The People that Time Forgot (1977) **
The novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs have been a godsend for makers of old-school adventure movies. It isn’t just that his extremely prolific output offers a wide array of subjects to choose from for cinematic adaptation, either. Like most movie producers, Burroughs himself never knew when to quit, and cranked out sequels to his most popular works almost endlessly. The practically limitless supply of Tarzan novels (had the studio heads chosen to, Hollywood could have made decades’ worth of Tarzan flicks without ever needing an original story) is only the most obvious example of this phenomenon— Burroughs even wrote sequels to many of his minor books. Thus, when The Land that Time Forgot proved successful, helping to keep the financially troubled Amicus studio alive after the British market for home-grown horror movies dried up in the mid-70’s, there was already an obvious source of ideas for a follow-up film, in the form of Burroughs’s own sequel, The People that Time Forgot. It is therefore most puzzling that the movie’s creators chose to ignore what Burroughs wrote almost completely, retaining only the title and the hackneyed plot device that sets the original story in motion.
As the movie opens, some five years have passed since Bowen Tyler (Doug McClure, reprising his role from The Land that Time Forgot) disappeared on a transatlantic crossing at the height of World War I. An old friend of Tyler’s, Major Ben McBride (Patrick Wayne, from Beyond Atlantis and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger), has fortuitously come into possession of the missing man’s diary, which he apparently cast out to sea stuffed into the ever-popular bottle, and which describes his remarkable adventures on the uncharted prehistoric island of Caprona. Armed with this remarkable document, McBride has secured the backing of a major newspaper, the British Academy of Sciences, and the Royal Navy for a mission of exploration and (hopefully) rescue. In addition to McBride, the search party consists of paleontologist Dr. Edwin Norfolk (Thorley Walters, from Vampire Circus and Trog), reporter/photographer Lady Charlotte “Charlie” Cunningham (Sarah Douglas, of Conan the Destroyer and the TV version of Dracula with Jack Palance in the title role), and pilot/mechanic Hogan (Shane Rimmer, from Rollerball and Warlords of Atlantis). The plan is to sail a seaplane tender to Caprona following the directions in Bowen’s diary, and then use an amphibious flying boat to fly McBride, Norfolk, Cunningham, and Hogan into the island’s interior.
The search party gets conclusive proof of Tyler’s seemingly wild story on the flight into Caprona, when their plane is attacked and disabled by a Pterodactyl. (I hope you enjoy the Pterodactyl, because it’s as good as the effects work in this movie is going to get.) The damage to the plane’s engine forces the party to land rather closer to the coast than McBride had originally planned, while adding a new source of time pressure to the mission, so after a short discussion, he, Norfolk, and Cunningham agree to set off on their search while Hogan stays behind to repair the plane as best he can. More shitty dinosaurs soon appear, but more importantly, the search party also encounters a cave girl named Ajor (The Lost Continent’s Dana Gillespie), who unexpectedly speaks to them in English! This is not because the screenwriters were lazy (although they certainly were), but rather because Ajor knows Bowen Tyler; he lived with her tribe for many years, and taught them many “modern” skills, including agriculture and metalworking, before a rival tribe called the Naga (or Nagla, depending on which character is talking) attacked and scattered Ajor’s people into the countryside. Apparently, the Naga are extremely advanced by Capronese standards, and they were most unhappy to see another tribe challenging their monopoly on iron-age technology. Ajor doesn’t know what happened to Tyler or his companion (biologist Lisa Clayton, who together with Tyler survived the volcanic eruption that brought The Land that Time Forgot to a close), but she hasn’t seen either one of them since.
After a few more encounters with terrible rubber dinosaurs and run-ins with hostile tribes of cavemen, McBride and company at last make contact with the Naga. There are times, when watching a fantasy movie of one sort or another, when the cables suspending my disbelief will suddenly, instantaneously, and without warning snap, even though they had been under no particular strain up to that point. The scene in which the Naga make their appearance was, for me, one of those times. The reason for this is simple: despite the fact that Caprona is otherwise inhabited solely by Mesozoic reptiles and prehistoric hunter-gatherers, the Naga appear to have come directly from medieval Japan. It’s as though they simply wandered onto the set for this movie from the samurai flick shooting on the soundstage next door, and got lost. Chang-Sha (John Hallam, from The Wicker Man and Dragonslayer), the Naga chieftain in charge of the cavalry force that surrounds McBride and his companions, turns out to be a fluent English-speaker as well, and tells our heroes that Bowen Tyler is an honored guest at the court of Sabbala, ruler of the Naga (Milton Reid, who also played small parts in Blood of the Vampire and Dr. Phibes Rises Again). Saying that Tyler is a powerful man, Chang-Sha instructs the explorers to follow him to the Mountain of Skulls, where Sabbala makes his home.
Chang-Sha is lying, of course (What? You thought people who live in a place called the Mountain of Skulls might be the good guys?), and instead of being received with honors, the group is separated and imprisoned— the men are locked up in a dungeon dug into the bowels of the mountain, while the women are taken away to be groomed for sacrifice to the volcano which the Naga worship as their chief god. While down in the dungeon, McBride and Norfolk find that their cell adjoins that of Bowen, who has been a prisoner of the Naga ever since their attack on Ajor’s village. (There’s still no sign of Lisa Clayton, though, nor even any sign that screenwriter Patrick Tilley remembers her existence in the first place.) Putting their heads together, the three men outwit their guards and escape, after which they steal the defeated guards’ weapons and uniforms for use in an effort to rescue Ajor and Lady Cunningham. What follows their success would seem to support the Naga’s belief that the volcano is alive, sentient, and hungry for attractive young women; no sooner have the men saved Charlie and Ajor from Sabbala and his executioner than the mountain blows its stack (what— again?!?!), setting off a cascade of mini-eruptions that join Chang-Sha and his men in chasing the Westerners and their cave-girl companion across the Capronese landscape to Hogan and the hastily repaired flying boat.
You know, just once, I’d like to see a movie about cavemen and dinosaurs that doesn’t end with a cataclysmic volcanic eruption, or with some comparable natural disaster (the tsunami in When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, for example). The People that Time Forgot further compounds the error of this headlong plunge into cliche by dragging the eruption/chase scene out to absurdly excessive lengths. Sure, it has to take a while for a handful of people to make it halfway across a relatively large island on foot, especially when they have to take frequent time-outs to battle mounted samurai archers, but did the makers of this movie really have to depict it in something so close to real time? I think not. They did, though, and The People that Time Forgot thus duplicates the damning structural flaw that so damaged its predecessor— putting the exciting part of the movie first, and ending with the dull part. It still comes out very slightly ahead of The Land that Time Forgot, in that the changeover from excitement to boredom happens significantly later in the film, but it still isn’t anywhere near as good as its best moments suggest it could have been.