Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Lost World (1925)

"Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Stupendous Story of Adventure and Romance."  This is the intro to the 1925 blockbuster, The Lost World, based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 novel of the same name.  Conan Doyle is mostly recognized for his most popular character, Sherlock Holmes.  However, the writer famously grew tired of writing the popular detective and tried numerous times to discontinue the series.  Probably the most well known attempt was in 1893 when Doyle invented the villainous Professor James Moriarty for the sole purpose of killing off Holmes.  And kill him off he did, in The Final Problem.  Holmes' popularity saved him, however, because public outcry (even from royalty and Arthur's own mother) caused him to resurrect the character.  Still, a less recognized attempt to move on and write other stories came in the form of a new character that Conan Doyle created named Professor Challenger.  He hoped that Challenger would become popular enough to carry his own series, and while a series was created, Challenger never became as popular as Holmes.  Still, Challenger would travel the world in all sorts of adventures, with his best known being 1912's The Lost World.

The story revolves around Edward Malone, a reporter, who is trying to impress his love-interest Gladys Hungerton (which is a fairly gross name for a supposedly beautiful woman).  He hopes to get in on a dangerous story to investigate in order to win her affections, so his indifferent editor sends him to interview the famous Professor George Edward Challenger, who has a reputation for assaulting journalists, to determine if his claims about his trip to South America are true. Challenger has become a bit of a laughing stock, claiming that he had discovered living prehistoric creatures in South America. After assaulting Malone, Challenger ends up inviting him on a trip to prove his story, along with another chap named Professor Summerlee, and Lord John Roxton, an adventurer.  They head off and find the "Lost World" only to end up being trapped there after a debacle involving a past Slaver who's brother was killed by Roxton in a past South American adventure of his.  While stuck in the Lost World they find all manner of brutish and dangerous dinosaurs roaming free, along with a tribe of primitive humans who are at war with an incredibly vicious band of less-evolved ape-men.  Adventure ensues and they end up helping the human tribe to defeat the ape-men and gain control over the entire Lost World.  Eventually they escape, and bring with them back to London some evidence of their journey: a small pterodactyl in a cage.  However, the creature escapes and flies out to sea.  Roxton reveals that he found diamonds in the dirt in South America and decides to go back, accompanied by Malone who now has nothing to lose because Gladys married another man while he was away.

The novel was a riveting and imaginative adventure that ended up creating a whole new genre: the Lost World genre, which is a literary sub-genre of a fantasy or science fiction genre that involves the discovery of a new world, out of time, place, or both.  Famous examples include The Lost World, Edgar Rice Burroughs' The Land that Time Forgot and its subsequent series, and even more recently Michael Crichton's The Lost World (a sequel to Jurassic Park which pays extensive homage to Conan Doyle's works as well as the genre as a whole) and Congo.  But this novel was not merely a gripping adventure.  It was also an interesting commentary on some of the excitement of scientific discovery which prevailed at the time.  It was the dawn of the 1900s and a lot of scientific discoveries and awakenings were beginning to sink into the collective consciousness of the Western world.  Perhaps none were quite so enticing as the acceptance of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Early in Stefan Lampadius' analysis of Conan Doyle's novel, Evolutionary Ideas In Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, he also identifies this evolution-fever,

"Doyle’s novel The Lost World (1912) is one of his most influential works, establishing dinosaurs in fiction and inspiring later science fiction, but also giving birth to Professor Challenger, one of the most memorable scientists in literature.  Doyle’s scientific romance combines a thrilling adventure plot with scientific concepts and debates of his time, particularly ideas on evolution. Professor Challenger is not only an expert in evolutionary science but also a man of action, organizing an expedition to a strange plateau in the Amazon rain forest, which turns out to be a lost world with dinosaurs and ape-men. Prehistory comes alive, and like actors in a living natural history museum extinct species participate again in the struggle for survival. Through his fictional microcosm Doyle locates ancien tcreatures and modern man in the meta-narrative of evolution, drawing inspiration from a wide range of sources, including earlier science fiction, travel accounts and fossil finds near his Sussex home, but especially the innovative fusion of paleontology and Darwinism and ideas of a ‘missing link’ at the turn of the century. Hardly anyone who lived in Britain at the time of Conan Doyle was not somehow influenced in [their] world view by the rise of evolutionary theory. For a curious medical student like Doyle this was even more the case, because evolution was not just another new scientific theory but embodied a new, fresh spirit that was not afraid of traditional authorities in its search for the origins of the living world.  Already at the beginning of theThe Lost World it becomes obvious that evolution will be of some importance in the book. The scientific protagonist Professor Challenger is introduced as a leading zoologist of his time, who has published works such as ‘Outlines of Vertebrate Evolution’, and when the first-person narrator of the novel, the journalist Edward Malone, wants to find out more about Challenger, he learns that the professor is currently engaged in “something about Weismann and Evolution." Malone reads an article titled “Weissmann versus Darwin”, which reports of a lecture by Prof. Challenger that ended in great uproar, not least due to the very emotional presentation by the professor. The mention of Darwin and the influential German evolutionist Weismann at the centre of a heated debate not only foreshadows later evolutionary ideas in the novel but also points to the status of Darwinism in the early 20th century.  While the idea of evolution had been largely accepted in the Western scientific world by the late 19th century, details of Darwin’s ideas on reproduction were already contested by biologists of his time."

This is appropriate because, at least in the popular consciousness, evolution was in many ways becoming a monster.  When trying to figure out evolution and the origins of life, man is truly dealing with ideas of identity.  Where do we come from?  Who are we to be?  Why are we here?  Where to we fit?  They are questions of mankind's place in the world, or even the universe.  And when those questions are delved into, there are always problems and fears that arise.  Man has a fear of his animalistic roots.  Civilization and society is built around the core concept that humans are to learn to behave in a very non-animalistic way.  We are meant to be not so natural, at least according to popular culture. There is also a fear that a progressive future will always be haunted by the retrogressive past - anxieties over the ability to actually escape that past.  Can we ever truly "escape" the jungle?  And will the cost of future discoveries actually be the rediscovering of the past?  Either way, the cost of discovery is a monster, and that monster cannot always be ignored.

This is where the 1925 silent film adaptation of Conan Doyle's novel comes into play. While the novel asks these questions and is excited about future scientific prospects, the movie puts all of these anxieties and fears on full display in a very visceral way - and maybe even attempts to reconcile them.  And in order to bring those fears to life, they brought in Willis O'Brien, who had masterfully brought dinosaurs to life in The Ghost of Slumber Mountain several years earlier (and would go on to do the effects work for King Kong following The Lost World).  Still, Willis was nowhere near the first to try reconstructing extinct megafauna in a visceral and realistic way. Famously, during O'Brien's lifetime, a man by the name of Charles R. Knight was painting numerous species of ancient monsters, and had been for some time.

Born in 1874, artist Charles R. Knight is the man largely responsible for the vision of what dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals were believed to look like in the early 1900's, and in most if not all pre-Jurassic Park films.  As such, his vision served as one of the fundamental building blocks of the contemporary giant monster, especially in the western world.  His paleo-artwork went on to directly inspire the look, behavior, and entire sequences in the special effects films of Willis O'Brien.   In fact, another special and visual effects artist, Ray Harryhausen (who's entire career was essentially centered around giant monster movies) wrote in his autobiography An Animated Life, “Long before Obie (Willis O'Brien), myself, and Steven Spielberg, [Charles R. Knight] put flesh on creatures that no human had ever seen. . . At the L.A. County Museum I vividly remember a beautiful Knight mural on one of the walls depicting the way the tar pits would have looked in ancient times. This, plus a picture book about Knight’s work my mother gave me, were my first encounters with a man who was to prove an enormous help when the time came for me to make three-dimensional models of these extinct beings.”

Knight was actually legally blind due to a natural astigmatism, as well as a later injury to his eye. But that did not stop him from pursuing a career in art, which he loved particularly because he loved being able to create and recreate things he saw in nature, especially animals.  After numerous visits to the American Museum of Natural History, he attracted the attention of Dr. Jacob Wortman, who asked Knight to paint a restoration of a prehistoric pig, Elotherium, whose fossilized bones were on display. Knight applied his knowledge of modern pig anatomy, and used his imagination to fill in any gaps. Wortman was thrilled with the final result, and the museum soon commissioned Knight to produce an entire series of watercolors to grace their fossil halls.

His paintings were hugely popular among visitors, and Knight continued to work with the museum well until the 1930s, painting what would become some of the world’s most celebrated images of dinosaurs, prehistoric mammals, and prehistoric humans.  His art, while not the first works to try and recreate dinosaurs, are extremely well known.  Not only did he reconstruct what he believed the animals looked like based on scientific findings, but also their environment and behavior.  For example, the notion that Tyrannosaurus Rex was oft in confrontations with Triceratops - while based on a few paleontologist findings - was largely popularized by Knight's painting of one such conflict.

One of Knight's best-known pieces for the American Museum of Natural History is 1897’s Leaping Laelaps, which was one of the few pre-1960s images to present dinosaurs as active, fast-moving creatures.

Although Knight insisted that he possessed quite a bit of paleontological knowledge, he did consider himself first and foremost an artist.  And while his paintings were based on things he knew, they were also largely speculative.  He filled gaps in knowledge with his creativity, and as such his paintings are not entirely accurate, though many were revolutionary for the time.  Perhaps this is why his dinosaurs were and are so prevalent among popular culture.  The speculative nature of his work makes it art.  Makes it a bit of an unknown and mixes man's imagination with that of nature.  This is why Knight's creatures, predating those of Harryhausen, Ishiro Honda, or Spielberg, are some of the first giant monsters to penetrate popular culture in a lasting way outside of those existing in folklore and high and classical mythology.

His art, while not the first works to try and recreate dinosaurs, are extremely well known and were very influential on Willis O'Brien and his subsequent portrayals of ancient species.  Even the illustrations printed along with Conan Doyle's The Lost World novel were directly lifted from Knight's work.  In many ways, the 1925 film adaptation was entirely populated by Knight's paintings, only now they were walking, breathing, and hunting.  Willis O'Brien had brought them to life.

Plot-wise, the film has a few differences between it and the book.  In the movie, Challenger has come into the possession of Maple White's (an explorer/scientist type) journal.  White had been on a journey and discovered a region where dinosaurs roamed the Earth, but was unfortunately marooned there.  His daughter, who was on the journey with him - although had stayed at base camp due to fever - had returned to London with his journal in order to muster up a rescue mission.  Challenger is largely laughed at for his efforts, but ends up putting together the same team that he does in the book.  Interestingly, the new character of Paula (White's daughter) is also along for the ride, with John Roxton hoping to win her over.  They get there and get stuck just like in the book, and during their stay, Paula falls for Malone instead of Roxton.

And of course there is a great deal of dinosaur action which is accomplished through O'Brien's brilliant use of stop motion animation.  While entering the jungle, the expedition sees a whole host of jungle life, but the first prehistoric creature they run into is a pterodactyl eating a giant boar.

Aside from dinosaurs, the lost world is home to the main antagonists from the book: ape-men.  However, it's handled a bit differently in the film.  Rather than a tribe of war-like apes, the film has a chimpanzee and a more evolved - but still monstrous - ape-man living together, who stalk the expedition from the distance. As Challenger hopes to move forward by making discoveries related to the past, he is being stalked by the "monster" of mankind's past - our own evolutionary origins.  In fact, interestingly, the missing-link only attacks the party when they are attempting to "progress."  As they prepare to explore, conquer, and catalogue the lost world, the missing-link hurls a rock at their camp.  And as they are attempting to use ingenuity to escape it, he hinders them again by trying to destroy their rope ladder back into the real world.  At the cusp of every "discovery" or amount of "progress" the team attempts to make, their ancestor is there snickering and attacking them. And as they find themselves at a closer and closer proximity to their past, they are pitted against the very discovery, the very progress that Challenger hoped to find: the dinosaurs.  It's an ideologically fascinating approach to the story, but one that doesn't play as well as it could on the screen.  Perhaps it could have been strong if not for the fact that the ape-man, as well as the human protagonists, are so vastly overshadowed by the far more interesting and exciting scenes of dinosaur mayhem - and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Now, there are a lot of dinosaurs out in full force during the course of this film.  O'Brien really outdid himself, making entire herds of herbivores, including triceratops, stegosaurus, agathaumas, hadrosaurs, sauropods, and of course a whole host of allosaurs and tyrannosaurs (along with the previously mentioned pterodactyl).  And there are a lot of dinosaur fights. The Lost World presents a vision of the past filled with endlessly brutal "kill or be killed" scenarios that never seem to let up. For example, the team encounters a peaceful hadrosaur who is attacked by an allosaurus. The allosaurus kills the hadrosaur and then moves on to attack a nearby styracosaurus-like agathaumas, which gores him to death.  Just then, a massive tyrannosaur bursts into the clearing and slaughters the agathaumas - and then snatches a pteranodon from the air and kills that as well - then turns on the team to chase them down.  The primeval world is an extremely dangerous place, and it's fascinating to see that many of these dinosaurs don't actually stop to devour their kills in the film.

Another standout dinosaur moment is when a volcano erupts and the dinosaurs stampede away to safety.  There are herds and herds of these things running, and it's a great credit to Willis O'brien's effects that it all looks so cool.  It is nowhere near as fine tuned as what he would churn out in his later works, but it's absolutely stunning in its sheer scope compared to the choppy animation he displayed in say, The Dinosaur and the Missing Link one decade earlier. In fact, in 1922, Conan Doyle showed O'Brien's test reel to a meeting of the Society of American Magicians, which included the famous Harry Houdini. The astounded audience watched footage of a Triceratops family, an attack by an Allosaurus, and some Stegosaurus footage. Doyle refused to discuss the film's origins. On the next day, the New York Times ran a front page article about it, saying "[Conan Doyle’s] monsters of the ancient world, or of the new world which he has discovered in the ether, were extraordinarily lifelike. If fakes, they were masterpieces." There is one shot I particularly felt gleeful over in the aftermath of the stampede, where we see a whole pack of carnivorous therapods eating an abandoned carcass like a bunch of buzzards in the Savannah.  It's very impressive.

The most impressive shot for me personally, at least of the jungle scenes, involved one of the therapods roaring.  It is a closeup of its gruesome scaly face, and as it roars, its mouth is filled with a sticky saliva that stretches as he moves and tongue. It's extremely convincing and I would honestly say it is the most iconic shot from the film, perhaps followed by the subsequent sequence when they hurl a flaming torch into his mouth.

However, perhaps one of the most forward thinking moments for the giant monster genre occurs at the end of the film - at least, forward thinking for the time.  In Conan Doyle's novel, Challenger brings a small pteranodon back to London with him, which promptly escapes and flies out to sea where it presumably either goes back home or dies.  However, the makers of this film planned a much more exciting finale, filled with all the vibrato and gusto that Hollywood blockbusters are known for today. Earlier in the film, a saurapod was pushed off of a cliff by an attacking therapod.  When the team escapes the lost world, they find that the saurapod is stuck in a pool of mud, incapacitated but alive. Challenger, who had been previously been laughed out of academia for believing in the story found in White's journal (oh, Mr. White is anticlimactically found dead, his bones scattered around a cave) decides to bring the dinosaur back to London as proof of his claims.  And so he does, rather than the tiny pteranodon from the book.  But, while unloading the brontosaur from the boat, the cage swings over and breaks apart, releasing the creature onto the streets of London.  This is the first giant monster attack on a city found in any feature film, and it is marvelous.  It rampages around, stomping on people, smashing cars, curiously checking out street lamps, and of course completely destroying buildings and just about everything else in its path.  This film predates Godzilla's prehistotic-monster-romp-through-town by 29 years, and predates King Kong by 8.  It's a fantastic and ambitious sequence, and while the brontosaurus is not nearly as captivating for terrifying as the carnivores found earlier in the film (in fact, the poster for the film actually depicts a massive therapod attacking London rather than the saurapod we see on screen) it is still perhaps the best sequence in the entire film and set a precedent for the majority of giant monster movies since.

In the end, the monster runs out onto the London Bridge, breaking it, and tumbles into the waters below.  Challenger watches, upset that his proof just trashed the city and escaped, as the creature swims down the river and presumably out to sea.  As he sits in agony, we are treated to one final, tiny, interesting little sequence: Previously in the film, Roxton had attempted to woo Paula.  Roxton is also the one who finally kills the missing link by shooting it - in essence, defeating the anxieties over the past and moving ahead.  However, in the final scenes of the film, Paula chooses Malone (who was engaged at the beginning of the film) and leaves Roxton behind.  The two had a major age difference, but Roxton looks rather sad over the incident.  Some onlookers actually recognize him, because he was a famous explorer, and we see that he has gained nothing, even though he perhaps achieved the most throughout the course of the film.  The old man seeking the younger mate loses to other younger suitor.  Natural selection.  Even though he himself killed the embodiment of Darwinism and the anxieties held therein, the film chooses to touch on those anxieties one final time in showing that he lost the "reproductive arms race" in a sense.  Despite his efforts to overcome animalism and Darwinism, he was still a slave to it, mirroring that even the modern man couldn't contain or stand up to the monster from the past.  Again, I appreciate the sentiment, but I came into this movie for the dinosaurs and I stayed for the dinosaurs, and at the end of the day, it's the dinosaurs that matter.

All in all The Lost World is a fantastic movie.  Excellent ideas, characters, and creatures.  The monsters, as they tend to do, absolutely steal center stage and make every moment they're on screen pretty interesting.  The action runs at a breakneck pace, which is pretty interesting for a silent film, and of course, Willis O'Brien's efforts on this film got him recognized by Merian C. Cooper, who recruited him to do the effects for his film in 1933's King Kong.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Die Nibelungen (1924)

One of the early great giant monsters of the silent film era is the dragon in 1924's Die Nibelungen: Siegfried.  Die Nibelungen is a series of two epic, silent Austrian films, based on the epic poem The Nibelungenlied, which is generally translated to "The Song of the Nibelungs," or some similar variation.  Nibelungenlied is actually a fairly famous work.  Setting itself in the world of Norse and Germanic mythology, the story tells of the dragon-slayer Siegfried, how he was murdered, and of his wife Kriemhild's revenge. Old Norse parallels of the legend survive in the Völsunga saga, the Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda, the Legend of Norna-Gest, and the Þiðrekssaga; sources from which we derive all of our knowledge of Norse Mythology and the like, aside from folklore and oral tradition.  Famously, many elements from the story were taken and adapted by German composer Richard Wagner for his four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), from which such famous works of music as "The Ride of the Valkyries" derive from.  Many elements from it similarly appear within the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.

The dragons of lore are obviously not an entirely original concept.  Cultures the world over have all featured dragons in some form or another (leading many to suspect that perhaps prehistoric reptiles of some kind did linger into the days of human history that no longer exist).  European dragons are particularly popular as monsters, being large, generally evil, carnivorous, and gifted with all manner of supernatural abilities. While there are plenty of notable examples, such as St. George's dragon which terrorized a town until St. George slew it, the dragon featured in Die Nibelungen is particularly interesting due to its roots in ancient tradition. On the subject of European dragons, author and philologist J.R.R. Tolkien said in his essay defending the value of monsters and fantasy in Beowulf"And dragons, real dragons, essential both to the machinery and the ideas of a poem or tale, are actually rare. In northern literature there are only two that are significant. If we omit from consideration the vast and vague Encircler of the World, Miðgarðsormr, the doom of the great gods and no matter for heroes, we have but the dragon of the Völsungs, Fáfnir, and Beowulf's bane."

Fafnir, in the many versions of the story, is indeed the dragon which is eventually slain by the hero, Siegfried.  Though not entirely stated explicitly within the film, it's interesting that one of only a handful of "original" European dragons (and in fact the only dragons of which J.R.R. Tolkien saw any value in) as well as one of the oldest and truest giant monsters on film.

The 1924 film version is, as mentioned above, split into two parts.  The first part is subtitled Siegfried, and the other is subtitled Kriemhild's Revenge.  Together, the two films come in at a whopping four and a half hours in length, and tell a sweeping epic fantasy story that rivals any of the modern fantasy films of Peter Jackson, as well as serving as precedent for later famous films like Clash of the Titans, Jason and the Argonauts, and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.  For the purposes of this article however, we will focus our attention to the first film, and what is perhaps among the most famous sequences from it.

The title character, Siegfried, has mastered the skill of forging weapons, and seeks a far off kingdom in order to win the hand of a beautiful princess in marriage.  Due to some betrayal, his journey is led astray into a dark forest where he eventually comes across a dragon (who is often interpreted as the character Fafnir, from Norse Mythology) and sets off from his path in order to engage it in combat, and slay it.  The film depicts these events quite faithfully, realizing the dragon through use of some impressive practical effects in the form of what is essentially a life-sized puppet.  As always, there is some serious weight placed on the monster through use of having a tangible physical creature on set - something seen far too little of today.  It stomps, slithers, and drools as it weaves its head around boulders and over knolls, trying to kill Siegfried.  The reptilian eyes peer over its little territory, and comes across as fairly menacing.

Impressively, the film crew chose to go for something very grounded in reality.  One can easily get carried away with the idea of a dragon.  It can have wings, horns, run fast and chase heroes around.  This dragon is of a completely different sort of ilk.  Realizing the limits of their special effect and choosing not to delve into "eye rolling" territory, this dragon appears much more like a prehistoric belly-dragging reptile.  It drags itself along, moving slowly but purposefully.  One moment brings a particular point of reality to life as the dragon slithers over to a pool and begins to drink.  Akin to the scene in Jurassic Park when the Tyrannosaur's pupil constricts when they shine a flashlight in its eye, the moment where the dragon slinks over for a drink is the moment that really sells it as real, living, breathing (thirsty) character.  It registers to the audience that this is an actual creature, and not just some cheesy puppetry for us to laugh at.

The size of the beast is also something to behold.  To compare it to Jurassic Park again, any time that a giant puppet is given a fair amount of movement and put up against human actors, there's a weight on the screen that just can't be replicated with special visual effects or camera trickery.  That's not to say it's all realism though.  When Siegfried finally does engage the monster, it does breath fire in a manner of speaking.  It doesn't expel a stream of flames like a flamethrower, which I actually very much applaud.  Rather than taking the popular "flame thrower-esque" apprach, in Siegfried they maintain composure and choose to let the flames come from deeper in the dragons throat, as if its belching combustibles in bursts, not in order to kill its attacker, but as a form of defense.  Intimidation.  Indeed, it doesn't look like the dragon is using it as a weapon really at all, but just to keep the hero at a distance, similar to how most animals snarl and snap their jaws, or swell up to appear larger to predators.  It's a fantastic effect, but the hero isn't dissuaded. Siegfried stabs the dragon in the eye, which leaves a pretty cool wound for the remainder of the dragon's screen time, blackened and swollen.

Really, the only moment that dips into full-on corny territory is when the dragon is finally slain, but it's just so much fun that, as usual, it can be forgiven. Siegfried stabs the animals in the neck and blood just begins gushing out.  The implication is that a major artery was punctured, but it just flows out, being drawn by gravity's force, rather than anything internet.  While it looks a bit silly at first, especially since the bleeding is a tad delayed, it actually ends up proving an interesting visual as the slain creature finally lies still, with a steady stream of blood oozing out from the wound.  Siegfried, at the recommendation of a nearby bird, ends up tasting and bathing in the dragon's blood in order to gain invincibility - which doesn't keep.

Whereas past examples of life-sized puppetry from D. W. Griffith's Brute Force was extremely underused and pointless, the dragon from Die Nibelungen Siegfried is used to its fullest and serves as a completely captivating segment in a very long, nevertheless very good film.  The dragon fight is hands down the standout set piece, and completely steals the show.  And also unlike Brute Force, the scenes without monsters are still captivating and interesting, with dramatic human characters that keep the audience engaged.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1918)

The story of The Ghost of Slumber Mountain begins with Willis O'Brien, a man who would famously go on to create the special effects for films like The Lost World (1925) and the original King Kong (1933).  O'Brien was a Californian by birth, began working at the age of eleven.  He left home at this age and began several years trying his hand at numerous job opportunities.  His resume ended up including a vast range of jobs including farmhand, factory worker, fur trapper, cowboy, bartender, rodeo competitor, draftsman, sport's cartoonist, professional boxer, railroad worker, professional marble sculptor and more.  Among these jobs was one where worked as a guide to paleontologists in Crater Lake region, during which time he took up an immense fascination with dinosaurs.  Having an aptitude for artwork, O'Brien spent a lot of time sketching the ancient beasts and sculpting them as well, bringing the creatures which roamed in his imagination out of his head for the world to see.

In his late twenties, Willis had become assistant to the head architect of the 1913 San Francisco World's Fair, where some of his work was displayed. During this time he made models, including a dinosaur and a caveman, which he animated with the assistance of a local newsreel cameraman using stop motion animation. Stop motion is an animation technique in which a physically manipulated object appears to move on its own. The object is moved in small increments between individually photographed frames, creating the illusion of movement when the series of frames is played as a continuous sequence.  Like a flip book made of real life photographs, the technique had been around since before the 1900's, though never really used to its fullest.  O'Brien reportedly made 90 seconds worth of footage with moving dinosaurs, which was seen by Herman Wobber, who commissioned O'Brien to make his first film, The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy in 1915.

Fully animated through use of stop motion, The Dinosaur and Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy is the story of some cavemen.  In a fashion similar to The Flinstones, the cavemen seem like modern folks just living in a different time period.  The plot follows one of the cavemen as he tries to win over a cavewoman, similar to both of D.W. Griffith's past cavemen movies (can someone explain to me why this was such a popular plot point in caveman narratives?!).  And also similar to Griffith's Brute Force, this short film features a "missing link" or an ape man.  He is, clearly, a monster and spends his time terrorizing the countryside.  When he lopes down from his perch in the trees in search of food, the Missing Link encounters a sauropod dinosaur at a watering hole.  While the dinosaur is drinking, the Missing Link nibbles on its tail and the two engage in a fight.

Is this the earliest monster battle on film?  It might be.  I'm not sure, but either way it appears as a very striking foreshadow to Willis O'Brien's later work in King Kong, with a gorilla-creature duking it out with a dinosaur. The fight is short lived, however, and the dinosaur leaves the Missing Link thrashing on the ground until he dies.  After his death, the caveman protagonist comes upon the body and misleads the cavewoman into thinking he had killed the Missing Link himself.  She is wildly impressed and the two presumably end up together.  A morally ambiguous premise but nonetheless an entertaining one which was picked up and distributed by Thomas Edison and his film company.  Willis was contracted to produce a whole slew of animated prehistoric features after this, including but not limited to, RFD 10000 BC and Prehistoric Poultry.

These films all take on what I would call a decidedly Flinstone-esque sort of tone.  This is especially the case with RFD 10000 BC in which a domestic dispute between a "modern stone age" couple goes amiss.  The male lead is a mailman who uses a mail cart pulled by a dinosaur, and it legitimately looks lifted right out of The Flinstones (though, I assure you, this feature came first).  It's relatively light on plot, but at one point the man is ripped in half by his dinosaur who tosses half of his body through the air which is fun (it is done in a "cartoon" fashion, and the man is able to pull himself back together and walk away).  
Prehistoric Poultry tells of some cavemen dealing with a giant prehistoric bird who eludes them and causes shenanigans.  They're all relatively simple and fun little experiments in stop motion, but they the paved the way for Willis to eventually make his first "serious" dinosaur film in 1918.

The 1918 film was called The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, and its history is a drawn out and unhappy one. Producer Herbert M. Dawley was impressed with what Willis had been doing and commissioned him to write, direct, co-star and do the effects for his film, which would be the first to incorporate stop motion monsters with live action human characters.  With Dawley in the lead role, the collaboration has gone down in history as a bit of an infamous mess. For many years, it was reported that the end result was reportedly a 45 minute film, but that Dawley ended up cutting the film down to a mere 11 minutes.  What's more, he supposedly claimed the credit for O'Brien's pioneering effects work himself. However, this has come into dispute in recent years, with recent claims being that Dawley was ordered to cut down the film against his will by a theater manager named Walter Hayes.  What's more, signifigant evidence has come to light that Dawley did indeed help with, or create entirely, certain effects shots - particularly those used in Along the Moonbeam Trail, which will be discussed later on in the article.  At any rate, what is known for certain is that there was a fair amount of heavy editing, making it not entirely certain what the full plot of the film really was, even with restored cuts of the film circulating today that give a fuller account.

The film opens with some boys playing under the care of their uncle, Holmes (played by Dawley himself) who is a writer/artist type.  Bored with playing in the yard, the boys embark to ask their uncle to tell them "a true story about wild animals."  It's an oddly specific and strange request, but Holmes acquiesces.  He pulls out a diary and tells them about an adventure he had in the woodlands around Slumber Mountain, near the Valley of Dreams. The rest of the film is shown in flashback, recreating his story.  Holmes, and who I assume is his guide and his dog, canoe down The River of Peace to an area which had been previously inhabited by a crazy hermit named "Mad Dick."  After some weirdness in which Holmes tries to coerce his friend - who refuses - into posing nude as a faun (a half human half goat character from mythology) in a nearby field, they go to bed. During the night, Holmes is awoken by a voice that leads him to the supposedly haunted cabin of the late hermit, Mad Dick.

Holmes investigates the cabin and finds it full of papers and bones, along with little sculpts of dinosaurs and other prehistoric monsters.  He also finds a mysterious telescope-type instrument which, according to local legend, the ghost of Mad Dick uses to gaze out of. Upon picking up the item, the voice calls him again, up near the peak of Slumber Mountain.  When he gets to the top, the Ghost of Mad Dick (played by O'Brien) is waiting, and orders him to look down into the woods through the scope. When he does, he looks back into the past, and sees a whole host of prehistoric creatures.  The toll of the missing footage really shows here, as we're never made entirely sure whether he is seeing living prehistoric monsters or just gazing through time.  We are lead to believe the latter, but it doesn't remain consistent with the ending.  It's also vague as to whether or not this story is a dream.  The strange location names all imply that this is a dream that he wrote down in his diary, but if so, that all feels rather inconsistent with he and his guide's early travels to their initial campsite.  It's possible that he was dreaming about the guide too - explaining the request that they pose as fauns as some sort of subconscious desire - but again, nothing is clear.

After seeing a sauropod lumber around, and a giant bird eat some snakes, and so he watches a triceratops going about his business.  Suddenly, a Tyrannosaurus bursts into the clearing and fights the triceratops in a scene which was directly inspired by the works of Charles R. Knight. The Tyrannosaurus bites into the Triceratops numerous times, and eventually knocks him over and starts tearing into his innards.  While the Missing Link and Dinosaur fight was a faint shadow of the monkey/dino action that would show up later in King Kong, this fight sequence seems to be the groundwork for essentially every giant monster rumble that would appear on screen since then.  It's an extremely famous sequence, and I wouldn't be surprised if you've ran across this fight sequence on its own and not known what it was from (I know I had.  It was featured on multiple educational dinosaur videotapes and cd roms from my childhood).  It's a great fight, with a particularly gruesome ending as the Tyrannosaurus begins eating out the Triceratops' innards while it's still alive and flailing.

After licking his lips, the Tyrannosaur approaches Holmes and snarls.  Holmes shoots it in the face, and it bleeds and gnashes its teeth in anger and begins chasing after him.  It's a pretty cool scene, and as I said before, we are led to believe he is not on the same plane of existence as the dinosaurs until that moment. It's rather surprising, and a bit intense as the monster snarls and blood bursts out of its gunshot wounds. As the dinosaur grabs him and begins tearing his flesh apart, he awakes and claims the whole thing was a dream. Again, how much of the story was dream is unclear, because the beginning felt very subdued, but still took place on the River of Peacein the Valley of Dreams by Slumber Mountain. His nephews are bitterly disappointed with the falsified story, and it ends.

The film grossed over $100,000 and Dawley used the cut effects footage in a sequel titled Along the Moonbeam Trail two years later - at least, that's what many have been led to believe.  Again, recent assertions point to the animation in Along the Moonbeam Trail being Dawley's entirely, and perhaps even having been created prior to The Ghost of Slumber Mountain.  At any rate, O'Brien is largely given credit for The Ghost of Slumber Mountain these days, and it subsequently secured his position in doing the groundbreaking effect work on 1925's The Lost World.

All in all, O'Brien is a pioneer of the genre and without his imagination, we would likely never had seen the likes of any of the giant monster or kaiju genre.  The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, no matter how butchered, served an important role in helping secure O'Brien's role in movies to come, and serves on its own as an extremely interesting and entertaining piece of monster/dinosaur cinema from an era before sound or even color.