The Land that Time Forgot (1975) **
The Land that Time Forgot (based, albeit none too faithfully, on a novel of the same name by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs) is one of those endlessly frustrating movies that start off really well and then proceed to blow it ever more spectacularly as the end approaches. I say “endlessly frustrating” because if the trajectory were reversed-- if, like Cannibal Apocalypse, the movie got off to an uneven start but managed to pull it together for the climax-- watching it would be ever so much more satisfying. As it stands, I find myself wishing I could watch the damn thing in reverse and still have it make sense.
The film concerns the shipwrecked survivors of a British transport ship. The year is 1916, World War I is in high gear, and the German navy is in an “on again” phase of that year’s on again, off again campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare. The ship is torpedoed and sunk without warning by the submarine U-33 (the models for which don’t really look like a World War I U-boat, but at least they didn’t use one of the more famous World War II designs like I was afraid they would), under the command of Captain von Schoenwartz (John McEnery). (A minor quibble: the C.O. on a U-boat usually held the lower rank of lieutenant commander, or Korvettenkapitan.) By a stroke of luck, the lifeboat containing the last eight or so crewmembers, along with an American named Bowen Tyler (Doug McClure, who later showed up in the original Humanoids from the Deep and, God help him, Cannonball Run 2) and an English biologist named Lisa Clayton (The Uncanny’s Susan Penhaligon; and by the way, were there any female biologists in 1916?), happens to be nearby when the U-33 surfaces to recharge its batteries, and in a feat of outrageous audacity, the survivors manage to board and capture the sub. Tyler takes command of the U-boat-- ‘cause he’s the American, damn it!-- and orders a course due west, taking the boat to the still-neutral-in-1916 United States. This is actually his second choice as a course of action-- an earlier attempt to sail to Britain in the company of a Royal Navy cruiser failed when the latter ship opened fire, apparently believing that Tyler’s signal explaining the situation was a setup. But that’s minor trouble compared to what’s coming. Unfortunately for Tyler and company, it never occurred to any of them to take away Schoenwartz’s keys, with the predictable result that he is able to plan and execute both his escape and the recapture of the sub. Worse still from Tyler’s point of view, First Officer Dietz (Anthony Ainley, of Exorcism at Midnight and The Blood on Satan’s Claw) has secretly tampered with the compass, such that it reads “west” when the boat is actually headed south. This too is part of Schoenwartz’s plan. There is a German supply ship operating in the South Atlantic, from which he intends to take on vital stores, and to whose captain he intends to turn over Tyler and the Englishmen on charges of piracy. (Dr. Clayton is excepted-- there were a couple advantages to being female in 1916.)
The next scene is really pretty cool, if rather less than realistic. Our heroes are being held under guard on the U-33’s bridge while Schoenwartz is on the conning tower topside, signaling the supply ship. The submarine’s bow is pointed directly at the other ship’s broadside, and while Schoenwartz looks on in astonished horror, one of the Englishmen somehow manages to sneak over to the control panel and fire a spread of torpedoes from the forward tubes before the sailors guarding him can stop him. Both torpedoes hit their target, and the supply ship slips beneath the waves and explodes. Schoenwartz sees that he has been outsmarted, and for reasons that I was never able to figure out, returns control of the sub to Tyler.
So far, The Land that Time Forgot has been well-handled and exciting, but all that is about to change. Tyler gets the U-33 lost somewhere below the Antarctic Circle, and he turns to Schoenwartz for help, beginning a partnership that will last until the movie’s ill-considered conclusion. The U-boat blunders around the ocean a while longer, but soon comes within sight of a mysterious, uncharted island, from whose shores flows a current of curiously warm water. Schoenwartz thinks he knows where they are now. He believes the island to be the legendary land of Caprona, the existence of which was reported in 1721, but never confirmed by subsequent exploration. The island was said to be an isolated haven of habitability in the otherwise inhospitable Antarctic, and that warm-water current certainly seems to support the old story. Schoenwartz recommends that the U-33 steer a course for Caprona in the hope of replenishing its supplies of food and fresh water. About the last good thing that this movie does is to take the sub on a perilous trip down a tunnel in the ice that seems to be the only way to reach the island’s interior.
When the boat surfaces, the crewmen find themselves in a tropical-looking lagoon. As if that weren’t strange enough, an Ichthyostega (a very large prehistoric amphibian that sort of resembled a cross between a frog and a toothless crocodile) is plainly visible on the lagoon’s shore, while a flock of Pterodactyls (and they really are Pterodactyls, and not the Pteranodons that these movies always mistake for them) can be seen cruising overhead. And then for no good reason, the sub is attacked by a Plesiosaurus, which the crew kills and eats, its meat prepared according to “an old Irish recipe [that the British cook] just made up.” From this point on, the film gradually loses direction, devolving into endless scenes of the characters roaming around the island, watching the dinosaurs fight with each other. In between bouts of aimless wandering, the crew meet a caveman named Ahm (Bobby Parr, from Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde and At the Earth’s Core), of the Bolu tribe, learn that the island is kept warm by a huge volcano near its center, discover a decent-sized oil well, and take the occasional time out for a fistfight. There’s also something about the island’s water being contaminated by strange micro-organisms, a plot point about which the screenwriter seems to have forgotten by the time he got to the end of that page, because I didn’t notice anyone dying of thirst in this film. Instead, most of the deaths are caused by the Stolu, another caveman tribe who are apparently the Bolu’s mortal enemies. (A third tribe, called the Galu, show up just in time to kill a couple more people before the movie ends.) Eventually, Dr. Clayton solves the remarkable biological puzzle that the island poses, but her explanation makes so little sense that I don’t feel qualified to paraphrase it. And then, with depressing predictability, the damn volcano erupts, burying most of Caprona in lava while the characters flee. The filmmakers must have realized what an obvious ending gambit this was, because no attempt was made to justify the eruption, or even to foreshadow such an event beyond establishing the bare fact of the volcano’s existence. The only good thing about this ending is that the eruption is not followed by the expected by-the-skin-of-their-teeth escape on the part of the characters. In fact, the conclusion is surprisingly downbeat.
I suppose this isn’t really that bad a movie. In fact, the early scenes set on the U-33 are quite good. Also in The Land that Time Forgot’s favor is the fact that it uses a good many less famous species of prehistoric critter, rather than the usual Tyrannosaurus-Triceratops-Apatosaurus triad. I was especially impressed by the Ichthyostega-- late-Paleozoic amphibians deserve more screen time. But it’s not quite enough to excuse the slow disintegration that begins with the boat’s landfall on Caprona.