Thursday, June 13, 2013


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1, 3) *fair,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

Over three subsequent summers, producer John Dark and director Kevin Connor produced what a few references call the "Edgar Rice Burroughs" trilogy.  However, aside from the stories' authorial source, the only common element of the three films is that the heroes venture to primitive worlds full of prehistoric inhabitants. One is an adaptation of Burroughs' novel AT THE EARTH'S CORE, a series about a prehistoric world inside the Earth.  The other two draw in varying degrees from Burroughs' "Caprona trilogy," each of which focuses on a different hero in the prehistoric world of Caprona, hidden with a volcanic crater in a remote corner of the globe.

THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT follows many key elements of the Burroughs book of that title.  Hero Bowen Tyler is one of a group that survives the torpedo-ing of their ship by a German U-boat during the hostitlities of WWI.  Tyler, accompanied by some English sailors and a gutsy young girl, boards the U-boat and takes control of it.  Unfortunately, when Tyler and his crew attempt to return to the world of their allies, they are fired upon. Their search for a safe haven lands them in the unknown land of Caprona, a land where evolution has gone berserk.

In the book Caprona's wealth of prehistoric life is explained by a mystical-sounding "pool of life" into which all Capronan species lay their "eggs." The 'eggs"-- which act more like "sperm"-- then progress along a "great chain of being" so as to become dinosaurs, cavepeople, or even a weird species of winged humanoid called the "Weiroo."  Connor's LAND does to its credit keep this wild explanation for Caprona's evolution-flux, including Burroughs' core idea about the different species of cavepeople.  In Burroughs' scheme, the cavepeople undergo evolution within their own lifetimes, progressing from "ape-men" to men able to use clubs, to men who can use axes, and so on.  The idea naturally doesn't come off as clearly in the cinematic medium as in prose, but the LAND script makes a game effort to adapt Burroughs, though it drops the idea of the animal-human hybrids.

The film also keeps the book's other most appealing aspect, showing how all of the humans-- English, German, and American-- are forced to work together to survive in this grim milieu.  The biggest change is the one wrought upon the German U-boat captain, who is a stereotypical evil Prussian type in the book, guilty of firing upon an innocent civilian ship.  In the film he's a generally sympathetic figure who justifies having blasted Tyler's ship because it carried hidden arms for his country's enemies.  In the book the German officer attempts to abandon Tyler and his friends to Caprona by making off with the submarine, and the villain only gets his just desserts in the third part of the trilogy.  In the film, the officer tries to save Tyler when another German abandons the heroes, but he and all of his officers ironically die in a volcanic explosion while Tyler's group lives through the chaos.

Further, Connor's film eschews the novel's strong focus on the romance between Tyler, the plucky girl and the German officer, to whom the girl was engaged by family arrangement.  Here the officer has no designs on the heroine, and there's barely any romance between Tyler and the woman with whom he ends up sharing Caprona.  Connor's direction is fluid and keeps the melodrama lively even without the romance.  And though the film makes considerable use of models and puppets, location shots taken in the Canary Islands gives the film an expansive feel characteristic of the best adventure-films.

To date AT THE EARTH'S CORE, even in the wake of JOHN CARTER, is probably still the film that most closely follows the plot of a Burroughs novel, though I confess I did not reread the book prior to re-viewing the movie.  Unfortunately, CORE is also horribly studio-bound, having been filmed entirely in Pinewood Studios.  Perhaps the producers thought that location shoots were not necessary, since Burroughs' essential idea is that the lost land of Pellucidar is enclosed within the earth's core.  However, the "forests" look about as convincing as the potted plant-jungles of old "Jungle Jim" films.  This time Connor's film does include two humanoid species from Burroughs' books, the Sagoths and the Mahars.  However, whereas in the book the Sagoths are apelike humanoids and the Mahars are evolved pterandons with formidable psychic powers, the makeup men on CORE portray the Sagoths as clownish figures with white faces, and the Mahars look like big parrot-creatures.  In addition, though I can blink at the FX of a lot of pre-CGI films, the Mahars look ghastly whenever the film calls upon them to "fly."

Only the stars redeem Connor's lackluster flick this time, principally Doug McClure as David Innes, the rich young backer who goes along for the ride when scientist Abner Perry (Peter Cushing) tests his drill-nosed vehicle, "the Iron Mole," for purposes of exploring the subterranean worlds.  McClure, who acquitted himself well enough as Tyler in LAND, shows more vivacity here.  Jittery scientist Abner is one of Cushing's wimpiest portrayals, and though Cushing brings some liveliness to the character, eventually the scientist beomes tedious.  The script plays up his comedy-relief appeal, for when the Mahars attempt to mesmerize Abner, he responds, "You can't hypnotize me!  I'm British!"  Romance is more crucial to the story, as David must not only navigate the dangers of Pellucidar but must also succor Dia, the obligatory hot pagan babe.  Despite the romantic angle, Caroline Munro as Dia is given litte to do and comes off largely as window-dressing.  I must admit that of these three films I did not see CORE in my youth, so its charms may be weaker on me for that reason.

Happily, THE PEOPLE THAT TIME FORGOT was a return to form, in part because the production returned to the Canary Islands, giving the film the same expansiveness seen in LAND THAT TIME FORGOT.  Connor and his collaborators seem to ratchet up the excitement, so that almost every single frame suggests some incipient danger, and the heady activity of the film anticipates a similar approach in Steven Spielberg's famed love letter to adventure-flicks three years later.  From ERB's PEOPLE Connor takes two major elements: the idea of a heroic character sent to find the missing hero from the first book, and a character named "Ajor."  In the book Tom Billings finds his way to Caprona looking for Bowen Tyler, and spends the whole novel fighting off cavemen and dinosaurs while slowly falling in love with cute cavegirl Ajor.  In a development rare in Burroughs, Billings also has to fight his own prejudice, as he resists falling in love with a woman he initially regards as a "squaw."

In Connor's PEOPLE, the hero's name is changed to "Ben McBride" (Patrick Wayne), though he still comes to Caprona looking for his lost friend Bowen Tyler.  He comes with other allies in tow, one of whom is spunky photographer Charly (Sarah Douglas).  The tension between Ben and Charly is clearly a substitute for romantic interest, though again, there's not much time alloted for amour.  Charly is fairly liberated for her time-- more so than most if not all Burroughs heroines-- and is frequently shown as having a positive impact on the group's mission, particularly when she suggests using a stegosaurus to help them move their crashed plane.

The group shortly comes across Ajor (Dana Gillespie), a cavegirl who speaks English. Though the last scenes of LAND merely show Tyler and his girlfriend Lisa surviving the harsh world of Caprona, at some point Tyler attempted to reach out to the cavepeople and to lead them toward greater civilization.  Ajor is apparently just one of many tribal types who received Tyler's teachings, though it's slightly suggested that she may be in love with him.  Ajor relates that another advanced tribe-- the "Nagas," possibly named after the snake-demons of Hindu lore-- resented Tyler's influence and abducted him.  She proves more than willing to lead the expedition to "the Mountain of Skulls" to rescue her mentor.

As an interesting side-point, the Nagas-- though they are not hybrids-- function in approximately the same manner as the Weiroos in the third Caprona book, OUT OF TIME'S ABYSS, which focuses on a third hero and only involves the characters of Billings and Tyler very incidentally.  The Weiroos even have a "city of skulls" to indicate that they worship death and murder, and the "Mountain of Skulls" suggests the same sort of corrupt death-worship in Connor's film.  The only downside to these colorfu villains is that for no good reason many of the Nagas dress up in anachronistic samurai armor. Logically such technology should have no place in Caprona, even if one supposed that the world's freaky evolution somehow jumped one tribe up to the level of 12th-century Japan.

The action is fast and furious, even if the climax depends a little too much on again having the local volcano destroy hunks of real estate.  Curiously, Tyler attributes intelligence to the volcano, which is certainly not one of Burroughs' ideas.  Equally curiously, Tyler does not survive the mission.  Perhaps, since his backstory establishes that his wife from the first film is already dead, the scripters thought it would prove poetic for him to perish in the same world.  But all of the other principals-- Ben, Charly, and Ajor-- survive after some lively battle-scenes, and unlike Caroline Munro's Dia, Gillespie's Ajor remains right in the thick of it.

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