Thursday, May 29, 2014
THE LOST WORLD (1925)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, cosmological*
An exact adaptation of Conan Doyle's 1912 novel THE LOST WORLD would be neither feasible nor desirable. Just to cite two aspects of the novel that no one today would ever touch:
(1) One of the expedition-members, Lord John Roxton, relates a past adventure in which he heroically freed a tribe of South American Indians from slavery; a slavery visited by them entirely by a group of "half-breeds," presumably of Caucasian and Indian parentage. Doyle's attempt to excoriate the exploitation of Native Americans as the responsibility of a group of mixed-race criminals, while allowing the natives to be rescued by a noble English adventurer, is nothing short of staggering.
(2) The heroes of the expedition-- Professor Challenger, Lord Roxton, and reporter Ned Malone-- all take part in an act of virtual genocide. Confronted with a war between two tribes on the "lost world" plateau-- one descended from modern-day Indians, one made up of sadistic ape-men who have survived from the prehistoric era-- Challenger's people wipe out all the male ape-men, convinced that they have simply duplicated the original evolutionary struggle in which higher forms of humanity displaced earlier, more brutish specimens.
The first two film adaptations of LOST WORLD, though, might have done well to emulate one salient aspect of Doyle's novel. Whatever its ideological problems, the original LOST WORLD is a bracing "he-man" adventure whose basic theme is a masculine rite of passage for viewpoint character Malone. He begins as a rather fatuous young man who is willing to undergo a life-threatening adventure in order to impress his flighty girlfriend, but by the novel's conclusion he has seen the error of his ways. In his absence his girlfriend has married another man-- not even a particularly adventurous one-- and he ends the novel by vowing to return with Roxton and Challenger to the Lost World, the "proving-grounds" of manhood.
In Doyle's novel the environment of the Lost World is secondary to the lively characters. In both films, the prehistoric plateau is the "star" of the show. This is quite understandable-- Doyle's novel was the first to posit the survival of an entire *topos* from a long-vanished era-- but in place of playing vivid characters off one another, the two films are content to focus largely on hackneyed romantic conflict.
Women are marginal presences in the Doyle novel. The closest thing to an important feminine presence is Malone's girlfriend, but her fickleness is a joke aimed at the female of the species. Cinema adaptations of such male-focused works, though, almost invariably inject a more central female presence to appeal to women in the viewing audience, and the 1925 LOST WORLD is no exception. Thus Challenger and his male allies seek out the Lost World to locate an earlier explorer-- one of marginal importance in the novel-- because his daughter Paula wants to see her beloved papa again. At the same time, two of the male adventurers-- the somewhat older Roxton (Lewis Stone) and the age-appropriate Malone (Lloyd Hughes)-- both become infatuated with Paula during the adventure. Challenger (Wallace Beery), a dominating presence in the book, starts out strong in the film's opening scenes, duplicating a scene from the book in which the older man brawls with Malone before the two become friends. But Challenger and his cranky colleague Summerlee recede in importance once the story proper begins and the romantic triangle develops-- though it, too, pales in comparison to the Lost World.
Willis O'Brien's stop-motion animated dinosaurs are the stars, though in this early era they don't interact much with the human stars and so lose a lot of their appeal-- an appeal realized fully in 1933's KING KONG, for which LOST WORLD has been termed a "dry run." None of the novel's cosmological reflections on the details about prehistoric life make it into the film, with one exception. Like Doyle's book, the film is fascinated with a prehistoric form of man-- although the film chooses to make do with just one "ape-man" (Bull Montana), rather than a whole tribe. The ape-man's origins are left to the imagination: is he one member of a tribe that is never seen, or-- like his direct descendant Kong-- is he the last of his kind? Malone does come face-to-face with a single ape-man in the course of the novel, but none of the subhumans are individuals in the way that the film's brutal cave-creature is. That said, although the ape-man is the first prehistoric entity seen by the film's camera-eye as he stalks the expedition, his motives remain murky. Why does he stalk them? Does he want to eat them, or, more logically, to mate with Paula? Director Harry Hoyt gives the viewer no clue, though oddly, the expedition does include another anthropoid-- a small monkey named Jocko-- who does dote on Paula's feminine charms. Whether the ape-creature and the monkey represent two forms of the same impulse is left up from grabs.
The most logical possibility is more symbolic than diegetic, relating to the romantic competition. Older suitor Roxton loses Paula to his young rival Malone; in fact, at a point when the members of the expedition believe they won't be able to get off the plateau, Paula and Malone announce that they plan to be married by Professor Summerlee, who "used to be a minister." Roxton does not voice any displeasure. Still, shortly afterward the ape-man makes the second of two attacks-- both on Malone. In the second case, the ape-man threatens to wrench Malone off the rope-ladder he's climbing. In doing this, the ape-man is doing what Roxton might like to do to his rival-- but here, as in an earlier scene, Roxton discourages the subhuman's attack with rifle-fire. I must admit, though, that if Roxton feels any hesitation in saving his rival, neither the script nor the direction shows it. Once the ape-man dies of the second gunshot, the adventurers are conveniently saved by a South American official who has spotted their campfire-smoke. The officer's aid makes it possible for the expedition to transport a live brontosaurus all the way to London. There it provides a lively climax, breaking loose from its transport-ship and causing havoc in the city-streets before it falls into the River Thames and escapes. The film then ends with Roxton congratulating Paula and Malone on their impending nuptials and wandering away,
Though LOST WORLD is important in setting the stage for many other gigantic, city-smashing critters, its greatest significance is its influence on KING KONG, which remains the signature effort by Willis O'Brien. KONG reproduces, with some alterations, the scene in which the ape-man threatens to kill the suspended Malone. And where LOST WORLD foregrounds the romantic conflict of two men over a lissome female, and leaves the motives of an anthropoid intruder vague, in KONG the woman is pursued by a normal, age-appropriate man and an obsessed simian, while the viewer never quite knows if older man Denham also carries a torch for the nubile object of their affections. But as I stated in my review of the 1933 classic, KONG succeeds on so many more levels than most monster-movies-- including LOST WORLD-- that even knowing of all the influences, KONG still seems to be "sui generis."
Since the script isn't too clear on the ape-man's reasons for stalking the expedition, I find myself wondering whether the writer was influenced by another early "jungle-stalking" scene: Tarzan's shadowing of Jane Parker's group in the 1912 Burroughs novel. However, it may be more likely that the producers simply wanted to inject the ape-man whenever possible because he was a much cheaper "special effect" than any of O'Brien's dinosaurs.