As Navy Commander Alan Roberts, a geophysicist, and pilot Lieutenant Jack Carmen attend a briefing for their upcoming expedition to map the South Pole, they are distracted by the arrival of Margaret Hathaway, an attractive reporter with the oceanic press who has been commissioned to accompany them. The trio learn about an oasis of warm water that Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd discovered during his 1947 exploration of Antarctica, and are instructed to gain more information about the anomaly. Weeks later, during the long sail to the South Pole landing site, Alan woos Maggie. When they finally they reach their destination, Alan, Jack and Maggie, along with mechanic Steve Miller, board the expedition helicopter.
The fascinating trip takes a turn for the worse when their helicopter runs into blinding storm clouds and is damaged by a flying object, which, unknown to the aircraft’s occupants, is a prehistoric pterodactyl. The helicopter’s altitude dips sharply, diving to 3,000 feet below sea level, at which point Jack is forced to land. Although the aircraft has only minor damage, Steve cannot fix it without additional equipment. The group survey their environment, which appears to be tropical, and assess that even though they have enough food for six weeks, they must receive help within thirty days, after which the Navy will pull out and leave the area deserted. That night, a nervous Steve drains the radio’s battery by secretly making calls for help, but the signal cannot breach the thick cloud layer. The next morning, Jack runs the engine to revive the radio battery while Alan searches the area, deducing that the thick clouds have sealed the environment from any climactic changes and essentially halted its growth since the Mesozoic Era. Soon after, Steve spots fresh water and, nearby, two giant monitor lizards fighting over the carcass of a pterodactyl.
When a Tyrannosaurus Rex then spots the group of humans, they run to the helicopter and scare it away by running the propellers. Although they hear a Navy plane searching above the clouds, they cannot contact it, and resolve to set up camp inside the helicopter. Later, Steve brings home a tarsier primate, which Alan identifies as one of the first steps in the ladder of human evolution. When Maggie leaves to feed the monkey, she is chased by a giant lizard and runs blindly into the jungle, where a strange man grabs her. He transports her by raft to his cave, and there explains that he has been surviving alone since his plane crashed during the 1947 Byrd expedition. Half-crazed, he details how he, as “the fittest” of his small group, has thrived by destroying the eggs of the prehistoric beasts, murdering by using his wits, and scaring them off by blowing a loud, threatening horn. Just as he attacks Maggie, Alan, Jack and Steve burst into the cave and rescue her. Introducing himself as Dr. Carl Hunter, the man reveals that he has hidden equipment from his plane crash, and will trade it for Maggie, but the men refuse. As they leave, Hunter raves that they will soon by destroyed by the Arctic night, fear and loneliness.
In the morning, the T. Rex chases Alan again, but he escapes, only to see Maggie attacked by a gigantic man-eating plant. Hunter frees her and then disappears, and later she tells Alan that he must sacrifice her for the group. In response, he kisses her passionately. Weeks pass, and with only two days remaining until the Navy leaves the area, a panicked Steve wants to trade Maggie to Hunter, but Alan remains convinced that they can find the equipment. When Alan is distracted, however, Maggie sneaks off to the raft and paddles toward Hunter’s cave. An undersea monster soon attacks her, but Hunter appears and drives a spear through its mouth, then carries Maggie to his cave, with Steve in hot pursuit. After Steve attacks Hunter and demands to know where the equipment is, Alan and Jack find the cave and stop Steve from killing Hunter. Maggie tends to Hunter’s wounds, and he is so touched by her kindness that he hands over the map to the equipment, prompting Alan to note that living with beasts will turn man into beast, but living with humans will restore man’s humanity. Maggie stays with Hunter while the other men uncover his gear, and within hours, the helicopter is fixed.
The sea monster arises again, however, and charges the cave, and after Maggie faints, Hunter fights it off and places her in the raft. Meanwhile, the T. Rex assails the men in the helicopter and they are forced to take off. They spot Hunter and Maggie, and hover above the sea in order to airlift her into the craft. The monster swipes Hunter, knocking him unconscious, and Alan dives into the water to rescue him. They lift out of the clouds, where they are finally able to contact the Navy radio man, who sends carriers to rescue them. Only feet away from the Naval craft, the helicopter runs out of gas and crashes into the sea, and all four are pulled onto lifeboats. As the ship cruises back to safety, Maggie accepts Alan’s marriage proposal but declines his offer to honeymoon at the South Pole.
During the mid-1950s, Universal-International turned out a steady stream of mostly quite good science fiction films. When it announced its Lost World picture, it roared that it would be a big-budget spectacular with big names (Cary Grant and Veronica Lake were mentioned), color and CinemaScope, and would be directed by the studio’s top genre director, Jack Arnold. When all was said and done, well, it was in CinemaScope. It also retained producer William Alland, referred to in press releases as “U-I’s expert in the field of science-fiction films.” Alland produced many of the studio’s sci-fi and monster entries during the period, including It Came from Outer Space (1953), The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Tarantula (1955), and This Island Earth (1955), but his heart was not in Land Unknown. The directing job fell to former editor Virgil Vogel.
“Universal sent me to the Astoria Studios in New York,” Vogel recalled, “where I spent three or four weeks going through footage of the Byrd expedition, looking for stock footage we could use.” As the “big” production steadily shrunk, “Jack Arnold kind of lost interest in it, Vogel said. Since he had no seniority on Universal’s directorial team – his only previous experience being U-I’s The Mole People and was familiar with the project, he got the job.
Universal was blessed during this era with exceptional behind-the-scenes talent, in the exact areas most crucial to fantastic films. These artists are a major factor in the success – both at the time of release and today-of U-I’s sci-fi/horror cycle. The stylish art direction of Alexander Golitzen, the often-masterful effects photography of Clifford Stine, and the optical magic of Roswell A. Hoffman enlivened many a movie fan’s evening, Golitzen, Stine, and Hoffman reached their Zenith with The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), one of the most visually striking science fiction films ever made. Tarantula is another Stine showcase, for which he pushed the limits of the traveling matte process to achieve some of the most convincing illusions ever created with that technique.
When The Land Unknown was still planned as an epic, it was going to be shot on the Universal back lot. “They had a big place called Fall’s Lake, which was surrounded by big rock cliffs, that they were going to use,” said Vogel. But the budget withered, the plans changed, and it was moved indoors to the process stage. The cavernous stage housed a 300- by 100-foot pool which was dressed up as the prehistoric river, and great quantities of dry ice (heated by baby-bottle warmers!) filled the massive set with a thick haze. To add depth, the stage was surrounded by a painted backdrop called a cyclorama. “That’s a big piece of canvas, about 75 feet tall and about 300 feet long,” Vogel explained, which “hung all around the edge of the stage.” Helped by the talents of Golitzen, et al., the simulated landscape would prove quite adequate.
The actors finally signed for The Land Unknown were certainly not stars of the magnitude promised by the early ballyhoo, but the promotional department did their best. Jock Mahoney was trumpeted as “the first full fledged movie stunt man to become a motion picture star,” which is a reasonably defensible statement, but Shawn Smith was called an “acting discovery” despite having 25 plus films under her belt. Mahoney’s presence had one definite fringe benefit: he could and did do all of his own stunt work, including a high leap from the helicopter into the sound stage river. The athletic Mahoney even saved a life during production, swimming to and pulling out a fellow stuntman who had gotten in trouble in the water.
The film’s best quality is the dank, primordial milieu in which it unfolds. Art director Alexander Golitzen, assisted by Richard H. Riedel, transformed Universal’s largest process stage into a steamy and suffocating miniworld, perfect for incubating bizarre prehistoric creatures but causing pampered humans to weaken and lose hope, as their clothes and other man-made things disintegrate around them. The meticulously painted backdrops don’t look totally “real” but are effectively unreal, and the skillful use of light and shadow by cinematographer Ellis W. Carter demonstrates how black and white can be an asset. In one well-constructed sequence, Carter dramatically alters the illumination and the mood inside the helicopter as it descends into the lost world. Joseph Gershenson’s music, employing a simple two-note motif, adds to the atmosphere.
Virgil Vogel may seem a big step down from Jack Arnold, but his direction of The Land Unknown is solid from start to finish. He keeps things moving, holds the melodrama to a tolerable level, and even comes up with a few truly striking moments, like the creepy shot of the carnivorous plant snaking to life behind the unsuspecting Maggie. Vogel’s efforts, the game cast, and a talented behind-the-scenes ensemble work together and save The Land Unknown from being killed by its own disappointingly dreadful dinosaurs.
BEHIND THE SCENES INTERVIEWS
Director Virgil Vogel
So what happened to the “epic” The Land Unknown?
Vogel: Universal went into this planning to make it the biggest science fiction picture of its time, but then the effects department and the makeup department spent all their money. Universal spent so much on the monsters, they didn’t have any money left to make the picture! They didn’t know that they couldn’t make the biggest show of all time without spending money.
Jack Arnold found out that Universal was pulling all the money from Land Unknown — they took color away, they took the cast away — and Jack kind of lost interest in it. It was no longer going to be an epic, it was going to be a typical, cheap Universal picture. So Jack said, “I don’t wanna do it. Let Virgil do it.” I was then preparing another project which I wanted to do, a small musical, but since I was the lowest man on the 12 man directorial team at Universal at that time, they pointed a finger at me and said, “You have to do it because you’re familiar with it.” So that’s the way I was assigned to Land Unknown. They paid me a minimum salary, and they cast it with their own stock company, who were paid minimum, too.
Was your ‘‘lost world” entirely an interior set?
Vogel: All interior. Originally, when Jack Arnold was to do it, they were going to shoot it on the backlot. They had a big place called Fall’s Lake, which was surrounded by big rock cliffs, that they were going to use in the picture. But when Universal decided they were going to pull the plug on the money, it all went onto the process stage, which was the biggest stage they had.
When we were on that big stage, we had a big cyclorama all the way around. That’s a big piece of canvas, about 75 feet tall and about 300 feet long. It had the scenery painted on it, and it hung all around the edge of the stage, like a backdrop in a theater. We also had that big pool in there, much bigger than an Olympic pool. It was 300 feet long and 100 feet. wide. It’s still there at Universal. To create the fog, we had baby bottle warmers under each tree and put dry ice in them.
They spent a fortune on that elasmosaurus (the lake monster). That thing was on railroad tracks on the bottom of the pool, and it must have been 15 feet across, from wingtip to wingtip, and about 6 or 8 feet high when it rose up out of the water. Again, that was all hydraulic. The mouth and the wings and everything were worked by a man on the shore. It was a magnificent monster. The miniature helicopter was about 15 feet long, a great-looking piece of machinery. All of these things were built for the “epic” Land Unknown. The pterodactyl was one of the cheapest things we had — it was a prop on a fish pole.
What about the actual lizards seen in a few scenes?
Vogel: Those were real monitor lizards, about 8 or 9 feet long. They were handled by a guy by the name of Jimmy Dannaldson, who was probably one of the best animal trainers alive at that time. He was a friend of mine. He brought these things in and, boy, he could handle them like crazy! Those lizards are worse than alligators, but he would walk out on that miniature set and pick ’em up by the tail — these things would be snapping at him— and just throw ’em on top of each other. It scared me to watch him.
Did the requirements of Cinemascope present any problems?
Vogel: No. In fact, I was happy they gave it to me, because it added “bigness” to the picture. ! told them, “Look, you’ve taken the name cast and everything else away from me. I’ve got to have something to sell this show!”
Jock Mahoney’s ‘‘hero” comes across as a pedantic and unromantic character.
Vogel: You’ve got to remember that Jock Mahoney was probably one of the best stuntmen in Hollywood. Universal made him into a leading man. He was not a leading man, he was a stuntman. For a scene at the end of the picture where Henry Brandon is floating unconscious in the pool, they hired a stuntman to take his place, but they hired a stuntman who couldn’t swim. We also had the two monitor lizards in the pool; that was kind of dangerous, but I didn’t care because I knew a good swimmer could get away from them. Also, we had a wire mesh 18 inches under the water, to keep the lizards from coming up on shore and taking legs off the crew. Anyway, this stuntman who couldn’t swim started screaming for help and so forth, and Jock, who was standing there alongside the camera, does a fog gims running around in the background. And it was a tremendous task to get one shot— after we made a shot, we had to stop and clear all the fog out for an hour and a half, two hours, and then we’d get ready for the next shot. I’d get four shots a day!
And what was your schedule this time?
Vogel: It was a 90-day shooting schedule— 30 days first unit and 60 days second unit.
You had a number of impressive prehistoric monsters in The Land Unknown, especially the Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Vogel: That was about 12 feet high. There was a man in the suit, but all he did was make it walk. It was a heavy piece of equipment. Everything was hydraulic— the eyelids, the mouth and so on. Small rubber hoses came from the end of the tail, six or eight of ’em wrapped together, and they were hooked up to a hydraulic console where a man would sit and operate the different things.
“Working on that film was very difficult for me, because it was a very strange photographic process which I didn’t understand at the time. You couldn’t move sideways when you were doing medium and close shots says. “You had to be very static in your movements, because they had preshot all the second unit stuff with the miniatures and prehistoric animals. When I was fighting the dinosaur, I was really fighting air.” Much of the filming was done on huge sets which included an enormous tank dressed up as a prehistoric lake. A stuntman was brought in to double Brandon in the scene in which he gets knocked around by an aquatic dinosaur. Unfortunately, according to the actor, the stuntman couldn’t swim. “I was watching him thrashing around in the water one day, when I felt a body brush past me. It was Jock Mahoney, who dived in and pulled the stuntman out to save him from drowning. – Henry Brandon
Actor William Reynolds
What do you remember about venturing into The Land Unknown!
REYNOLDS: My understanding was that when they started out to make that one, it was a more ambitious project [than it ended up being]. But I don’t know when they made the decision to go with the B-team instead of big names. I’m sure it was purely an economic decision.
What difficulties do you recall with the Unknown’s, lake monster?
REYNOLDS: Well, just that I don’t think it paid off for the money that they spent on it. The lake monster was a very ambitious thing — ^it moved its flippers and did all kinds of stuff — ^but my understanding was that it cost a ton of money. That was one of the reasons why Universal made the adjustments [downgrading the movie], in order to accommodate the budget. I never got to see the T. rex in action. When we were doing scenes where we were looking at the T. rex or shooting our pistols at it, they would give us an eyeline, a mark to look and shoot at. Ours was an awfully big T. rex. In real life, the biggest ones were supposed to be 16 feet high, something like that, but the T. rex in our movie looked about 35 feet tall! I don’t think the scale was appropriate, but.. .it worked, in its time. Today, all of those things could be done so much more effectively.
How did you like working with Jock Mahoney?
REYNOLDS: “The best big stuntman” was his reputation in the business. Physically, he was somethin’ else; I mean, we would be walkin’ down the street and he would vault over a Volkswagen! And The Land Unknown took on that aspect — it became the physical things and running through the bushes and swimming in the lake and all that kind of stuff. It became more of an action film than originally intended. After a while. Jocko wasn’t coming across as the scientist that the character was supposed to be.
You forget he even is a scientist.
REYNOLDS: Yes, that wasn’t part of Jocko’s persona. He was very, very popular. In the early ’50s, he did a Western TV series. The Range Rider, which was a huge success. Most of the stuff that Jocko and I did in The Land Unknown was physical, running and swimming. At one point in the shooting, he and I ran and dove in the lake and swam across. In the movie [as edited], they just used a small cut where we’re getting out of the water, but we shot it as a long traveling shot, both of us running through the jungle and then diving into this lake and swimming. Jocko was a great athlete, and he took off with this racing dive. And I did, too. As we swam across this lake, he looked over and expected to see me in his wake, but I used to be quite a good swimmer, and I was right next to him. And so he picked up his tempo — and 1 picked up mine. We full-out swam right to the end. As we pulled ourselves up out of the water. Jocko had the first line of dialogue, and he was sitting there, and he went Reynolds tries to speak but only gulps and pants and gasps]. He couldn’t say his line. Then he looked at me and said, “You bastard!”
Can you describe the jungle set at Universal Studios
REYNOLDS: That was on [the Process Stage], Universal’s biggest sound stage, and everything was in there: They had the jungle, lake, cave exterior, end of the lake and the cave interior. Then they had all these funny looking prehistoric “plants” that, in the movie, Shawn Smith kept getting in front of — and were grabbing her! The “fog” in the jungle was produced by burning oil; it’s heavy, so it stays down close to the floor. We used “fog” like that in everything — the war pictures and all that stuff. You try not to breathe in more than you have to.
Virgil Vogel, the director, did all he could do (within the budget and schedule). I later did a bunch of F.B.I.s with him. He was a workmanlike director, had a nice sense of humor and he related well to all the actors. Good directors have a nice sensibility about them. On shows where time is of some consequence, the director’s temperament is probably the most important asset — or liability. Virgil was very affable, and he listened. If you had a question or something, he was helpful. He was a good traffic cop!
Other Universal contract players, some, Julie Adams and Lori Nelson, for instance have said they gritted their teeth when they were assigned to SF movies.
REYNOLDS: When you’re a contract player, you aren’t accountable for the material. All you’re trying to do is make the situation as real as you can, and you suspend your own sense of reality. You could drive yourself nuts with some of the illogical things that you have to do, I mean, in The Land Unknown, there’s the scientist character [Henry Brandon] who has been in that prehistoric jungle so long, he has gone a little mad and looks like a caveman, and he won’t give us a push-pull tube assembly that we need to make our helicopter work again and get out of there. How illogical is it that we never say, “Hey, Charlie, we got room in the helicopter. Give us the push-pull tube assembly and we’ll take you outta here!” I don’t recall that as being part of the dialogue! When you’re in a situation like that in a movie, you suspend reality and just attempt to make it as real as possible, make the words sound cogent and interesting, I guess. We could have done much better in that arena!
“It is a distinct tribute to the genius of movie magicians that these towering prehistoric monsters have been manufactured to move with a fantastic realism which makes them completely lifelike and believable at all times. Such was the deadly serious claim of U-I’s publicity department, boasting about the dinosaur stars of The Land Unknown. The film’s two principal dinosaurs were ambitious, complicated, and comparatively expensive. Fred Knoth, who years before had supervised the miniature work for One Million B.C., was in charge of making the dinosaurs, and the ungainly creatures eventually ate a big chunk of the budget.
Knoth oversaw the project, with the construction chores “spearheaded” by Jack Kevan (The Creature from the Black Lagoon) and Orien Ernest. Despite the dinosaurs’ unconvincing nature, the studio’s promotional people were undeterred. “The results were so remarkable that U-I has requested a patent on the fabulous monsters,” the film’s pressbook claimed, “and will not explain the method of operation other than to state that they involve a consolidation of chemistry, electronics, hydraulics, and human assistance.”
The Tyrannosaurus and Elasmosaurus were the star dinos. (The Elasmosaurus is never called such in the movie, but is identified in the preview trailer and the studio’s promotional material.) According to U-I, “it required almost three years and an estimated $60,000 worth of experimentation to produce these animals and make them operate with complete lifelike fluidity.” The unique-looking Tyrannosaurus, a man in a suit, towered a whopping 12 feet tall. The suit performer had only to walk – all of the facial articulations were hydraulically controlled. “It was a heavy piece of equipment,” Virgil Vogel explained. “Everything was hydraulic- the eyelids, the mouth and so on.” An off-camera operator could open the mouth, blink the eyes and flare the nostrils, all from a remote panel. The hydraulic tubing ran from the controls to the dino head through a hole in the end of the tail. The T. rex survives the film but must have eventually met a bad end, because its decapitated head later turned up in the TV series The Munsters as “Spot,” the pet dragon who lived under the staircase.
The water-borne Elasmosaurus, measuring a sprawling 15 feet wide, was even more complex than the T. rex. “They spent a fortune on that,” Vogel recalled; “it was a magnificent monster.” The huge creation traveled on railroad tracks mounted to the bottom of the big pool, and like the rex was hydraulically actuated. Its operator (reportedly Fred Knoth) could articulate the trunk, neck, mouth, and flippers, although the neck and flippers are the only sections that move noticeably on screen. Locomotion was provided by an off-screen crew, pulling the beast along on its underwater rails.
The third man-made creature was the pterodactyl; as Vogel put it, it was one of the cheapest things we had”. As opposed to the unsuccessful but complex elasmosaur and T. rex, the pterodactyl was merely a static model on a string, relegated to a pair of fly-bys and a shot of it lying dead on the ground. The remainder of the “dinosaurs” were portrayed by those tried and true performers, live lizards-extremely BIG live lizards in this case. “Those were real monitor lizards, about eight or nine feet long,” Vogel recalled. “They were handled by a guy by the name of Jimmy Dannaldson, who was probably one of the best animal trainers alive at that time.” Their reptilian fight scene is particularly barbaric-looking – one hopes that the apparent savagery was achieved entirely through Dannaldson’s expertise and cinematic illusion, and nothing more unpleasant.
When all was said and done, Virgil Vogel was basically satisfied with the film’s effects sequences. “I thought that The Land Unknown had lots of good special effects.”
Producer William Alland
Whenever Vogel talks about The Land Unknown, he starts by saying that Universal had big plans for it that it was going to be in color, have a big star. etc. and then the budget got slashed.
ALLAND: Well, the part about them wanting to make it a big-budget picture first that was before they decided to give it to me, I’m sure. Jim Pratt had this “brilliant” idea, he was going to make this huge picture, but by the time it went through the chain of command, somebody must have said, “Wait a minute! Just give this to Bill Alland and forget it.” That’s what I think happened.
And the whole picture which is almost all set outdoors was shot indoors.
ALLAND: All on a stage, all indoors. And, of course, the production department loved this, because they could write off a lot of overhead that way. Incidentally, one of the reasons that I was popular there is that my pictures ate up a lot of overhead, because I made so many of them.
You said before that The Land Unknown cost more than This Island Earth. How did it run up costs like that?
ALLAND: Oh. all that indoor crap with a $10,000 [miniature] helicopter and the dinosaurs and a bunch of other junk, it cost a lot of money! See, except for the special FX on This Island Earth, the rest of it was just a bare stage with some platforms, and guys with large heads. But on The Land Unknown, they had a Goddamned jungle growing in the studio! It cost much more than
This Island Earth the stuff in This Island Earth was all miniatures, done in the film department, and there was no overhead except for the technicians. The dinosaurs, all the special FX. all that that’s where all the money went on The Land Unknown. All the special FX took a lot of time and money. And, as I recall, the dinosaur effects were not very good, am I right?
Not by today’s standards, but they got rave reviews in 1957.
ALLAND: Well, for their time, I guess, they might have been pretty good. For their time. The helicopter was a big, beautiful model, about 10 feet long. In the ground shots, when the people get in and out of it. we used a real helicopter on the stage for that. The monster in the lake was also a model, with a mechanism so that the fins moved. For the scenes in which it and the boat were in the same shot, we used a split screen. I thought the stuff with the sea monster was excellent. But the Tyrannosaurus Rex was an embarrassment awful. Oh, it was bad! And The Land Unknown had a stupid story. I did what I could with it but my God! But again, I want to tell you that none of these films lost money, not even Land Unknown. Because, by the time / got through with Land Unknown, it didn’t cost that much. It cost more than This Island Earth, but even so, it made a buck. Nobody got rich off it, but it made money.
THE LAND UNKNOWN, Dell Four Color No.845
If Vogel gave you a tough time on The Mole People, how did you get stuck with him again on The Land Unknown!
ALLAND: Land Unknown could have been very expensive, and I was very well aware that with Virgil I didn’t have to worry. I knew Virgil wouldn’t spend an extra penny, that with him in the saddle, there was no way the picture would come in over budget. The one thing I worried about with Land Unknown was to make it cheap enough that it wouldn’t lose any money.
The writer was Laszlo Gorog. Do you remember him?
ALLAND: No. I don’t seem to.
He wrote Land Unknown and The Mole People.
ALLAND: Well, that explains why I don’t remember him.
Jock Mahoney was a very drab leading man in that one.
ALLAND: The only actor that was any good was the guy who had been left there in the valley 10 years before. He was an excellent actor, so we paid a little extra for him. Jock Mahoney was not very good and the girl [Shawn Smith] wasn’t much better! That was a political thing, I think she was the friend of somebody in the front office. But again, from my point-of-view, it didn’t really matter who the girl was. I was unhappy at the fact that they wouldn’t let her take any clothes off that was one of Ed Muhl’s fetishes. He could not stand bikinis or any of that stuff he was 10 years behind everybody else!
The Land Unknown Movie Poster Art – Reynold Brown
CREDITS/REFERENCES and SOURCES
The Dinosaur Filmography By Mark F. Berry