The Amicus Adventures of Doug McClure & Kevin Connor

While the Hammer Studios films are well-known, the films by Amicus Productions have not necessarily found the same reverence amongst cult film fans.  That’s an undeserved slight.  Similarly, actor Doug McClure also hasn’t received much recognition amongst today’s film fandom.  Sadly, most people would sooner know the parody ‘Troy McClure’ from “The Simpsons” than the work of the genuine article.

Particular favorites of mine in McClure’s filmography happen to be the four Amicus Productions adventure films that he made with director Kevin Connor in the 1970s.  Those films were “The Land That Time Forgot,” “At the Earth’s Core,” “The People That Time Forgot,” and “Warlords of Atlantis.” Those forgiving of the often-questionable quality of the films’ special effects, as well as willing to overlook occasional script problems would find any of the four movies to be entertaining  Saturday afternoon viewing.

My familiarity with those four films, particularly “Warlords of Atlantis,” came through viewing them via satellite television in the mid-1980s.  I suspect that many other fans of those productions came across the films that way or via cable television.  The films were known to be frequently re-played on various networks, notably the then-young HBO, so their audience ended up being much larger in that era than one might have initially assumed.

Admittedly, the films were all an ‘acquired taste.’  For those encountering them for the first time as modern-day adults, it might help to understand their context.  In doing so, one can truly appreciate the films as being something other than low-budget cheese.

Doug McClure was a leading-man actor who made his name in westerns of the 1950s and 1960s.  He worked steadily in both film and television until the mid-1990s, dying not long after getting his star on the Hollywood Walk-of-Fame in early-1995.  He would arguably have been most well-known to the general public for spending nearly a decade on the television show “The Virginian.”

McClure’s 1970s adventure films for Amicus weren’t a complete departure for him, but they were certainly a change from his western work.  In the end, he found a strange, yet enduring niche for himself fighting giant monsters.

Peter Cushing Caroline Munro Doug McClure
Doug McClure (right) with Peter Cushing and Caroline Munro in “At the Earth’s Core” (1976)

Director Kevin Connor worked his way up through various positions into directing.  After directing the horror anthology “From Beyond the Grave” in 1974, he was given the assignment to direct “The Land That Time Forgot” in 1975.  Actors such as Peter Cushing who appeared in “From Beyond the Grave” would show up in Connor’s later films.  One could assume that Amicus had quite a bit of this sort of ‘cross-pollination’ occurring within its films.  Post-Amicus, Connor would go on to direct the cult classic “Motel Hell” in 1980.  After that horror favorite, he slipped into mostly directing television films.

The McClure/Connor duo’s first three films were formally produced by Amicus Productions, although “At the Earth’s Core” was the last to be fully produced by them.  Also, those first three films were based on novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  The final film, “Warlords of Atlantis,” appeared to have been started by Amicus, but was later finished by EMI after Amicus Productions ran into financial issues.  That last film featured an original story, although its tone and production values were very similar to that of the prior Edgar Rice Burroughs-inspired stories.

It should be noted that McClure only played the same character in two of the four films.  However, in all four films he never strayed too far from the same sort of rough-and-tumble adventurer archetype.

The Land That Time Forgot (1975)

Like Burroughs’ book, the story within this film adaptation mostly took place in ‘flashback,’ since it began with a captain finding a bottle that has washed ashore.  Inside the bottle were details of an adventure gone wrong as related by Bowen Tyler (Doug McClure).

It seemed that a civilian cruise boat that Tyler was aboard was attacked by a German submarine during World War I.  The survivors banded together in lifeboats, with Tyler ending up with the lone female survivor, Lisa Clayton (Susan Penhaligon).  Amid dense fog, the survivors eventually took over the German submarine that had surfaced after attacking their cruise ship.  While this might sound like a fast series of events, the film spent a considerable amount getting through this initial setup, with the action and intrigue during the entire first act being similar to a war movie.

The adventure aspect of the film kicked into gear soon after the submarine began running low on fuel.  Luckily, the ship survivors and Germans came across the secret continent of Caprona.  They were able to take the submarine through a cave tunnel into the continent’s tropical interior, where they found what seemed to be an island paradise.  Less lucky for everyone, they quickly encountered a variety of dinosaur-like creatures living in the tropical portions of the island.  The film’s weakest special effects were evident during that initial encounter since attacking pterodactyl were glimpsed as flying without flapping their wings.

Map of Caspak (Caprona) as drawn by Edgar Rice Burroughs [Source: Wikipedia]
Map of Caspak (Caprona) as drawn by Edgar Rice Burroughs
[Source: Wikipedia]

Machine guns came in handy to fend off the dinosaur attacks and the battle’s aftermath included a nice meal of dinosaur meat for everyone.  By this point in the film, the cruise survivors and Germans had a shaky truce in place, but tensions seemed ready to boil over at any point.

Further dinosaur attacks led to the group meeting up with Neanderthals.  That discovery helped them to next find crude oil that the Germans agreed could be used to power the submarine, thus getting everyone back to civilization.  As luck would have it, the Germans had a portable oil refinery packed aboard their submarine.

When the group spied even more-evolved cavemen, they started to figure out the island’s true nature.  The seeming ‘secret’ of Caprona was that its people are more evolved the further ‘northward.’  Just when everything seemed to be going well, Lisa Clayton was kidnapped by that more-evolved tribe.  Around the same time that Bowen then went to free her, a volcano in Caprona began to erupt.

The volcano eruption caused a large amount of damage to the island, destroying the submarine and killing everyone except for Bowen and Lisa.  Bowen went on to pen a description of recent events that he cast into the ocean, thus supplying the message in a bottle that was found during the film’s opening scene.

The ending of the film was a surprising ‘downer’ for this type of light-hearted adventure.  However, it was faithful to the source material.  From a viewer’s standpoint though, the concluding circumstances were quite abrupt, with McClure relating a large number of quick revelations in voiceover.  Amongst other things, what had been at-best a low-key romance between Bowen and Lisa apparently evolved into them being ‘married’ by themselves in the eyes of God (to paraphrase McClure’s speech).  In essence, their entire relationship occurred and was resolved in that single voiceover.

The tone and style for the films that would follow was set with “The Land that Time Forgot.”  An international band of explorers would find themselves stuck in a strange land that was populated with strange creatures that almost-certainly included dinosaurs.  Of course, a population of rival natives were always involved in the equation.

While “The Land that Time Forgot” was a fun film, the character decision making was frequently maddening and the special effects were notably rough.  One could presume that much of the film’s problems came down to a lack of budget.  The script problems of this film and the ones that would follow it could likely be chalked up to hasty planning on a film that few working on it would have imagined might be scrutinized decades later.

At the Earth’s Core (1976)

Legendary British actor Peter Cushing joined Doug McClure to play a professor in this unrelated next film.

Rather than being set during World War I like the other three films, this story was set in the ‘Victorian’ era, perhaps in the later 1800s.  The stuffy Abner Perry (Cushing) constructed a large drilling vehicle known as the ‘Iron Mole’ that was financed by the rather-goofy David Innes (McClure).  When a test of the machine went wrong, Perry and Innes ended up crash-landing within the Earth’s interior world.

The duo had to fend off a dinosaur attack soon after arriving.  Unfortunately, as much as viewers had to lower their expectations after seeing the special effects presented in the prior film, the effects within “At the Earth’s Core” were even worse.  The interior world location meant that much of the film had to be produced on sets that were very inexpensively constructed.  At times, the production values of this feature film were not altogether different from that of the mid-1970s “Doctor Who” BBC television show.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the film’s effects, beyond the cheap-looking giant plants on the sets, was the use of man-in-suit effects for most of the dinosaur effects.  That approach was used with modest success sin the “Godzilla” films of the same era, but such an approach didn’t look at all convincing when applied to human adversaries on a similar scale.  Also, Amicus Productions would never seem to master the creation of a convincing flying pterodactyl in any of its adventure films.

Soon after the dinosaur encounter, Perry and Innes were captured by locals called ‘Sagoths,’ who had previously enslaved a beautiful girl named Dia (Caroline Munro).  Dia was apparently the princess of another group, but was mostly involved in the plot to provide necessary exposition and significant eye candy for male viewers.  Via Dia, it was learned that the Sagoths were doing the dirty work of a ruling race called the Mahars, who were psychically controlling everyone in the interior world.

Despite the film’s shortcomings, consider that by the end of its first act, the following had been introduced:  A cool ‘Steampunk’ precursor drilling vehicle, Cushing and McClure in full ham acting mode, an intriguing interior world concept (even if it looked awful), dinosaurs (again, admittedly awful looking), a scantily-clad princess (the exact opposite of awful looking), and psychic bad guys. It was easy to see why the film later gained a cult following.

The ladder half of the film involved quite a bit of back and forth with various captures and escapes occurring.  Innes escaping the Sagoths while finding himself in an odd romance with Dia.  Apparently he was supposed to claim her after fighting for her honor, a mistake that led her to play hard-to-get later in the film.

Eventually, Dia was tapped to be a sacrifice by the Mahars, leading to Innes having to fight his way back into a city that he’d just escaped.  Along the way, he led a slave rebellion to free her and everyone else from the Mahar control.

At one point in the film, Innes was trapped in an arena fight.  He was pitted against a giant creature that Burroughs fans might associate with “A Princess of Mars” or that film fans might recognize from “Star Wars – Episode II:  Attack of the Clones.”

Innes ultimately decided to destroy the Mahar domination in order to win the hand of Dia.  Along the way, he also had to fend off a rival for her affections, Jubal the Ugly One.  Jubal was indeed unattractive, but he carried an impressive mace-like weapon that gave Innes a good fight.  Exploding mushrooms also factored into that conflict.

The film’s greatest line came during the climatic slave revolt against the Mahar.  Professor Perry stated to his Mahar captors that: “You cannot mesmerize me, I’m British!” Of course, he was successfully memorized moments later.  Cushing made due with an underwritten part and managed to ham it up to the point where he made the role memorable.

After the Mahar and their city were eventually destroyed by the overwhelming nature of the slave rebellion, Innes and Perry decided to head back to the surface.  Luckily for them, their Iron Mole vehicle was somehow again functional and ready to get them home, but Dia had second thoughts.  Despite her love for Innes, she decided to stay behind with her people.  The film ended on a light note, with the Iron Mole re-surfacing by drilling its way into the lawn in front of the White House.

In glancing at a synopsis of the Burroughs book, it appeared that the film deviated a great deal from portions of that novel’s plot.  While many aspects seemed similar, the courtship between Innes and Dia evolved in a full-blown marriage in the book.  A sequence at the end of the book involved Innes’ other rival for Dia, Hooja the Sly One, substituting a villainous lookalike of Dia for the real thing during Innes’ return trip home.  Innes ended up having to battle the duplicate during a flight scene that would have allowed for a final bit of action in the film adaptation.  Alas, such a sequence was not to be.

Technically, “At the Earth’s Core” was considered to be the final production of Amicus, but that was not entirely the case.  That production firm’s name lived on with the next film.

The People That Time Forgot (1977)

Unlike “At the Earth’s Core,” this film was a direct sequel to “The Land that Time Forgot.”  It began with Major Ben McBride (Patrick Wayne) mounting an expedition to search for Bowen (McClure).  Joining him was Lady Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Cunningham (Sarah Douglas), the photographer daughter of the expedition’s newspaper baron benefactor.  McBride and Cunningham first headed off on a ship to Caprona; after arriving at the lost continent, they flew with a pilot into the area where Bowen had last been glimpsed by film viewers.

Before landing, the group found itself in aerial combat against a stiff-winged pterodactyl.  Of course, this was the group’s first indication that unusual creatures were indeed lurking in the area.  Their plane crash landed, but was deemed repairable.  In the meantime, McBride and Cunningham found themselves in all sorts of trouble.

The mystery behind Bowens’ whereabouts took a big leap forward when the group encountered a cavegirl named Ajor (Dana Gillespie).  Similar to Caroline Munro’s character in “At the Earth’s Core,” Ajor would remain the film’s primary eye candy.  She wore a truly outrageous outfit that certainly couldn’t have been very warm in the upper altitudes of Caprona.

Much of the plot film’s middle and final acts revolved around a clan of samurai-like warrior named the Nargas who seemed to be the de facto rulers of Caprona.  After McBride’s group was captured by the Nargas, they encountered Bowen.  He had been captured due to threatening the Nargas by helping to advance the other less-evolved tribes in Caprona.

The group managed to flee from the Nargas, but Bowen was killed with an arrow to the stomach during the final escape sequence.  McClure’s performance in the death scene that followed was truly awkward.

The group of survivors soon managed to fly out of Caprona and back to the expedition’s ship.  Their timing was quite good, as the ship was about to leave the area.  Ajor returned with the group, seemingly set to marry one of the group’s Nebraska-resident members.  A memorable questioning by McBride of Cunningham ensued when he asked her why she had kept possession of a gun secret until it was conveniently used near the end of the film.  She admitted that she had simply wanted to save it for a jam, the joke to the audience being that the group had been in plenty of prior problematic situations throughout the film when a gun might have been useful.

Unlike in Burroughs’ book, the character of Lisa Clayton from the first book/film was completely written out of this sequel film.  Bowen apparently didn’t die in the book version of the story either.

It should be noted that the film’s star, Patrick Wayne, was indeed the son of legendary actor John Wayne.  Unlike ‘The Duke’ though, Patrick had an oddly soft speaking style.

Sarah Douglas, who would later become more well known in “Superman II” with the role of Ursa, memorably sported a Princess Leia-eque ‘bun’ hairstyle throughout the film.  Her character often behaved so recklessly that I often assumed that she was intentionally trying to undermine the group or get people killed.  In fact, it seemed that the character was simply poorly written.

The special effects ‘quality’ was similar in this film to the other three films in this pseudo-series.

Warlords of Atlantis (1978)

As previously mentioned, “Warlords of Atlantis” was technically not an Amicus film, instead having been produced by EMI films.  That said, it continued to feature many of the same personnel as the prior Amicus adventures.

The film was not directly related to any of the prior films, although it took place in a similar World War I timeframe as “The Land that Time Forgot” and “The People that Time Forgot.”  With no Burroughs story to form its backdrop, viewers were left wondering about a mysterious meteor crash that took place during the opening credits.  It would later be revealed that the incident shown had taken place thousands of years before the present.

Peter Gilmore played a stuffy English professor named Charles Aitken.  He was searching for the lost city of Atlantis with his peculiar father (Donald Bisset).  McClure’s character, Greg Collinson, knew only that their expedition was on a deep-sea investigation.  Everyone else in the crew was also seemingly unaware of the true purpose of the voyage.  As was the case in the prior adventure films, McClure played the token American hero, this time providing a diving bell vehicle that completely fascinated me as a child viewer of this film.

During an initial use of the diving bell, Charles Aitken and Collinson came across a large totem.  When they disturbed the totem, their diving bell was attacked by a creature that they ended up having to electrocute it.

The totem turned out to be an impressive gold statue that captivated some of the expedition’s crew.  The crew of the ship Texas Rose was a mangy bunch who quickly moved toward mutiny.  Film and television fans would note the actor John Ratzenberger, later of “Cheers” and “Toy Story” fame, playing one of the mutinous crew members. The mutiny didn’t get far before a giant octopus attacked the ship. As a result, most of those people aboard the ship and the diving bell ended up being pulled underwater

When people awoke, they found themselves on a mysterious beach.  After a short time, they were captured and led on a treacherous hike by the land’s ruler, Atmir (Michael Gothard), and his guards.  Dinosaurs, of course, appeared shortly thereafter and had to be fought off.

Warlords-of-Atlantis
A typical moment in “Warlords of Atlantis” (1978)

While being led to a jail within a primitive city, Collinson tried to gain assistance from a slave woman, but his actions led to a fight with his captor guards. Luckily for Collinson, he and the woman would cross paths again when she delivered food to his jail cell.

The captors had interesting plans in mind for Charlie Aitken, whom they tried to recruit. During their recruitment spiel, viewers learned that the mystery land was actually Atlantis and that the Atlanteans were aliens who had crash landed on Earth. They needed the help of Earthlings to escape back home and had somehow manipulated human development over time in order to gain that assistance.

Aitken’s recruitment was interrupted when a giant creature attacked the Atlantean’s main city.  While the Atlanteans held the creatures back with canons and rocks, Collinson and the rest of his group were able to escape in the city sewers after getting help from the slave girl.

The final act contained non-stop action.  Charlie was given a mind amplifier helmet but was eventually rescued by Collinson.  The crew was then in a race to escape with one giant dinosaur-sized monster encounter killing some of the group and a flying fish attack killing more.

When the crew finally reached the beach where they’d originally awoken, they were surprised to find some of the Atlanteans waiting for them.  Amusingly, the Atlanteans had used an underground canal to reach the area ahead of them.  It was never explained why this convenient canal had not been used to avoid the treacherous hike to the Atlantean city that took place earlier in the film.

After dispatching the last of the Atlantean pursuers, Collinson said goodbye to the slave woman who had helped them.  Everyone amongst the remaining crew made dramatic jumps into a lagoon area and then they all used the diving bell to somehow make their way back up to the Texas Rose.

Of course, the film wasn’t over quite yet.  Upon returning to the ship, the mutiny seemed to be back on.  At least until the giant octopus returned to reclaim the gold statue that had been recovered at the beginning of the film.  The statue was lost and much of the Texas Rose was destroyed in the process. Collinson and Aitken again took control of the ship and the last of mutinous crew were forced to ride home in a lifeboat that was towed behind the Texas Rose.

The film’s script by former “Doctor Who” writer Brian Hayles tapped into the 1970s fascination with Atlantis.  Amongst others of that era, the books of Charles Berlitz come to mind.  Upon watching all of the Amicus adventure films though, it was striking how similar this film’s basic plot points were to “At the Earth’s Core.”  Both stories featured secret civilizations under Earth’s crust and the involvement of British professors, even to the point of using compelling vehicles in their work.  Both also featured McClure’s character having a romance that was never meant to be with an imprisoned ‘local’ woman.

Unfortunately, anyone exercising much critical thought would find gaping plot holes in the film.  One major problem with the entire premise was that the Atlanteans were positioned as having to rely on the Earthlings for help.  Despite having access to advanced technology that allowed them to travel across the universe, the Atlanteans apparently couldn’t figure a way out of their situation on their own.  Further, the Atlanteans insisted on fighting the monsters that lived within their underwater domain by using canons and other primitive weapons.  Even guns, seen later in the film, were used sparingly.

On a positive note, the special effects in “Warlords of Atlantis” were the best of the four adventure films.  In general, the entire movie somehow felt a touch more legitimate than the prior films.

Conclusions

As I mentioned throughout my remarks on each film, one of the main shortcomings when watching these films as a modern viewer was that the special effects were often very rough.  This was a point that I tried not to focus upon in too much in my remarks about each film, but I did feel the need to touch upon particular low points.

The effects relied heavily on 1970s-era stop motion, rear projection, models, and often-unconvincing full-sized props. With that perspective in mind, modern viewers might get used to the quality after viewing the films at length.

Despite their many flaws, one might wonder what made those films interesting several decades after they were produced?

Above all else, there was an eagerness to the work and a fun spirit to the adventures.  When elements or situations were particularly hokey, it often felt as though the audience was in on the joke.  Regardless of the budget and script limitations, the people involved appeared to be trying their best, with the actors often making the most out of an imperfect situation.

In a jaded world where Hollywood now cranks out slick adventure epics that are packed with vastly superior effects, I couldn’t help but feel that such films often had just as many script problems as these 1970s low-budget works.  More often than not though, the actors involved in modern effects-laden epics don’t seem to be having the same sort of fun that one could sense was occurring with these Amicus Productions films.

The fact that McClure and Connor stuck together as a filmmaking duo during much of the later 1970s was a testament to the fact that they surely must have enjoyed working together.  It seemed likely that they knew that they weren’t producing Oscar-winning material, but their workman-like careers had probably given them the experience to know that they were producing films that were likely to entertain audiences.  Hopefully it was a pleasant surprise for them to learn later in their careers that these films had found an unlikely following.

 

Bibliography


Connor, Kevin. At the Earth’s Core. 1976. Film.
—. From Beyond the Grave. 1975. Film.
—. Motel Hell. 1980. Film.
—. The Land That Time Forgot. 1975. Film.
—. The People That Time Forgot. 1977. Film.
—. Warlords of Atlantis. 1978. Film.
Lester, Richard. Superman II. 1981. Film.
The Virginian. 1962. Television Show.

 

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