Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Great Hammer-Amicus Blogathon :: Welcome to Push-Up Bra Park :: Val Guest's When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970)

We open a long, loooooooooong time ago, before the moon was even a thing, on a cliff overlooking the sea, where a tribe of primitive cave-dwellers have gathered to complete a ritual sacrifice to the returning sun. And as said sun begins to rise and clear the horizon, the ceremony reaches a fever pitch. Here, one should note this ritual of thanks also involves human sacrifice; in this instance a trio of blonde women. Seems being born with the wrong pigmentation carries an ostracizing and deadly stigma in this tribe, which will get you segregated from the rest until your number comes up and you get picked -- wait, sorry, make that, you have the honor of being an important cog and catalyst for the continuation of the solar cycle.

Only something goes slightly awry with this sunrise, as the giant glowing orb in the sky belches out a huge discharge of … something, which wreaks havoc on their surroundings, kicking up some strong winds and violent waves. Freaked out over this, the ceremony kinda falls apart as one of those blondes, who wasn’t too keen on getting her skull cracked open with a rock before her body is pushed off the cliff into the waiting surf below, makes a break for it. And as several guards move to stop her, during the resulting confusion, another intended victim, Sanna (Vetri), makes a slightly more effective escape by going over the side, safely splashing down somewhere below, and is swept out to sea where she is subsequently picked up by another tribe passing by on fishing raft.

Taken back to their camp several miles up the beach, Sanna is soon smitten with one of those prehistoric fisherman. Turns out these feelings are mutual as Tara (Hawdon) is equally infatuated with the girl; much to the consternation of his old girlfriend (--old lady? wife?), Ayak (Hassall), who soon pits the other cavewomen against this fair-haired interloper after a rousing cat-fight. But for right now the men of the tribe have no time for this drama. You see, a giant plesiosaur these fisherman apparently netted wasn’t quite as secured as they thought, breaks free, and starts razing the ramshackle village. And the damage would’ve been much worse if not for the fast thinking of Tara and several others, using the flammable oils extracted from the last aquatic dinosaur they caught as some ersatz napalm and flash-fry the animal, turning the incident from a tragedy into an impromptu barbecue, bringing this fairly righteous kaiju-fight to a tasty end.

Meanwhile, Khaku (Henley), leader of the Rock Tribe from which Sanna escaped, has concluded from the weird celestial goings on in the sky (-- there are now two glowing orbs up there instead of one --) that despite his efforts of doubling-down on the usual sacrifice, the Sun-God is still angry with them over the one that got away. And so, he leads an expedition in force to comb the area in an effort to find the girl, finish the ritual, appease their god, and return things to normal. This search leads them to the Beach People’s camp (-- they appear to have had dealings before, hence the lack of a massacre), where he quickly shouts down their tribal leader and soon has the whole encampment in a lathered Chicken Little tizzy over what’s going on in the sky. And while Tara denies the girl he is looking for is here, the spiteful Ayak is more than willing to give her up. But! Sanna saw Khaku and his goons coming, managed to sneak away, and heads inland, where things even more dangerous than native superstitions are waiting...

Despite Ursula Andress turning down the lead role over a salary dispute, Hammer Films scored a huge hit with their remake, One Million Years B.C. (1966), a cavemen vs. dinosaur epic, thanks to the FX wizardry of Ray Harryhausen and Andress’ capable replacement, Raquel Welch, her best assets, and her leather bikini.

And it was such a huge hit, James Carreras, the head of Hammer production, wanted an immediate follow up to cash-in. And so, he commissioned a poster for the proposed film, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970), and used that to help negotiate a new deal with Eliot Hyman, his American counterpart at Warner Bros.-Seven Arts. Hyman, seeing how much money his competitors at 20th Century Fox had made distributing One Million Years B.C. immediately signed on to distribute and co-finance the follow-up feature along with its proposed double-bill partner, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), giving the usually cash-strapped Hammer a little more breathing room. Turns out they’d need every penny.

It's kind of ironic that it was Hammer Studios which got master stop-motion animator Harryhausen back in the dinosaur business. For it was the same studio's gothic horror-shows that sounded the death-knell on the resurgent Sci-Fi boom of the 1950s, which began with Harryhausen’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), and effectively brought an end to all those giant monster movies (-- with one notable exception over in Japan). 

But when they hired Harryhausen to provide the FX for One Million Years B.C., with the film's resulting box-office success, dinosaurs were suddenly back in vogue. And so, after a string of successful fantasy yarns based on the myths and legends of old, Harryhausen's long time creative partner, producer Charles H. Schneer, decided their next collaborative project should also be set in prehistoric times. And so, and so, Harryhausen dusted off an old unused script penned by his mentor, Willis O’Brien, and production began on The Valley of Gwangi (1969) -- also for Warner Bros.-Seven Arts.

Carreras, of course, had hoped Harryhausen would provide the dinosaurs for them again but he was no longer available. And so, the production looked to animator Jim Danforth to fill some mighty big shoes. Danforth’s first professional gig was for Art Clokey as a sculptor and artist on the Gumby series. Then, still in his teens, Danforth began to work for Projects Unlimited, a freelance special-effects company founded in 1957, helping them win an Oscar for The Time Machine (1960). Danforth then did the stop-motion animation for Jack the Giant Killer (1962) and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962), both cash-ins on Harryhausen’s fantasy films. Then, Danforth would be nominated for another Academy Award for his work on The 7 Seven Faces of Dr. Lao (1964), bringing the shape-changing Loch Ness Monster to life, which I’m sure got him on Hammer’s radar.

“I received an early inquiry from Hammer saying that they would not commission the screenplay unless I was available,” Danforth recalls in an interview for Wayne Kinsey’s book, Hammer Films: The Elstree Studio Years. “After I gave the commitment, I was ‘out of the loop’ in that I was not asked to give any input.” This decision would come back to haunt the production and bite Hammer on the ass a bit. In the earlier collaboration, Harryhausen had served as a both producer and second-unit director to get the shots he needed to animate something into later, something Danforth had never really done before, leaving him to the whims of director Val Guest.

Guest had directed Hammer’s first color film, the swashbuckling adventure Men of Sherwood Forest (1954), but really left his mark collaborating with Nigel Kneale on their early Sci-Fi output, including The Quatermass X-Periment (1955), Quatermass 2 (1957), and The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas (1957) -- though I think his best film was The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), an eco-disaster movie wrapped up in a newspaper drama, which he wrote and directed for British Lion Films.

Carreras promoted Aida Young, one of his associate producers on One Million Years B.C. and She (1965), to run the production of When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, who managed to get both Danforth and Guest on board after showing him a script treatment penned by noted Sci-Fi novelist, J.G. Ballard. The treatment was barely twenty pages long and Guest didn’t really think much of it, cherry-picking a few ideas and then shit-canned the rest and sort of just free-wheeled his way through a rehash of the same plot-points from One Million Years B.C. “It was not my favorite picture by any means,” said Guest. “I wasn’t happy with that one at all. I wasn’t happy on it or after it."

And so, the only thing Guest really contributed to the bare bones script was a new primitive language, consisting of about 27 words based on a mash-up of Phoenician, Latin, and Sanskrit. Some of the keywords are fairly easy to pick up: "neecha" is "stop" or "come back"; "akita" is "look"; "neekro" is "bad" or "evil"; "mata" is "dead"; and "yo kita" is "go.” And to help with the translation, Hammer provided a lobby poster promoting the language so audiences could follow along.

Thus, Young had replacements for Harryhausen and director Don Chaffey. Now all she needed was a replacement for Welch to fill out that leather bikini. Enter Victoria Vetri. Vetri was born in San Francisco, California, to Italian immigrants. The family moved to Hollywood in the 1950s, where she attended Hollywood High and began acting and modeling in her teens. Also a singer and dancer, Vetri, under her stage name, Angela Dorian, was offered the chance to dub Natalie Wood’s songs in West Side Story (1961) but turned it down. She also auditioned for the lead in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1962) but lost out to Sue Lyon, but she did find a modicum of success playing supporting characters on several TV series, including Hawaiian Eye and Perry Mason

Then, in 1968, Vetri, as Dorian, posed for Playboy Magazine and was selected Playmate of the Month for September, 1967, and would later garner Playmate of the Year honors in 1968, which helped her land a multi-picture contract with Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, and her first lead role in When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth.

And while the Hammer publicity department worked overtime to keep the fact that Raquel Welch was actually a married mother of two, they had no such qualms about playing up and ballyhooing Vetri’s history as a Playmate during the film’s pre-production phase. And as production began, things got off to a bit of a rocky start when the actress refused to die her auburn hair blonde for the production, demanding a wig. And while Guest wasn’t a huge fan of the actress off screen, finding her to be nothing more than a “nitwit,” Vetri proved fine enough onscreen as our feisty and intrepid Sanna flees from the pursuing Khaku, is almost crushed by a python, and is nearly consumed by a carnivorous plant, hacking some of that hair off to make her escape. These locks are found by Tara near the plant after the rest of Khaku’s search party was wiped out by a rampaging Chasmosaurus, and so, Sanna is now presumed dead.

Only she isn’t dead. Not yet, anyway, as she foolishly – well, maybe not so foolishly as this plays out, seeks refuge in the nest of some dinosaur eggs just as one of them hatches out and the baby critter essentially imprints on her. And when momma dinosaur comes back, she finds Sanna asleep in the empty eggshell and assumes this is her new baby and, therefore, doesn’t eat her. Time passes, the baby dinosaur grows much larger, and he and Sanna frolic about as she teaches him a few tricks. Alas, during a game of hide and seek, Sanna is spotted by a hunting party, who report this sighting back to Khaku.

Overhearing this, Tara, hoping to find her first, heads out alone only to be attacked by a pterosaur, who plucks it’s victim up and carries him back to the nest. Here, Tara manages to slice a wing in half, sending the beast into a fatal tailspin. Badly wounded, Tara stumbles upon Sanna’s campsite before he collapses. And after nursing him back to health, these two make it official and consummate their relationship. But after a brief honeymoon of contentment and consensual sex, they are discovered and captured by Khaku. And it’s only due to the timely intervention by Sanna’s pet dinosaur that helps her elude capture.

Tara isn’t quite so lucky and is hauled back to the beach, twice, and is nearly sacrificed, twice, as an accessory to Sanna’s perceived witchery. The first time he is saved from being burned alive – think Viking funeral, by another plesiosaur, which shatters his floating funeral pyre. The second rescue is a little more, well, biblical, as once more, the lights in the sky grow strange, the weather goes sideways, and the sea suddenly retreats as if suddenly drained away, which unleashes a herd of giant crabs who start picking off the most curious who ventured out to see where all the water went.

Meantime, Sanna makes her move to free Tara as everyone else panics as the real reason for the water’s sudden retreat reveals itself: a tsunami, which is about to bring all the water back at once in a giant deadly wave. Seeing this, Khaku tries to command the wave to stop with the expected non-results. And as the encampment and most of the people are wiped out, including Ayak, Sanna, Tara, and a few of the more enlightened others manage to make it onto one of those fishing rafts and ride the tidal wave until it finally exhausts itself. And once the waters recede, the few survivors look to the heavens and witness the first lunar eclipse as that second celestial body turns out to be the newly formed moon.

I wouldn’t be all that surprised if the cataclysmic birth of the moon was one of the few remnants of Ballard’s original treatment to survive in the finished picture. Either way, it feels a little too big and a little too intricate of a plot device to be earned by this kind of cave-girl picture – and I wouldn’t blame viewers if they failed to make the connection. 

Beyond that, the only really interesting plot twist is Sanna accidentally getting adopted by a family of dinosaurs, making for the most delightful brute squad of ever. But even these elements weren’t enough to overcompensate for a repeating, lather, rinse, repeat plot (-- that I'm sure I didn't remember in the right order for the recap, but it doesn't really matter), leaving us with nothing more than a nonsensical tale of boobs and dinosaurs. Would that prove enough? Luckily, the production had plenty of both.

Seems during filming Guest was only interested in shooting his female stars and their ample bosoms. (The amount of nipple slippage in this thing is astonishing. But to be fair, there’s also plenty of plenty of beef and butt-stake for the ladies to enjoy.) The director was leaning that way since his comedy days and his next few films would find him jumping into the softcore pool feet first with Au Pair Girls (1972) and Confessions of a Window Cleaner (1974) -- the first in a long line of Confessions of… sex comedies. 

In the British cut of the film there were some extended nudity and sex scenes, including a bizarre rape scene, but these were cut out of the American release. But when the film was released by Warner Home Video as a Best Buy exclusive Double Feature with Moon Zero Two (1969) in 2008 there was a bit of controversy and several customer complaints when a mistake led to the European cut being used instead of the G-Rated version as touted on the packaging, which (allegedly) led to a recall. I know I was a bit surprised to see the full frontal scenes after buying it.

But if we’re speaking honestly, what really saves When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth’s cinematic hash are the dinosaurs and the outstanding efforts of Danforth and his crew – but it wasn’t easy. Again, this was Danforth’s first film where he was in charge of the FX and was surprised when producer Young told him he would have his own crew, like Harryhausen had, to get the shots he’d need. After that early phone call, Danforth came into the production very late and was scrambling from the get-go to catch up. Miscommunication, bad location choices in the Canary Island that didn’t have the proper matte lines he needed, and poor planning during the studio segments led to sets that were too small, which would then require more matte paintings to extend them that weren’t in the budget to make the picture work and give Hammer what they wanted.

Not helping matters at all was a sudden time crunch that turned a promised 12 months of post-production into nine months. And when he told Young that would be impossible, all hell broke loose up the production chain, pushing When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth’s release date back to 1969, then 1970 as Danforth’s efforts dragged on and on and those months kept adding up to nine, then twelve, and he still wasn’t nearly finished. 

To help speed things up, Danforth was assisted by Roger Dickens, Les Bowie, and his old friend, Dave Allen, whom he’d first worked together with on Equinox (1970). But, a lot of these efforts to help backfired as they worked independently of each other and, therefore, a lot of the shots didn’t match, leading to a lot of work needing to be redone, more matte paintings needed, to make everything jive, adding more production time and draining the budget, which had already been exhausted, even more.

In Danforth’s defense, Harryhausen knew what he needed because he’d helped with the scripting phase. In fact, it was usually Harryhausen who dreamed up the action sequences first, and then a script was written around them. Danforth did not have this luxury. And things got so bad several sequences wound up being cut even though the live-action segments had been filmed, meaning more wasted money, including a swarm of giant ants, and two attacking pterodactyls during the climax. But one of the oddest cuts came early when a sequence involving a T-Rex was flushed because some muckety-muck in Hammer’s front office (Carreras?) felt the standard pose of the king of the dinosaurs made it look like a homosexual. Not making that up, and I can point you to the source. Wow. And to add insult to injury, to save even more time, the production borrowed several organic inserts from Irwin Allen’s The Lost World (1960), so we got to see the monitor lizard and caiman, decked out in their dino-suits and glued on horns, fight once more to the death.*yeesh*

In the end, it took Danforth and his crew 17 months to finish the job, much to the consternation of Young and Carreras, who were very upset over the delays, leading to a hostile work environment that soured the whole experience for Danforth. This, is all too bad because the end results are absolutely staggering. And it may be a bit blasphemous among the B-Movie Brethren, but I think Danforth’s animated creatures come off better than Harryhausen’s; smoother, more fluid, and interact better with the live set=pieces. It makes sense as Harryhausen improved on O’Brien’s technique, and Danforht improved on Harryhausen’s. (And then Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett improved on his.) And his efforts would be rewarded with another Oscar nomination, though he would lose to Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1970).

When the film was finally released, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth did pretty good box-office but just not enough to cover the extensive production costs. Meanwhile, Moon Zero Two – an oddball space western that I actually kinda dug, had bombed the year before, and bombed pretty badly, officially ending Hammer’s relationship with Warner Bros.

Guest was also done with Hammer after this sour production, and would spend most of the rest of his career – sans the softcore interlude, directing episodic television. Vetri would go on to appear in a couple more films – most notably, Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973), before leaving the profession behind around 1975. She would appear in Playboy again in 1984. And in 1986, she married musician Bruce Rathgeb but their marriage was rocky from the start and ended with an attempted murder when Vetri shot her estranged husband in 2010. She was tried and pled no contest in 2011, and was subsequently sentenced to nine years in prison. As far as I know, she’s still incarcerated.

As for Danforth, after dabbling in softcore himself, providing a few animated sequences for the slapstick spoof, Flesh Gordon (1974), he seemed to leave animation behind and focused mostly on matte paintings, on which he also excelled, providing backgrounds for things ranging from Dark Star (1975) to The Thing (1982). But he didn’t leave animation behind completely, tackling another dinosaur movie, Caveman (1981), for Ringo Starr, designing and directing the live-action scenes in which the dinosaurs would appear -- but the actual animation was done by his friend David Allen, Randy Cook and Pete Kleinow. Seems Danforth left the project early so he could come full circle, return to England, and assist Harryhausen on his last film, Clash of the Titans (1981), where he handled most of the Pegasus scenes.

I freely admit there isn’t a whole lot to When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth. Again, the plot is essentially a rehash of One Million Years B.C., and Hammer would keep on (re)making this kind of anachronistic Stone Age boob pictures with the likes of Prehistoric Women (1967) and Creatures the World Forgot (1971) but, having learned their lesson, eschewed the expense of any stop-motion dinosaurs for in-camera creatures and stuntmen in sad bear suits, which is too bad because both of those films could’ve used a stop-mo dinosaur punch-up. Alas, with the middling success of both this film and The Valley of Gwangi, which also unjustly failed to find an audience mostly due to studio indifference and being caught in the middle of a regime change, animated dinosaurs would once more become extinct, cinematically speaking, until, for better or for worse, Jurassic Park (1993) brought them back (digitally) for good.

This post is part of Cinematic Catharsis and Reelweegiemidget Reviews The Great Hammer-Amicus Blogathon. 

Thanks for stopping by, and please follow the linkage to check out all the other great reviews. Akita! Wandi! Neecro!

When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970) Hammer Films :: Warner Bros / P: Aida Young / D: Val Guest / W: Val Guest, J.G. Ballard / C: Dick Bush / E: Peter Curran / M: Mario Nascimbene/ S: Victoria Vetri, Robin Hawdon, Drewe Henley, Imogen Hassall, Patrick Allen,


Realweegiemidget Reviews said...

Thanks for bringing this movie to our blogathon and it does sound great fun from your wonderful description. And thanks for the interesting history that went along with it, this was such a lovely read.

Barry P. said...

Great job, and an entertaining read, as well! Despite the film's many flaws, you've actually piqued my interest. Loved the history behind the Danforth effects. Thank you very much for joining the blogathon!

Terence Towles Canote said...

I have to admit I have mixed feelings about When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth. On the one hand, John Danforth's stop-motion work is amazing. As a lad I really liked the movie for that reason. On the other hand, there is not much more to it beyond the dinosaurs! Anyway, I really enjoyed your write up and the behind the scenes look.

Barry P. said...

Fun, fact-filled review! Thanks for joining our blogathon. I feel compelled to watch this now, if only for Danforth's effects.

P.S.- Please accept my apologies for accidentally posting the wrong link to your review. It's fixed now.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...