The Amicus Edgar Rice Burroughs Film Trilogy
Created | Updated Dec 14, 2020
Barsoom | Pellucidar | Moon | Venus | Caspak | Historical
The Land that Time Forgot – the Film
The Amicus Edgar Rice Burroughs Film Trilogy
The Science of Pellucidar in the Novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Amicus was a British film studio that operated in the 1960s and 1970s that is frequently overlooked and ignored by film critics to this day. While their rival Hammer has gained cult and critical acclaim and is considered a British icon, Amicus is usually considered to be merely a Hammer copycat, making a series of portmanteau horror films starring established Hammer stars such as Peter Cushing.
Yet, in the late 1970s, Amicus made a child-friendly trilogy of adaptations of some of Edgar Rice Burroughs' most popular novels. Two films were based on the Caspak trilogy, The Land that Time Forgot (1975) and The People that Time Forgot (1977), and the third was an adaptation of the first Pellucidar novel, At The Earth's Core (1976). These are all fondly regarded by those who grew up with them, and all three films starred Doug McClure.
Amicus is the Latin word for friend. The studio was founded in Britain by two Americans: Max J Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky. This means that Amicus doesn't quite fit into film critics' picture of a plucky British underdog, despite the studio's very existence being owed to more pluck than is found at a harpist convention. Nerdish horror film fan Subotsky held a determined desire to be a scriptwriter, although it is perhaps fair to say that his enthusiasm was greater than his talent. Films based on his scripts tend to have little characterisation and only the barest amount of purely functional dialogue that suffices to tell the story. As Hammer were making horror films such as The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and X – The Unknown (1956), he sent them an adaptation of Frankenstein that he had written, titled Frankenstein and the Monster, only for it to be rejected. Soon afterwards Hammer released a completely different adaptation, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), to great success. Feeling snubbed, Subotsky swore to create his own studio that would beat Hammer at its own game.
Subotsky partnered with Rosenberg, a fellow New York film producer who believed that Britain's Eady Levy1 government grant ensured that cheaply-made British films could be intensely profitable. While Subotsky focused on the actual filmmaking, moving to England and getting British citizenship in 1960, Rosenberg remained in America to raise the remaining finances needed to make the films. Their first film, It's Trad, Dad! (1962) was the film debut of Richard Lester2. Their first horror film, Dr Terror's House of Horrors3 (1965), was made for under £100,000, but starred both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as Subotsky believed in paying established stars highly on a daily basis and filming as quickly as possible. Unsurprisingly, the critics of the time loathed their films4, yet they proved incredibly successful. Indeed, Tales from the Crypt was the most successful horror film in America in 1972.
Amicus was a studio founded by two Americans while many of their films were written by American writers, particularly Psycho's Robert Bloch, yet it was based at Shepperton Studios in Britain. Their films were all directed by British directors, made with British crews, predominantly starred British casts and were normally set in Britain, which meant that the British government considered them a British studio and eligible for funds from the Eady Levy. Though best known for their horror films, Amicus also made films in other genres including musicals and comedies. Their first attempts to make children's science fiction adaptations, under short-lived children's division Aaru Productions, were two films based on popular science fiction television series Doctor Who (1963-89, 1996, 2005+). These were Dr Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 AD starring Peter Cushing in the titular role. The latter was made with money raised from product placement from breakfast cereal Sugar Puffs5.
Unlike Hammer, whose horror films predominantly enjoyed a cosy, gothic setting, Amicus' films were normally set in contemporary times and were often more horrific. One notable exception was their family-friendly trilogy of adaptations of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
The Burroughs Trilogy
These films, produced by John Dark and directed by Kevin Connor, an experienced film editor, are period pieces set between the late Victorian era and the Great War. In each film a group of two or more explorers find themselves in a strange, lost world, cut off from the rest of the Earth, that is populated by beautiful women, savage sub-humans and prehistoric creatures. Part of their appeal is that the heroes feel constantly endangered and there are no bland happy endings. Dark didn't believe in watering down films for children, saying:
You see, children today find 'family entertainment' films too tame because they see... 'Kojak' on television and they also see people being shot dead on the news. So we make robust adventure stories, but we don't have blood spurting all over the place. Sure enough, we have fight scenes, baddie against goodie, but we steer clear of all that marshmallow.
Former editor-turned-director Kevin Connor had impressed Subotsky in 1974 with his directorial debut, Beyond the Grave. Subotsky offered Connor the chance to direct The Land that Time Forgot, with a screenplay co-written by Michael Moorcock. Connor later said: 'I sort of fell into the Edgar Rice Burroughs world'.
Amicus bought the rights to The Land that Time Forgot after the success of Hammer's One Million Years BC (1966)6, but it took time to bring the film to screen. The first obstacle was raising the necessary finance to make the film as they realised that they needed a much bigger budget than they had been used to, and persuaded film company American International Pictures (AIP) to become co-producers. This gave them a budget of $250,000, which, though small by Hollywood standards, was among the largest budgets Amicus had enjoyed to date. Another investor was Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc, who retained right of approval of the screenplay. They rejected the first script written for the film, believed to have been written by Subotsky, and asked that Michael Moorcock write the screenplay instead. Moorcock had begun his literary career as editor of Tarzan Adventures magazine when still 17, and in the 1960s gained a reputation for being in the forefront of the New Wave of science fiction. Moorcock co-wrote a new screenplay with Jim Cawthorn. This script was given ERB Inc's approval.
When the production had an approved script, Head of AIP, Samuel Z Arkoff, insisted on choosing the film's star, even though Stuart Whitman had already been cast. This meant that $20,000 of the budget was given away immediately to compensate Whitman for the loss of the role. Arkoff chose Doug McClure, a man well-known for having played the popular character of Trampas in television western The Virginian (1962-71). Since then his career had struggled, as had his personal life. Going through a tricky divorce, McClure felt the time was right to get away from the United States, heading first to Britain and then to the land that time forgot.
The Land that Time Forgot (1975)
In June 1916 a German submarine, the U-33, sinks an unarmed transatlantic liner in the foggy North Atlantic. Survivors include passengers Bowen Tyler, an American, and Lisa Clayton, a British biologist, as well as some of the ship's crew. When the submarine surfaces nearby they capture it. The Germans recapture the sub and with Lisa's help the British re-recapture it, but by this time the submarine is low on supplies and it is discovered that German lieutenant Dietz had deliberately taken it off course.
Lost at sea in the middle of nowhere, all hope seems lost until they discover the mysterious island of Caprona, an island in the Antarctic Ocean surrounded by an impenetrable cliff. The Germans and Allies agree to work together and the U-33 enters the island by navigating an underground river. The island is full of dinosaurs, but what other secrets does the island contain? Why is it a rule among the locals that you can never go south, only north? Can everyone co-operate to find a way to escape the Land that Time Forgot?
|Setting||A U-Boat in the Atlantic and mysterious island of Caprona, 1916|
The Land that Time Forgot was based on Burroughs' 1918 novel of the same name, though with numerous changes to streamline, simplify and make Burroughs' tale more suitable for the 1970s. Set during the Great War, in the novel the Germans are all-out villains while in the film they have different characters, with an educated and sympathetic Captain von Schoenvorts. He, like Lisa Clayton7 is an amateur scientist, ensuring that Lisa has a larger role and that everyone works much closer together. It also incorporated some elements from Burroughs' sequel novels, to ensure that the island's mystery is revealed during the film.
The villainous Dietz was played by Anthony Ainley, who had starred in Spyder's Web (1972), and is best known for playing The Master in Doctor Who. Filming took place over 16 weeks at Shepperton Studios and was primarily studio-bound, which worked surprisingly well for this film. The first third of the film was set predominantly on the U-boat, with the claustrophobic, enclosed atmosphere well-suited to studio filming. When the submarine arrived on Caprona scenes involved a lot of back-projection; the dinosaur models used were small rod puppets but the actors could see and react to full-size dinosaurs shown on a screen behind them.
The Land that Time Forgot opened over the Easter Holidays on 20 March, 1975. 60% of the tickets sold were half-price tickets for children yet it quickly became Amicus' most successful film made to date. It made $2.5 million in the US, over twice as much as Amicus' previous most-successful film.
At the Earth's Core (1976)
David, we are not on Earth... from my observations, dear friend, I can positively state that we are under it – At the Earth's Core!
Investor David Innes and his friend Abner Perry invent an 'iron mole' mining machine. Planning to drill from one Welsh valley to another on the other side of the mountains, it malfunctions and they find themselves drilling down to the centre of the Earth. They emerge in a strange land ruled by Mahars, six foot tall telepathic pterodactyls who enslave humans and feast on their flesh.
Captured by the Sagoths, the Mahars' servants, Perry and Innes befriend fellow captives Ghak and Dia the Beautiful One. Dia had fled her home as she was being forced to marry Jubal the Ugly One against her wishes. They also encounter Hooja the Sly One who desires Dia for himself and escapes with her. Innes manages to escape and saves the life of Ra, a local tribesman.
Dare David return to rescue Ghak and Perry? Will he discover what happened to Dia and defeat Jubal the Ugly One? Will they be able to defeat the Mahars?
|Setting||Edwardian Wales and Pellucidar, an underground world at the Earth's Core|
Following the unprecedented success of The Land that Time Forgot it was inevitable that Amicus would want a sequel quickly. Purchasing the rights to Burroughs' 1914 first novel in the Pellucidar series, this time they had twice the budget at $500,000 and had greater freedom from ERB Inc.
The extra budget allowed the team to try to correct one of Land's weaknesses - the dinosaurs. Although the rod puppets had realistic movements for the time, they were limited in being unable to interact with the main cast directly, except as back-projections shown on a screen behind the actors. A way was needed for the actors to seem directly threatened by the monsters, as director Connor explained:
We tried to get the beasts bigger so as to interact better with the actors. The beasts were specially designed so that small stunt guys could work inside the suits in a crouched position and on all fours. We were experimenting and trying something different.
We had the most calamities – fun ones – on 'At The Earth's Core' with the flying creatures and small stunt guys in the animal contraptions. The flying Mahars would crash into the plaster walls of the set, spin and tumble down, wings flapping in a very ungainly way. The poor stunt guys on all fours in the cramped positions of the nasty monsters could only be in them for a few minutes at a time – then they would roll over, hairy legs in the air, gasping for air and water. But they persevered and did a great job under difficult conditions.
For all the noble intentions, the monsters look rather like men in rubber suits, but once again the use of rear-projection is cleverly done. The model for the Iron Mole that transports David and Perry to Pellucidar is particularly impressive. This model was 17 feet long and two feet wide and, after lying abandoned at Pinewood Studios until 1988, spent several years on display at Fort Luton's Model and Craft Museum until Fort Luton changed hands in 2011. In 2014 the model was put up for auction.
There were also several changes to Burroughs' original story. Noticeably the scale of the underground world is considerably smaller than the vast surface of the inner Earth that Burroughs' described; there simply was no way to match Burroughs' imagination on the available budget. Instead of being a world the same size as the outer Earth, this Pellucidar consists mainly of tunnels and caves. Other changes include the Sagoths, who are more pig-like in the film than gorilla-like as in the novel. Instead of Perry and David being taught the local language over a period of weeks, everyone in Pellucidar speaks English. Dian is renamed Dia, Ja is renamed Ra and the ending too is much more comical in the film, rather than the uncertain cliff-hanger of the novel.
Peter Cushing as Dr Abner Perry essentially plays the same character of the loveably eccentric Edwardian doctor of science he had performed in his earlier Doctor Who adaptations. This time the 'script' was by Subotsky himself, which meant there was very little actually written. Caroline Munro's role as Dia was limited to wearing a rather revealing costume. Cushing later revealed he had to make up many of his own lines to fill in the large blanks in the script. Here are some of Cushing's lines, said in the quintessentially Victorian way that only he could get away with in a post-imperial era:
- When underground in a tunnel: I'd better take my brolly, the weather is so changeable.
- As the subhuman Sagoth's capture them: They're so excitable – like all foreigners.
- When hypnotised by a telepathic pterodactyl: You cannot mesmerise me – I'm British!
Released at the start of the school summer holidays in 1976, At The Earth's Core was even more successful than The Land that Time Forgot. This was despite having been given an A certificate rather than U in the UK8, although whether this was due to violence or Caroline Munro's costume that left little to the imagination is unclear. All three films were PG in America.
Peter Cushing filmed At the Earth's Core between January and March 1976, in April he filmed the pilot episode of The New Avengers (1976-77), and in May did a week's filming for Star Wars, the film that made this sort of low-budget adventure film obsolete.
Behind the scenes things were not well. Subotsky and Rosenberg were increasingly at odds, particularly over Rosenberg's not necessarily ethical business practices when it came to the financial side. Lawyers were called to dissolve the partnership; however, they found this difficult when the partnership had been founded purely on a handshake with no written agreements whatsoever. Despite the film company dissipating around him, Subotsky began producing a third Burroughs adaptation. At first he hoped to create something set on Mars that featured Burroughs' character John Carter, but was unable to afford to buy the rights. Instead he turned to the second book in the Caprona/Caspak trilogy that Time Forgot.
The People that Time Forgot (1977)
In 1919 US Major Ben McBride leads an expedition to Caprona to rescue Tyler from the Land that Time Forgot, his message in a bottle having been received. HMS Polar Queen arrives at the boundary of Caprona and McBride's rescue party disembarks, knowing the ship will have to leave in three weeks or risk being crushed by the Antarctic ice. Accompanying him is photographer Lady Charlotte, whose father's newspaper is funding the expedition, palaeontologist Professor Norfolk and McBride's army buddy and mechanic Hogan. They fly over the surrounding cliffs in an amphibious flying boat, which is attacked and damaged by a pterodactyl. While Hogan remains to repair the aeroplane, McBride and the others explore on foot.
They soon encounter Ajor, a Galu who had befriended Tyler. Yet the Galu tribe had been all-but wiped out by the Nargas, a more-advanced pig-like warrior race who live in the Mountain of Skulls next to a volcano that they worship. Tyler too has been caught by the Nargas, which is incredibly painful. Can McBride rescue Tyler from the Nargas? Will the volcano explode during the film's finale? Who will escape the land and people that Time Forgot?
|Setting||1919 Caprona aka Caspak|
Other than the title, Ajor the name of the female cavegirl, and the fact that one of Tyler's friends arrived to rescue him by an aeroplane transported on a ship, the film has almost nothing in common with the novel of the same name. This time written by author Patrick Tilley, it perhaps owes more to the third book in the trilogy, Out of Time's Abyss, which involves a race of non-humans. However, the evolution themes established in the first film have all been forgotten.
Doug McClure is, disappointingly, barely in this and, even worse, none of the other characters from The Land that Time Forgot, particularly Lisa Clayton, appear. There are also far fewer dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures than in the first film. While The Land that Time Forgot featured allosaurus, brontosaurus, cavemen, ceratosaurus, diplodocus, plesiosaurs, pterodactyls, stegosaurus, styracosaurus, triceratops and tyrannosaurus rex, The People that Time Forgot featured merely cavemen, ceratosaurus, pterodactyls, scutosaurus and stegosaurus.
Filming took place at Pinewood Studios and there was extensive location filming in the Canary Islands. Charly spends much of the film wearing a white top and a Princess Leia hairstyle that looks straight out of Star Wars, another film featuring David Prowse as a baddie. Sarah Douglas would next appear in the first two Superman films as Ursa9. Singer Dana Gillespie had starred in Hammer's The Lost Continent (1958).
As Amicus collapsed during production, the film was released as an American International Pictures film produced by Max Rosenburg, rather than an Amicus Productions film distributed by American International Pictures.
Legacy: Arabian Atlantis Adventure
After Amicus' collapse Connor, McClure and Dark made a similar film for EMI Films in the same style, Warlords of Atlantis (1978), based on an original screenplay by Brian Hayles. This struggled to compete against Revenge of the Pink Panther, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Grease. Kevin Connor also directed a fantasy film, Arabian Adventure, starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, the same year.
AIP was bought by Orion Pictures in 1982 and the rights are now held by MGM, while StudioCanal own the rights to Amicus' films. This is why trilogy boxsets of Doug McClure adventure films contain The Land That Time Forgot, At The Earth's Core and also EMI's Warlords of Atlantis rather than The People that Time Forgot.
Curiously enough, despite the low budgets and little characterisation, critics didn't hate the films. Though some thought they were unsuitable for the youngest audiences, many felt they were old-fashioned Boys' Own-esque adventure tales effectively made. This was the vibe that director Connor intended, saying:
Basically my movies for Amicus were 'Saturday morning' movies... they had no pretensions and I always liked to think that the audiences enjoyed watching them as much as I enjoyed making them. At the premiere in London for 'The Land that Time Forgot' we had invited kids only much to the chagrin of the critics – but the reception was fantastic – took me back to my mornings at the Ritz Cinema in Potters Bar. Just like when I was a kid, booing the baddie, cheering the heroes, groaning at the love scenes! There was no CGI and the trickery was very basic, and that's what it was, pure adventure stuff.
In many ways the trilogy is the final flowering of such old-fashioned, naïve scientific romance adventure films of explorers finding new lands populated by weird and wonderful creatures. This film genre, inspired by HG Wells and Jules Verne, started in the cinema with Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902), and continued with The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933). It survived the transition to colour, enjoying success with The First Men in the Moon (1964) and Ray Harryhausen's The Valley of Gwangi before the coming of Star Wars and popularity of science fiction made scientific romance seem old-fashioned, the product of a long time ago and a galaxy far, far away.