Few men have ever done, what he has done
Or even dreamed, what he has dreamed
His time has passed! There are no more
He is the last...di-no-saur!
Few men have even tried, what he has tried
Most men have failed, where he's prevailed
His time has passed! There are no more
He is the last...di-no-saur!
Produced in the wake of producer John Dark and director Kevin Connor's unexpectedly successful adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' The Land That Time Forgot (1975), the U.S.-Japanese co-production of The Last Dinosaur works much the same magic despite a similarly modest budget. Though eventually released theatrically in Japan and much of Europe, in America a theatrical release for The Last Dinosaur was aborted at the last-minute when ABC apparently ponied-up a lot of money to premiere it instead on February 11, 1977 as an ABC Friday Night Movie. Supposedly - and again unexpectedly - the broadcast was a ratings blockbuster; my hazy memory recalls that ABC repeated it twice more in prime time before it went into syndication.
It continued turning up here and there throughout the 1980s, followed by a few grey-market VHS releases in the 1990s (for a time it was mistakenly believed to be in the public domain), then The Last Dinosaur all but disappeared. It's still MIA in America but Japan's Tsuburaya Productions and Toho Video officially released it to Region 2 (NTSC) last year, albeit a 4,500 yen SRP (about $53.31). That ain't cheap - but boy howdy is it worth it.
That's because The Last Dinosaur may be the most undervalued work in the entire kaiju eiga (Japanese giant monster movie) genre, a film that transcends its rubbery monsters and timeworn story and into something mixing familiar sci-fi adventure and suspense with a beguilingly authentic, haunting melancholy. Though its special effects vary from comparatively excellent to inadequate and completely unconvincing, its central character is conceived with enormous intelligence and almost poetry, and played at that same level, uniquely, by Richard Boone in a role suited to his unusualness. The film is way above average in other ways, too: some of the sets are imaginatively designed and generate a strange dream-like atmosphere, the film's haunting theme song (quoted above), the direction and supporting performances are, for the most part, spot on.
The picture opens in the den-like room - with an apparently stone fireplace and its roaring fire - of billionaire oilman and sportsman Masten Thrust (Boone), as he vainly attempts to share his passion for hunting with his latest pick-up, an attractive middle-aged woman. But she can't even tell the difference between an alligator and a crocodile, and in attempting to compliment him only leaves him depressed: "You've done everything!" she says. So he leaves her with a photo album summarizing his life and exploits.
In a clever twist lost on many viewers, the den is revealed to be a cabin in Thrust's personal 747 jumbo jet, exemplifying his Howard Hughes-like status, as the mournful title tune is beautifully performed by song stylist Nancy Wilson*. When Thrust's jet lands in Japan, he casually dumps the girl, giving her a plane ticket back to Portland and, as a memento, a solid gold bullet. (One easily imagines Thrust keeps a bucket of these things around, just in case.)
At his Japan headquarters, Thrust announces that his Arctic drilling team, using small manned capsules for exploratory laser drilling, accidentally stumbled upon a tropical prehistoric valley populated by dinosaurs, including a Tyrannosaurus Rex. After promising eminent scientist Dr. Kawamoto (Tetsu Nakamura, Mothra, The Manster) - whom Thrust calls sensei - not to hunt the beast but to study it, a team is assembled to go back to the Lost World, including Thrust himself and Dr. Kawamoto; Thrust's lanky Masai (i.e., East African) tracker, Bunta (former NBA star Luther Rackley); and geologist Chuck Wade (Steven Keats), the sole survivor of the previous expedition and, specifically, the only man not eaten by the hungry reptile. The press pool elects Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Francesca "Frankie" Banks** (Joan Van Ark, billed here as Joan van Ark) to accompany the expedition, but Thrust adamantly refuses to allow a woman along - until she impresses him with her tenacity, her willingness to expose herself to danger, and her gleeful flirtatiousness with the billionaire.
(Spoilers) In the prehistoric valley, the team rather foolishly sets up camp on the beach adjacent to a large stream, fully exposed to all the prehistoric dangers. Later, while the others are chasing after the T-Rex, Dr. Kawamoto is squished under the T-Rex's feet and (offscreen) eaten. Worse, the dinosaur trashes the camp, destroying all their gear and supplies (including their rifles) and, worse still, buries the Polar-Borer in a valley akin to the Elephant Graveyard of innumerable Tarzan movies. Chuck and the others assume the T-Rex sank the capsule in the lake. Completely stranded, over the next several months the survivors must hunt for food just like the race of aggressive if primitive cavemen they discover. One of them, a cavewoman (Masumi Sekiya) they name "Hazel," presumably after Shirley Booth's TV character, is eventually adopted by the group (she becomes something like a maid), much like the hapless, sympathetic caveman Ahm in The Land That Time Forgot.
Meanwhile, having lost his sensei and no longer bound by his promises, Thurst becomes positively obsessed with hunting down and killing the T-Rex that ate his longtime friend. Indeed, he may have been looking for just such an excuse all the while.
The Last Dinosaur, released in Japan as Kyokutei tankensen Poora-Boora - The Last Dinosaur, or "Polar Probe Ship Polar-Borer - The Last Dinosaur," was co-directed by Tsugunobu "Tom" Kotani and Alex(ander) Grasshoff. Though incorrectly listed on the IMDb as "Shusei" Kotani, Tsugunobu is correct. After working as an assistant director on Toho productions like You Can Succeed, Too (Kimimo shussega dekiru, 1964) and the Crazy Cats' Mexican Free-for-All (Kureejii Mekishiko dai sakusen, 1968), Kotani began directing there with Get Your Sky! Young Guy (Are no sora daze! Wakadaisho, 1970), the 16th "Young Guy" feature, and which starred Yuzo Kayama. He was kept relatively busy at Toho despite the studio's painful retrenchment in the early '70s, helming pictures like Cockroach Detective (Gokiburi deka, 1973), though most of his associations were with outside companies releasing through Toho, including Yujiro Ishihara's Ishihara Promotion and Jack Pro. Kotani came back to the fold to helm two new "Young Guy" movies beginning with Greatest Game Ever (Ganbare! Wakadaisho, 1975) but star Masao Kusakari and the series generally didn't click with audiences. Since 1969 Kotani has been active in television as well. Co-director Alex Grasshoff was primarily associated with documentaries and '70s television, particularly Universal shows like The Rockford Files and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. It's difficult to say who directed what, but Kotani rather than Grasshoff seems to have been the primary director. Grasshoff did no other projects with Rankin-Bass before or after this, but Kotani was hired three more times by the American firm following The Last Dinosaur's success: for The Berumda Depths (1978), The Ivory Ape (1980), and The Bushido Blade (also with Boone, 1981).
William Overgard (not Overguard) was diversely talented much like frequent kaiju eiga writer Shinichi Sekizawa. Primarily a cartoonist and novelist, he penned the strip Steve Roper and Mike Nomad for a while, and as a protégée of Milton Caniff was heavily influenced by Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, an attitude carried over into The Last Dinosaur. (Reader Sergei Hasenecz notes, "He didn't pen (write) Roper/Nomad, he drew it. And it was for quite a while, from 1954 to 1985, just short of 31 years. After he left Roper/Nomad, Overgard did some ghost-writing for the Kerry Drake comic strip, then wrote and drew the oddball and original Rudy. He also did scripts for two cartoon series, Silver Hawks and Thunder Cats.") Overgard later wrote The Bermuda Depths, The Ivory Ape, and The Bushido Blade for Rankin-Bass, but none of these ever comes close to approaching the poetry of The Last Dinosaur.
Richard Boone was an inspired casting choice. The ultimate craggy-faced actor, Boone was an intimidating presence. He was an alcoholic and if he wasn't a mean drunk he sure as hell looked like one. (In the final scenes of the pictures, Boone is downright bleary-eyed - he had to have been soaked.) Indeed, his tendency to play unpredictable characters capable of suddenly, violently lashing out was part of his appeal. In his most famous role, the erudite gun-for-hire Paladin in the adult Western TV series Have Gun--Will Travel, Boone exhibited a fascinating balance of intelligence and tenderness with the violence and ruthlessness necessary in such a profession.
As Masten Thrust, Boone is alternately sexist, insane, world-weary, melancholy, obsessed, and deep down highly romantic. His relationship with Frankie is one of the great relationships of the entire science fiction cinema genre: despite their age and background differences, they clearly adore one another and share an intimacy few could understand, including Chuck, even though they too clearly have feelings for one another. Thrust's ready to throw his billions away for the sake of the hunt, and she's all but ready to stay loyally at his side.
There's a great sadness to these characters that could only have appeared in pre-Star Wars '70s sci-fi cinema, a 1967-77 decade dominated by downbeat and ambivalent endings (in Soylent Green, Westworld, The Andromeda Strain, Silent Running, etc., and the entire Planet of the Apes series). I think part of the reason that of the John Dark/Kevin Connor films of that era, The Land That Time Forgot and The People That Time Forgot are remembered largely because of their downbeat endings - who could forget Doug McClure helplessly watching the German U-boat's fatal attempt to flee Caprona? - while the more light-hearted At the Earth's Core and Warlords of Atlantis are mostly forgotten.
There's something about Thrust's fatalism, his loneliness, and his romantic desire to live out his life with Frankie in the wilderness that's at the core of The Last Dinosaur's appeal. Certainly Boone, with his boozing and his decision to walk away from Hollywood - by this time he was largely based in Florida - put a lot of himself, at least the darker side of his personality, into the character. Though Boone tends to shout his way through the picture - "Stand still!!" he screams at his prey, and berates Chuck with insults like, "You Ding-Dong!" - it's nonetheless a great performance.
Joan Van Ark and Steven Keats seem to understand the material as well. Van Ark, soon to score big on TV's Knots Landing, is appealing and playful, while Keats comes off as sensible even though his dialogue comes close to making him an insufferable hothead. Sadly, Keats himself committed suicide in 1994, at the age of 49.
Tsuburaya Productions provided the effects after Toho rejected Rankin-Bass's original proposal, effects that are clearly modeled after those in The Land That Time Forgot rather than the Toho-Eiji Tsuburaya features or the post-Eiji Tsuburaya TV shows***. However, the sound effects of the T-Rex's roar incorporate bits of Godzilla's famous one, which couldn't have pleased Toho. Another Godzilla connection: for the Japanese-dubbed version, Michiko Hirai provided Frankie's voice; she was also the voice of Minira/Minya in the Japanese version of Godzilla's Revenge. Overall the results are mixed. By pre-Star Wars standards some of the miniatures and matte shots are quite good, especially those early in the film, before the Lost World scenes.
The T-Rex is a disappointment. It looks more playful than threatening - especially during the sequence where it buries the Polar-Borer, and it closely resembles the stiff man-in-a-suit man-eater from Universal-International's The Land Unknown (1957). The Polar-Borer is featureless and much-too cramped, though the interiors of Thrust's plane are evocative in the Ken Adam manner, as are some of the sets/opticals inside Thrust's industrial complex.
The film was mostly shot on location in Kamikochi, the "Japanese Yosemite" in Nagano Prefecture. Though visually interesting, with its fir trees and the like it lacks the tropical prehistoric qualities of Spain's Canary Islands, where both The Land That Time Forgot and One Million Years, B.C. (1966) were filmed. Though it's supposed to be 90-degrees in this time-lost valley, what's on screen most of the time looks cold and wet.
Besides that great title song, a motif used as "Masten's Theme" throughout, the uneven but certainly memorable score by Maury Laws (Mad Monster Party?) and orchestrated by Kenjiro Hirose (Destroy All Planets) also greatly overuses a four-note electronic twang that sounds like a snapping wire: wawawawa!
Reservations aside, The Last Dinosaur is one of the best science fiction pictures ever to come (primarily) out of Japan - for my money it's way better than Jurassic Park. The inspired screenplay and especially Richard Boone's character and performance raise it many notches above the usual Lost World adventure. It certainly made a strong impression on me when I first saw it, and images and scenes first experienced 33 years ago have stayed with me all these years.
Video & Audio
Toho's DVD is dual-layered and Region 2 (NTSC) encoded. Though it aired on ABC in 4:3 standard size, the film was shot open-matte and released in Japan in a 1.85:1 ratio, or "VistaVision Size," as they call it. In Europe it may have been cropped a bit less, to 1.66:1, though this is unconfirmed. In any case, Toho's DVD is 16:9 enhanced widescreen with a 1.78:1 presentation ratio. Because it was always intended for theatrical release, the framing here is much superior to the full-frame version. There's slightly more information on the sides and less empty space at the top and bottom of the frame, giving the compositions more dynamism.
The disc defaults to the original mono English audio with Japanese subtitles, but the subtitles are easily turned off via the menu screens. Also included is a Japanese-dubbed track prepared for the somewhat shorter Japanese network television airing (the theatrical release was in English with Japanese subtitles).
Supplements include an audio commentary with co-director Kotani and long-retired actress Sekiya. The commentary, alas, isn't supported by English subtitles, and neither are any of the extra features.
These include a 16:9 enhanced theatrical trailer, which is long and promises a big-scale spectacular with scientifically accurate dinosaurs. It also bills Sekiya above Joan Van Ark. Kotani (who introduces himself as "Tom," rather than Tsugunobu) and Sekiya make brief "Special Comment" video introductions. Kotani's segment includes several minutes of 16mm film of the music scoring sessions with Kenjiro Hirose and Maury Laws visible.
An impressive still gallery boasts more than 1,500 images, recalling similarly exhaustive Toho Video laserdiscs of old.
The main extra, however, is a nearly 65-minute interview with special effectors director Kazuo Sagawa. Though not subtitled, he talks about his entire career, from his early days on Ultra Seven and Mighty Jack through various Tsuburaya-produced shows, and in detail about this film in particular. About 49 minutes in and running until almost the end are more 16mm behind-the-scenes home movies, including footage at Toho of the SPFX staff examining the miniature Thrust 747; footage of the suit actors testing the dinosaur costumes; building the miniature sets; and shooting the special effects set pieces. All great stuff.
The Last Dinosaur made a strong impression when I saw it on ABC back in 1977, and I'm pleased to report it holds up extremely well even today, despite all the technological advancements in terms of digital effects. Indeed, genre screenwriters today could learn a lot about story and characterization from this underrated, long-lost minor classic. Highly Recommended.
* To see Wilson in action I recommend her guest appearance in an excellent season three episode of Hawaii Five-O entitled "Trouble in Mind." She's terrific in that, and performs several songs in much the same style.
** Rankin-Bass must have liked the name Francesca, also the name of the female lead in their Mad Monster Party? (1967).
*** Company president Noboru Tsuburaya, who had a weakness for performing, appears in the film uncredited at Boone's right as he enters his Japanese headquarters.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.