Friday, June 26, 2020

King Dinosaur

Bert I. Gordon

Dr. Ralph Martin (William Bryant), Dr. Patricia Bennett (Wanda Curtis), Dr. Richard Gordon (Douglas Henderson), and Nora Pierce (Patti Gallagher) are four space travelers chosen to explore the newly discovered planet, Nova. Soon after landing, they find abundant (and familiar) wildlife and a strange dark island in the distance. 

There’s a weird sub-sub-genre of 1950s SF films, almost all identical in structure. Start with a team of explorers, often a mix of men and women to generate a romance subplot. Make sure the team is made up of various stereotypes and inevitably led by some square-jawed white guy. After copious amounts of stock footage, these adventurers take a rocket to a far off planet, wander around in improbable spacesuits, deal with some more stock footage and return to Earth (often minus a few crew members). Among this particular brand of films are such entries as Missile to the Moon (1958), Angry Red Planet (1959), Fire Maidens from Outer Space (1956), Journey to the Seventh Planet (1962), Rocketship X-M (1950), and probably the worst of them, King Dinosaur.

As terrible as King Dinosaur is, I have to admire the ambition in creating a film with nothing but four actors, some stock footage, a kinkajou, and a Jerusalem cricket. This is the first film of Bert I. Gordon who would later go on to direct the much better Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and Earth vs. The Spider (1958). There is no real plot to speak of, it’s just four people wandering around some trees, sort of interacting with footage from One Million B.C. (1940). The mysterious planet Nova seems to contain the same animals as Earth, but this is met with only mild curiosity from our heroes. They seem much more interested in taking naps.

If there is one element that almost works, it is the mysterious island in the distance. There is something foreboding about it and the mention that it looks much different than the surrounding land heightens this idea that there is something wrong about. The notion that something really alien lurks in this relatively familiar environment has the potential to fire the imagination. It is extra crushing when this mysterious island only offers the same alligator vs. iguana fight, we’ve seen in several other films. Here we get the height of comedy as King Dinosaur tries to convince us that an iguana is a Tyrannosaurus Rex. This is the 1950s so of course, the only solution to finding an island full of dinosaurs on an alien planet is exploding an atomic bomb while escaping. This leads to perhaps the only thoughtful moment in the whole affair where Dr. Martin wistfully says that they’ve brought civilization to the planet. 

King Dinosaur was shot in seven days with borrowed equipment and deferred payments for the cast and it shows. Its paper-thin plot, beyond cheap special effects, and general shoddiness are impossible to hide, yet there is something oddly compelling about its final sequence. Bert I. Gordon’s start isn’t a strong one but proved he has nowhere to go but up from here.

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