Upon its release in 1925, The Lost World was one of the most epic fantasy films ever to be seen. Directed by Harry O. Hoyt, but perhaps more memorably adapted from a novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the film tells a wild story of English explorers in over their heads, deep in the jungles of South America. They encounter various dinosaurs which they have to document and steer clear of—an unlikely story that inspired a number of other movies throughout cinematic history, such as Jurassic Park (1993). The name that is possibly more significant than Director Hoyt, or writer Doyle is animator William O’Brien who pioneered the stop-motion technique, bringing the dinosaurs to life.
This tale of colonialism and scientific exploration has a legacy that is just as notable for how it was handled by production companies, as much as the story told in the picture. Flicker Alley and Lobster Films presents what is possibly the definitive edition of the film, which was cut up, mutilated and put back together a number of times over the past 90 years. The liner notes by Serge Bromberg which accompany the new blu ray release of The Lost World tell the harrowing story of film studio shenanigans and meticulous restoration. William O’Brien also worked on the animation in King Kong (1933), the first feature sound film to use such techniques. In order to make such a spectacle that much more exclusive, the film studio ordered for all copies of The Lost World to be taken out of circulation and destroyed. In retrospect such a practice appears barbaric and asinine, a motion that forever doomed the earlier film’s legacy—until now.
Since the King Kong incident, The Lost World circulated around with massive cuts leaving it from 60 to 90 minutes in length, truncated and shortened to make it incoherent and nothing more than a stop-motion spectacle that didn’t make much sense. Using eleven different source materials, Lobster Films culled from 16 and 35mm editions of the film found in archives from Los Angeles to The Czech Republic in order to restore The Lost World to its original running time of 100 minutes.
The new edition is quite beautiful to behold, using various color tints for different situations—yellow for interiors, blue for night scenes, green for the oppressive jungle, and even pink for cave interiors. The specifics of the plot involve an ornery scientific explorer named Professor Challenger (Wallace Beery)—based on Arthur Conan Doyle himself—spearheading a mission into the jungle in order to re-confirm his findings that prehistoric creatures do, in fact exist in present times. A young journalist by the name of Ed Malone (Lloyd Hughes) joins the party primarily to impress his jaded girlfriend who won’t marry him because he never does anything exciting, like trying to find dinosaurs in the jungle. Soon enough the party of explorers, which also includes a doe-eyed young maiden (Bessie Love), a stuffy English game hunter (Lewis Stone), an absent-minded entomologist (Arthur Hoyt), a dude in blackface (Jules Cowles), and a monkey named Jocko, come upon a fantastic plateau full of remarkably animated creatures.
By night we see a pterodactyl fly through the air, land on the plateau and gore an animal with its beak before nodding its head around cutely. From there we encounter a number of plant-eating brontosaurus’, a couple of vicious tyrannosaurus rex, a triceratops, and a baby triceratops. O’Brien’s animation is brilliant, displaying an art form that has been lost, at least in the context of major motion pictures. The Lost World is a must-see for silent film lovers, although the irony of this restoration is that a 100-minute running time makes the film feel a bit too long. Regardless, the film does not only allow viewers to transport themselves to a colorful world where dinosaurs exist, but also to mid-1920’s America and England, when this type of filmmaking was state of the art. Imagining what viewers at the time must have thought of such a spectacle is in some ways more fascinating than imagining a world where humans and dinosaurs interact.
One of the more remarkable scenes occurs about halfway through the film when a T-Rex stalks the explorers’ camp at night. Through the blue-tinted sky and trees we see two glowing eyes of the dino before it appears. In the ensuing commotion, one of the camp members throws a burning log at the beast, which catches it in its mouth. The animation of the burning red and yellow log in the stop-motion dino’s mouth is unexpected and impressive in a way that is unique to the time and style of the film.
The blu ray disc from Flicker Alley and Lobster Films features a commentary track by film historian Nicolas Ciccone, as well as three short animated pieces by William O’Brien (one of which was produced by Thomas Edison). These shorts—R.F.D. 10,000 B.C., The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, and Creation—allow for closer examination of how stop motion animation developed in the early years of cinema, conveniently available for frame-by-frame examination on the disc if so desired. While The Lost World is more an example of blockbuster entertainment of the 1920’s as opposed to high art or experimental cinema of the time, it still doubtlessly deserves the meticulous preservation that Lobster Films has the ability to do. Hopefully we will see more new editions of old movies in the near future, giving viewers the opportunity to round out their history lessons and relive nostalgic moments of early film culture.