Friday, 19 February 2016

The Land Unknown (1957)

The Land Unknown is a lost world movie and it involves dinosaurs. That’s exactly the kind of thing I like, so it’s no surprise at all that I found The Land Unknown to be great fun.

This movie was made by Universal in 1957 and although it was shot in Cinemascope it’s clearly a fairly low-budget effort.

The US Navy is mounting an ambitious scientific expedition to the Antarctic. Among other things they want to investigate something rather curious found by Admiral Byrd’s 1947 expedition - a large body of open water where there shouldn’t be open water.

Commander Hal Roberts (Jock Mahoney) is to lead the helicopter team tasked with the investigation of that body of apparently warm water. The team also includes (inevitably) a glamorous female - reporter Maggie Hathaway (Shirley Patterson).

They discover more than warm water. They discover a lush hidden valley. More disturbingly their helicopter is damaged by a collision with a flying creature that looks as bit like a pterodactyl. Repairing the helicopter presents some difficulties - it seems they may be stuck in this valley for quite a while. They have plenty of food and water but they do have have other problems - the valley is filled with dinosaurs. Living dinosaurs!

The dinosaurs include a tyrannosaurus rex and they only manage to discourage the gigantic hungry reptilian predator by using the helicopter’s rotor blades as a weapon. There are also carnivorous plants - very large carnivorous plants.

Of course the dinosaurs are remnants of a population that has survived for tens of millions of years. They’re not likely to encounter cavemen. But how do they explain the theft of part of their food supplies - cans of food that have been neatly opened in a manner that suggests that no animal could be responsible. When Maggie gets kidnapped the explorers really start to wonder what is going on.

These days no-one would consider making a movie like this without a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars. The 1950s was however the heroic age of low-budget film-making, when film-makers didn‘t worry about having pitifully inadequate budgets - they just went ahead and made the movies anyway and they often attempted ludicrously ambitious projects on absurdly small budgets. The word impossible was not part of their vocabulary. Sometimes they fell flat on their faces but they made the pictures anyway and sometimes they worked. The Land Unknown uses a good deal of stock footage and some dubious special effects but in spite of this it is one of the examples that mostly works.

The dinosaur battles are staged, as in so many lost world movies, using monitor lizards. The tyrannosaurus rex is pretty unconvincing. On the other hand the scenes involving the aquatic plesiosaurus are quite effective and even scary.

This movie is obviously shot on a sound stage and the lost world is rendered largely through background paintings. The results should be shoddy and phony but somehow they manage to be surprisingly evocative and effective. This movie takes places in a science fiction world and the artificiality of that world actually adds to the movie’s success. On a very limited budget any attempt at realism would have fallen flat anyway. By  not trying for realism the film-makers end up with something much more appealing and atmospheric.

The acting is basic B-movie standard but the actors at least show some enthusiasm. Director Virgil W. Vogel became a prolific television director after making a handful of features. Considering the resources available to him his handling of this assignment can’t really be faulted.

This movie is one of five that comprise Universal’s pleasingly inexpensive Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection: Volume 2. The transfer is anamorphic and is quite splendid.

The Land Unknown is a highly entertaining science fiction adventure B-movie that succeeds rather well in achieving its admittedly modest aims. It has a lost world and it has dinosaurs and it has great scenes involving a Sikorsky S-51 helicopter, one of the coolest early helicopter designs. Highly recommended.

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