Thursday, June 2, 2016
"The Land That Time Forgot" (1975) w/ Doug McClure
There is one thing in movies that is certain to get a "wow" effect: a good story. CGI can never substitute for a fascinating story.
The 1970s were largely a stagnant period for movies. Long gone was the "golden age" of movies from the late '30s, when the best movies equated with "class." Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney et. al.
Hollywood began coming on strong by the end of the 1970s. I'm not sure how much "class" there really was, but we got some well-funded, well-hyped movies that got people buying tickets. Prior to that, Hollywood floundered some. In 1975 we got a sci-fi movie that could have had mega status if it got that high priority treatment. Hollywood mined the writing of Edgar Rice Burroughs. "The Land That Time Forgot" had potential to be taken real seriously. It might have succeeded on the level of "Jurassic Park." Hollywood just didn't apply enough resources.
Western actor on the big screen
I still find the movie more than moderately entertaining. We see an iconic actor from the perspective of the baby boom generation. It's Doug McClure who sprang to stardom from the TV western. He was "Trampas" through the entire run of "the Virginian": 1962 to 1971. It was a 90-minute western, thus requiring some plot sophistication, on NBC. Those were the days of the "Big 3" TV networks.
McClure's resume included much more than that series. In "the Land That Time Forgot," McClure plays Bowen Tyler who with Susan Penhaligon as Lisa Clayton, are on a ship torpedoed by a German U-Boat in World War I. Burroughs' novel came out in 1924. At that time, people spoke of WWI as "The Great War."
Survivors from the ship including our two principals commandeer the sub when it surfaces. McClure hopes to sail to a British port. A belligerent German officer named "Dietz" destroys the sub's radio. Disoriented, the crew finds they've gone off course and are in the South Atlantic, on the verge of death if they can't find a miracle. They observe the cliffs of a fascinating sub-continent. They guide the sub into a subterranean river. The sub surfaces in the lagoon of a prehistoric terrain. Then we're into a thermal inland sea, or crater lake where heat supports a tropical climate.
A lens into evolution
The sub goes north along the waterways and we see the climate moderate and wildlife display a fascinating evolutionary progression. The stage is set for unlimited sci-fi exploration now. We see the dinosaurs, volcanoes and lush vegetation. The most fascinating sci-fi element is the multiple levels of evolutionary development revealed on the sub-continent. We see both Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon Man. The big war in Europe now seems most distant.
The intrepid McClure character, along with his mates who now feel solidarity (to a reasonable degree) face the menacing big creatures. Life in this place, called Caprona, is constantly evolving, moving forward.
The movie was made at a time when the U.S. was consumed with war fatigue. The mid-1970s saw us in a hangover from the horrific Viet Nam war. That war provided a backdrop for my entire growing-up years. The movie in a subtle sense suggests an anti-war theme. The plot had the diverse characters - British, American and German - putting aside their parochial, war-driven concerns to work together for the common good. The premise worked in 1918 when the classic author wrote the story. And in 1975 the premise had resonance again. I say "hangover" but the U.S. still had some involvement in Viet Nam as late as 1975, believe it or not.
"The Land that Time Forgot" suggests that war belongs in the past with dinosaurs. The point is implicit but nevertheless detectable. Humankind of the WWI era was a mere one evolutionary step beyond those cavemen, it is suggested. We sense potential for far more human evolution.
Re. the making of the movie: The U-boat and ships are models. The dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals are rubbery puppets, hand-held or on strings. In those days, the more expensive alternative would have been stop-motion, what we saw in the much earlier "King Kong."
"The Lost world" - remember that flick? - with a teenage Jill St. John was a movie that used contemporary lizards, filmed in a way to make them look large. We might have seen stop-motion for "The Lost World" but there was one problem: the disastrous box office outcome of "Cleopatra" had drained Hollywood!
In "The Land That Time Forgot," the WWI-era humans deal with T-Rex attacks, ambushes by cavemen, quicksand pits and various other threats, before a volcanic eruption destroys the sub and leaves the hero and heroine as the only survivors. The movie ends with the McClure character throwing a bottle into the sea, a bottle including a manuscript detailing the incredible story. At movie's start, we see someone discovering the manuscript.
In box office terms, "The Land That Time Forget" actually did well. So, there was a sequel called "The People That Time Forgot": disappointing. Hollywood was on the verge of a new age of Hollywood sci-fi exploration, dawning with "Star Wars." The new movies had a classy air that shed the qualities that lent themselves to drive-in movies. McClure's movie had touches of the latter, unfortunately.
We can imagine "The Land That Time Forgot" as on the level of the mega successes typified by "Star Wars." But it was not destined for that. It was more in the murky stew of the 1970s flicks that left something to be desired. It's unfortunate. Hindsight is easy, but in the '70s Hollywood wasn't sure if comic book-type movies would connect with the mature adult population. Remember, that was "the silent majority" as christened by Richard Nixon. They liked Lawrence Welk.
Movie has allure today
I still sit fascinated watching "The Land That Time Forgot" when it airs on cable TV, as it did recently on the "Comet" network. Thanks Comet, which has a fare of intriguing sci-fi (like "Outer Limits" re-runs).
Actor McClure left us too soon, in 1995 at the age of 59. He was cut down by lung cancer. He had that Hollywood syndrome of falling into multiple marriages. He was married to his fifth wife at the time of his death.
McClure had an extensive acting resume. But the '60s were a time when one solid acting role on a network series made you famous and would push aside everything else you ever did. We forget Lorne Greene's acting as the rather bad guy lawyer in "Peyton Place," or as the cowardly city father of New Orleans in that movie about Andrew Jackson. We remember Greene as "Ben Cartwright."
Doug McClure is similarly "Trampas" in our memory. He disappointed me when he played a real racist bad guy in the "Roots" TV miniseries. His character ended up getting drowned in a bucket of water.
In "The Virginian," McClure famously upstaged the guy who was supposed to be the signature character, James Drury. Ever notice how those western characters always wore the same outfits? "The Virginian" looks very dated today. The western genre of course died off completely. "The Virginian" with its 90-minute length may have had more license for plot subtlety, but it was slow-moving and ponderous in a way that today would be a disaster for attracting an audience. The show ended its run in 1971 when I was 16 years old.
McClure was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for television in 1994. Doug McClure, RIP.