The Lost World
US (1925) Dir. Harry Hoyt
For many years The Lost World was a lost film, like so many from the silent period. By the time talkies became de rigueur in 1929 prints of the film were destroyed to make room for a sound remake (which became King Kong in 1933). While various redacted versions existed it wasn’t until a 35mmm print was finally discovered in Prague that the film was restored to its most complete version possible since 1925.
Coming from the mind and pen of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Lost World is not just a predecessor of the monster movie as we know it but a clear influence on the jungle adventure genre too, Tarzan notwithstanding. Outside of Sherlock Holmes, this was Conan Doyle’s most celebrated work, so a film adaptation was likely even in the nascent days of Hollywood.
It begins with newspaper journalist Edward Malone (Lloyd Hughes) being told by his sweetheart Gladys (Alma Bennett) that she’ll only marry him if he does something exciting and dangerous. When Malone is sent by his editor to cover a lecture by eccentric scientist Professor Challenger (Wallace Beery) about dinosaurs living in the Amazon, he agrees to join Challenger’s return expedition to get proof of said creatures.
The party, which also includes sceptic Professor Summerlee (Arthur Hoyt), sportsman Sir John Roxton (Lewis Stone) and Paula White (Bessie Love) – daughter of missing explorer Maple White, whose journal describes the dinosaurs – arrive in the Amazon and set up camp at the base of the plateau where Maple disappeared. Sure enough dinosaurs do appear but getting evidence isn’t going to be easy.
Whilst Conan Doyle’s story has been remade many times in film and on TV, this version remains the most significant due to the pioneering stop-motion animation of Willis O’Brien. He first used it in 1915 (The Dinosaur And The Missing Link) and in a short, The Ghost Of Slumber Mountain in 1918 – but this was the first feature length film with stop-motion animation and to use the split screen technique showing the creatures with human actors at the same time.
The dinosaurs are quite rudimentary compared to what would come just a few years later but still very impressive for the period; in fact, Conan Doyle showed some test footage of the dinosaurs at a magicians society meeting (also attended by Harry Houdini) and many believed it was real!
Keen eyed viewer will notice that the plot and some of the action sequences share many similarities with King Kong, the film which made O’Brien a household name, as this was a something of a test case forerunner for Kong. But to dismiss The Lost World on that basis would be an egregious slight against what is a groundbreaking monster movie in its own right.
Adapted by Marion Fairfax, the screenplay veers somewhat from Conan Doyle’s tome, one change being the addition of Paula to the cast. Since Bessie Love was a popular actress at the time, they clearly felt the need for a damsel in distress to illustrate the horror of being hounded by dinosaurs. For the former, Love’s wide-eyed features hold her in good stead but she is no more in dire straits than her male companions are.
Conversely Challenger isn’t a totem for the testosterone fuelled alpha male looking to appease his ego. Instead he is a proud, if reputed fantasist, defending his honour, dignity as well as the contribution he is making to the field of science. He may not necessarily be the chest beating type but Challenger doesn’t suffer fools gladly, a role almost tailor made for Wallace Beery.
Along with the dinosaurs – which include Triceratops, Brontosaurus, Pteranodon, T-Rex and Allosaurus – there is an ape-man creature (Bull Montana) who follows the party around, often causing mayhem. There is an ambiguity about this beast which is never fully explored – is he the missing link? And are his actions deliberately malevolent or a plea for attention by someone who can’t communicate?
Had Challenger and the others spotted the Ape-Man he would have been much easier to transport home than the Brontosaurus they eventually capture, and it would have caused less damage when it runs amok through the streets of London. Okay, slight spoiler there but necessary as this is where the Kong comparisons hit their apogee.
Elsewhere another staple of the jungle adventure was exploited here for full comic effect in the form of Jocko the monkey, who takes a shine to Paula whilst terrorising poor Professor Summerlee. Years before Cheetah and the PG Tips chimps, Jocko was fooling around and getting up to mischief in an adorable fashion and setting the template for his successors.
A story such as this shouldn’t be able to afford time for comic relief but it does. In fact there is so much more on offer than just dinosaurs running wild – there is the tense adventure of the group’s survival when their only route of escape is destroyed, and a volcano erupts flooding the jungle with molten lava. It may have been film on a soundstage or a safe external location but the camerawork is able to create a palpable sense of scale and danger, which carries over to the rampage in London for the finale.
It seems criminal that despite its success and the technological achievements of this film that it could be discarded with such nonchalance just because sound was the in thing. Thankfully cooler heads prevailed outside of Hollywood and the extant clips and copies have been merged with the Czech print to allow future generations to witness a piece of cinema history in (95%) of its full glory.
No matter how much The Lost World has been superseded technically over the years, it remains a seminal influence on the monster/jungle adventure movie genre and an underrated classic from the silent era.
For fans of King Kong, Godzilla or Jurassic Park this is where it all began!