The Lost World: Imperialist Adventure Films in the Golden Age


Did You Know...

... That the town of Tarzana in California's San Fernando Valley is named after Tarzan? In 1915, Edgar Rice Burroughs bought a ranch in the area, which he named the Tarzana Ranch. When he and several other ranch owners sold their land for residential developments, homeowners decided to name their new town Tarzana in 1927.

Imperialist Adventure Literature.
More on the original literature that inspired these classic films.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

If any film of the past decade has come closest to matching the tone and atmosphere of the classic adventure films of Hollywood's golden age, it would have to be the direct homage presented by first-time director Kerry Conran in his 2004 film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

The story features a reporter (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) embroiled in a plot by a mad German scientist (played retroactively by the late Sir Lawrence Olivier), who has sent his killer robots on a reign of terror across an alternate 1939 earth. Into this comes Sky Captain (Jude law), a mercinary fighter pilot who shares a past with the reporter, Polly Perkins, and a drive to stop the mad scientist's doomsday plot.

Along the way, they encounter just about every trope that splashed across adventure films and pulp fiction from the 1920's to the 1940's. The first 20 minutes of the film (also the strongest and most memorable sequence) is heavily inspired by the original Superman cartoons produced by the Fleischer Brothers, and in particular, the episode Mechanical Monsters. In the Fleischer cartoon, the Last Son of Krypton smashes down an army of stylized robots against the Art Deco background of Metropolis... In Sky Captain, the title character dogfights almost identical robots that have been fully rendered in computer graphics against the backdrop of a Fritz Lang-style New York.

The tropes, and the direct allusions, continue throughout. Sky Captain's hunt for a posthumous Lawrence Olivier takes him to Tibet and Shangri-La, Atlantis, and an uncharted jungle island with dinosaur-like genetic experiments. In the initial fight in New York, the astute viewer can see Kong ascending the Empire State Building, or they can see the S.S. Venture sunken among the wrecks of Atlantis. The audience that really knows their genre will also recognize homages, visuals, soundclips and lines of dialogue from Godzilla, War of the Worlds (both film and Orson Welles' iconic radio broadcast), The Iron Giant, Dr. Strangelove, the Star Wars films and even a cameo by the good ship Titanic. The title "the World of Tomorrow" was borrowed from the 1939 New York World`s Fair (though it takes on far more ominous tones for the film).

While critically lauded, the film failed at the box office, no doubt as a consequence of appealling to a very particular audience. Those critics, both professional and profane, who complained about the acting or the perposterousness of the concept generally missed the point: Sky Captain is a perfectly conceived and executed homage to 1930's pulp films, warts and all. If the acting is a little wooden, it is perfectly in keeping with the style of acting found in actual movies made in 1939. This is exactly the kind of movie they would have made back then if they had the technology of today.

In the Imperialist Adventure genre of Great White Hunters and lost civilizations, few tomes stand as tall as Sir H. Rider Haggard's 1885 King Solomon's Mines. This text essentially defined the genre and established its basic tropes... The hero, Allan Quatermain, was the archetypal Great White Hunter figure and through the course of the story, the very British adventurers take upon themselves the burden of Kipling as they set right the wrongs of this unexplored region of deepest South Africa. For this mysterious realm, Haggard delved into Biblical history and the legends of wealthy King Solomon's diamond mines, and in so doing created the "lost world" genre that would be later charted by the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

As well off as these "boys adventures" were in literature, they flowered with the advent of film. The first full-length Imperialist Adventure film was 1925's The Lost World, which established many of the tropes of the cinematic version of the genre. In this adaptation of Conan Doyle's novel, the Great White Hunters are joined by the romantic interest of a fashionable young lady in search of her father, a previous explorer of the land, and scale a plateau populated with dinosaurs and a rampageous volcano that saves its pyroclastic fury until the expedition arrives. Many more films followed in the tradition of The Lost World during that golden heyday of Hollywood in the 1920's, 30's and 40's. In the newly dawning Hollywood studio system that created such classics as the Universal Studios Monsters, Douglas Fairbanks' films and Disney's animation empire, producers turned to these ripping Victorian-Edwardian yarns for both tone and content. However, they frequently owed as much to The Lost World film as to any literary inspiration.

The most famous of these is 1933's King Kong, which essentially retreads The Lost World against the backdrop of Hollywood filmmaking itself. The origins of the cinema's biggest primate are shrouded in the mystery of an unrealized sequel to The Lost World which Harry Hoyt pitched to Willis O'Brien, and about which nothing is known. That project likely morphed into Creation, another Willis O'Brien stop-motion film about dinosaurs that went unrealized. In Creation, a boatload of debutantes are caught in a storm and rescued by submarine, which then comes ashore on a newly-formed tropical island teeming with antediluvian life. O'Bie was given time, space and money on the RKO Radio-Pictures lot, but after spending more than an average film on just one reel of test footage, the project was chopped by studio axe-man Mirian C. Cooper. Cooper, though, was developing a project of his own, and brought O'Bie, his crew and his talents over to it.

Trailer for King Kong.

Cooper's film was King Kong, in which an intrepid wildlife filmmaker Carl Denham - modelled on Cooper himself - brings along a hardened ship's crew and a movie starlet played by Fay Wray as he traces the obscure map of a Norwegian captain to the lost Skull Island, upon which dinosaurs still live and are ruled over by the gigantic simian deity Kong. Like The Lost World, King Kong brings a piece of their lost world back to civilization where it proceeds to run amok. In this case, it's Kong himself, who meets his untimely end atop (or more correctly, at the bottom of) the Empire State Building.

Lifting the idea of a lost world and bringing the monster back to the modern world, King Kong missed the third essential part of the Imperialist Adventure film trope: destroying the lost world itself. This oversight was made-up for in the sequel Son of Kong. Made in a rush and relatively on the cheap, Son of Kong holds a distinction that has never yet been matched as a sequel produced after but released in the same year as its predecessor. In Son, Denham is on the lam from lawsuits by practically everyone in New York. Taken on as a partner by the same captain who helped him find and cart Kong back, the two are sailing the south seas when they meet another love interest, the villainous Norwegian whose map led them to Skull Island, and a juvenile Kong. No less devistating than a volcano, an earthquake awaits the crew and the denizens of the island.

The rush to produce Son of Kong was a result of the massive, almost unprecedented popularity of King Kong. Despite being a scant few years after the beginning of the Great Depression, audiences hungered for an escape like Kong and saw it repeatedly, creating a pop-culture phenomenon.

With Cooper's name seeming to hold commerical sway, RKO put him to work on a formal adaptation of Haggard's She, Who Must Be Obeyed. Transferring the story from deepest Africa to the frigid Russian arctic, an expedition uncovers the frozen land of Kor, ruled over by a white queen who has been kept alive for half a millenium through immortal fires. Though making the same spectacular use of scale as Kong, this 1935 film did very poorly at the box office and was all-but forgotten. After a 1949 double-billing with RKO's 1935 Last Days of Pompeii, the film was thought lost. The last known copy was found in silent film era comedian Buster Keaton's garage.

The next most famous after Kong is Tarzan of the Apes, brought to life by Johnny Weissmuller. Contrary to advertizing rhetoric then and now, Weissmuller's Tarzan was not the original: Elmo Lincoln donned the loincloth for several outtings in the silent era. However, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's Tarzan series has engrained itself in the cultural consciousness as the deffinitive version. It may even be said that his version eclipses Edgar Rice Burroughs' literary version: the famous call and Tarzan's savage inability to string together a full sentence are creations of MGM.

Tarzan the Ape Man was ushered into darkened Art Moderne theatres in 1932. The film itself was a response to an epic MGM box-office success the preceeding year, Trader Horn. Trader Horn was essentially a retelling of Sir H. Rider Haggard's She, Who Must Be Obeyed, in which a lost white woman is treated as a god by the natives she rules over. The public clamored for more, and MGM supplied with an advertizing gimmick that seems almost unbelievable today. Where movies today may be cynically decried as copies of last year's hit, Tarzan the Ape Man was actually advertized as being "The 'Trader Horn' of 1932!"

Beyond the action and plot, the first of the Weissmuller Tarzan films is a visual feast. Much of the screen time is taken up by stock footage - much of it shot for Trader Horn - featuring scenes of African savannah wildlife and native tribes. The story itself revolves around British trader James Parker, his daughter Jane and his right hand man Harry Holt embarking on a risky safari to find the legendary "elephants' graveyard" behind the forbidding Mutia Escarpment. Upon reaching the escarpment, a vast plateau which the superstitious natives refuse to climb, Harry finds a new competitor for Jane's affections in the form of the mysterious Tarzan. From there, mortal combat with savage lions and crocodiles, battle with ferocious pygmies, pit-fighting with bloodthirsty apes and great elephant stampedes ensue.

The success of Tarzan the Ape Man easily overtook that of Trader Horn. However, by the time the sequel, Tarzan and His Mate, came in 1934, the bar for adventure films had been raised and never yet truly surpassed. King Kong forced Tarzan and His Mate to be an even bigger, grander, more sublime and more ambitious story. For the most part, it worked: by most reconings, it is one of the few cases where the sequel is considered superior to the original.

Thereafter, the Tarzan series began to frighteningly echo the development of other great movie franchises of the 1930's and 40's, such as Universal Studios' monster films. Like Dracula with Bela Lugosi and Frankenstein with Boris Karloff, the Tarzan series had an excellent opening act and at least a comparable, if not superior, sequel, but began their decline at the third film, falling ever further into mediocrity (albiet quite enjoyable mediocrity) with each new installment.

The problem with the Tarzan series was its inability to cope with that fundamental contradiction of Victorian-Edwardian escapist fantasy: the spectre of domestication. The main appeal of the Tarzan myth is the idea of a more natural existence, escaping the pressures of civilization to live a more free and genuine life contesting oneself against the elements of nature in an edenic paradise. When Jane left her world behind to live in Tarzan's, it was for that very purpose. But by Tarzan Escapes in 1936, Tarzan's world began to look very much like the civilization she left. Trading in her skimpy two-piece leather bikini for a housewifely one-piece dress, Jane moved herself and her husband into a Swiss Family-style treehouse with all the modern ammenites. The free life of the jungle had become settled and domestic.

1939 heralded another event that confirmed the domesicity of Tarzan, when Tarzan Finds a Son! Since Tarzan and Jane weren't formally married by 1930's standards, they were forced to recover an infant, the sole survivor of a plane crash on the Escarpment. In doing so, they dove firmly into the wholesome family fare that elluded them in the early days of non-Hays approved nudity and jungle violence. It is also unsuprizing that this was the same year as the World's Fair in New York. Dubbed "The World of Tomorrow", it promised a chrome plated and fully domesticated world, intoxicating to American audiences who wanted that ideal reflected in their films.

Skipping the essentially immaterial 1941 Tarzan's Secret Treasure, the theme of domestication comes to the fore in Tarzan's New York Adventure (1942). In it, Tarzan and Jane travel to New York to track down their kidnapped son, giving the viewer a haphazard fish-out-of-water comedy that ultimately reaffirmed the virtues of civilized society and invited all their new friends to the once-elusive and dangerous Escarpment to fish and honeymoon.

The New York Adventure would mark the last of the great MGM series partnering Weismuller with O'Sullivan. The Tarzan franchise was passed off from MGM to RKO - the home of King Kong - which left O'Sullivan behind. She was signed on as a contract player to MGM, which prohibited her from joing the RKO series, but perhaps she breathed a sigh of relief at that. With the final six Tarzan adventures of which Weismuller was the star, the series took a radical shift.

Unable to get over the loss of O'Sullivan, Jane was absent during 1943's Tarzan Triumphs and Tarzan's Desert Mystery. While RKO set to work recasting the part, Jane herself was off in England helping the war effort. Tarzan was enlisted when Nazis invaded the jungle in both pictures, and the series capitalized on two-fisted Pulp action. A Burroughs-esque element of Science Fiction was even thrown into the mix when stock footage of giant reptiles from One Million B.C. was spliced into Desert Mystery.

Adding to the domesticity was that this once untamed paradise known only to Tarzan, Jane and a handful of pygmies and cannibals became extremely well-populated. There were several different Arabesque cities dotting the former Mutia Escarpment, and at least one lost empire of warrior women in 1945's Tarzan and the Amazons. Jane also made her less-than-triumphant return in this film, played by Brenda Joyce. Unlike the distinctive and beautiful Maureen O'Sullivan, Joyce was a very bland, 1940's B-movie prop who had no chemistry with Weissmuller whatsoever. 1946's Tarzan and the Leopard Woman and 1947's Tarzan and the Huntress were as expendible as Tarzan's Secret Treasure.

With the progressive aging of Johnny Weissmuller and his costars, the series was doomed. Weissmuller began filling out around the middle and growing a double-chin before audience's eyes. His son hit puberty, and was exempted from the final film, Tarzan and the Mermaids, on the grounds of being off to school in England.

The last of these films, Mermaids diverged most radically from the rest of the series. Gone was the pretense that Tarzan's home was a remote jungle locked away on the forbidding Mutia Escarpment... This African coast was teeming over with civilization and visitors to the treehouse. The Escarpment itself appeared to have disintegrated - symbolically - to dust and was absent from the map shown in the film's opening narration. Instead, Tarzan's treehouse is just downriver of the hamlet of Nyaga, and downriver of it is the lost civilization of Aquatanica. Like in Tarzan and the Amazons, Tarzan's jungle has become so populated that even more remote regions must be found.

Obstensibly the film takes place in Africa, according to a map on the Comissioner's wall, but the movie was shot in Acapulco, Mexico, and it shows. Nearly all the extras were Latino and the ancient temples were Incan. The movie appeared to be trying to capitalize on another trend that was just coming into existence in post-war America: the Polynesian Pop of Tiki. The society of these maritime Aquatanicans was distinctly Polynesian and just shy of having wooden Tiki gods and Mai Tai's.

As if to suffer a final indignity to his status as the one great and lonely king of the jungle, Tarzan was even reduced to wearing leather thong sandals in this outing. No wonder that in 1948, after an astonishing 12 films, Weissmuller traded in Tarzan's loincloth for Jungle Jim's pith helmet.

Johnny Weissmuller wasn't the only Tarzan going, even if he was the most iconic. In 1935, Edgar Rice Burroughs himself helped produce The New Adventures of Tarzan, a 12-part serial that drew more accurately from the books than did the MGM/RKO series. One can't really blame Weismuller though: the liscencing agreement was such that MGM was entitled to use the character names, but not the exact characters, their backstories, or any of the novels' plots. Burroughs had been dissatisfied with the silent-era Tarzans and didn't wish to see his creation as he wrote it in the hands of others.

Under his guidance, Bruce Bennett (also credited as Herman Brix) portrayed Tarzan as the sophisticated, articulate and athletic Lord Greystoke that Burroughs envisioned. In the 12 episodes of the serial, Tarzan takes a trip from Africa to Guatemala to help his old friend d'Arnot track down a mysterious idol known as the Green Goddess. The full 257 minutes was edited down to a hour and some twice, once in 1935 for the feature film The New Adventures of Tarzan and again in 1938 for Tarzan and the Green Goddess.

The feature film edit of The New Adventures of Tarzan.

King Solomon's Mines first flickered across the silver screen in 1937, and especially found itself owing as much to The Lost World film as to Haggard's novel. However, the film is still a remarkably faithful adaptation and a very entertaining movie in its own right. Its few faults come as a direct consequence of some of its greatest advantages.

The focus of this version of King Solomon's Mines was on the hard-up Irish father and daughter duo of Patrick and Kathy O'Brien. Reviewing their options after going bust in the South African diamond rush, they meet up with Allan Quatermain. Coming along with him to meet the English tourists he has been hired to guide, they meet up with a dying Spaniard and his African guide Umbopa. Before passing, his map tells them of the lost King Solomon's Mines, which sets the elder O'Brien off to cross the parched desert and mountain barrier to the north. Following them are the younger O'Brien, a reluctant Quatermain, the English hunters Sir Henry Curtis and Commander Good, and Umbopa. Here we find the first borrowing from The Lost World, as the love interest leads the Great White Hunters off to find her father.

The prodigal prince Umbopa of this unmapped patch of Africa was played by African-American actor, singer and activist Paul Robeson to great effect. Only a year off of his iconic performance in Show Boat, the film made ample use of his pure bass-baritone voice to sing the misplaced but still stirring refrains of Negro spirituals. At a critical moment, a native song rallies the oppressed soldiers of the evil pretender, Twala, behind him.

The setting was more than equal to the task of competing with Robeson's voice... Large portions of the film were shot on location in South Africa, using genuine Zulu tribespeople as extras. In this respect, the movie is heads above the back projections of documentary footage in Tarzan or the completely contrived scenes in King Kong. King Solomon's Mines is almost in the same epic class as Zulu.

There is a distinct impression, however, that they spent so much on the invaluable location shooting that they didn't have enough left in the budget for some critical special effects scenes later on. The next device of Imperialist Adventure films that King Solomon's Mines borrowed from The Lost World was a climactic volcanic explosion that threatens to destroy the mines and murder the heroes. But besides a river of lava and some shooting flames in the belly of the beast, audiences were never privileged to see the eruption itself. Instead, they merely read about it in Quatermain's journal after the fact.

The 1937 feature film version of King Solomon's Mines.

Just prior to acquiring the Tarzan franchise, RKO produced a 1940 version of Swiss Family Robinson. Unfortunately, this movie has long since been locked up: when Disney produced its 1960 version of the story, it obtained the rights to the previous picture and put it in the proverbial vault, hoping to avoid any unflattering comparisons. What remains to be seen to this day are excerpts on the most recent DVD release of the Disney version.

What one sees in this thinly-veiled parable on the Second World War is a much more dramatically deep tale set against one of the great jungle epics of the golden age of cinema. The sets and matte paintings easily rivalled those of King Kong and Tarzan and his Mate for primal sublimnity, and the tension easily outstriped the Disney version. The main conflict in this rendition was between Mother and Father Robinson. In RKO's version, their marriage was the first thing to painfully break down after Father so imperiously decided that they were going to leave the comforts of civilization for this Godforsaken island. Then the relationship between father and sons is strained when he is working so hard to make fine men of them. The familial conflicts are only resolved upon the near death of one of the sons and the family's rescue.

The outbreak of World War II marked the effective end of the Golden Age of Hollywood and of its original era of Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction adventures, just as the outbreak of World War I brought an end to Imperialist Adventure literature. The tenor of genre cinema changed dramatically as square-jawed science heroes overtook Great White Hunters while the atomic bomb and Sputnik turned Science Fiction from a mechanism for exploration into an expression of anxiety over technology and longevity. As the 1950's dawned, even The Lost World was changed to conform to the new zeitgeist.

Review by Cory Gross.

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