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.

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