Friday, February 17, 2017

The Films of 1960: Dinosaurus!


True confessions: I loved, loved, loved, loved this movie.

When I was six years old.

Each time Jack H. Harris's Dinosaurus! aired on the local TV station in 1975 or 1976 (I can't remember whether it was WPIX or WWOR...), I was there.

I was there with my plastic dinosaur toys clutched in my hands and my Aurora dinosaur model kits (built by my Dad) in tow. You couldn't drag me away from the TV. 

Seriously.


I was deep in my extended dinosaur appreciation phase when this movie was making the TV rerun rounds, and Dinosaurus! -- in case the title didn't give it away -- is a film all about a Tyrannosaurus Rex and Brontosaur. These giant lizards wake up on an isolated island in the tropics in 1960 and promptly wreak havoc until a visceral man vs. nature coup de grace with a bulldozer

Next to King Kong, Godzilla, The Last Dinosaur, or The Land That Time Forgot, this was as good as it got for kids in the seventies pre-Star Wars.

Today, the film simply doesn’t have much appeal. Time has passed it by, which, ironically, is the movie's theme.


Dinosaurus! (don't forget the exclamation point, please...) concerns an American construction company working on the Virgin Islands to build a new harbor for the locals. The "locals," by the way, consist of Irish drunks, a Cuban villain called Hacker, and his French-sounding henchman, not to mention assorted Latinos and black extras. Oh, and lest I forget, there's also a mental midget named "Dumpy," who -- for some reason  never explained -- is allowed to handle heavy machinery (not to mention Molotov Cocktails).

One day, a lovely and plucky gal named Betty (Kristina Hanson) happens into the harbor in a motorboat while hunky construction team leader Bart Thompson (Ward Ramsey) is detonating explosives nearby. An explosion knocks Betty's picnic lunch into the water, and she dives in after it.

Unfortunately, she finds not lunch, but a giant hibernating Tyrannosaur. It appears to be dead -- or mostly dead, anyway -- but is "perfectly preserved." The explanation given is that there's a cold subterranean channel down there, just off the beach.

In the tropics?

The construction workers then drag the dinosaur out of the sea, up to the beach alongside a companion: a perfectly preserved brontosaur.

"One look at them and you'll never forget them!" declares one character in description of the dinosaurs. He's right, of course. Because when lightning strikes the slumbering dinosaurs (as well, apparently, as a slumbering cave man...), the behemoths come to life and begin walking the island in full view. 

And once you've seen them...I promise, you won't forget them, either. The special effects were created by Wah Chung and Gene Warren (who later collaborated on Land of the Lost), two greats of the film industry, actually. They do great work on a budget, and for the time. And yet, to go back to the kind of comment I made this week about Ray Harryhausen’s Valley of the Gwangi, the effects don't really hold up very well today, even though I appreciate the 1960s era artistry.

Soon, the unfrozen cave man, played by Gregg Martell, is exploring the island. Right off the bat, he finds a hatchet and ends up smashing the only working radio in a thousand miles. He also confronts a 20th century woman in rollers and facial lotion...and runs screaming away like a little girl.  This is the film’s idea of comic relief.  Today, it plays as very juvenile.

While the Neanderthal goes in search of his two unfrozen buddies, the islanders -- led by Bart and Betty -- team up and decide to make a last stand at the local ruins. They dig a moat around an ancient fortress and wait for the tyrannosaur to show up. Meanwhile, local politician and villain, Hacker thinks he could get rich off the Neanderthal...

So, we have a comment here about avarice and greed in a capitalist system.  Or that may be giving Dinosaurus! too much credit.

Before Dinosaurus! has ended, there's a noble self-sacrifice on the part of the cave man, the brontosaur fails to elude fate, and ends up dying in quick sand, and Bart goes mano-e-mano with the T-Rex from the seat of a bull-dozer.

He doesn't exactly say "Get away from her, you bitch," but Bart utilizes the mechanical device to duel the dinosaur to a standstill, clubbing the beastie off a high mountainside with the scoop bucket. Young Julio, who had befriended the Neanderthal, is sad, but Bart explains to him how confusing it can be to wake-up with a million-year hangover.

Imagine you woke up one day in the twenty-first century, Bart offers, by way of explanation, to Julio.

Or, if you are me -- seeing this movie for the first time in forty something years -- imagine you were a kid and loved this movie and then woke up one day in the twenty-first century to realize how ridiculous and silly the whole thing is.

Because that's what happened with Dinosaurus! I told one of my friends I was going to watch the movie and how much it had meant to me as a child, and he said something along the lines of "why are you going to do that? Why do you want to ruin good memories?"

Unlike, say King Kong (1933) or Godzilla: King of Monsters (1956) - Dinosaurus! doesn't really hold up to adult scrutiny. It's a perfectly adequate time-waster and B movie, but I can't make any arguments for the artistic merit of the film, and boy does that bum me out. I wish I could write a review about how the movie goes beyond its 1960s context to speak to us, here, directly in the twenty-first century.

I will always feel fondly about Dinosaurus! because it was a movie I loved and needed at age six.  I also understand, as an adult, that nostalgia and quality are two different characteristics.  I have long felt nostalgia about Dinosaurus! but that doesn’t mean it is a quality film worth revisiting today.

Still, as the movie started to play on this viewing, I felt a funny pang. 

I wished I had my old plastic dinosaurs and model kits in hand for the experience.

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