Thursday, May 18, 2006

Doug McClure Kicks Monster Ass, Saves World

Englishman Kevin Connor cut a significant swath in the mid-70's by directing a very entertaining quartet of fantasy films largely based on the works of celebrated Tarzan scribe Edgar Rice Burroughs.

These four little programmers were all period pieces set in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, and they all followed the same basic pattern. A clutch of explorers/innocent bystanders would find their exploring/innocent-bystanding rudely interrupted by a gaggle of not-so-nice parties (German u-boat crewmen, greedy Yankee sailors, etc.), and the whole mess of conflicting humanity would end up deep in the bowels of some Prehistoric Lost World. Said Lost World would usually be populated by cavemen, unkempt enslaved native peoples, and so many frickin' monsters your head'd spin, especially if you were a Raisinet-huffing kid at the Parkland Theater in the Bell-Bottom Era. Budgetary limitations kept the special effects pretty crude (the dinosaur puppets and monster suits on display were a far cry from the Ray Harryhausen fantasies that provided the series' most obvious inspiration). But the movies still packed plenty of old-school fun and thrills.

The leading man of choice for the director--the Toshiro Mifune to Kevin Connor's Akira Kurosawa, if you will--was American leading man Doug McClure, previously a star of the long-running TV western, The Virginian. Possessed with an enormous lantern jaw (he looked like some Mad magazine cartoonist's idea of a handsome leading man), great sideburns, and an appealing combination of conviction and self-deprecating humor, the actor forged a comfortable niche in the Connor fantasies.

McClure's characters were smart enough to pilot or construct newfangled contraptions like U-Boats or giant drilling machines, yet macho enough to kick the crap out of any number of bad guys, monsters, or dinosaurs by the time the end credits rolled. Ironically, McClure's legacy endures thanks largely to Matt Groenig, who paid affectionate tribute to the late actor by partially patterning The Simpsons' B-movie stud Troy McClure after him.

Of the four Kevin Connor period fantasies, three are readily available on home video in the US. The Land that Time Forgot (1975) and its 1977 sequel, The People That Time Forgot, appeared on an economical MGM/UA DVD double feature a couple of years back. And At the Earth's Core--the second Connor/McClure collaboration, 1976 vintage--likewise surfaced more recently on another MGM/UA double bill (opposite the inconsequential-but-fun Vincent Price/Roger Corman opus, War Gods of the Deep).

1978's Warlords of Atlantis, on the other hand, possesses no Edgar Rice Burroughs pedigree and has remained the most stubbornly elusive of the series (it's never even surfaced on domestic video or DVD), so Seattle's Grand Illusion Theater is doing nerds like me an invaluable service by screening Warlords on Friday and Saturday late nights (the final two screenings'll be on May 19 and 20). Last weekend I saw this rare fantasy epic for the first time since age eleven, and it inspired a marathon re-appraisal of all of the Connor/McClure collaborations.

The first third of The Land that Time Forgot plays as an extremely effective straight thriller, tautly co-written by sci-fi novelist Michael Moorcock. A German U-boat sinks a British supply ship during World War I, and a small group of the supply ship's survivors (led by McClure, natch) manage to overtake the U-Boat. Through a combination of compass-tampering and bad luck, all parties end up on an evolutionary Petri Dish of a lost island bristling with dinosaurs. In addition to a strong script, Land also sports the series' best special effects and a sterling supporting turn from the underrated John McEnery (Mercutio in Zeffarelli's classic 1968 screen adaptation of Romeo and Juliet) as the cerebral and conflicted U-boat captain.

Another fine British actor--genre stalwart Peter Cushing--enlivens At the Earth's Core, the second Burroughs adaptation from the Connor/McClure team. Cushing plays doddering scientist to McClure's rough-and-tough explorer, and both make an unlikely and engaging team. The duo pilots an 'Iron Mole' drill/tank that veers out of control, spiking through to the center of the earth into Pellucidar, another tropical lost world populated by--you guessed it--heaps of monsters and unkempt natives (the most exotic of the natives, Caroline Munro, lends exotic suport as McClure's love interest).

Core began a trend towards a lighter touch, and it's a good thing. His budget considerably leaner, Connor and his technical crew made do with some of the most laughably unconvincing creatures to hit the screen in the seventies (and with this series, that's saying a lot), but if anything, the patently silly rubber beasts that go toe-to-claw with McClure add to the fun.

The People that Time Forgot (Land's direct sequel) continues the overtly pulpy tack, with a strong-jawed major (Patrick Wayne) journeying back to the first film's Lost World to rescue McClure's Bowen Tyler character from the first film. It's basically one non-stop chase and rescue sequence, sort of a low-rent but entertaining precursor to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, only with dinosaurs. Blessedly, neither of the leading ladies--willowy Sarah Douglas (of Superman II fame) and buxom Dana Gillespie--is nearly as annoying as Kate Capshaw.

I hadn't seen Warlords of Atlantis since its original 1978 release, so I was curious as to how my baggy ol' grown-up eyes would view it. Final analysis: It's not the best of the quartet (that honor goes to the first one), but it's unequivocally the strangest, and well worth a peek.

This time, McClure builds a diving bell and he and his scientist pal Charles (Peter Gilmore) use it to explore the depths of the Bermuda Triangle. Through circumstances far too amusingly convoluted to summarize neatly here, they end up cut loose from their ship by the boat's greedy crew; then they and a portion of that greedy crew get abducted by a giant octopus and dragged down to the lost underwater continent of Atlantis.

The weirdness scale shoots through the roof once McClure and company arrive at the Lost Continent. In contrast to the usual stone-age shenanigans, Atlantis' ruling citizens hail from Mars, so they all sport shiny metallic tunics and Prince Valiant wigs except for queen Cyd Charisse (yes, THAT Cyd Charisse), who accents her spangly gam-flattering gown with clear platform pumps and what appears to be a puli on her head.

Kevin Connor's last foray into Doug McClure monster ass-kicking also works in elements of the old George Pal fantasy Atlantis The Lost Continent, a dash of Sunn Classics Pictures Bermuda Triangle conjecture, the visual sense of the Bee Gees' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band movie, some not-so-veiled homosexual overtones between McClure and Gilmore, and John Ratzenberger as one of the greedhead sailors. And if the thought of seeing Cheers' Cliff Clavin getting felt up by a giant octopus doesn't fill you with unbridled joy, you're poking around the wrong Blog, bucky.

1 comment:

Reel Fanatic said...

great stuff .. the land that time forgot is simply a classic, and anyone who disagrees can just suck my balls