THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT
1974 / Kevin Connor
The Land That Time Forgot (UK, Kevin Connor, 1974) is a film I have a lifelong bond with. My relationship with this characteristically British low-to-medium-budget monster film has, appropriately enough, undergone a process of evolution. Perhaps not as complex and mysterious as the natural forces that guide all life on Caprona, the titular ‘Land’, but evolution nonetheless.
The Land That Time Forgot was the first of three adaptations of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s adventures produced by Amicus towards the end of its eventful 15 years (though the last of them would be released after the company had folded). The book of the same name was the first of Burroughs’s ‘Caprona’ (or ‘Caspak’) trilogy, about a group of Edwardian submariners who stumble upon a mysterious island containing life at all stages of evolution from the first single-celled organisms to modern man, via dinosaurs, marine lizards and sabre-toothed cats.
Amicus made its name with low-budget portmanteau horror films, and it was one of these – From Beyond The Grave (UK, Kevin Connor, 1974) – that saw sound editor Kevin Connor given his break as director by Amicus boss Milton Subotsky. In a move that surprised Connor, the next film he was offered by Subotsky was not another horror portmanteau, but a science fiction epic that would rely heavily on effects and production design.
A large part of Amicus’ success was the fact that its driving force, Subotsky, was a genuine fan of genre fiction. Subotsky’s partner, Max J Rosenburg, was based in the US sourcing finance for the studio’s films, leaving Subostky with a free hand on the creative side. “Hammer was a business set-up,” director Freddie Francis said to The Guardian. “Had it dealt in garbage disposal, it would have been just as successful. Milton Subotsky from Amicus, on the other hand, was a real horror buff.” And not only a horror buff. Subotsky was also a huge fan of science fiction and fantasy, and in 1974 he decided Amicus would branch out from the genre where it had made its mark. This would result in three of the studio’s last films being a sequence of three Edgar Rice Burroughs science fiction and fantasy adaptations. A further film made by much the same crew and in the same style for a different studio, Warlords of Atlantis (UK, Kevin Connor, 1978), is effectively a fourth entry in the series.
Connor’s debut for Amicus had seen him directing genuine stars including Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasance, and Diana Dors and his second film would see him supported by a team no less stellar in its way. Most of this star power would be felt behind the camera rather than in front of it.
“The time I spent at Amicus, on reflection, was the end of an era,” Connor told Flickfeast. “In those days Amicus, Tigon and Hammer could make their films for reasonable budgets. Actors and technicians all needed the work and you could get the best people to work for scale.”
Indeed, the crew making The Land That Time Forgot represents an astonishing assemblage of talent. The screenplay was written by that stalwart of British science fiction, Michael Moorcock. Special effects were supervised by Derek Meddings, the mastermind behind the model effects on Thunderbirds and later responsible for numerous Bond and Superman films. The monster miniatures were created by Roger Dicken, who a few years later would win an Oscar for the iconic ‘chestburster’ in Alien (UK, Ridley Scott, 1979). Creating and shooting the film’s distinctive aesthetic was veteran production designer Maurice Carter and cinematographer Alan Hume – then best known for his work on the Carry On films, of all things, but regarded as one of the best lighting cameramen in the business.
In front of the cameras, the talent was less heavyweight but certainly solid, and it’s the human performances that keep the film believable when the effects are variable. Amicus’ American financiers had the right to nominate the lead actor – they chose a stalwart of TV westerns, Doug McClure – but otherwise, Connor was free to scour the theatres and TV studios for his supporting cast. Susan Penhaligon, who was just beginning to make a name for herself in theatre and TV, was cast as Lisa Clayton, the only female member of the main cast because Connor felt that her face suited the Edwardian period setting. Keith Barron, then best known for Dennis Potter’s Nigel Barton television plays, was cast as no-nonsense merchant navy officer Bradley. The classically trained John McEnery, a BAFTA nominee for Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (UK/Italy, Franco Zeffirelli, 1968), was the U-boat commander, Kapitän Von Schoenvorts. His second-in-command, Dietz, would be played by Anthony Ainley, developing his chops as a villain five years before taking the role of The Master in Doctor Who (BBC, 1963-present).
That Connor was able to work with such a seasoned and talented team allowed him to thrive despite his lack of experience. It’s hard to imagine a tyro filmmaker having that opportunity today.
The real stars, of course, were the dinosaurs.
Producer John Dark, who recruited Roger Dicken to create the all-important monsters, was adamant that he didn’t want to use stop-motion. As a result, Dicken developed the ‘activated’ puppet – a combination of glove and rod puppet that could be operated in ‘real time’ and interact with elements of the scenery such as foliage, mist and water, in a way that stop-motion couldn’t. The puppets were filmed on miniature sets in large format VistaVision. These scenes were then combined with the actors using front projection, which had the benefit of allowing the actors to respond to the miniatures in a way that would not have been possible with compositing.
Dicken’s puppets were excellent, though they weren’t always shot in a way that played to their strengths, much to his displeasure, and he was rightly scornful of the rigid fibreglass pterodactyls ‘flown’ by crane. Nevertheless, it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to say that his work on The Land That Time Forgot and Warlords of Atlantis helped prepare him for his award-winning effects on Alien.
On scriptwriting duties, it’s hard to imagine anyone more suitable than Moorcock. He understood Burroughs’ work like nobody else, his love of the pulp writer undimmed from childhood. Nevertheless, Moorcock produced a script that went far beyond the trashy source material, dialling back Burroughs’ troubling racism, streamlining the somewhat over-complex evolutionary mechanism, and creating a thoughtful and nuanced take on the ‘monster movie.’
In between the fist fights, exploding scenery and dinosaur-on-dinosaur action, that is. Be in no doubt, The Land That Time Forgot is a ripping yarn – just one that is spun in a grown-up way from its mysterious opening to its sombre ending.
Notably, Von Schoenvorts is transformed from the one-dimensional nationalist bigot of the book into an Enlightenment man, a lover of nature and science. (German actor Anton Diffring recorded John McEnery’s lines as the producers weren’t happy with his German accent – it’s a seamless bit of dubbing). The treatment of the film’s main female character is most refreshing for an adventure film of the time – Lisa Clayton, a biologist, is smart and capable, saving the men on numerous occasions. And she typically wears a submariner jumper rather than an animal skin bikini – a tendency that, sadly, was not repeated in the succeeding films.
The film’s first half-hour is a pure war film, a straightforward submarine adventure. Little until that point even hints at what is to come, unless you consider the opening and title sequence, in which a canister is seen tumbling off a cliff and floating through storm-raged seas until it is picked up by a lighthouse keeper. The contents are a bundle of pages, and as he begins to read, a voiceover repeats the promise of a strange tale which begins in the midst of the First World War on a merchant ship in the Atlantic, transfers to a U-boat and eventually to an uncharted island, accessible only via an underground river penetrating otherwise impregnable cliffs.
…Whereupon the crew is almost immediately attacked by a Mosasaur and a Plesiosaur, then Neanderthals, and discover there is something distinctly odd going on with evolution in this strange world.
It’s hard to imagine how audiences must have experienced this genre switch at the time, the turn coming almost as dramatically as that of From Dusk Till Dawn (US, Quentin Tarantino, 1996) two decades later. Barely have the castaways got their heads around their predicament that they must find a way to escape while confronting many dangers and the mystery of the island’s perplexing ecology before the uneasy truce between Germans and Allies breaks down.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that The Land That Time Forgot played a formative role in my love of genre mash-ups, and blew my six-year-old mind wide open to the possibilities of storytelling when it was first broadcast on British television in the early 1980s.
Not that I actually watched it…
The trailer was broadcast around teatime advertising the film in the evening. I was astonished. It looked like a war film, with a U-boat and sailors in naval uniforms and German accents. But there were also dinosaurs! That it was possible to combine those elements seemed impossible. I can recall the sense of wonder – one of the clips in the trailer was the moment Kapitän Von Schoenvorts points out a diplodocus browsing on foliage atop a cliff with a waterfall cascading beneath it. It was mostly matte painting, and very much like magic.
And it was on television past my bedtime. I had to glean more details about the film from classmates who’d been allowed to stay up late. Nothing they said dampened my attitude. I didn’t actually manage to see the film until I was 11 or 12, and it was everything I hoped, from the excitement of the dinosaur fights to the crushing death of U-33 and the crew in a boiling lagoon while Anthony Ainley yells defiantly at McClure and Penhaligon on the shore, the land exploding all around them as the Caprona volcano erupts.
In my late teens, I sat down to watch it again and was sorely disappointed. By this time, Jurassic Park (US, Stephen Spielberg, 1993) had rejigged what the dinosaur film could look like, and suddenly the rubber puppets looked comically obvious. I felt as though my childhood had broken, and it was a long time before I went back. In the meantime, I dabbled in model building, started learning about film effects, and began to gain a new respect for the visuals. I had also started writing and found more and more to appreciate in the narrative and characterisation. The seeds were sown. A decade ago my first novel was published – a tale inspired by a real-life report of a sea serpent encounter by a Royal Navy ship in the 19th century.
There’s much to love about The Land That Time Forgot. In many ways, it’s the culmination of Amicus’ output as well as signalling the beginning of the end. It set some of the greats of special effects art on their path, and after having been widely derided for a time, is now rightly regarded with affection by genre fans.