March 8, 2013

"Hang on to your parkas!"

Poster - The Land Unknown (1957)
Now Playing: The Land Unknown (1957)

Pros: Intriguing premise of a lost world within a forbidding world (Antarctica); Imaginative production design on a limited budget
Cons: Wooden male lead; Variable monster effects; Budget too low for the high concept

Permit me to make a short plug for a book in a space normally reserved for movies. Several weeks ago I ran into a co-worker (and fellow horror fan) reading Dan Simmons' The Terror (2007) on his lunch break. I've had a lifelong side interest in tales of sailing ships, exploration and survival, so Simmons' unique mix of historical fiction and horror was intriguing to say the least -- the novel is based on the actual lost expedition of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, under the command of Sir John Franklin, to find the Arctic northwest passage in the mid-to-late 1840s. So I picked up a copy at the first opportunity and took it with me on a recent vacation.

As if all the challenges and privations of an Arctic expedition in the age of wooden sailing ships weren't enough -- the bone-chilling, killer cold; frostbite; crushing ice flows; violent storms; rotting food stores; scurvy and food poisoning; the inevitable human failings of envy, greed, ignorance and fear -- Simmons adds a huge, seemingly supernatural entity that stalks the expedition and picks them off one-by-one in fiendishly violent ways, without warning. It's a dauntingly long read at 960 pages, but for me a compelling one.

At one point in the book, after two years of being stuck in the Arctic ice, one of the characters morbidly compares a quick death from the slashing claws of the Thing with the prospect of a slow, agonizing death from scurvy or starvation. Simmons has obviously done his research, and the experiences and even the conversations of the characters feel very authentic. Just when you think things can't get worse, they do. From time to time it hits you that these were actual men who in all probability experienced and suffered much of what Simmons describes in the novel (absent being torn apart by a demon-beast of course).

Cover art - Dan Simmons' The Terror (2007)
At another point, mention is made of men who had previously served on the Terror or Erebus in Antarctica under James Clark Ross. From a comfortable 21st century perspective, typing on a computer in a cozy heated room, it seems incredible that anyone in their right mind would subject themselves for years on end to all the discomforts and perils of long sea voyages in rickety wooden vessels, and then, on top of it all, add mind-numbing, sub-freezing temperatures and the distinct possibility of being trapped by ice and snow thousands of miles from home. Then again, home back in those days was no bed of roses. Even in England, the supposed apex of civilization, life tended to be nasty, brutish and short. If you went into debt, you went to prison. If you couldn't feed your family, they starved. And in an pre-antibiotic world, chances were high that you'd die young of a routine infection. So maybe these long, arduous voyages of discovery weren't so crazy after all. There was the camaraderie and sense of mission, and if you just happened to survive, big bonuses for the members of a successful expedition (not to mention the status, kind of like being an astronaut back in the '60s when it was still rare and cool).

If I'd lived back then, I no doubt would have taken my chances with debtors' prisons, starvation and runaway infections on good old terra firma (and perhaps written reviews of plays while munching on stale bread in a drafty attic apartment). I don't think I could have been persuaded to join such an expedition until say, the invention of the airplane, so that you could fly over all that ice and snow, the polar bears, the chasms, cliffs, avalanches, etc. Take Admiral Richard Byrd, for example -- on his fourth Antarctic expedition, he was backed up by 15 naval ships, dozens of aircraft (including helicopters and flying boats), and over 4000 personnel. Now that's my kind of exploring!

Not that there aren't risks even with such a large, modern undertaking. The weather of course is always tricky in the arctic and antarctic regions. Parts give out in the freezing temps. Wings and rotors ice up. Fuel runs out. Sudden storms blow you out of the sky. And if you're really unlucky, a stray pterodactyl grazes your helicopter and sends you crashing down into a cavernous, lost prehistoric world thousands of feet below sea level.

This last bit of bad luck forces an unplanned stopover and exploration of The Land Unknown. The movie kicks off with a briefing in Washington, D.C. concerning a new U.S. Naval Antarctic expedition to follow up on the discoveries of the Byrd expedition of 1947, which, among other things, uncovered a south polar oasis of unaccountably warm water surrounded by ice. But that's not all that interests the U.S. government. As the expedition commander Captain Burnham (Douglas Kennedy) describes deposits of coal, nickel and uranium found by past Antarctic explorers, a gorgeous, well-dressed woman enters the briefing room. All the men turn around in their seats to stare as if they'd been out to sea (or out to lunch) for years and hadn't seen a woman in all that time.

At a break in the briefing, we learn that the head-turning blonde is Margaret "Maggie" Hathaway (Shawn Smith, aka Shirley Patterson) of the Oceanic Press, who will be joining the expedition. In classic '50s style, as the Captain introduces Maggie to two of her fellow explorers, Commander Harold "Hal" Roberts (Jock Mahoney) and Lt. Jack Carmen (William Reynolds), much awkward banter, smirks, leering and and assorted sophomoric hijinks ensues. A sample:
Hathaway: Hello Lieutenant. I hope you won't mind having to fly the first woman over Antarctica.
Lt. Carmen: Ma'am, you just say the word and I'll fly you up to the moon!
Hathaway (beaming): Hmmm, in a helicopter?
Capt. Burnham (smirking): You won't have to worry about him Miss Hathaway, I'm sure he'll cool off as soon as he hits sub-zero weather.
Oh brother! Only the straight-arrow Commander Roberts manages to escape with his dignity intact, simply telling the reporter that he's an "ardent" reader of her columns (and of course, we immediately wonder what's wrong with that guy). A little bit later, on the deck of an ice breaker ship bound for the Antarctic, we get a better idea of just how far "off" this Navy commander and nerdy geophysicist really is:
Hathaway (hair perfectly coiffed and in place, despite standing on the windy deck of a ship bound for the south pole): Oh Hal, oil vapors, molecules… do you have to be so technical?
Roberts: A few things I can be quite romantic about.
Hathaway: Name one!
Roberts: Well, women. For example, although I know that basically women consist mostly of water with a few pinches of salt and metals thrown in, you have a very un-saltlike and non-metallic effect on me.
Maggie Hathaway (Shawn Smith) and Cmdr. Roberts (Jock Mahoney) aboard ship
Shawn and Jock seem embarrassed by the jaw-dropping
"romantic" dialog in the scene aboard ship.
Man, this guy's smoother than The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon Cooper! With that touching interlude over, the movie gets down to the business of getting its main characters lost in an unknown land. With Machinist's Mate Steve Miller (Phil Harvey) in tow, the group takes off in a helicopter in search of Byrd's warm water discovery. When the pilot reports that the temp is 40 below, Maggie comments that it's hard to believe the area was once sub-tropical. Little does she know that she'll soon be experiencing for herself just what it was like millions of years ago.

Back on the ship, the weather reports look bad, and Captain Burnham orders that the helicopter be called back. But Lt. Carmen matter-of-factly informs his passengers that he can't fly over the storm, there's not enough fuel to fly around it, and nowhere to land to wait it out. So he looks for calm patch to fly through. As he heads for a small break in the storm bank, he tells the group to "hold on to your parkas!" Just then, out of the fog, a screeching pterodactyl buzzes the helicopter and clips the rotor assembly. With the controls and the antenna damaged, the craft starts to go down, but then, in a nice, suspenseful touch, Carmen realizes that they're below sea level and still descending (and the temperature is rising dramatically). Roberts guesses that they're inside the crater of a volcano. "I hope it's got a bottom," Carmen responds.

They find the bottom-- and what a bottom it is!  (Okay, that came out wrong. Let's go with, "and what a lost world it is!") As Carmen and Miller try to repair the helicopter, Roberts and Hathaway look around. In the dense fog, Maggie is completely oblivious to a huge man-eating plant that is just about to grab her with its tendrils when she's called over by Roberts. Meanwhile, Machinist's Mate Miller tries hammering out the bent push-pull rod that allows the helicopter to ascend. When he succeeds in breaking it, they realize they're royally screwed. Roberts points out that if they're not found relatively soon, the expedition pulls out in a few weeks, and there's not likely to be another one for years. Miller panics, and when the others are distracted, runs down the helicopter's battery vainly trying to hail search planes over the radio.

The helicopter crew is dwarfed by Mesozoic flora and volcanic peaks
Behold! The Land Unknown in spectacular black-and-white Cinemascope!

The crew spend a fitful night in their new digs, then wake up to find that the fog has lifted and they're standing in an strange world of towering volcanic peaks, weird tropical plants and strange creatures right out of the Mesozoic era. As the castaways stand awestruck at the vista in front of them (and in Cinemascope no less -- the effect isn't bad considering the limitations of the time), the viewer gets a taste of what might have been. Originally, Universal-International had planned a big-budget "epic" with heavy hitters William Alland producing and Jack Arnold directing (the team had recently scored a hit with The Incredible Shrinking Man, released in April, 1957). But the studio got cold feet, and drastically cut back on the budget and the cast. Arnold lost interest, and even though Alland is credited as producer, he also pulled out in all but name.

According to Virgil Vogel, the man who picked up the directing reins, the effects department was mostly responsible for the studio's change of mind (as told to Tom Weaver, Science Fiction Stars and Horror Heroes: Interviews with Actors, Directors, Producers and Writers of the 1940s through 1960s, McFarland, 1991):
"Universal went into this planning to make it the biggest science fiction picture of its time. But then the effects department and the makeup department spent all their money! Universal spent so much on the monsters, they didn't have any money left to make the picture. They didn't know that they couldn't make the biggest show of all time without spending money! Jack Arnold found out that Universal was pulling all that money -- they took the color away, they took the cast away -- and Jack kind of lost interest in it. It was no longer going to be an epic, it was going to be a typical, cheap Universal picture. So Jack said, 'I don't want to do it, let Virgil do it!'"
Considering all the money that was apparently spent, the monster effects are variable. They range from rear screen-projected monitor lizards as stand-ins for dinosaurs (standard issue for B dinosaur movies), to a 12 foot tall Tyrannosaurus Rex suit supplemented with hydraulic-operated eyes and jaws, to a 15 foot long "elasmosaurus" sea creature (also operated with hydraulics), to a simple pterodactyl prop hoisted on a fishing pole. Perhaps the most credit should go to the set designers, who had to create a complete lost world on a process stage when most of the money, and location shooting, was pulled. Vogel again:
"When we were on that big stage, we had a big cyclorama all the way around. That's a big piece of canvas, about 75 feet tall and about 300 feet long. It had the scenery painted on it and it hung all around the edge of the stage, like a backdrop in a theater. We also had that big pool in there, much bigger than an Olympic pool -- it was 300 feet long and 100 feet wide." (Ibid.)

The King of the Dinosaurs attacks the repaired helicopter
T-Rex wants to pick his teeth with the helicopter rotor blades.
Another casualty of the studio's cold feet was the cast. Vogel claims that when the studio heads were still thinking "epic," Cary Grant (of all people!) was considered for the lead (but Vogel's not sure if he was ever contacted). The cast that ended up before the cameras is very lean -- one wonders if the original concept was to include a larger number of performers to be "lost and terrorized in prehistoric time" (tagline). 4 is not a lot of people to provide for such thrills as having the local fauna (or the man-eating flora) feast on a crew member or two, and still have somebody surviving at the end.

It doesn't help that Jock Mahoney (Roberts), the male lead, is pretty wooden and uninspiring, a far cry from Cary Grant (I still can't quite wrap my mind around Cary appearing in such a picture, even a big budget one). But it's hardly his fault. Vogel explains that he was a stunt man whom Universal had pressed into service as a cheap replacement on a cheap production. But in one sense it's fortunate he was around, as, according to the director, the man the studio had hired for the water stunts couldn't swim (??!!) Mahoney ended up diving in and saving the floundering man's bacon! (Ibid.)

Shawn Smith (who had appeared in earlier films as Shirley Patterson) is a very competent B movie heroine, and very easy to look at. As the days trapped in the hot and humid lost world drag on, she starts to look like Mary Ann from Gilligan's Island. But her blonde hairdo is never less than absolutely fabulous. Shawn/Shirley's other '50s sci-fi credit is World Without End (1956; check out my post on it here). Pretty boy William Reynolds' sci-fi/horror credits include Cult of the Cobra (1955) and the zero-budget The Thing That Couldn't Die (1958; both also reviewed on this blog-- click the links!)

The elasmosaurus is foiled once again by Dr. Hunter (Henry Brandon)
The Land Unknown's friendly elasmosaurus is ready to give up smoking.
Henry Brandon rounds out the cast as Dr. Carl Hunter, a survivor from a previous expedition, who through pluck and brains has created his own little fiefdom in the prehistoric world. The character reminds me of a poor-man's Dr. Morbius from Forbidden Planet (1956). At the climax, Hunter becomes an action hero as he does battle with the hungry elasmosaurus. The poor creature gets so many fiery torches (and one flare gun) in the mouth that by film's end I'd mentally dubbed him "Smokey" ("Only you can prevent fiery elasmosaurus breath!")

We'll never know if a bigger budget, color, and Cary Grant might have vaulted The Land Unknown from its status as a near-forgotten Universal sci-fi programmer to a classic on par with Forbidden Planet, but what did survive the studio's second guessing is a decent, unpretentious movie with plenty of action, good production design (for the budget) and some snappy dialogue. I haven't found a streaming version, but it is included on the highly rated 6-disc "Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection" released by Universal in 2008.

Where to find it:
Available on DVD

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  1. Welcome to the Classic Movie Blog Association. I look forward to reading more.

    CMBA Member since 2009

    1. Thanks for the welcome Java! I look forward to checking out more of the member blogs and participating in the Association.

  2. How many trailers began with "Not since the dawn of...." Fun post to read. Love those old monsters!

    1. Yep, it's easy in the age of CGI to make fun of the rubber suits and the hydraulic-operated props (not to mention pterodactyls flying on wires), but many of these effects were quite ingenious for the time, and a lot of work!

  3. Congrats on becoming a member of the CMBA!

    "The Land Unknown" is one that I haven't seen, but after reading your post I HAVE TO SEE THIS.

    1. The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection of which Land Unknown is a part is one of the "anchors" of my DVD collection. Let's see, of the 10 films in the collection, I've reviewed 3 on the blog (Land + Cult of the Cobra and The Monolith Monsters). Hmmm, I better get busy! :)

  4. I saw The Land Unknown a long time ago. It was fun, but I wouldn't count it amongst my favorite oldies.

    1. I saw Land Unknown eons ago as a kid, and only saw it for the second time recently. I remember the 1960 version of The Lost World with Claude Rains had a bigger impact on me -- I saw that one several times and loved it (even though the not-so-special effects had rear-projected lizards dressed up to look like dinosaurs).

  5. Hi, Brian. I have to be honest and admit that I don't watch either horror or science fiction films, but I do think your blog is a wonderful addition to the CMBA, so I extend a hearty welcome to you.

    My aversion to horror films began when I was about 8 (House of Usher or Fall of the House of Usher, don't remember which), was intensified at 14 (The I got into an R-rated film at that age, I have no idea), and further intensified at 19 (The Shining). I've learned that I do not mix well with that genre, so I avoid it...lest I have to sleep with the lights on for the rest of my life!

    I can so relate to a couple things you wrote in your "about me" section. I'm not at all convinced being connected 24/7 is good or necessary either. And I read hard copy books as well. No digital reader for me, thank you very much!

    Again, welcome. I hope you enjoy your affiliation with the CMBA.

    1. Hi Patti! Thanks for stopping by and checking out the blog, even though sci-fi/horror isn't your cup of tea. While obviously I have a higher threshold for "dark" themes and stories, I can't abide the stuff that is all about gore and shock effects.

      FWIW, I've been known to appreciate a good drama or comedy -- I'd say less than half of my top 20 favorite films of all time could be classified as sci-fi or horror.

      Keep checking back, because I will continue to post on film-noirs, "atmospheric" dramas, and even the occasional western.

  6. An entertaining movie, and I'm a big fan of the Elasmosaurus there :-)