on, the doctor starting up a much-needed hospital (and marrying the beautiful island princess who aided them in the war) and Donovan a bar and shipping line. Donovan and Gilhooly share a birthday (on December 7th, no less) and every year Gilhooly visits the island for an annual birthday brawl with his old sailor pal.
Back in the 1930s and 40s, it wasn't uncommon for popular radio dramas to make the leap to the big screen. Crime and adventure serials were a natural fit for the sort of breezy programmers that filled out the bottom bills at theaters, such as Boston Blackie, Dick Tracy, etc. This was the heyday of the B movie mystery and detective series, many of which became very popular and ran for a long time and many films, such as Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto, The Saint and The Falcon, to name just a few. Others fizzled out after only a few films. The I Love A Mystery series is a prime example of the latter. Based off one of the most famous and popular radio shows of its day, I Love a Mystery came to the screen in a trio of little-seen and rarely talked about films that aren’t easy to find, but are nonetheless well worth seeking out.
I Love a Mystery (the radio show, known in OTR circles as ILAM) was the brainchild of Carlton E. Morse, who penned most of the adventures and was also responsible for the long-running radio soap, One Man's Family. ILAM stood out from the pack of adventure and detective shows in its frequent emphasis on the macabre and the supernatural (usually proved by the end of each serial to be mere window dressing in an elaborate crime plot, but not always). The program featured the incredibly atmospheric adventures of Jack Packard (no-nonsense leader of the group), Doc Long (a laid-back Texan who loved pretty girls and a good fight) and Reggie York (stalwart, stiff-upper lip Brit), friends during WWI who after the war ended formed the A-1 Detective Agency, mainly as a means to keep getting into trouble.
The series originally was broadcast from Hollywood in various forms from 1939-1944, and was later re-cast and re-done, using Morse's original scripts, in a later New York run from 1949-1952. For most of both series, the show ran in a 15-minute serial format, nearly every chapter ending on a hair-raising cliffhanger. Stories featured such evocative titles as "Bury your Dead, Arizona," "Temple of Vampires," "The Fear That Creeps Like a Cat," "The Thing That Cries in the Night," "Pirate Loot of the Island of Skulls," and "I Am the Destroyer of Women," etc. Sadly, very few stories exist in complete form today, and those that do are from the second run of the show. What does survive is wonderful stuff, full of action, humor and bloodcurdling, creepy goings-on. (Interesting trivia alert: a young Tony Randall voiced Reggie in the N.Y. run of the show, with Mercedes McCambridge voicing most of the female characters).
"Listen...for a man, or a mole, or a bird - every day is life and death."
1952 was a good year for Stewart Granger. Riding high at the peak of his career, the British star made four films that year: the early heist film The Light Touch, with Pier Angeli and George Sanders; the wonderful swashbuckler Scaramouche (with its deservedly-famous, 7-minute long climactic fencing duel); the color remake of The Prisoner of Zenda (against baddie James Mason) and, last but certainly not least, the rugged outdoor adventure pic, The Wild North.
The Wild North is essentially a western (technically, a northwestern), its action taking place in the remote regions of Canada (never stated, but likely somewhere in the Yukon). Granger stars as Jules Vincent, a French-Canadian trapper with a lust for life and devil-may-care philosophy. Vincent arrives in a tiny settlement with furs to sell and the intention of engaging in some drunken carousing. Instead he ends up adopting a couple of strays - a kitten with more backbone than size, and a beautiful Indian woman (played by stunning dancer Cyd Charisse), who's eking out an existence singing and being pawed at by drunken frontiersmen in a saloon.
Jules brings the cat into the bar with him, and soon is chatting up the sad-eyed crooner. "Does it have a name?" she asks about the kitten. "Does it have to? Do you?" Jules replies. "Do I have to?" she answers back. "No."
Before he knows it, Jules finds himself making a promise to bring the woman back to her people (she's part Chippewa), on the way up to his winter cabin in the north, but not before cheerfully trouncing an inebriated bear of a man named Brody (Howard Petrie) who presumes to lay hands on her. Sure enough, the next morning, the Indian maiden (who never does get named in the film) is waiting for Jules at his canoe. He doesn't remember his drunken promise, but he agrees to take her with him anyway (he's not stupid). A contrite Brody wants to accompany them and vows to be a useful hand with a paddle. Jules reluctantly takes him up on his offer. But it seems Brody has revenge on his mind when he forcibly steers their canoe into deadly rapids. When Brody refuses to turn the canoe towards the shore and safety, Jules is forced to kill him. He leaves the girl with her tribe, with a promise from the chief (John War Eagle) to take her under his protection. He then heads north, wanting to put some distance between himself and the police, who he doesn't trust to take him at his word about the killing being justified.
“The remake of a classic may be worth everybody's while. The sequels rarely are. I never had any sense of embarrassment over the first Dracula nor The Face of Fu Manchu...alas, in the follow-ups to both there was much to make me look shifty and suck my paws. Knowing this, I nevertheless repeated each character many times over. I did so because they were my livelihood." (1)
~ Christopher Lee
Christopher Lee, no matter his roles in prestige productions like The Three Musketeers, The Man with the Golden Gun or, more recently, in the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars franchises, will forever be associated with his most famous role - Count Dracula. But in the 1960s, Lee was also busy playing another famous villain – Sax Rohmer's evil Chinese mastermind, Dr. Fu Manchu. It was a part Lee played in 5 films, and similarly to the Dracula series, but in a much more pronounced fashion, the early films started strong but each sequel brought an incremental drop in quality. Generally speaking, the Hammer Dracula films all have something good going for them and are beloved by horror fans to this day. This can't really be said for most of the Fu Manchu films (the abysmal last two of which were directed by infamous Eurocult figure Jess Franco), although Lee himself was happy with the first film, The Face of Fu Manchu, a well-produced, lively action thriller with plenty of period flavor and a good cast.
The most well-known of all “Yellow Peril” novels, the Rohmer Fu Manchu series ran to 13 titles published between 1912-1959. The books are speedy, very readable pulp thrillers but are definitely products of their time. The Face of Fu Manchu takes some of the best elements of the books and puts them up on screen.
The film opens in China with master criminal Fu Manchu (Lee) being marched out to his execution under the watchful eyes of his arch-nemesis, Sir Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard (Nigel Green). A few months later, once Smith has returned to London, he begins to sense Fu Manchu's hand in a series of strange deaths and abductions centered around the River Thames. It seems Fu Manchu is very much alive and, together with his sadistic daughter, Lin Tang (Tsai Chin), and assorted henchmen, is once more up to no good.
DALEKS' INVASION EARTH: 2150 A.D. (1966), while colorful and exciting stuff, was not the best or most groundbreaking sci-fi the decade had to offer.
In the 1960s, elements of decay and division in society, especially U.S. society, were becoming more obvious, and 1960s sci-fi reflected this. (1)
The 1960s were a fertile ground for many movie genres. The decade saw a number of fine traditional westerns, as well as the advent of the iconoclastic, bombastic spaghetti western, sweeping epics (like Lawrence of Arabia, El Cid), the final heyday of the big-budget musical (West Side Story, The Sound of Music), the James Bond spy craze, etc. The Hammer Studios' horror boom was in full swing, the WWII spectaculars went from strength (The Great Escape) to strength (The Dirty Dozen), Disney still was cranking out some classics (like 101 Dalmations) and Gidget and the Beach Party movies catered to the younger crowd.
One genre that didn't exactly flourish, though, was the science fiction film.
Much like the decade itself, the 1960s were a transitional period for the science fiction film. The decade started out pretty much as a continuation of the 1950s, with most Hollywood sci-fi reduced to fun but generally cheap and cheesy kiddie or teenage monster fare, like The Leech Woman, The Angry Red Planet, The Manster and The Brain that Wouldn't Die. By the end of the 60s, though, the social upheaval, chaos and malaise of the post JFK assassination, counter culture, Vietnam War era world were beginning to seep in, eventually leading to the slew of serious minded, downbeat sci-fi films in the early to mid 1970s, such as The Andromeda Strain, Collossus: The Forbin Project, Soylent Green, A Boy and His Dog, and Silent Running, to name just a few.
In between were a handful of Hall-of-Fame sci-fi films, which clearly show this gradual transformation from more juvenile fare into darker territory. Below is my list, in chronological order, of what I consider to be the 10 best films of this type to come out of that decade, along with a few worthy runners-up. While films like The Birds and Night of the Living Dead could be legitimately classified as science fiction, albeit in a fringe sense, to me they fall more clearly in the horror genre and so I chose not to include them here, as good as they undoubtedly are.
"Tell the crew they can sleep in the next world."
A confession...When I first started contemplating what film I should cover for the blogathon, I quickly came to a startling realization: despite his iconic status, I didn't really know much about John Garfield or his films, and in fact, only possessed one paltry title in my DVD collection, Air Force, and that was due more to my being a Howard Hawks fan than anything else.
Of course, as a classic movie buff, I'm well aware of Garfield's stature and importance as a leading man, and have caught a number of his more famous films over the years. Yet for some reason, I haven't really given him the sort of thought or attention that I have to his contemporaries, like Bogart, Gable, Grant or Cagney.
It's high time to remedy that oversight.
For an all-too-brief 13 years and 31 films, John Garfield brought his own distinctive kind of earthy, brooding intensity and volatile charisma to the screen. His star on the ascendancy in the early 1940s, he took an ensemble role in Howard Hawks' Air Force, partly because he had always wanted to work with Hawks since seeing Scarface many years before, and mainly because he wanted to do his part for the war effort. Unable to enlist due to a weak heart, Garfield was a tireless supporter of the troops, and, along with Bette Davis, was one of the co-founders of the Hollywood Canteen. Air Force was the first of a handful of patriotic war films Garfield made (followed by Destination Tokyo and Pride of the Marines), and it's a skilled example of its kind.
This post is my contribution to the "Fabulous Films of the 1940s Blogathon," sponsored by the Classic Movie Blog Association. For a full list of excellent entries from the other blog participants, please click here.
"The grand age of the adventure epic gave to the American people, as to people all over the world, an image of grandeur and glitter and flair which our own eccentrically stable country could barely approach. Most importantly, it gave a sense of grace. Grace - the ability to make the difficult look easy and the simple look profound - was the stylistic hallmark of the swashbuckler and the gentleman adventurer." (1)
I love a good swashbuckler.
The swashbuckler is a particular subgenre of the period adventure film, or costume epic. It's a particularly fun little corner of the movie universe, where good always triumphs over evil; disagreements are settled with swordplay and, if at all possible, accompanied by a witty verbal riposte; where heroes are dashing and villains hissable; and where historical accuracy adds plenty of background color but never gets in the way of a ripping good yarn.
Though swashbucklers have always been made by the major studios, the genre enjoyed three distinct heydays: the 1920s, when Douglas Fairbanks Sr. came bounding onto the scene; the mid-to-late 1930s, when Errol Flynn and his cheeky grin ruled the box office; and a late blossoming in the 1950s, when studios used the color and pageantry of the form to liven up their new widescreen processes and lure audiences back from the upstart medium of television.
A train pulls in to a Depression era southern town, and a grizzled, middle-aged man gets off. His name is Chaney, and he's played by old "Stone Face" himself, Charles Bronson. While having a cup of coffee in a local diner, Chaney notices a string of men heading into a warehouse building across the street. He walks over to the building and goes inside. There's a big circle of people getting ready to watch a bare-knuckle fight. Speed (James Coburn), all toothy grin and huckster's confidence, is pumping up one of his fighters, but that fighter loses.
Later, Speed is in a nearby oyster joint, nursing his loss, when Chaney sits down at his table. “We can make some money,” he tells Speed. At first, Speed's not interested.
Look, friend. Every time you go to a bar, the bar's got somebody who thinks he's as tough as a nickel steak...but they all come to Speed for the do-re-mi. He's a bum, I'm the one who loses.
I don't want your money. (holds up some bills). I got six bucks and nothing else. You bet it.
"Medieval philosophers were right. Man is the center of the universe. We stand in the middle of infinity, between outer and inner spaces. And there's no limit to either."
High-concept science fiction and fantasy films are more or less the norm these days, but in 1966, the large-scale, “A” picture type of treatment afforded Fantastic Voyage was pretty unusual. 20th Century Fox spent a lot of dough on this thing, and it shows. The movie’s premise is absurd, well beyond the realms of scientific plausibility, but at the same time, ingenious and wildly imaginative. Despite being over 40 years old, I think the film still stands up well, and I find the visual effects – state of the art for their day – quite impressive, despite their dated nature.
And mainly, Fantastic Voyage is just fun, plain and simple.