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Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Joker in The Lost Continent (1951)

The Lost Continent (1951) is an unfairly maligned Lost World story starring Cesar Romero, today best remembered for creating the definitive (no arguing) version of Batman’s arch-nemesis, The Joker.

Romero plays Major John Nolan, the officer in charge of leading the expedition to recovery the data recorder from an atomic-powered rocket lost during a test flight. Nolan takes off with co-pilot and embittered former WW II comrade-in-arms, Lt. Daniel Wilson (Chick Chandler), and comic relief mechanic, Sgt. Willie Tatlow (Sid Melton). In tow are the scientists in charge of the rocket; its Russian designer, Dr. Michael Rostov (John Hoyt), the introspective Dr. Stanley Briggs (Whit Bissell) and the always chipper Dr. Robert Phillips (Hugh Beaumont), whose job is to carry the Geiger counter to track the rocket’s radioactive signature1.

Hugh Beaumont, Sid Melton, John Hoyt, Chick Chandler, Whit Bissell, and Romero

Of course their plane crashes on an island in the middle of the South Pacific. They quickly meet a native (Acquanetta) who tells them that the rest of her people have fled because their gods are angry that a great ‘fire bird’ has landed on the top of their sacred mountain. Ascending to the plateau, our team finds a green-tinted prehistoric world populated with some not-too-badly animated dinosaurs. The boys battle a Brontosaurus and a couple of Triceratops before they reach their goal and escape as the whole island explodes.

Acquanetta and Romero

The Lost Continent script pretty much hews to the basic plot of every Lost World movie, and if you read the on-line reviews, you’d assume that that it is just another badly made B movie not worthy of your time. But, I’m here to at least softly praise its good points. The first being that as someone who has actually been on expeditions to exotic locales to find dinosaurs, albeit fossilized and not – alas – living ones2, I found the movie quite engaging, with many elements ringing truer than many bigger budget films.

Most scientific expeditions run relatively smoothly. They are organized and executed by professionals who know what they’re doing and hold the goals of the endeavor AND the safety of the crew in the upmost importance. However, there are times when despite your best plans you find yourself under the leadership of someone who puts their personal goals ahead of the safety of the team.

This is the circumstance that our search party find themselves in once they crash land on the island3. Major Nolan immediately marches them off to find the missing rocket. When someone suggests that they should see if the plane’s radio is still working, Nolan cuts him off by saying that they are under orders to maintain radio silence until they complete their mission. Hmmm. With their plane destroyed, Briggs injured and no supplies, wouldn’t it be a good idea to see if the radio works? If it’s dead, how is Nolan planning to arrange to be picked up even if they find the rocket? Nolan’s actions suggest that he’s on a personal suicide mission and doesn’t care who he takes down with him. 

Romero and Chandler
From his conversations with his buddy, Wilson, we learn that, like him, Nolan’s traumatic war experiences have soured him on the military. One can imagine a post-war scenario where a lack of jobs and an inability to fit back into civilian life has sent him back to the only thing he understands, the military. In such a scenario, Nolan can then be interpreted as a film noir ‘anti-hero’ driven to destruction in an effort to lash out at the institution/woman he loved, but who dumped him into a concentration camp for his devotion. The opening scene of the movie re-enforces Nolan’s frustration with the military. A rare opportunity to enjoy a romantic interlude with Marla Stevens (Hillary Brooks) is coarsely interrupted by a summons from his bosses to go find the rocket. Nolan’s frustration with life and the military in particular, bubbles through Romero’s portrayal of the character. Like every film noir anti- hero, Nolan is bound by the heartless regulations of a game from which he can’t break free. Artist Mark (Xenozoic) Schultz had this to add during our recent discussion of the film,
"Nolan is not only a solidly Noir protagonist, but the fatalistic tone of the entire movie places it squarely in the Noir genre. The cataclysmic ending is echoed in Kiss Me Deadly. Noir expert Eddie Muller suggests that non-crime genres, such as SF, do not belong in the film noir canon, but I would argue that noir should be most significantly defined by nihilistic, fatalistic themes that can overlap into almost any genre. If you substituted the science mission with a heist, no one would argue that LC wasn't noir. The character dynamics and the plotting would be the exact same. Even their code-mandated grim fate at the end."
Romero, Melton and Chandler
Nolan pushes them upward over what must be at least 500 meters of shear vertical assent that would test the most experienced climbers, let alone a ragtag bunch that have no climbing gear other than a rope. At this point a good leader would sit back, evaluate the situation and realize that obtaining the rocket data is beyond the scope of their resources. Plus, they’ve technically achieved their goal of finding the rocket! A simple radio message would bring a properly equipped team to the island within 24 hours, bringing the medical help needed for Briggs, and rescuing the stranded crew.

But Nolan and the plot insist that they all carry on, and it is their drawn-out ascent of the plateau that has been widely ridiculed by critics. At almost 20 minutes in length, it takes up about one-quarter of the film’s total running time. I’ll happily admit that it is there to simply pad out the film. However, for my money, it pretty accurately represents what most expeditions are all about the countless hours it takes to get to your destination.

Having hiked and climbed over hundreds of kilometers of badlands, I can attest that the climbing sequence is a good approximation of what that’s like. Needing to watch your every footfall because a misstep could mean injury, which is often the same as death when you’re miles away from help in a harsh environment. Coming to a dead end while trying to find the best path. Being pummeling by the nasty weather while perched in the most precarious of spots4.  They’re all part of the expeditionary routine.

The film makes the most of its plaster rock cliff set, rearranging its pieces and shooting from different angles so that no shot replicates the last. The slow, deliberate climb parallels the progress of any average expedition. I’ve also had the bad luck to have to follow someone as crazy as Nolan on their self-proclaimed ‘Death March’ (the actual term used in my case). When he comes to a dangerous part of the pass, Nolan never looks back to see whether everyone else can make it across. His attitude is, “I’m better than you and if you can’t keep up with me, you deserve to die”. And people do. Nolan ignores Brigg’s injury that puts himself and, thus, everyone else in danger. Like the best noir anti-hero Nolan doesn’t care if he is the only one left standing in the end (or if he is standing at all).
The Lost World looks it was inspired by a Rudolph Zallinger Painting.

Once the pinnacle is reached the team find themselves in a very effective set that gives the unsettling feeling of an alien, prehistoric environment. It’s obviously artificial, but that just adds to its unearthly atmosphere. However, the green film tint used for this portion of the movie doesn’t work for me – I prefer good old B&W, but, maybe, like the red tint used in another Lippert Production, Rocket Ship XM from the previous year (clips of which are recycled here), it was more effective in the theater.

The stop-motion dinosaur models are primitive, but are none-the-less charming. We’re treated to an almost modern interpretation of intraspecific Triceratops combat when two of them lock horns in a battle to the death. I would, however, quibble with the attack by the Brontosaurus that sees Hugh Beaumont climbing a tree to escape. Hugh obviously had not watched the original King Kong (1933). It did not work then, and it does not work here. Climbing a tree to escape the reach of an animal with a 6 meter long neck doesn’t make any sense. I’m always puzzled why an herbivore with the brain the size of peach pit would be driven to violently attack something that is non-threatening. I guess that King Kong set the rule of vicious sauropods that must be obeyed!

In his book, Keep Watching The Skies, Bill Warren offers these insights in to the film’s animated sequences, 
“For years, the identity of the stop-motion animator of the inadequate dinosaur scenes in Lost Continent was unknown. But then in Filmfax #105 (January–March 2005), William Fogg’s article on the movie basically answered the question, although who actually did the animation is still unclear. In December 1950, Robert Lippert signed a contract with Edward Nassour for “750 feet of black-and-white film featuring prehistoric animals.” Jay Baylor and sculptor Henry Lion often worked for Nassour in that period, so either or both may have been the actual animator—although there is no replacement animation of the type Nassour used in the later Beast of Hollow Mountain. The animation was done in a very short six weeks, explaining its deficiencies.”

After surviving all these threats, a nicely animated pterosaur leads the team to the rocket (bravo for the naturalistic look of it landing on a rock!). They manage to collect the precious data, but not before losing one more crew member (death by Triceratops!). On their descent, the surviving men are forced into a frantic race against the volcanic destruction of the island. They flee for their lives as the ground literally drops away beneath them in a sequence as exciting and well done as any big budget production could have managed. At the last second the surviving men escape in a native outrigger canoe.

Their fate is unresolved. The film ends with the dazed men clutching their precious data as the remainder of land crumbles in to the sea. No food. No Water. No supplies. No one knows where they are as they drift helplessly5. Will they be rescued? Will the next generation of rockets get built? If only Nolan had radioed HQ their position before setting out on his suicidal mission!

If there’s a moral here, it’s knowing to quit while you’re ahead. Having figured out where the rocket was and without the ability to mount a safe way to reach it, it’s best to call in help.

Sid Melton

The cast of The Lost Continent is made up of a lot of familiar faces that helps to smooth over its admittedly many flaws. I have a soft spot for Sid Melton who had a long career in mostly comedic small parts, including playing Captain Midnight's sidekick in the 1950’s and as part of the ensemble cast of the long running TV show, Green Acres. In the anthology parody movie, Amazon Women on The Moon (1987), Joey Travolta does a spot on spoof of Melton in the segment of the same name, which is itself a spoof of Fire-Maidens of Outer Space (1956) and a dozen other 50’s space exploitation flicks (e.g., notably Abbott and Costello Go To Mars, 1953).

Affable Hugh Beaumont (pre-Leave It To Beaver) had the magical ability to sail through cheapo movies like this with good humor and his dignity intact. A rule of thumb for characters appearing in these sorts of films would be to stick close to Hugh; I can’t think of one where he does not it make it out hale and hearty. And, I’m surprised that the producers did not give Universal’s Captive Wild Woman (1943), Acquanetta, a larger part. Most films like this would have her guiding the boys up the plateau and then either ending up with Romero or sacrificing herself so that he could escape. She’s wasted in this small role, but I hope she got away before the island blew up! 

Is The Lost Continent Worth My Time? I might be in the minority, but I’ll highly recommend it to those that enjoy these quickly made, low budget Lost World flicks. The 83 minute production by Robert L. Lippert & Sigmund Neufeld, and Sam Neufeld’s (Sigmund’s brother) direction rises well above the expected cheapie cash grab. Cinematography by Jack Greenhalgh is sharp and rich adding a lush tone to the film, while the score (available as a stand alone track on the DVD) evokes the spirit of high adventure. Screenwriter Richard Landeau also co-wrote the screenplay for the exceptional Quatermass Xperiment (1955), so he clearly was capable of writing better material when given the chance. Notably, both films feature rockets stuck in the ground like darts--ludicrous but dramatically impactful visuals.  

Availability: The 2001 DVD from Image Entertainment is still available and offers a sharp, clean print with good sound.

1. Do not accept any of the nonsense spoken about radioactivity in this film as fact.

2. I know that all birds are dinosaurs.

3. Calling this unnamed island a continent is pushing it.

4. Although no giant anole lizards have ever tried to eat me.

5. Given that the back-projecting ocean footage clearly shows waves breaking on a beach, our heroes could simply have stepped out of the canoe and walked home.