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Monday, January 18, 2016

King Dinosaur (1955)

Screenplay by Tom Gries, from an original story by Bert I. Gordon and Al Zimbalist

Narration:  Marvin Miller

Bill Bryant:  Dr. Ralph Martin
Wanda Curtis:  Dr. Patricia Bennett
Douglas Henderson:  Dr. Richard Gordon
Patti Gallagher:  Dr. Nora Pierce

Featuring Little Joe -- The Honey Bear (this is an actual credit)

Time to get back in the saddle again. Every year after HubrisWeen I don't feel like watching and critiquing movies for a while, and this year was no different. Plus there was the Criterion Blogathon, which exposed my writing (such as it is) to a massive new audience, who promptly discovered that I wasn't writing anything new if they came back at any point in November, December or January up till now. Well, I'm leaving for my sixteenth B Fest tomorrow, so I figure I should watch something with bad effects and sexism so blatant that there's no subtext, it's just text. And I can cross another Bert I. Gordon movie off my list, which is nice. If I'd been a little more on the ball (and if I hadn't gotten horribly sick over Thanksgiving weekend, with the after effects of The Head Cold That Wouldn't Die lasting almost till the new year) I might have done a second Month of AlloSundays with this movie, and a couple others that featured bipedal dinosaurs with three-clawed forelimbs. C'est la vie.

And in all seriousness, it's good to be writing again. Hope you dig it, faithful readers and new arrivals both.

Man, there ain't nothing I like better in my Fifties science fiction than shots of buildings and voiceover narration at the start. And King Dinosaur has both; an observatory (somewhere) sent a telegram to the President due to some new discovery in the heavens. I would have expected this to be some kind of Sputnik reaction, but this movie was made two years before the pinnacle of Soviet science and engineering sent that round beeping thing up into orbit. Turns out that there's something out in space distressing enough to require an emergency session of Congress in order to prepare America for some cosmic threat. There's a rogue planet that's joined the solar system, having been captured by the Sun's gravity and now becoming the tenth planet.

The new planet, which will be named Nova, is also close enough to Earth that travel to it is possible, so various countries are planning to send astronauts (or cosmonauts or taikonauts) up to it in order to check the place out and see if there's anything worth having or taking. According to the narrator the new world has a breathable atmosphere, which probably cuts down on the space suit budget considerably. After the opening credits, we get more stock footage and narration (swoon!) as the nation's industrial and scientific acumen are pressed into service to make a "passenger-carrying rocket". Which was still about half a decade in the future when this film was made. The rocket's going to use a jet engine, though, which is only going to work as long as there's an atmosphere to funnel through the turbines. Oh, half-assed movie science, could I love you any more?

Over a period of months, all kinds of new gadgets are created, tested, and pressed into service in order to build the new rocket. Because it's the Fifties, there's an atomic pile powering the rocket, and the narrator is sure to tell the audience that if the astronauts aren't careful while using it, they will cause a nuclear explosion. No pressure, astro-people. No pressure whatsoever...

Still more stock footage of planes or men flipping switches spools out as the narrator explains that rocket tests involve sending mice into space in order to see if humans can survive in zero gravity. And that means it's time to pick the crew of the space rocket that's going to travel to Nova and poke around a little bit to see what's interesting. Dr. Richard Gordon is a zoologist--he's going to check out whatever animal life may exist on Nova. The expedition's geologist will be Dr. Nora Pierce while the medical officer will be Dr. Ralph Martin. The narrator implies that Martin is capable of reversing death thanks to some clunky writing, but I don't think he's supposed to be quite that good. The last member of the crew is Dr. Patricia Bennett, a chemist who will study other aspects of the planet that the other scientists won't be getting to.

Finally it's time to launch (the narrator points out that Nova will be in the best position for an approach but doesn't even hint at how two bodies in ellipsoid orbits are in different positions relative to each other at various times). Apparently there was only one dude with a slide rule working on that because the launch has to take place "in the next 24 hours". Here's hoping they remembered to pack food before ignition. At T-minus twenty minutes the crew is told to report to the ship, which doesn't sound like enough time to strap in and not get killed. Of course this is all done via stock footage of V-2 rocket launch preparations, so we never see any of the actors anywhere near the rocket at this point. But eventually there's a launch and the unnamed rocket leaves Earth's surface, pointed towards Nova (I especially dug the use of rocket-mounted cameras to give us a couple POV shots of the ground falling away).

And so, about a sixth of the way through the movie, it's time for STILL MORE STOCK FOOTAGE and one nifty looking matte painting of the Earth hanging there in space as the rocket travels away. There were no problems over the months of travel from Earth to Nova (and the stock footage of the captured V-2 rockets mean that the ship was going at full burn for months in order to reach Nova, which is...unlikely...for lots of different reasons. But the main one is that they weren't carrying 75,000 tons of fuel in a sixty-foot tall rocket).

 The rocket gets to Nova, which has pine trees on its surface, and reversing the footage of the launch means that it lands without incident. The astronauts disembark for the first chance to stretch their legs and breathe air that doesn't smell like sweat socks and flatulence for the first time in a third of a year. I really like the glass-bubble helmets on the suits, by the way; it's almost certainly a compromise between the reality of space exploration as understood in 1955 and the need for the actors' faces to be visible. That's doubly necessary because it's a black and white movie, so the bright suits from Destination Moon couldn't be used to help distinguish between the characters.

I can tell that the stock footage is just going to make me chuckle every time it gets used, and one of the astronauts pointing to "an active volcano" within visual range of the landing site jabs me right in the funny bone. The first thing that Dr. Martin does on the surface is check to make sure that conditions on Nova will support human life--poking around with a Geiger counter and other things like that. The two other scientists want him to hurry up so they can join him; does that mean that the expedition (or the filmmakers) only sprung for two space suits? I would hope that NASA would send three for each member of the expedition in real life, especially considering the several-month travel time between the two planets.

Dr. Bennett takes notes on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, which is a relatively deft way to get a giant chunk of exposition delivered without making her tell people who should already know things what's up. Of course there's going to be copious records of the expedition, and of course the filmmakers will want to show off the (contemporary) latest in technology while they do it. Check out the sweet Fifties font on the "Revere" recorder. It is way boss. The two scientists do a whole bunch of other tests for bacteria counts, air and water purity and all that sort of thing. I'd be hugely concerned about cracking the seal on my helmet with 40% of the bacteria being completely unknown. Think about the native populations in Central America after Europeans brought syphilis and smallpox with them...

After signalling to the other two crew members that they probably won't die just from breathing the air, Dr. Pierce and Dr. Gordon exit the ship in what look like ordinary clothes. Apparently the Jumpsuit Age of Science Fiction hadn't happened when this film was made. Dr. Pierce notices a couple of albino moose and tussling bear cubs and says there must be water on Nova since it's supporting animal life. Never mind the trees and grasses everywhere, right? I blame the screenwriter.

The foursome heads over to a nearby lake for a Science Picnic and remark on the swarm of birds flocking around (and chirping endlessly on the soundtrack). I don't know who the expedition captain is--and I suspect the movie doesn't either--but Dr. Pierce wants to check out a jungle island in the middle of the lake when there's time. Dr. Martin points out that the expedition is just supposed to take samples from wherever they land, but come on--the island's only about a mile or so from the landing site. It's not like you spent four months in a tin can just to scoop up some gravel and pine needles less than 100 yards from the landing site. I bet everyone on the ship would like to check out the island, if only for the first chance for guaranteed privacy while picking one's nose in a third of a year. Doctors Bennett and Pierce say that the lake means they have a chance to take a bath, and they're going to do that. Since this movie was made three decades too early for Andy Sidaris to show them scrubbing each other down, we just get a discreet fade to the next scene, where Dr. Martin and Dr. Gordon are goofing around with a bunch of boxes of supplies, prepping for the expedition to the island. They're awfully casual with the rifles and with leaving everything out--one assumes that the bear cubs could break things just by poking at them out of curiosity. And it's not like the scientists know if there's a burrowing animal that could eat all their stuff, or just break it. Yes, the budget precludes Graboids but only the filmmakers and audience would know that. The characters shouldn't act like they know what's going to happen because there's no damned way they ever would.

Dr. Pierce notes that they don't know how long Nova's day is, and Dr. Gordon says it's three PM as far as he can tell (which means that the movie edges up on containing some actual science along with the stock footage and narration). Without cluing anyone in the film or watching it into his reasoning, Gordon says it'll be three hours until it gets dark so there's still time to do science. Which means walking through the forest and possibly getting lost (while grainy footage of a sloth shows up briefly). Dr. Pierce digs around a little bit and says that Nova is a much younger planet than Earth, and that the geological evidence she's found (about an inch and a half below the surface) pegs the world as "prehistoric". Which means that sooner or later we might actually see that dinosaur promised in the title.

By general consensus everyone heads back to the ship (and nobody blazed a trail or set up markers to guide them back to their one safe place to live, the source of their food, and the only locking door on the entire planet). Nice job, guys. You are dumb. Dr. Bennett gets startles by a snake and has a crying jag and Dr. Martin declares that it's shelter building time rather than trying to find the rocket at night. I literally cannot believe they went out of visual range of the rocket if they didn't have a tracking beacon. The men put together a lean-to and set up a watch schedule while Dr. Gordon tells the women that they might be intrepid enough to go to a completely unknown planet but they can't be trusted not to panic staying up late and watching for animals. Thunder (or possibly that volcano) rumbles on the soundtrack while the men watch over the women and the fire burns low. I'm pretty sure the scene is supposed to be taking place at night, but there's also a shot of the sun in the sky, and then it starts raining after Dr. Gordon ends his watch.

Thunder wakes Dr. Bennett up and she starts making out with Dr. Martin mere seconds after walking up to him. The discuss their plans to marry once they get back to Earth, as heroes in Fifties science fiction often did. Also, I can't quite bring myself to imagine that the four month trip on the rocket was spent with everyone remaining celibate (but the Hays Production Code ensures that they were). The two doctors go for a romantic walk in the rain on an alien planet (and the sun gets shown again in an insert shot); then Dr. Martin trips and rolls down a hill and is attacked by a random encounter. God rolled a 44 on the Deciduous Forest Table so he winds up wrestling an alligator.

He is injured but not killed and the remaining scientists bring him back to camp. I'm not sure if it's supposed to be day or night at this point, and I'm also not sure what the expedition is supposed to do in order to treat its doctor when that guy gets hurt. Dr. Gordon gets snappy and brutal with everyone while trying to treat the injured man and Dr. Bennett collapses into useless sobs. Please see my earlier jokes and references re:  Fifties sexism, and add another joke here if you like!

The next morning, Dr. Gordon and Dr. Pierce plan to go back to the rocket while Dr. Bennett takes care of Dr. Martin at the camp site. Here's hoping that someone figures out that slashing blazes into trees is a good way to keep track of where people have gone and how to get back there if they want to. Gordon tells Bennett not to leave the area, since out of the entire planet they really only know about two places on it. Dr. Bennett snuggles up to the feverish and injured Dr. Martin, for lack of any better medical options (thanks, EisenhowerCare).

Some more precious screen time is eaten up by Gordon and Pierce going back to the ship, smiling as they see a lemur, and setting out for the camp again. A superimposed gigantic wingless bee (or possibly a huge ant or grasshopper) shows up at the camp to forage. Since Dr. Bennett's a woman, she just screams and is useless, but Dr. Martin finds out that it's immune to pistol bullets. Then he finds out that rifle bullets work just fine, and they've got 1200 pounds of dead gigantic insect meat. Though as all my readers know, you can only bring 100 pounds of meat back to the wagon. The rest just spoils in the sun. Dr. Martin claims that he needs "some medicine" from Bennett, and that's apparently administered through lip-to-lip contact.

The two other members of the expedition eventually get back to the campsite, and find that Joe the Lemur has become their fifth Beatle. Dr. Gordon claims grumpily that everything's weird on Nova and claims to have seen a tanklike animal that left them alone. The gigantic dead insect must have been cleaned up by the Nova Forest Sanitation Department, because nobody mentions it, and you'd figure a half-ton bug would make quite a conversation piece on any planet. The island in the lake comes up for a fourth time when the doctors discuss what their plans are for the following day; Martin says they can't get separated again so it looks like everyone's going to the mysterious jungle island with a smoking volcano in the middle of a huge lake on an alien planet. Should work out fine for everyone.

I hope you like stock footage of a snake and Joe the Lemur making bipping noises, because that's what you're going to get when Dr. Gordon takes the first watch that night.  Though when the snake crawls over Dr. Martin it might be time for someone to do something about it (Gordon's no help whatsoever and doesn't seem to notice it for a disastrously long time). The snake just crawls off without doing anything, though, and then it's time to move on to Scene 36.

Scene 36 finally arrives, and then goes away listlessly.

Doctor Gordon and Doctor Pierce bring Joe the Lemur and an inflatable raft to the lake and go to check out the jungle island at some length; meanwhile, Doctor Bennett and Doctor Martin hang out at the campsite and talk about getting married again. At the lake, you do get to see the raft get inflated thanks to a pressurized CO2 cannister, which is pretty neat. Then it's time to hear the two doctors but not see them, since the journey to the island is composed of stock footage rather than the actors doing anything (until the raft hits the shore). They talk for a while and then go into the "jungle", which appears to have pine trees and deciduous foliage more than, say, creepers and vines. They get interrupted by a brief interlude at the lean-to before the film switches back to them in a mountainous cave-strewn area that looks even less like a jungle than the forest.

An animal roar clues the pair into the existence of huge animals (again, why didn't anybody mention the huge dead wingless bee?) right before KING DINOSAUR makes his appearance...

...and it's just a goddamned photographically enlarged iguana.

Movie, I actually kind of hate you right now. I was hoping for a stop motion Allosaurus or at least a stuntman in a dinosaur suit. And I got an iguana being propped up to look like it's walking on its hind legs. Since it's the mid-Fifties, Dr. Gordon shoots at the animal and Dr. Pierce screams uselessly. Then the rifle jams and it's time to beat feet away from the monster. The two doctors hide in a convenient cave (too bad nobody says "I claim this cavern in the name of Bronson!") and the monster pursues them. Dr. Pierce flips out that Joe the Lemur is going to get killed by the monster and Gordon runs out of the cave to rescue the idiotic little thing in a sequence too terrifying to actually show. There is a rather nifty shot of the "dinosaur" reaching into the cave to snag the tasty humans, and Gordon has the presence of mind to take a picture of it. Then a photographically enlarged alligator shows up for a battle to the death that I sincerely hope did not actually injure either of the animals. Hurting a perfectly innocent reptile for art is a dick move, and the art that got made--at least in this case--is absolutely not worth the sacrifice.

Oh, hey, a third big animal shows up--this one looks like a monitor lizard or something. The two trapped doctors decide to launch a distress flare to summon the two scientists at the lean-to, although I hope their plan isn't "run for the ship while the monsters are eating our colleagues". It's a red flare (apparently--it's a black and white movie), which was the distress signal. The two doctors at the campsite run to see what they can do (although without a raft, I am not sure exactly what that will be).

 Back at the monster pit, the alligator has been killed (though that's almost certain chocolate syrup poured over it to simulate blood). Dr. Bennett and Dr. Martin grab another raft from the ship and make their way tediously to the lake and thence to the island, and further still to the jungle. Back in the cave, Dr. Gordon has developed a photo of the King Dinosaur, saying it "resembles the Tyrannosaurus Rex of Earth's prehistoric age". Which, er, it does not. At all. Dr. Pierce throws a snit and tears the photo up, saying it's no use having the picture since they're not going to get back to Earth. I can only imagine what being trapped in a tiny steel tube with those two for four months must have been like.

At least there's a little more monitor-lizard footage while the two campsite doctors jog to the rescue toting the atomic power generator that the narration established was also a powerful explosive. Dr. Martin realizes that he and Dr. Bennett won't be able to rush to the rescue past the dinosaurs, but if the monitor lizard distracts the iguana Pierce and Gordon can make a run for it. Turns out that the two animals fall down a cliffside during the fight, which means the two scientists can escape without any significant risk. This they now do.

Even though there isn't any real reason to do it, Dr. Martin sets the timer on their suitcase nuke (for only half an hour!) and everyone runs off for the raft, pausing only to fruitlessly shoot at a gigantic armadillo. They run; the iguana chases them; a mammoth shows up for no reason (and appears to be a shaggy-furred elephant in a toupee). I'll give the filmmakers this, though--the score is nice and exciting during this sequence, for all that it's just four people running through a forest trail and occasional shots of a lemur. Stock footage of a snapping turtle stands in for another monster and the scientists hop into a raft and paddle away towards their rocket. They prepare to leave for Earth, having spent about 72 hours on an alien planet and doing incalculable damage to its biosphere by setting off a goddamned nuke. The film presents this as a defensible idea, which I just plain do not get. There's also absolutely no way the four protagonists got to a safe distance from a nuclear blast after half an hour of paddling and running. But the lemur is safe, so there's that.

I bet if you took all the stock footage out of this film it'd be a 35 minute short. I got this movie as a gift and I kinda want my money back. It's all the bad parts of the Fifties science-fiction craze and none of the good. When Dr. Gordon says it's time to leave Planet Nova I wholeheartedly agree with him. It's a nonsensical film in the worst way, figuratively and literally, and even at 61 minutes it overstays its welcome significantly.

But its worst offense is promising an actual dinosaur on the poster and delivering an iguana, an alligator, and a monitor lizard. That is utterly unforgivable.


  1. That was still the age of Carnivores-Are-Evil-Because-They-Kill-Cuddly-Things. Stupid, but unsurprising.

    Who was the first heroic female movie scientist, I wonder? There had to be someone before Ripley.

  2. There's a biopic of Marie Curie from the Forties, I believe. In fiction? That's an excellent question that I'm completely unprepared to answer.