When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth
Warner Archive Collection
1970 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 100 96 min. / Street Date February 28, 2017 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Victoria Vetri, Robin Hawdon, Patrick Allen, Drewe Henley, Sean Caffrey, Magda Konopka, Imogen Hassall, Patrick Holt, Jan Rossini, Carol Hawkins, Maria O’Brien.
Cinematography: Dick Bush
Film Editor: Peter Curran
Visual Effects: Jim Danforth
Original Music: Mario Nascimbene, Philip Martell
Written by: Val Guest, J.G. Ballard
Produced by: Aida Young
Directed by Val Guest
When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth didn’t get much attention when released here early in March of 1971. Only film fanatics obsessed with special effects had much to say about it. Cinefantastique magazine showed a still photo or two of dinosaurs on the rampage, and told us that stop-motion effects notable Jim Danforth, who we knew from mentions in Famous Monsters, was attached. We also learned that an animator named David Allen had worked on one sequence. The seventies’ cult of young men seeking to follow in the footsteps of Ray Harryhausen was already building. Looking at a poster for what was obviously a follow-up to 1967’s One Million Years, B.C., we thought, ‘If this one just has a real story, everything will be great.’ The story came from noted science fiction writer J.G. Ballard, and the final script from Val Guest, the director and sometimes writer of several British Sci-fi classics, including The Quatermass Xperiment, Quatermass 2 and The Day the Earth Caught Fire, so hopes were high.
When Dinosaurs doesn’t have much of a story to tell. Way, way back in that undefined time when primitive man coexisted with dinosaurs, two tribes live in relative harmony on a rocky seacoast. In an attempt to calm disturbing things happening in the sky — namely, the creation of the moon — the fearful, superstitious leader Kingsor (Patrick Allen) has begun to sacrifice gorgeous blonde cavewomen to the Sun God. The amorphous bright cloud in outer space is affecting the weather and tides, and during one disturbance, the trembling sacrifice-ee Sanna (Victoria Vetri of Rosemary’s Baby) sees her chance to escape. Taking refuge with a separate beach tribe, Sanna makes an impression on the handsome Tara (Robin Hawdon). When Kingsor arrives to recapture Sanna, Tara deserts his mate Ayak (Imogen Hassal) to stay with his new sweetheart. They endure the expected threatening encounters with prehistoric flora and fauna. Tara is at one point carried off by a Rhamphoryncus. While on her own, Sanna is ‘adopted’ by an enormous mother dinosaur, which confuses the blonde cave girl with one of her own offspring.
What we get in When Dinosaurs a rambling tale just as unsatisfying as was Hammer’s previous caveman saga — not much is resolved when the proceedings come to an end, in a battle interrupted by a natural event, in this case a giant tidal wave created by the formation of the new moon. But there is plenty on screen to command our attention, starting with some spectacular special effects. Jim Danforth’s visual magic had earned praise in The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, and Hammer put him in charge of the whole show. We were dazzled by Danforth’s refinements to the basic Harryhausen stop-motion system that animated models against rear-projected backgrounds. Danforth stages more of his animation setups in depth, minimizing the ‘tabletop’ look where all action is flat stage left and stage right. Some scenes set at sunset or illuminated by firelight are given impressive, dramatic lighting. Although it made the animation process far more difficult, he moves the camera more during his animation scenes, generating shots that mimic live-action pans and dolly trucks. In the scene with the pterodactyl he blurs the wings for individual frames, eliminating the wing-flap strobe effect.
The dinosaurs themselves are truly beautiful. An Elasmosaurus- like sea reptile staked out before a large bonfire is black and shiny wet. A Chasmosaurus (identified as a Triceratops in the film’s subtitles) charges the cavemen that poke their noses into its cave. When the sea retreats in anticipation of the tide-generated tsunami, a number of giant crabs attack the beach camp. Seen almost in silhouette, skittering about as the camera pans to catch up, they’re very effective.
Danforth’s most celebrated sequence is when a giant dinosaur mistakes Victoria Vetri’s Sanna for its own baby. The towering mother nudges a slain deer at Sanna, still standing in the empty eggshell where she slept. Sanna plays with a rather cute-looking baby dinosaur for a few shots. She is later observed leading the mother dinosaur down a desert slope, like Sokurah with his dragon in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
The good news is that all of these ambitious effects scenes are sensational. Danforth extends the range and realism of what could be achieved, with a stylishness of his own. His accomplished matte paintings feature strongly in many scenes. Like Ray Harryhausen, Danforth did most or all of the technical work himself. His personal touch shows in the painterly compositions and the subtle motions of his animated subjects. At the time, my opinion was that Danforth had approached the standard of perfection set by his mentor. For 1971, his shots looked photo-real.
The animation effects in When Dinosaurs are of a high quality, but their time on screen is brief. The brightest development is the ‘relationship’ formed between Sanna and the mother dinosaur. Both the giant mamma and her other baby offspring exit the film without making a final, memorable dramatic statement. As astounding as are the effects scenes, they still feel stranded in a non-story about cavemen chasing each other around various photogenic locations. Harryhausen’s movies weren’t perfect, but most had a strong narrative and engaging characters. I’ve watched the effects scenes in When Dinosaurs innumerable times, but have only made myself sit through the whole movie twice.
Were dinosaur sequences dropped or shortened? We’re told that Danforth was at times working under considerable pressure. Continuity may have been affected here or there, but the only really incompetent moment is provided by the editor, who repeats the same shot of Sanna and the mother dino a full four times in the same sequence. Elsewhere, a couple of scenes use live-action lizard stock footage from 20th Fox’s 1960 The Lost World. I wonder what Jim Danforth thought of that — in my experience, any mention of that picture around the fans of Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen was taken as heresy. The late Bill Warren maintained that stop-motion fans resented lizard-for-dinosaur substitutions in everything but Journey to the Center of the Earth.
By 1970 Hammer films was well into its campaign to invigorate their box office appeal by adding sexier scenes to their movies. The movies weren’t more sophisticated or adult, but simply salted nude scenes into films like their The Vampire Lovers. Most of this juicy stuff was cut out for the U.S. export versions, even when the movies were rated ‘R.’ Back in One Million Years B.C., Raquel Welch’s skimpy fur bikinis had received more attention than did the dinosaurs, and cost a lot less, too. So When Dinosaurs made its cavewomen suitable for the pages of Playboy by giving the main actresses tiny rags that barely cover the lower half of their breasts. Despite the primitive conditions, the glamour treatment is at the level of a glossy magazine photo shoot. These cave girls live fully exposed to the elements yet have perfect wrinkle-free faces and hair so beautifully coiffed that a Clairol ad would be put to shame.
With one glance at those costumes, any man proud of his Y chromosome will be waiting to see what happens when the actress start running around. There’s more torso-tossing action in When Dinosaurs than on the runway of a strip club; it’s a regular sex education. When Sanna runs, everything she has goes every which way but loose. I first saw the movie at a military theater, with delighted airmen that either sat in pleased silence or laughed out loud at the absurdity of it all — what was keeping those costumes on, glue? What the audience was not doing was getting involved in the movie itself.
And that was the censored ‘G’-rated American release! Either the Warner 7-Arts rep brought booze to the ratings board screening, or the rule-oriented censors decreed that a bouncing breast isn’t provocative unless a nipple is visible. Unbeknownst to us, the unrated original cut goes much farther, to include several scenes of full-topless nudity. True enough, the shots are all handsomely filmed and fairly tasteful. We all know about sexier ‘continental’ scenes for use in the French and German markets, but it is likely that UK cinemas showed the same modest version we saw.
This odd mix of juvenile and adult content raises curiosity about Hammer’s commercial strategy. Even in the more restrained cut, the fixation on near-nudity makes the film a dicey proposition for kiddy matinees. Yet dinosaur movies are traditionally marketed to children. We are compelled to conclude that the Hammer brass were a bunch of playboys that put having access to so many gloriously attractive actresses far ahead of serious thought on how to improve their pictures.
Of course, a movie combining naked babes with naked dinosaurs would today be a commercial natural. But it would be a direct-to-cable cheapie, use dreadful clay-mation dinosaurs and be called Dinosaur Island (1994).
As were many talented Brit directors left high and dry by the vanishing Brit film industry, the great Val Guest may have taken the job of When Dinosaurs to pay the bills. He also might have been interested in the challenge of telling a story with minimal dialogue, introducing a new language that the viewer would figure out as they go along. This show’s dialect shares a few words from the previous Raquel Welch movie (“Akita!”) and makes up perhaps a dozen more simple commands useful in the daily life of your average cave dweller: go, gone, dead, dinosaur, bad. Unfortunately, audiences still take it as a joke on the monosyllabic gibberish dialogue of old Tarzan movies. The phenomenon of the movie caveman fantasy is based on cartoons, not science. Rather than encouraging us to play ‘learn a new language,’ the cavemen in this Minsky’s Burlesque cave saga seem more stupid than ever.
This thought is a distant sidebar, but most older movies about our ancestors usually give a false impression about their relative intelligence. Educated people in Pharaoh’s time lacked knowledge and accumulated insight, but they were just as intelligent, creative and ‘human’ as are we. And primitive men that had brains just like ours, inherited the structure of basic spoken language when they were born. Their languages would have been as complex and expressive as those of primitive cultures still around today. The more When Dinosaurs tries to be about anything serious, the more absurd it becomes. “Sanna Neecro!”
The film’s dialogue is vaguely interesting, but its theme of primitive superstition goes nowhere. We really get the idea that the show has run out of ideas when Kingsor tries two times in a row to kill Tara by burning him on a bonfire. The tidal wave finale is an active but confused montage that alternates new shots in a studio water tank and a great deal of stock footage. We see some views of a coastal area being inundated, which were also used way back in When Worlds Collide. Impressive shots of huge breaker waves leave us expecting the soundtrack to segue to ‘Ride the Wild Surf.’ The idea of the ocean draining in advance of the wave is not strongly communicated… the appropriate spectacular footage just isn’t there.
Victoria Vetri and Robin Hawdon make an attractive couple and come across well considering what they’re working with. Sanna’s happy moments playing with her ‘pet’ dinosaurs are a delightful highlight. Tara’s original girlfriend Ayak (Imogen Hassall) is initially sympathetic, until jealousy encourages her to want the blonde witch killed too. The other ‘looker’ cave girl is Magda Konopka, whose claim to fame was as the sexy title character in the weak Italian thriller Satanik, a Diabolik rip-off.
I later read that the location shoot for When Dinosaurs was apparently the biggest party Hammer ever threw. Hammer historians wrote it up as if it were a legendary nonstop orgy. I hope there’s at least some truth to that, as it would be nice to know that such things could actually happen.
In a way it’s sad to see Val Guest working so hard to make this losing proposition of a movie. Phil Hardy Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Film ignores most caveman movies but includes When Dinosaurs, presumably because of the involvement of Sci-fi writer J.G. Ballard. The Hardy entry says that Ballard’s treatment featured exciting ideas, that screenwriter Val Guest reportedly discarded. I’m not familiar with the details.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth is an impressive transfer of the uncut and uncensored international version, that includes several scenes with nudity later trimmed for the original ‘G’ Rated U.S. release. The use of prime transfer elements results in a really stunning image, showing off the strange beauty of the Canary Island locations, and also giving us a top quality presentation of Jim Danforth’s visual effects.
This would be a prime curiosity title for a making-of featurette, but the only extra is an original trailer. I’m sure that there’s an older issue of Richard Klemensen’s magazine Little Shoppe of Horrors that covers the entire legendary production. Archive Editions is publishing a series of Jim Danforth- authored career DVD-R books. Volume One is described as ending with a detailed account of his ‘challenging assignment as designer, director, and animator’ of the visual effects for When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good mostly for lovers of dinosaurs and bikini flesh
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 1, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson