1970s, Action-Adventure, Scifi

The Land That Time Forgot (1975) / At The Earth’s Core (1976) / The People That Time Forgot (1977) / Warlords of Atlantis (1978)

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Director: Kevin Connor
Screenwriters: Michael Moorcock, James Cawthorn, Milton Subotsky, Patrick Tilley, Brian Hayles

By Roderick Heath

Movies like Star Wars (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) stand large as templates for contemporary blockbuster cinema, for better and for worse. But I’ve long thought of them rather as a culmination in popularity for a neo-pulp movement in cinema that sparked to life in the midst of a moviemaking era generally celebrated today for its tough and arty sensibility, a time when doses of pure escapism and wonderment were sometimes hard to come by, especially for young moviegoers. The neo-pulp mode was initially sparse but doggedly popular, and was practiced by some old stalwarts of the movie industry. Neo-pulp was distinguished by a cheery but essentially deadpan take on material more often played as outright camp during the late ‘60s pop sensibility. Roger Vadim’s film of the naughty comic strip Barbarella (1968) adopted a pseudo-camp attitude but also purveyed pure pulp imagery, and might well have started the movement. Ray Harryhausen kept his brand of retro sci-fi and fantasy going with entries like The Valley of Gwangi (1968) and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974). George Pal’s final film as producer was a slightly tongue-in-cheek revisit to pulp fare, with Doc Savage: Man of Bronze (1975). Robert Stephenson’s The Island at the Top of the World (1974) saw that old-timer concocting Jules Vernian adventures for Disney, in the process laying down a blueprint Disney still refers to and detectable in the likes of TRON: Legacy (2010) and the revived Star Wars films. Not every contemporary special-effects-driven epic counts as neo-pulp but some certainly are, like John Carter (2012) and Pacific Rim (2013).
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Edgar Rice Burroughs, a master of the old school, passed away in 1950, having lived long enough to see his most famous character Tarzan become a pop cultural legend. By the 1970s his kind of fiction was generally written off as an archaic embarrassment as science fiction, fantasy, and the other genres that had flowered in large part thanks to writers like Burroughs were getting all grown up and self-serious. One of the loveliest flowerings of the neo-pulp cinema started in 1974, however, when British director Kevin Connor joined forces with producer John Dark to make three adaptations of Burroughs’ works, The Land That Time Forgot, At The Earth’s Core, and The People That Time Forgot. The appeal Connor’s films wielded for young viewers who might have caught them in the movie theatres at the time of their release or on video years later (as I did), their proliferating populace of dinosaurs and monsters, is today serviced in that regard far better by the Jurassic Park films and their ilk, but without the charm or, frankly, the ideas; struggling through the tepid franchise expansion of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) made me long for these films.
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And not just for nostalgia; they’re lovingly crafted little odes to a modestly executed but pure and wholehearted variety of fantastic cinema and their literary roots. The big difference between Connor’s films and those of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and their inheritors was less one of sensibility than one of budget. These were films too cheap to afford Harryhausen’s exacting, laborious stop-motion techniques, and far too early for CGI, so Connor’s crafty special effects teams, led by stalwarts like Derek Meddings, made use of models, puppets, and animatronic effects. Also, there was a certain pride exhibited by such straitened inventiveness that felt motivated by a slightly different spirit to the drive towards greater realism in special effects Connor’s Hollywood heirs wielded. Connor’s works insist on a certain delight and sense of aesthetic fertility in artifice rather than realism. In that regard they feel just as anticipatory of self-conscious artists of falsity like Terry Gilliam and Michel Gondry as they do of Guillermo Del Toro and Peter Jackson.
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Connor still directs movies for television today and has known a long and hardy career, but he’s nonetheless a filmmaker who I’ve always felt might have become much more. He’s also never really gained any kind of due, despite making these several dogged cult works, including these films, the black comedy horror film Motel Hell (1980), a work that replays The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) as a more overt and stridently freakish lampoon of fast food industry aesthetics, and the memorably bizarre miniseries Goliath Awaits (1981). If Connor had an identifiable interest in the fantastical projects he took on, it was his delight for worlds in miniature, characters cut off from the greater continents of humanity and obliged to adapt quickly and fiercely to harsh terrain and weird social outgrowths. Connor worked his way up in the British film industry, becoming a sound editor and working with a swathe of great directors, before making his directing debut for Amicus Productions, a film company set up in Britain by American impresarios Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg, best-known for a string of anthology horror movies. Connor debuted with one, From Beyond the Grave (1974), before Amicus made a play for a bigger audience by backing Connor in making The Land That Time Forgot.
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The adaptation arrived with a stamp of genre literary cred. Moorcock, one of the most colourful and prolific figures of contemporary sci-fi and fantasy, had gained his first writing jobs penning Tarzan stories, and eagerly paid tribute to his roots by penning the script for the film along with James Cawthorn. Moorcock’s surprisingly sober, literate contribution to the film backed up Connor’s energy and skill in stretching a tight budget a long way. The Land That Time Forgot also gained an unexpected boost from obtaining American star Doug McClure, who name remains a byword for good-natured cheese. McClure had a brief spell of attention as an ingénue in movies in the late 1950s but had mostly found a niche in TV. After initially hesitating, McClure eventually signed on for Connor’s movie, only to find he’d gained a whole new niche playing two-fisted heroes fighting off rubber dinosaurs. McClure brought an open, straightforward quality to his heroic characters that was ill-placed in the more shaggy and eccentric ‘70s but turned out to be perfect for this kind of movie.
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McClure plays Bowen Tyler, doyen of a shipbuilding family from Santa Monica, who finds himself shipwrecked after the British passenger ship he’s aboard is torpedoed by a German submarine, the U-33, in 1916. Cast adrift in a lifeboat along with shell-shocked fellow survivor Lisa Clayton (Susan Penhaligon), Tyler soon links up with another boat filled with British sailors from the ship. They successfully board the U-33 when it surfaces and surprise the crew, managing to take it over. The submarine’s captain, the intelligent and gentlemanly Von Schoenvorts (John McEnery), is locked away, but his wily, malevolent second officer Deitz (Anthony Ainley) sabotages the sub’s compass, fooling Tyler into sailing the sub close to a rendezvous point with their supply ship. After seemingly being outwitted by the Germans, Tyler and the sailors are imprisoned, but Lisa breaks them out and Tyler vengefully torpedoes the supply ship. This saves Tyler and the rest from being shot as pirates, but also leaves the sub lacking food and fuel. Drifting with the current into Antarctic waters, the U-33 encounters a fringe of ragged cliffs. Von Schoenvorts believes this must be a land first reported by a Italian explorer, who named it Caprona after himself.
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Taking a chance by sailing the sub up an underground river, they soon discover the island’s interior is a lush and fertile space heated by volcanic activity and inhabited by an astounding array of organisms, from microbes to massive dinosaurs to stages of human development. The various nationalities from the sub agree to work together to escape the island. Lisa and Von Schoenvorts, who share a passion for scientific enquiry, tackle the mysteries of Caprona’s abundant and perplexing life forms. Tyler and the sailors set themselves to the more practical tasks of finding food, drinking water, and a source of oil they can refine into fuel. They’re helped in this by Ahm (Bobby Parr), one of the hominids of Caprona, who also guides their understanding of what’s happening on the island through his own belief he will spontaneously pass into a higher stage of human development, moving from the primitive state of Bo-Lu to the more sophisticated Sto-Lu and then the superior Ga-Lu. The castaways are obliged to fight off hungry dinosaurs, but find the various hominid tribes more dangerous and deadly. A volcanic eruption finally destroys the equilibrium between species and tribes. Deitz seizes a chance to grab control of the U-33, imprisoning the Brits, shooting Von Schoenvorts, and stranding Bowen and Lisa on the island, only for the submarine to explode and sink as he tries to sail it away across Caprona’s boiling central lake.
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The film’s opening commences an ouroboros-like storytelling conceit that links to the narrative concerns, as Bowen hurls a canister containing his testimony from Caprona’s cliffs into the ocean. Connor tracks the canister on its voyage across dark rolling oceans under the credits, ending when the canister is retrieved from rocks by an old salt. Connor weaves a marvellous sense of atmosphere throughout The Land That Time Forgot, with the early scenes conveying a sense of lonely, near-numinous isolation for the warring parties and their oceanic adventures, believably transporting them from realistic immediacies of seagoing warfare to a place of sequestered wonder. Bowen and Lisa are first glimpsed resolving out of a dense fog bank, bedraggled and stunned by their sudden plunge into a world of hurt. Connor’s background in handling movie sound makes itself apparent in the subtlety with which he purveys the film’s first third, emphasising the omnipresent thrum of the submarine’s engines, avoiding incidental music during fight scenes, lending proceedings a tense, intimate feeling. The early fight scene where Bowen and the sailors try to take over the sub gains for this approach, punctuated by the sudden bark of a gun that saves Bowen’s life, which proves to have been fired by Lisa, roused from her daze to snatch up a dropped pistol and intervene in a struggle.
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Moorcock wasn’t happy with the film – what sci-fi writer ever is? – but his influence on the script is plain in touches like making Lisa a potent intellectual, and the odd dashes of intelligence apparent in the dialogue, as when Lisa asks Von Schoenvorts if his proposal the microbes in Caprona’s streams have a purpose could be construed as indulgence of German metaphysics, only for the Captain to retort it’s his version of British empiricism. Moorcock also preserved the most intriguing aspect of Burroughs’ book, the aspect that most distinguished it from a precursor like Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, which was Burroughs’ depiction of Caprona as a land where every organism is connected to each-other and to the land as a kind of colossal, animate, metamorphosing entity. Connor and his special effects team wring as much flavour and piquancy as possible from the elemental appeal of World War I-era technology clashing with dinosaurs, and museum diorama-like depictions of a carnivores and horned herbivores clashing. At one point the sailors try to fend off a pair of hungry Allosaurs stalking their number, and elsewhere Bowen and Von Schoenvorts stand off a pair of bullish Styrachosaurs to give their fellows time to reach the sub, and menace turns to pathos as the sailors loose the sub’s deck gun on the animals, killing one. Von Schoenvorts warns Bowen that their own fate might be connected with the natural processes at loose on the island, a warning underscored by the sight of a tear slowly leaking from the eye of the dead animal.
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There’s a great sense of humour, too, in moments like when the crew sit down to uneasily make a meal of a plesiosaur they were obliged to shoot dead when it tried to eat Bowen. Somewhat jarringly, McEnery, a well-known actor, was post-dubbed by Anton Diffring; one reason for this I saw somewhere was that the producers felt McEnery overacted outrageously, but I suspect it was rather because he didn’t play the part as sufficiently Teutonic. Connor’s excellence as a scene builder is repeatedly demonstrated during sequences other directors might have thrown away. The U-33’s gruelling underwater voyage to penetrate Caprona sees the craft slamming against stony walls and struggling against a seemingly malign current. The faintly spacey, eerie quality that defines a great deal of mid-century British sci-fi mates surprisingly well with Burroughs’ American gusto via Connor’s sense of staging and atmosphere. When he surveys the ape-men hiding in the long grass and watching the interlopers, and contemplates the lonely camp fire of the sailors amidst a grand and primal Capronan night, Connor conveys a sensation that recurs throughout the movie, that of something balefully and patiently lying in wait. That lurking force that proves to be nature itself, noting the competition of species and tribes with a detached eye and then rebooting the whole process with intermittent gotterdamerungs.
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The last section of the film deals out some pretty familiar adventure movie shtick as Bowen saves Lisa from some Galus who take her captive, and the island begins its great convulsion: papier-maché boulders tumble and two-fisted gallantry proliferates. But there’s still a strange intensity to the epic finale, in which the island convulses with metaphysical rage: Connor’s careful construction in slowly ratcheting from a whisper to a scream is fulfilled as the tale reaches explosive crescendo, the submarine meeting its fiery end imbued with tragic gravitas by composer Douglas Gamley, amidst scenes of lava consuming the dinosaurs and decimating the seemingly stable and fecund life. Burroughs’ idea, which was to dramatise evolution as an idea, is well-sustained by The Land That Time Forgot, into its last moments as Bowen and Lisa give themselves up to the unique logic of the island, trekking north according to the flow of all life, last glimpsed clad in furs and hurling their missive to the waves on the way to becoming Adam and Eve for a smaller, more volatile world. The film’s concluding images of survival and surrender to a new yet familiar logic of life have a haunting patina that’s very rare in the genre, a quality bound to be despoiled by revision. Sure enough, Connor later made The People That Time Forgot, a sequel roughly based on Burroughs’ two follow-up novels, didn’t follow immediately. Despite the success of Connor’s films, Amicus folded during production, so the film was bought up and released by AIP.
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The People… is a much lesser affair all round, entirely lacking Moorcock and Cawthorn’s touch in the script, if still a moderately entertaining outing. This entry depicts a rescue expedition mounted by Bowen’s friend Ben McBride (Patrick Wayne), in the years following the war’s end, following the recovery of Bowen’s manuscript. The expedition is bankrolled by a newspaper magnate, which means Ben is obliged to bring along the magnate’s journalist daughter Charly (Sarah Douglas), as well as his own wartime pal and plane engineer Hogan (Shane Rimmer), and inquisitive scientist and fellow veteran Norfolk (Thorley Walters). Brought close to Caprona on a ship by the hardy Captain Lawton (Tony Britton), the adventuring quartet board an amphibious aircraft and fly over the great ice-clad cliffs, only to be attacked by a pterodactyl, which dogs them until it catches its beak in their propeller, forcing a rough landing. Whilst Hogan remains with the plane to repair it, Ben, Charly, and Norfolk start inland. They soon encounter Ajor (Dana Gillespie), a Ga-Lu who belonged to a tribe Bowen and Lisa made friends with and helped advance into bronze-age civilisation. But this stirred the anger of another advanced tribe, the Nargas, who wiped out the tribe, spirited Bowen and Lisa to their citadel. After a regulation series of tussles with the island’s men and monsters, Ben, Charly, Ajor, and Norfolk are captured by the Nargas. They find Bowen also imprisoned there, with Lisa having since been sacrificed to the Nargas’ volcano god, a fate Charly and Ajor are quickly doomed to as well.
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The People… mostly leaves behind the inquisitive aspect and moody evocations of The Land… in favour of very straightforward action-adventure shtick. A theme mooted in the early scenes, the process of recovering from the war for Ben, Hogan, and Norfolk, who find a much grander stage to be heroes on, is not invested with the same pertinence the war background of The Land… achieved. The notion that Caprona is alive and working to prevent anyone escaping is reiterated but otherwise new ideas and enlarging concepts are mostly absent. The title’s promise to venture into a more sociological wing of this fantastical creation goes no further than offering the Nargas, who dress like samurai and have a deadly religious fixation, with the elided irony that in this clash of modern rationalism and atavistic faith, the faith has a point, as Caprona starts erupting in a hissy fit when it doesn’t get its sacrifices. Certain recent exercises in franchise expansion have learned little from its demonstration of the desultory effect of bringing back beloved heroes of earlier instalments only to serve them poorly and kill them off with little gravitas. Dinosaur action is minimal and the production team had been reduced to recycling models. Where Moorcock had simply made Lisa the smartest person on the island, The People… dedicates itself, like a lot of genre films from the time, to mediating the women’s lib movement by having proto-feminist Charly squabble with he-man Ben, at least until she gets freaked out by a spider. Gillespie, better known as a pop singer, had appeared in a very similar part a few years earlier in Michael Carreras’ delirious The Lost Continent (1968), is an adolescent boy’s wet dream with her pneumatic physique encased in leather garb.
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The People That Time Forgot occasionally feels like a rough precursor to the spasmodic craze for sword-and-sorcery films the early 1980s would see with the likes of Conan the Barbarian and The Beastmaster (both 1982). Still, despite the lack of ambition and wit, it flickers with moments of jaunty good fun, like Norfolk intimidating a hulking Nargas opponent with some expert fencing skills, and one of Connor’s well-sustained suspense sequences as the plane struggles to take off in the midst of an exploding landscape. Wayne is a toothpaste smile and Ken doll physique without a personality to match, but Douglas, who would later usually play villains in films like Superman II (1980) and Conan the Destroyer (1984), gives a breezily charismatic performance as a heroine who seems a bit like Peanuts’ Lucy grown up and tossed in with giant lizards. Once our heroes stage an escape, dump the Nargas’ evil high priest (Milton Reid) into the volcano, and flee across country, Bowen dies standing off the Nargas warriors long enough for the others to get away, allowing a sliver of effective pathos when Bowen admits he’s always been trying to live up to his fondness from childhood games with Ben for playing the hero. The rest of the heroes manage to escape at least, and Hogan delights in the notion of introducing a bewildered Ajor to the exotic climes of Cincinnati.
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In between the two Caprona films, Connor and Amicus made another Burroughs adaptation, At The Earth’s Core, this one tackling another of the author’s fantasy zones, the world of Pellucidar, a great cave deep in the Earth inhabited by humans and strange life forms. Burroughs wrote many Pellucidar novels, including one where Tarzan descended to the hidden realm. The script, written by Subotsky, briskly and efficiently gets through the business of introducing heroes David Innes (McClure) and Professor Abner Perry (Peter Cushing) as they embark upon testing their huge experimental drilling machine, the Iron Mole. Financing the vehicle’s construction has been David’s gift to Perry for teaching him and his father geology, an education that’s made the Innes clan rich in mining. David and Perry take the Mole for a test voyage in Wales, but find it works too well, as they can’t turn it around before they’ve descended deep into the Earth’s interior, and crash out into the Pellucidar cavern.
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The duo are pursued by a colossal bird monster and then captured by a gang of chattering subhumans called Sagoths, who oppress the humans of Pellucidar on the behalf of the more monstrous rulers of the land: the Mahars. The Mahars are a race of psychic, anthropomorphic ramphorynchus, who like being fed human sacrifices and need an army of slaves to maintain their city, which is built over volcanic channels to exploit the great heat, vital to incubating the Mahars’ spawn. Perry is put to work transcribing ancient Mahar tablets and gains knowledge of their society and weaknesses. After falling for the captive princes Dian (Caroline Munro) and accidentally spurning her in a faux pas, David breaks out and forges an alliance with Ra (Cy Grant), a hunter belonging to one of Pellucidar’s many, disunited tribes, convincing him to try bringing together the humans to battle the Mahars.
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Connor’s films weren’t the first to purvey the joys of reviving an older tradition in genre storytelling. Richard Fleischer’s adaptation of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) had kicked off a run of retro adaptations including Byron Haskin’s From The Earth to the Moon (1958) and William Witney’s Master of the World (1961). But Connor’s films revolve around the luxury of evoking a bygone era’s idea of technological accomplishment and discovery with a sense of awareness of how they graze against modern concerns, an approach that feels like particularly vital stepping stones towards today’s steampunk mode. The Iron Mole in At The Earth’s Core, has an aspect of super-futurist technology realised with the polished brass and plate iron charm of Victoriana. The wonderful opening credit sequence depicts the construction of the Iron Mole from its beginning as a stream of molten metal to the final technological monster being wheeled out of the assembly plant, a grand statement of scientific faith. The music score, by former Manfred Mann member Mike Vickers, expertly evokes the dichotomous spirit apparent in Connors’ films by alternating passages of weird, throbbing synthesiser music, giving his score accord with the contemporary modes in prog rock and early electronica as well the spacey, eerie vibe of the BBC TV sci-fi tradition, and big, garrulous orchestrations that anticipate John Williams’ work for Lucas on Star Wars in evoking vast horizons and adventure.
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At The Earth’s Core was my favourite movie ever when I was seven years old, but it’s long had a bad reputation otherwise. Both reactions are due, I think, to the fact it’s probably the purest entry any filmmaker has managed in transposing the feeling of the classic pulp sci-fi and fantasy magazines onto the big screen. Most other films in this mode are pallid pretenders compared to Connor’s sense of illustrative verve and punchy action set-pieces, and the ever-so-faint way the film acknowledges its own absurdity whilst playing things, generally, dead straight, outwitting the likes of Flash Gordon (1980). In contrast to the sober, location-shot approach of The Land That Time Forgot, At The Earth’s Core instead aims for and squarely hits an atmosphere of hallucinatory colour and strangeness achieved on the sound stage. Cushing, who would go on to bridge traditions by appearing in Star Wars a year later, gives a peach of a comic performance as Perry, a gangly, punctilious savant who finds himself initially overwhelmed by Pellucidarian peccadilloes but soon enough fashions himself a bow and arrow with his spectacle cord used as a string and sets to work bringing down fire-breathing toads.
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At The Earth Core wields a wry sense of humour about the old-fashioned values at play as David is obliged to play by Pellucidar rules in matters of courtship, which means he has to battle Dian’s rival suitor Jubal, “the Ugly One” (Michael Crane): “Never mind the Queensbury rules!” Burroughs’ imperialist sensibility, wherein good-looking white guys arrive in strange lands and set about setting things right, is mediated through a more contemporary sense of fellowship as David convinces Ra to try and unite the fractious human tribes and realise their own strength before the insidious evil of the Mahars. Perry commands David during the fight. Connor’s direction is at its most inventive here, in sequences like one in which David and Ra spy upon the Mahars as they mesmerise their sacrificial victims before pouncing upon them, conveyed in intense zoom shots upon blank beatific faces and beady saurian eyes with piercing electronic whines on the soundtrack. The special effects are particularly, happily cheesy throughout, but loaned a peculiarly tactile intensity in scenes like the battle between two hulking horned monsters who fight over a human snack.
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Another quality of this series all the entries shared was being photographed by the great Alan Hume, who worked wonders won a low budget, often utilising hand-held camera effects to give the films their muscular, immediate look. At The Earth’s Core also deploys some time-honoured fantasy adventure canards like the compulsory arena battle where David and Ra are chained up to be devoured by a pet monster, only for David to break loose and slay the beast in a goofy tussle, whilst Ra strangles a vengeful Mahar with his chains. Connor articulates the straightforward, cheer-along simplicity of the liberation-and-overthrow fantasy exceptionally well but shades it at the very end as the victorious humans survey the exploding Mahar city with the knowledge it cost the life of Ra and other brave souls. The melancholy streak continues as Dian declines to go with David and Perry to the surface world for fear she won’t thrive there, but the very last shot, under the end credits, strikes a cheery note as the Iron Mole drills its way up through the White House lawn and sets two guards scurrying about in Keystone Kops-style panic.
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Warlords of Atlantis, the last of Connor’s weird fiction series, stands apart from its predecessors in not being a proper adaptation of Burroughs. It is rather a newly-concocted tale in a mould that could easily have been penned by Burroughs, Abraham Merritt, or a swathe of other writers of their time. The storyline was instead written by Brian Hayles, who’s best remembered to posterity otherwise for creating canonical Doctor Who antagonists the Ice Warriors, and indeed the film itself strongly resembles a lot of early Doctor Who. Connor opens with a vision of a fiery red comet plunging into Earth’s atmosphere and frightening the Neolithic human inhabitants before plunging into the ocean. Around 1900, a ship called the Texas Rose steams out into what is called the Bermuda Triangle, nominally to test a bathysphere built by Greg Collinson (McClure yet again) and designed by his scientist friends, Professor Aitken (Donald Bissett) and his son Charles (Peter Gilmore) for underwater exploration. What the Aitkens aren’t telling Greg, or the rather scurvy crew of the ship, is that they’re hunting for signs of the lost civilisation of Atlantis, and Greg and Charles recover a remarkable relic made of solid gold when they take the bathysphere down. But when it’s hoisted aboard, the relic sets the minds of the crew towards mutiny and homicide, and the Professor is shot in the back.
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The appearance of a giant octopus from an underwater prevents further violence, as the monster snatches most of the crew from the deck and drags the bathysphere with it into an underground system of caves where the inhabitants of Atlantis live. They meet gold-haired guardian Atmir (Michael Gothard), who escorts them through the underworld, bypassing cities that have fallen prey to decay over the centuries, before reaching their capitol. Charlie is taken in hand by the statuesque Atmir (Cyd Charisse – yes, you read that right), who wants to add his great mind to the pool of their knowledge. The Atlanteans prove to be Martians trapped after their attempt to migrate from their dying planet and so have been steadily manipulating the evolution of human society in a warlike direction, anticipating the eventual creation of technology that will allow them to move on at last. They’ve been capturing and enslaving humans to upkeep their crumbling cities and battle off the hordes of mutant monsters spawned by their energy sources, gifting them surgically-provided gills to survive their rigours, and our heroes encounter the lost captain of the Marie Celeste, Briggs (Robert Brown) and his daughter Delphine (Lea Brodie).
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Hayles’ script gives the established formula a shot of new ideas and some depth of concept and hints of parable. The Martians are portrayed as effetely detached aristocrats enabled by an enslaved underclass, and paranoid concepts like the notion the rise of Nazism and the Cold War are devices to service the needs of a hidden ruling class. Charlie’s tour through the high echelons of the Martian society seems him encountering levitating meditators and granted a terrifying vision of the future when he has a crystal helmet placed on his head that shows him the Martian-engineered horrors of Nazism and nuclear war the oncoming century hold in store, whilst draining off his mind to make him a part of the Martian gestalt. Such ideas offer a different perspective on the retro adventure ideal: where writers like Burroughs, Merritt, H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle and their like had found cogent ways to express delight and disquiet in nascent modernity, Warlords of Atlantis betrays a slightly heavy contemporary heart over where it all led. The simple liberation fantasy of At The Earth’s Core is swapped out for a more forbidding sense of evil forces at work in human history, and our heroes are happy merely to escape the Martians’ clutches.
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Warlords of Atlantis is a frustrating attempt to expand the series’ scope, however. The underground cities, the Martian tech, the colossal monsters which nudge closer towards Toho kaiju this time around – all have a splendid vividness and flavour in their threadbare hype. But where the Burroughs adaptations were distinguished by their ability to both provide a rollicking pace and relax within their little constructed worlds, Warlords of Atlantis rushes through its most interesting concepts and images, and clumsily drags out climactic action scenes, as in a scene where Atmir bombards our heroes with energy bolt after energy bolt without quite managing to hit their big, fat target of a bathysphere, and then the octopus returns to the surface to torment them some more. Connor’s next film, Arabian Adventure (1979), saw him move properly into outright fantasy for an enjoyable, if minor, adjunct to the series before he headed for Hollywood. Films like these are generally a punchline today. They’re tacky and goofy and soft targets for lampooners, and the sort of bad-old-days fare genre fans tend to cringe at. But to me, they contain far, far more of the essence of the fantastical than so many of their inflated children.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy

John Carter (2012)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Andrew Stanton

By Roderick Heath

I take the popular dismissal of John Carter a little bit personally. When I was young, I loved films based on Edgar Rice Burroughs novels—any version of Tarzan, of course, but also the lively battery of Burroughs-derived films made by British director Kevin Connor in the mid ’70s. I owe a considerable amount of the growth of my love for the fantastic genres to those movies, and therefore to Burroughs. Yet I’ve read a lot of commentaries blaming the relatively poor box-office performance of John Carter, the new Disney-produced, $250 million movie taken from Burroughs’ beloved, much-imitated Barsoom series, on its being adapted from esoteric material, as if a great bulk of what is popularly thought of as science fiction doesn’t derive specifically from Burroughs’ ideas, and as if his tales don’t offer a wealth of interest for the fantastic filmmaker and filmgoer. Of course, those ropy old flicks I loved didn’t cost such colossal sums of money, but attaching discussions of the decadence of modern Hollywood to its less successful products is, in a strange way, still playing Hollywood’s game, considering the way the industry and its pseudo-populist champions wield the successful ones, even the ones that are terrible, with bludgeoning contempt.

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When Hollywood is starved for strong stories to tell, as it certainly is now, one way to get out of that slump is to dig back into the vast trove of great material provided by scifi, fantasy, and other genre writers over the past century, most of it largely ignored in favour of shallow appropriations and constant recycling. John Carter’s failure to connect is especially bitter, from this film viewer’s perspective, as blockbuster cinema has stooped to adapting board games and fun park rides rather than solidly conceived tales. John Carter is weighed down with a painfully bland and obfuscating title, one which hardly solves the presumed problem of esoteric material and betrays the real sensibility of pulp thrills and soaring space opera that the film itself communicates, in what is nonetheless one of the most purely enjoyable, rousing, and dashing examples of big-budget cinema I’ve seen lately, perhaps indeed the best since the last The Lord of the Rings film. It’s Avatar without the new-age ponderousness, Star Wars with more ideas and strangeness, Flash Gordon with a deeper hero. Although it lasts more than two hours, it moves with the rapidity of a serial from the 1930s.

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Director Andrew Stanton does not defeat all of the familiar problems of modern blockbuster cinema, which resists that personal sense of the mythic that made, say, the early Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Superman movies so particular for their makers and audiences. The first half-hour of John Carter, whilst doing nothing especially wrong, does nonetheless wrestle with problems of exposition and locating the emotional gateway into the tale—vital elements of the fantastic drama that many modern franchise flicks treat increasingly like chores, tossing them away in rushed, voiceover-laden prologues. Star Taylor Kitsch, who made his name in the TV show Friday Night Lights, is a competent and likable but also frustratingly unspecific leading man, in a role that needs wit, gumption, and a real air of both grievous hurt and eccentric heroism.

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But John Carter sports a screenplay cowritten by Stanton and novelist Michael Chabon, who has long burrowed into the serious underside of the pulp pantheon. They infuse John Carter, as it evolves along with the world it portrays, with a depth of feeling and crowded panoply of detail that soon takes on a feverishly enjoyable aura. The script expands on and conflates Burroughs’ original tales in numerous ways, particularly in the wraparound narrative that frames A Princess of Mars, the first of Burroughs’ novels set on the red planet its inhabitants call Barsoom. The film conflates the young first-person narrator whose uncle John Carter is in the book with Burroughs himself, and he becomes party not merely to Carter’s supposedly posthumous tale, but also to a clever plot that pays off in the very conclusion. Carter’s experiences gold prospecting and his attempts to survive frontier dangers are, likewise, recast to reflect the more exotic, off-world scenes he will encounter as he shifts from ethnic conflict here on Earth to those on Barsoom.

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Stanton, who, of course, has come to features after several hugely successful animated films and moves immediately in the footsteps of Brad Bird’s success with Mission: Impossible 4 (2010), retains an animator’s necessary sense of pace and humour: indeed, an early series of gags that Stanton pulls, as Carter keeps trying to escape the custody of army officer Powell (Bryan Cranston), would be funnier if rendered in the quicksilver technique of animation rather than in bruising three dimensions. Stanton does, however, display a remarkably fleet-footed capacity to keep his story and visuals in motion, with a narrative that threatens at times to be top-heavy, and after that initial uncertainty, Stanton nimbly keeps pace with our hero’s efforts to keep an even keel as he’s presented with multifarious strangeness.

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As Burroughs learns through the journal Carter leaves him along with his whole, vast estate, Carter survived the Civil War where, serving for the Confederates, he emerged as a hero, only to find his wife and child had been killed in raids. To make his fortune and leave behind the humanity he now detests, he goes prospecting for gold in Arizona, where he is picked up by the bullying Powell, who wants to force him to help fight against the Apaches. John resists and escapes. When Powell and his men give chase, they instead earn the wrath of an Apache band, and in the ensuing fight, Powell is wounded. John drags him to the cave, known as the Spider cave because of a motif carved within, where he’s been finding gold. As John ventures into the recess, a mysterious being beams into the cavern, and John shoots him. An amulet about the dead man’s neck is actually the control device for the wormhole that opens and sends John, or rather a kind of facsimile of John, across space to the Martian hinterland.

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John finds himself in the midst of a knotty civil war that’s been engulfing Barsoom for centuries, between the kingdoms of reddish-skinned humans, Helium and Zodanga, and the green-skinned, horn-faced, four-armed Tharks, amongst whom John first finds himself captive. The Tharks, formerly a sophisticated civilisation, are now violent and degenerate. John soon discovers he has great strength and a talent for leaping incredible distances because of Mars’ low gravity, traits that endear him to the Thark king Tars Tarkas (voice of Willem Dafoe). Tars, more emotional and open-minded than the other Tharks, knows that the much-victimised Sola (Samantha Morton), to whom John is mockingly given as a baby to raise, is actually his daughter, unusual knowledge when most Tharks are adopted indiscriminately after hatching from eggs.

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When circumstances force Tars to take John and Sola’s side, he is toppled by nasty warrior Tal Hajus (Thomas Haden Church). Meanwhile, Helium is at risk of finally losing to Zodanga because its king, Sab Than (Dominic West), possesses an incredible new weapon that fires the elusive and powerful “ninth ray” given to him by a race called the Therns, one of whom John killed in the cave. The Therns pose as immortal and priestly, but they actually control fantastic technology, and they’re really stage-managing a victory for Zodanga which will lead to the final deterioration of Barsoom, an act of entropy which the Therns feed off. For a cruelly exact final victory, the lead Thern, Matai Shang (Mark Strong), instructs Sab to marry the princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), scientist daughter of Helium’s king Tardos Mors (Ciarán Hinds), and then kill her, an act that will both cement his hegemony and, with Dejah’s attempts to master the ninth ray coming too close for the Therns’ comfort, eliminating her dangerous intelligence. When Dejah tries to escape Sab, his flying ship catches hers above the Thark city.

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It’s in the action sequence that follows that John Carter truly snaps into full working order. John, enraged to see a human woman being terrorised, springs into action and devastates Sab’s warriors and ships with his unbound earthly talents like Errol Flynn slipped free of earthbound laws, ripping loose in sheer spectacle with dashes of physical comedy and surrealist absurdity, as John’s sudden superhuman prowess swings between awesome competence and jarring clumsiness, and Sab nettles under Shang’s restraining influence. Again, Stanton’s background in animation, where the laws of physics can be bent easily, comes out here to more perfect effect, and the film retains a visual fluidity that makes sense of crowded scenes of action. Likewise Stanton, in a fashion familiar for animators, has a gift for finding the appealing quality in seemingly grotesque things, like the wailing, slimy Thark babies who cuddle up to John lovingly in their lair, and a super-fast creature that looks like a lump of silly putty with legs, placed menacingly on guard outside the Thark nursery, but which proves to be essentially a weird kind of dog. When John defends it from being beaten by the Tharks, it becomes his inseparable companion.

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Stanton and his production team seem to have carefully parsed old comics, book covers, and illustrations for the conceptual universe, combining elements of steampunk and retro-futurist wonder with the edge of oriental exoticism so common in that old artwork—Mameluke guns, neo-Trojan armour, and Scheherazade dresses. Zadonga, a mobile city that moves along on gigantic crawling mechanics, is an almost casually employed wonder of design and execution teeming with detail, and so is the great cathedral of Helium where gigantic rotating lens and arcane religious ritual converge. But perhaps Stanton’s most impressive sequence of visual control comes when Matai Shang, having taken John prisoner, leads him through the city’s crowds and explains his plans with casual arrogance, whilst changing forms, forcing John and the audience to move with the flow of convenient guises.

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Keeping a plot that is complicated less by intricacies of action than by an array of competing sides is difficult, but John Carter is never less than entirely coherent, even in the multilayered battle that wraps it up, something like genius compared with the dizzying incomprehensibility of the Transformers films, where even simple brawls are impossible to follow. The greatest fantasy-adventure films tend to have an elegiac sensibility, a sense of space that allows time to breathe in the landscapes and drama with hues of awe and tragedy, but John Carter largely moves too fast for that. Such films also usually tend to have a breath of the otherworldly, the exotic, and the erotic, for example, the gleefully perverse scene in The Thief of Baghdad (1940) where the narrative takes time out to portray the seedy old sultan stabbed to death by the alluring facsimile of id-filtered femininity provided by the evil sorcerer. The erotic only gets a look in here in the alluring fleshiness of Dejah’s apparel, and even that’s pushing it for a Disney film, but there’s an underpinning of emotional seriousness to the tale that means that it never descends into shallow pictorial splendour. This quality is especially embodied by Collins’ breathy earnestness as Dejah in a strong performance that elegantly and effortlessly bestrides the schism of luscious physicality and intelligent conscientiousness so well she subverts any notion of a disparity. Her radiant humanity contrasts the coldly calculating Matai Shang, well-played by Strong, a figure whose affectation of incorporeal imperative and godlike power hides a cynical program of profit by exploitation and degradation, an idea with interesting resonances.

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Stanton admirably tries to wield a certain amount of darkness of the kind that Disney have usually tried to keep out of their movies since the bad old days of The Black Hole (1979) and Dragonslayer (1982), from the sorry spectacle of Sola being branded—she has so many brand marks there’s no room left on her body—for her perceived transgressions, to the marks of visceral tragedy John carries upon his soul. Whilst the pitch of the depressed and disillusioned war veteran has become a tired motif in action-adventure movies, like the pseudo-historical variation on this theme, The Last Samurai (2003), Stanton wrings it until it pays off in a legitimately great sequence in which John, refusing to be chased further by an army of evil Tharks called up by Shang, and to give Dejah and Sola a chance to get away, launches himself into the alien horde and hacks it to pieces with astounding fury. Stanton presents a dialectic montage, cutting between the action and John’s memory of coming home and finding his house destroyed and his wife’s corpse, and then burying her; Stanton aims here for the furthermost reaches of emotive grandeur, coalescing old trauma, new love, and innate heroism into a singular whirlwind of expressive carnage.

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One distinct pleasure of John Carter is indeed that it looks and sounds like all that money finished up on screen: the film’s special effects have a rich, beautiful intricacy that suggest that CGI-based cinema might only now be starting to come into its own, particularly wondrous when John, escaping Shang’s clutches, flees in one of the Zadonga flying machines that look like sculptures of large insects fashioned out of Victoriana crystal and brass, avoiding the city’s colossal motivators. The fact that the Barsoom tales have been so endlessly filched by moviemakers over the years, including Avatar, Star Wars, and Flash Gordon, and the fact that the film sticks firmly to some familiar templates—the scenes where hero John and Dejah wander in the desert bickering resemble the dreaded Prince of Persia (2009), for instance—do mean that to a large extent it can never feel entirely fresh. But John Carter outdoes the many films it resembles simply by doing such things better and by keeping its feet planted firmly in the legitimate quality of its source material.

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Burroughs’ stories, like most prototypes, were joyous in having few set rules for how they should proceed; thus, they could be both romantic adventures and speculative fiction all at once, and something of their fulminating strangeness makes it into the movie, with its breathless procession of alien customs and reproduction habits and intricate religious sensibility. Just as The Land that Time Forgot and its 1974 film version offers up an old canard—a lost island populated with dinosaurs—but adds a notional interest in evolution and presented a microcosmic version of it that proves to have a strange, deistic motivation behind it, so, too, is there substance under all John Carter’s freewheeling invention. There’s an environmental message, most obviously, as the wicked Zardongans consume endlessly and contribute to their planet’s decay, but also an engaging amount of space for probing the nature of emotion in species that do not reproduce like humans, as in the Tharks, and a note of poetically opposite senses of wonder for John and Dejah, whose different kinds of ships sail different kinds of oceans, both equally strange and impossible for them to imagine. John trails faintly religious associations, as a messiah with the initials JC prone to resurrections and stepping in and out his corporeal form, but his enemies are false deists who visit people and guide them on to a destiny which is designed to be self-destructive to suit the Therns’ needs.

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And perhaps that’s the real reason why nobody knew what to do with John Carter: it doesn’t carefully and neatly beat one essential theme into the ground like most of these colossal blockbusters, but serves as a big, tottering, server platter for a truly complex universe. It helps that Stanton avoids belabouring things that other directors might stretch out, with an occasional anticlimactic flourish, as when John challenges Tal Hajus for the kingship of the Tharks: Tal Hajus hurls himself down from on high, John leaps up, and in the next moment Tal’s head is rolling away on the sand. Similarly near-satirical is a subsequent sequence where the Tharks make a grand charge to the rescue of Dejah, only to arrive in Zadonga and find the wedding is taking place in Helium, and Tars Tarkas can only express frustration by slapping John in the back of the head. Later, when the Tharks have to do something they fear and loathe—trying to fly—the inevitable last-minute arrival sees Tars Tarkus crash-land through the cathedral wall and groan his pleasure that’s over with.

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But the film’s set-piece action scenes are doozies, like the aforementioned flying chase, and John, in space opera’s compulsory arena battle, taking on colossal blind white apes, swinging huge chunks of stone on the end of chain to pulverise them, and Sola, finally angered to breaking point, tossing her constant foe Sarkoja (Polly Walker) into the arena for the fleeting pleasure of seeing her stomped. The climax is a wild melee as both John and Sab are targeted for assassination by Matai in the midst of a grand battle, and John tries to stop the Thern villain from escaping. Even after the story seems to be over, and John marries and beds Dejah, Matai’s traps ensnare him and exile him back to Earth, which seems now a cold and dreary exile for which his only answer is an intricately woven plan that involves his young nephew. John Carter, or John Carter of Mars as finally and properly amended, is one of the most satisfying rides I’ve had in a movie theatre in recent years. I do hope more of you go to see it, not because Disney needs the money, but because of a selfish personal motive: I want to see more movies like this one.

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