The name George Pal may only be associated with the opening number from The Rocky Horror (Picture) Show with most modern audiences. However, the late fantasy filmmaker nevertheless managed to etch his way onto the timeless altar of science fiction movies. Beginning his career in film as an artist and animator, Pal later graduated to producing and directing live-action sci-fi tales. Several of those contributions are still held dear by many an aficionado, such as When Worlds Collide, The War Of The Worlds (1953), The Time Machine, and 7 Faces Of Dr. Lao.
And then there’s Pal’s 1961 “epic” (?), Atlantis, The Lost Continent, a film that is either considered to be a classic, a guilty b-movie pleasure, or a flat-out “disaster” in every sense of the word. It all depends on your point of view. Between budget limitations (on behalf of a studio that wasn’t overly keen on producing such a film to begin with, and probably only did so because the Italian-made Hercules films had been big hits in theaters across the world) and a writers’ strike that occurred during the time of production (thus, denying Pal a chance to polish the script), the movie suffered from its share of flaws at the time of its release.
Following a short stop-motion introduction narrated by none other than Paul Frees (who had his first credited role here, and also provided a few uncredited voiceovers), our story begins in ancient Greece, with a father-and-son fisherman team (portrayed by Wolfe Barzell of Frankenstein’s Daughter fame and Sal Ponti, respectively, the latter of which uses the acting alias Anthony Hall) discovering a raft adrift in the Mediterranean sea. On the raft is Antillia (Joyce Taylor), the Princess of Atlantis (no, seriously, she is). Taking her back to their humble home, Antillia is outraged that she is forced to live with such common people as fishermen. Using her natural beauty and charms, Antillia manages to seduce young Demetrios (Ponti) and convince him to take her back to her home continent, which the Greeks have no knowledge of, as they believe the world ends just after the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar).
But Atlantis does exist, as Demetrios soon discovers — despite that, “historically” speaking, the fabled Lost Continent sunk into the sea several thousand years before our story takes place (an anachronism that you just have to ignore should you happen to be a scholar on either subject). And it is only after Antillia returns to her homeland via the unwitting courtesy of our strapping young hero, that the technologically-advanced civilization isn’t as perfect as she thought it was. Once there, Demetrios is promptly enslaved by the nefarious Zaren (John Dall), who has all but taken over the role of Atlantis’ ruler in Antillia’s short absence from her father, King Kronas (Edgar Stehli). Forced to mine crystals (which supply the continent with its power) Demetrios is exposed to a world of tyranny; wherein foreigners are put to slavery, and often, turned into hideous man-beasts in the much-dreaded House of Fear.
Zaren wants to declare war on the rest of the world, before they come to the realization that their world exists and set their barbaric sights on conquering their superior kingdom. Antillia wants Demetrios, who has grown to believe that his introduction to slavery was at her behest. And, just so George and/or Hollywood could make sure their audiences wouldn’t lose faith in their Christian upbringing, Atlantis’ High Priest, Azor (Edward Platt, of Get Smart fame), wants young Antillia to know that all of the gods she grew up worshipping are nothing but false idols — and that there is only one true God (!) who will save her from peril when the time comes (and such a time does come, naturally, or else there wouldn’t be much of a climax here, right?).
Somewhere along the line, Demetrios becomes a free man of Atlantis, following his victory in the “Trial of Fire and Water” (wherein he fights a big guy to the death in a pit that is full of burning coal and is subsequently flooded) and asks to lead the other slaves; promising Zeran a higher yield of production. In reality, though, Demetrios takes on the role of slave master so that he can secretly rally his fellow foreigners together and revolt to escape their oppression. Meanwhile, a series of devastating earthquakes begin to set the populace into a state of panic. Atlantis is clearly doomed (most likely the work of Azor’s single omnipotent being), but that doesn’t stop Zeran from using his newly-constructed crystal-powered death ray machine thingy (shades of Star Wars’ infamous Death Star, perhaps?) to mercilessly use upon the continent’s inhabitants in the fiery and explosive finale of the film.
Cut. Print. Perfect! Well, OK, maybe not “perfect,” but…
As I had mentioned previously, Atlantis, The Lost Continent had its share of flaws. Some of you may be familiar with the fact that, long before the world started going green, Hollywood began the cost-saving technique of recycling. A great deal of the sets and pieces seen here were borrowed from other Hollywood projects (a statue from 1955’s The Prodigal here, a set that I could swear was leftover from the filming of Kismet there). Atlantis, The Lost Continent goes the extra mile, however. Musically-inclined viewers will notice that many of the film’s music cues and themes were lifted wholesale from Pal’s The Time Machine made the previous year. But perhaps the most obvious bit of recycling found here are the numerous bits of stock footage that had been seen before in the 1951 classic, Quo Vadis and 1953‘s The Naked Jungle (and perhaps a few other flicks).
Of course, the recycling of sets and pieces has always been a pretty common sight in low-budget feature films. Let‘s face it, when neither the time or money is available, you gotta do what you gotta do. And that in itself is forgivable. But, in the case of Atlantis, The Lost Continent, the stock footage is pretty damn noticeable. It was to audiences that first saw it in 1961, and it’s still apparent to viewers today.
A few subplots, such as the whole House of Fear thing (which was obviously inspired from The Island Of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells, whom Pal was a big fan of, as he made several adaptations of the author’s classic novels), aren’t given enough development — and are basically just seen in passing. Also as stated before, the story had to go into production “as-is” due to a writers’ strike, and there are many impoverished bits throughout which may have you tilting your head to the side and saying, “Huh?” as a result. Additionally, the story itself seems “rushed” because it: the story’s morals do not get a chance to materialize properly (except that whole “God” thing, which is like a bull in a china shop).
In all honesty, Atlantis, The Lost Continent would make a great TV mini-series, just so all of the extraneous subplots and character/story development could get the attention they deserve. But that’s neither here nor there. As it stands, Atlantis, The Lost Continent is still a fun film — despite all of the recycled bits and unperfected story. It’s a good-natured b-movie that succeeds in achieving that one ultimate goal of filmmaking: entertainment. I enjoyed it, and so did my children.
And you can’t ask for much more than that, really.
Previously unavailable on DVD, Atlantis, The Lost Continent makes its digital debut as part of the Warner Archives Collection, a series of titles that are manufactured on demand to DVD-R for consumers and available solely through their website. The film is shown in its widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1 (or so) and with a Dolby Digital mono soundtrack. The image suffers from some print damage (e.g. grain, specks, etc.) and the color palette is a bit pale overall, and the audio is pretty tinny. Ultimately, though, Atlantis, The Lost Continent emerges as a winner…even if it does sink in the end (ta-dum).