|'); document.write(''); //-->|
The one-sheet poster for Atlantis, The Lost Continent in 1961 promised everything a nine year-old kid could ask for -- animal-headed monster men, a blazing volcano and an honest-to-goodness Death Ray. And yes, this kid came back the next day to see it again, in all of its Metrocolor wonder. I loved every minute of this movie. It seemed like nobody could possibly make a better one.
Several years later, a television replay confirmed the status of George Pal's The Time Machine as a fine science fiction movie. It would be years before I caught up with the earlier Pal classics Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide and The War of the Worlds, knowing that they were all made by the same man. But seeing Atlantis, The Lost Continent again made me think that some klunky picture had been substituted for the one that thrilled me at the kiddie matinee. As classy filmmaking Atlantis has very little going for it. The script is an embarrassment and the performances are mostly terrible. The callow young hero is a simpleton who makes Luke Skywalker seem downright mature. Although some of the special effects are good, the movie has the look of a bargain basement discount bin. The sets are whatever seems to be hanging around the MGM lot, and many props are recycled from older productions. With the exception of a couple of splendid miniatures, many of the special effects are scrappy-looking, tied together with grainy stock shots and indifferent matte paintings. Even the costumes look foolish. The regal Lords of Atlantis are a collection of geezers in awful-looking robes, wearing a collection of ridiculous hats.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not knocking Atlantis, The Lost Continent. What was a great film for a little kid is now a highly-entertaining jaw-dropper. Forget your Italian sword 'n' sandal cheapies and forget your purposeful genre spoofs. This movie has more unintentional laughs per minute (ULPM) than any faux-epic I know. And I say that with genuine affection.
Long, long ago, humble Greek fisherman Petros and his son Demetrios (Wolfe Barzell & Anthony Hall) fish a soggy princess out of the water. She proves to be a high-maintenance looker named Antilla (Joyce Taylor), who cajoles Demetrios into taking her back to her land beyond the horizon. Impressed by Antilla's beauty but thinking her a bit daft, Demetrios swipes his father's fishing boat (apparently leaving him to starve) to search for her kingdom. If they don't find it, she promises to become his humble fishwife. To Demetrios' surprise, his boat is intercepted by a fabulous submarine from Antillia's very real homeland, Atlantis, a giant continent located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately, Antillia's promises fizzle out when her father King Kronas (Edgar Stehli of 4D Man) is revealed to be a toothless old dotard who defers to his sneering, sniveling prime minister Zaren (John Dall, from Gun Crazy). Conspiring with the Astrologer Sonoy (Frank DeKova), Zaren puts Demetrios to labor with the other slaves in a volcano conveniently located on the outskirts of Atlantis' mighty capitol. Not only are the slaves worked to death in the crater, an evil surgeon (Berry Kroeger) uses advanced pseudo-science to transform some of them into beasts of burden. Demetrios' fellow Greek Xandros (Jay Novello from The Lost World) is turned into a half-man, half oxen. Zaren's evil scheme is to conquer the world, making use of next-generation Death Ray capabilities derived from giant crystals mined by the slaves. Antillia wants to free her Greek sweetheart but Zaren finds excuses to keep Demetrios in chains -- while the surgeon threatens to transform him into a pig. Antillia's only true friend is the High Priest Azor (Edward Platt of TV's Get Smart). Inspired by the revelations of a new God of Love, Azor prophesizes that Atlantis will soon sink into the sea. Meanwhile, Demetrios' date with the surgeon is delayed -- so that he can become the main attraction in a life-or-death trial by combat held in Kronas's main arena.
Atlantis, The Lost Continent begins with a stop-motion animated prologue comparing civilizations in the New and Old Worlds, an effective little demonstration that represents the movie's first and last rational sequence. We're told that Hollywood strikes forced producer-director George Pal to work with an unfinished script, while watching his budget repeatedly slashed to nothing. Sharp-eyed film fans have long spotted the film's patchwork of sources. Many clips of the Atlantis arena and the destruction of the city are lifted straight from MGM's 1951 Quo Vadis, with little attempt to hide the Roman costumes. A major prop statue of a pagan god is on display, looking exactly as it did in the studio's laughable Bible story The Prodigal, then only five years old. A side storage room for various pieces of Atlantis technology reveals the force-field fence posts and other props from Forbidden Planet.
Almost every new shot in the move reveals something worthy of a jeering remark. A neighborhood in the Atlantean capitol is one of MGM's Medieval-era castle sets; I suppose one can make the argument that the Europeans were influenced by Atlantean architectural designs. Regardless of what's going on, we can count on Anthony Hall to wear an incongruous, dopey expression on his face. Demetrios begins as a rather smug fisherman and tries his hand as a clueless apprentice slave, throwing mud at Antillia to express his dissatisfaction with her broken promise. Note to prospective slaves: it's unwise to toss slime at the only person capable of getting you out of your chains. Slaves in Biblical epics are always winning their freedom, and after Demetrios survives the rather feeble combat of Fire and Water, he buys time for the slaves by cozying up to the shark-toothed Zaren. On a paid commission, Demetrios corrects Zaren's war maps of the Mediterranean. Young Anthony Hall's hopeless attempt to act like a greedy mercenary is outdone only by John Dall's toothy, nasal overacting. Zaren says all of his lines through giant grinning teeth: "I trust men who place riches ahead of everything else." 3
Working around the limitations of his sets and special effects, director Pal shows little aptitude for this kind of costume pageantry. Demetrios's big arena fight is a silly contest between a young oaf and a goon so uncoordinated that he's essentially harmless. Pal's Atlantean ministers look and act ridiculous as they jab daggers into a table to vote for war. Zaren is an insulting windbag; nobody would trust him to pass the salt at the dinner table. John Dall plays him by articulating his speech very slowly, as if trying to lengthen his on-screen time. Antillia's fruitless attempts to get her father to make a decision are pathetic. 1
Another major distraction in Atlantis, The Lost Continent is its dialogue track, most of which appears to be post-dubbed. All of the characters speak in flat declarative sentences one might find in a book for first-graders. Unsure editing results in characters often being caught moving their lips silently. Several secondary characters are all dubbed by the ubiquitous voice talent Paul Frees. This starts right at the beginning when Demetrios' father speaks with Frees' easily identified voice, and continues with scores of bit parts and off-screen voices provided by Frees. Anyone paying attention will soon recognize Frees' dynamic voice no matter which clever vocal disguise he uses. 2
George Pal was a genuinely sweet man; his faith figures directly in most of his films. An apocalyptic theme runs through his pictures starting with When Worlds Collide's assertion that the Earth is destroyed by the will of God. Pal's Conquest of Space is marred by a subplot involving a madman who thinks that God doesn't want man to travel to Mars, and The Time Machine shows London nuked by "atomic satellites" that somehow ignite a volcano. A particular stock shot Technicolor volcano returns in several Pal movies, and it's back in Atlantis, The Lost Continent, too.
Atlantis has a John The Baptist-style prophet in Azor, a visionary priest who already wears white robes adorned with golden crosses. Besides expressing disappointment in Zaren's war-mongering, Azor's main function is to point out subtle, tiny hints that doom and destruction are just around the corner: disturbing earthquakes, the flight of Atlantean wildlife. Azor intuits that the decadent, warlike Atlantis will be destroyed because, as everyone knows (?) God always wipes out evil civilizations. Azor therefore counsels Antillia and Demetrios to stop worrying about the Death Ray and start planning their getaway.
Sure enough, just when Zaren is chortling about the potency of his super-weapon, the volcano erupts and Atlantis starts to self-destruct in an orgy of mismatched stock shots and (very good) miniatures crumbling into the waves. The rubbery "animal men" get loose and attack the mad surgeon as if he were H.G. Wells' Doctor Moreau. Zaren shoots his crystal Death Ray at the fleeing slave boats, but is interrupted by the High Priest, a pacifist who turns out to be a handy dude with a dagger. People are set on fire, George Pal's standard visual cue that all Hell is breaking loose. One effective close-up shot in The War of the Worlds showed a soldier zapped by a death ray and turned into a skeleton. The attempt to repeat the effect here generates one of the film's biggest laughs. When a victim is fried by a blast from Zaren's out-of-control Death Ray, his face is replaced by a close-up of a display skeleton skull, already sawed in half and held together with metal bolts and wires. We can just see George Pal begging for a retake, telling the MGM production department that the effect looks worse than the ray-gun zap shots in the recent Z-film Teenagers from Outer Space.
The traumatic submersion of Atlantis sequence includes impressive master-shots of a nicely designed cityscape that falls apart in a very picturesque manner. Also a standout is Zaren's metallic submarine, a nifty nautilus that resembles ancient artwork of dolphins. The sub is also given some impressive sound effects. We're told that the film originally had a scene in which men zip about while wearing Da Vinci-style flying harnesses. These were apparently dropped for budgetary reasons, or perhaps because a test was rejected. After doing such a fine job on Time Machine and earning plenty of money for MGM, it's a shame that George Pal was treated so shabbily on this show. Almost every scene plays as a highly entertaining parody of juvenile toga fantasies.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Atlantis, The Lost Continent is an excellent enhanced widescreen transfer of this guiltiest of guilty pleasures. The picture always looks attractive, picking up some grain in opticals and going slightly haywire when oddly sourced stock shots intervene. One setup turns a Quo Vadis stock shot into a special effect, matting a triangular fighting pit into the sand arena where Christians once fell prey to hungry lions. The bright soundtrack flatters Russell Garcia's catchy music score, including every over-stated musical sting.
Atlantis, The Lost Continent is an easy target for derision -- Oregano, the Lost Condiment! .... Antillia, the Incontinent! -- but the fact is that George Pal was a good guy and deserves our respect. The right attitude is to consider the movie a College Try sabotaged by the suits at Metro. And I remember the show entertaining crowds of happy kids, me among them. What's so bad about that?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Atlantis, The Lost Continent rates:
1. The silly situation at court also reminds me of a Jonathan Winters comedy album I once heard, in which the comedian lampooned costume fantasies. The hero loves the king's daughter, but the king is always a senile feeb dominated by a sneering prime minister. Winters' spoof fits Atlantis to a tee.
2. An entire audience at the Cinematheque learned about Paul Frees in 1993 when Joe Dante told us to listen carefully to a screening of Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace. The English dub for that Italian movie features Frees doing the voices for at least ten separate characters -- a lot of the film features Frees talking to himself, speaking from different bodies.
3. John Dall's interesting film career (Hitchcock's Rope, Kubrick's Spartacus) came to an end with Atlantis. He's remembered as a master at conveying sneering, fruity insincerity. Television missed a great opportunity by not casting John Dall as the father of Eddie Haskell for a bizarre spin-off of the TV series Leave it to Beaver. Together Dall and actor Ken Osmond would have made a wonderfully snide dynamic duo.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
Also, don't forget the 2010 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.