Friday, June 6, 2014
THE LAND UNKNOWN (1957)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, cosmological*
I was very critical of the handling of plot and characterization in both the LOST WORLD of 1925 and LOST WORLD 1960. However, THE LAND UNKNOWN, while not much better regarded than the 1960 film in terms of special FX, does much better in its handling of a simple melodramatic adventure.
This was the second and last film collaboration between scripter Lazlo Gorog-- one of three credited writers on UNKNOWN-- and director Virgil Vogel, who had helmed the previous year's MOLE PEOPLE from a script credited on imdb only to Gorog. MOLE PEOPLE is a much richer film in terms of mythicity than LAND UNKNOWN, even though the earlier film also suffers from mediocre FX and has sometimes been downgraded on that score. A defense of MOLE PEOPLE must wait for another time, but though UNKNOWN is a simpler work, it has its moments of mythic resonance.
Those moments stem not so much from the usual perils faced by the protagonists as they find their way into the usual "lost world," this time in a volcanic crater in Antarctica-- but from their ethical conflicts. The expedition begins as a follow-up to an Antarctic foray made by real-life naval officer Richard E. Byrd, though UNKNOWN is clearly built not on Byrd's real-life findings, but those he was alleged to have found by sensation-seeking authors. Per Wikipedia:
"Adherents to the Hollow Earth hypothesis believe that Byrd flew over the North Pole and into the hollow earth in February 1947 and that he kept a secret diary of the incident. This belief was first published in 1957 in F. Amadeo Giannini's book The Worlds Beyond the Poles."
Basically, LAND UNKNOWN simply takes this theory promoted by this fanciful book, or a comparable source, drops out the error about Byrd being at the North Pole, and overlaps the exotic idea with the real-life 1947 expedition. UNKNOWN's new exploration is meant to be a survey of the volcanic "hot spot" via helicopter, but a brush with a pterosaur sends the craft down. Stranded in a prehistoric world of dinosaurs and cannibal plants are three navy men-- Commander Hal Roberts, two junior officers named Carmen and Burnham-- and a civilian reporter, Maggie Hathaway. The greatest menace of the four castaways is, however, another castaway: Doctor Hunter, a member of the 1947 group who became stranded in the Land Unknown. Having suffered a crushing loneliness for ten years, Hunter takes a shine to Maggie-- so much so that, rather than seeking to escape the volcano with the others, he wants Maggie to stay with him as his cave-wife. The three navy guys discourage his romantic ambitions. Then Hunter reveals that he's hidden materials that would make it possible for the helicopter to fly again-- and he wants Maggie in exchange.
While girl reporter Maggie is not at all a complex character, she's interesting less for what she is than what she is not. No one would have expected a female character in a SF-film of this era to be overtly feminist, say, in the sense of her being able to kick the A of any macho creep molesting her. But another thing she isn't is the "blushing virgin" type, and those types do make a fair number of appearances in SF-films of the time, at least by implication. The film's opening scenes strongly imply that Maggie has some degree of experience with the male genre, as she utters lines like "I always love to meet men" and "Don't forget, once I was alone with half a million of them for three months in Korea." The script is not signaling, however, that she is promiscuous; just that she is desirable and knows how to handle herself against male pursuit. One can imagine that Maggie, unlike some SF-heroines of the time, may have already had sex outside of marriage, although naturally UNKNOWN does not pursue this possibility, as she's destined to become marriage-material for Commander Roberts.
The idea of Maggie being able to handle "half a million" men is rendered ironic when she's being pursued by Hunter. Her only defense against his bestiality-- a direct consequence of his having lived only amid beasts, whom he learns to drive away by blowing a conch-shell-- is the protection of the men. The two junior officers, unlike Roberts, are tempted to make a devil's bargain with Hunter, though one never knows if they would have gone through with the trade. Maggie herself offers to surrender herself for the greater good, which in no way signals any passion for Hunter, since by this time she and Roberts have developed romantic feelings. Roberts nobly refuses to make the bargain, and he also refuses to let his crew torture Hunter to reveal his cache. The script validates both of these moral decisions as the right ones; in the end all of the castaways, including Hunter, are able to escape the prehistoric world's danger, and Hunter is redeemed by re-connecting with other humans, and thus his own humanity.
Vogel's direction is pleasing and fluid, though UNKNOWN suffers from continuity gaffes having nothing to do with budgetary considerations. Jock Mahoney, Shawn Smith (aka "Shirley Patterson"), and Henry Brandon do creditable work with their simple characters, but in my opinion the script is UNKNOWN's most interesting facet.