From King Kong to Jurassic World: The Evolution of Dinosaur Movies
With Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom here, we look back from the silent era onwards to find where dinosaur movies came from.
Steven Spielberg’s 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park –which limped into its fourth sequel via Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom–was the first film to go to some lengths to bring up-to-date scientific theories to bear on how dinosaurs behaved and moved, what they ate, and what colors they were. Prior to that, filmmakers tended to approach dinosaurs the same way they’d approach any giant monster or mythical creature. And sometimes the results could be pretty goofy. Apart from the science angle and Michael Crichton’s genetic engineering gimmick, however, the film was still essentially telling the same story that had been told countless times for over a century before its release.
It wasn’t until the early 1800s that people started recognizing dinosaur bones for what they were. Prior to that, it’s entirely plausible that misinterpretations of those same bones gave rise to the world’s assorted dragon legends. But finally in 1822, the scientific study of dinosaur bones became a legitimate field of research known as paleontology.
It’s no surprise then that as paleontologists came to better understand what these dinosaurs were, and how some of them behaved, the more their findings sparked the public imagination. (“So… you’re saying there were these real live giant lizards stomping all over the planet awhile back? Like maybe before Noah or something? I’ll be damned.”) They also inspired writers like Jules Verne, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, all of whom, in books like Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Lost World, and The Land that Time Forgot, would speculate about what might happen if modern, civilized men were to discover living dinosaurs. The general consensus was that such an encounter would not end well.
The advent of motion pictures at the beginning of the 20th century opened up a whole new world for creative storytelling. As early filmmakers played around with cameras just to see what these new gadgets could do, the results tended to be more experimental than narrative in nature.
It didn’t take long, however, for another experimenter named Winsor McCay to come up with the notion of a “moving cartoon.” McCay, the newspaper cartoonist who’d created the popular Little Nemo strip, saw the possibilities of film and began conducting a few tests.
He produced a stack of drawings, each only slightly different from the one that preceded it, and shot them all sequentially, one frame each. In 1911, he premiered the world’s first animated cartoon, which perhaps not surprisingly was based on Little Nemo. Not much happens in the film, but he did prove that a drawing (or in this case 4,000 drawings) could be made to move realistically on the screen.
So one day in 1913, as the story goes, McCay and some friends were in New York when their car broke down in front of the Museum of Natural History. The repairs were going to take some time, so the group decided to explore the museum a bit as they waited.
While admiring the mounted skeleton of an Apatosaurus (or Brontosaurus), McCay—a wagering man—suggested that he could bring the dinosaur to life. One of his friends took that bet (for a fancy dinner), and McCay went to work on the 10,000 drawings that would be required for the job.
With the 1914 premiere of Gertie the Dinosaur in Chicago, McCay won the bet. The short film, which became part of McCay’s traveling vaudeville act, was also incredibly popular, despite the early skepticism of some audience members. Never having seen an animated film before, they assumed it was some kind of puppetry or a magic trick.
As was the case with Little Nemo, not much happens in Gertie. She walks toward the screen, looks around, lifts one leg then the other (at McCay’s command during his act), eats some plants, scratches herself with her tail, and that’s about it. But it was enough.
One of the most interesting things about Gertie was that, until that time, dinosaurs in popular culture had been portrayed as snarling, vicious monsters who chased people around, much like the dragons who had come before them. McCay’s portrayal of a cute, somewhat bumbling, slow moving, and gentle creature helped change the public perception of what dinosaurs were. Gertie was more like a golden retriever than a dragon. Interestingly enough, in Gertie on Tour—a sequel McCay produced sometime between 1918 and 1921—Gertie wanders around the streets of a small city and menaces a passing trolley car, albeit in an innocent and playful manner. It’s a scene that would be repeated though with less playful results, in both 1933’s King Kong and 1954’s Gojira.
read more: Why King Kong Can Never Escape His Past
In 1924 and ’25, four films were released theatrically which featured dinosaurs or dragons in pivotal roles. In Fritz Lang’s Siegfried, the legendary Nordic hero Siegfried himself does battle with a rather clumsy dragon, Fafner. Douglas Fairbanks fights his own dragon in The Thief of Baghdad. Even the great Buster Keaton tries to come to terms with a few dinosaurs while playing a caveman in Three Ages. The most significant of the four films, given the subject at hand anyway, is The Lost World, directed by William Dowling and Harry Hoyt, and loosely based on the story by Arthur Conan Doyle.
The story of an expedition to a forgotten South American island plateau populated by living dinosaurs turned out to be incredibly popular with audiences. Its popularity, however, had nothing to do with the acting, the script, or the direction—audiences were instead amazed by the special effects.
Willis O’Brien, who like Winsor McCay had been a newspaper cartoonist, decided to take McCay’s Gertie one step further. Instead of animating two-dimensional drawings, using the same process he began experimenting with three-dimensional models. Instead of drawing tens of thousands of pictures and photographing each once, O’Brien built jointed sculptures, moving them a fraction of an inch for each frame of film.
The process was just as laborious as McCay’s, but in the end he only had to build one model, he didn’t waste as much paper, and what appeared on the screen looked like a living creature and not just a sketch in motion.
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O’Brien had been creating some comic stop-motion shorts about the Stone Age when his dinosaurs caught the eye of the producers of The Lost World, who asked him to create the dinosaurs for their film. The results at the time were astonishing—nobody had seen anything like it before. McCay may have brought a dinosaur to life, but O’Brien made them breathe.
At the film’s climax, the explorers return to London with a Brontosaurus in tow, hoping to prove their discovery to the world. Not surprisingly the Brontosaurus breaks free and goes on a mild rampage before swimming back home. Thus The Lost World became the first “giant monster on the loose in a major city” movie.
O’Brien then set to work on Creation, an ambitious, full-length animated dinosaur epic. He never finished it, but the scenes he did complete were picked up by producer-director Merion C. Cooper for use in his new film, King Kong. He also hired O’Brien to design and animate his leading man.
The similarities between 1933’s King Kong and The Lost World are hardly coincidental. Both involve a team of adventurers sailing to a remote, mysterious island that turns out to be inhabited by prehistoric creatures. They decide to bring one back to civilization as proof of what they’d seen, but it’s not long before the creature gets loose and starts ruining days. Both films even feature a massive tree trunk spanning a ravine, and some explorers being knocked off said trunk by an enormous prehistoric monster.
This is just a sidenote, but it always struck me as funny in King Kong that when the party first begins exploring Skull Island, they are so fixated on finding the legendary Kong that they remain completely unfazed when a Brontosaurus wanders past, or a Stegosaurus charges them. The party’s first impulse is to kill these beasts.
When a Stegosaurus charges, seeing as it’s not Kong, they shoot it and move on with a shrug. Where had they seen these creatures before that they would react that way? Were Stegosaurus commonplace in the States in the 1930s?
Watch King Kong (1933) on Amazon
Despite the senseless slaughter of innocent dinosaurs, at heart King Kong was a simple retelling of the beauty and the beast fable—a point bluntly made throughout the film. After the audience reaction at first screenings, however, a few scenes were cut to make Kong less beastly. In the subsequent wide release of the film, he no longer eats or stomps on people, and he doesn’t rip off Fay Wray’s dress and sniff his finger.
Even though the star of King Kong was only 18 inches tall and made out of steel, rubber, and hair, Kong exuded more personality and more humanity than any of the actors on screen with him. Those dinosaurs, though, boy, they remained an unredeemable menace to us all.
The film became an enormous success. A monumental success, even. So much so that a sequel (Son of Kong) was whipped together and released that same year.
One of the people who saw the film in 1933 was young Ray Harryhausen, who at age eight walked out of Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles knowing exactly what he wanted to do with his life. Unlike most of us who felt that way once or twice when we were kids, Harryhausen stuck with his initial post-Kong dream.
Like O’Brien, Harryhausen began building dinosaur models and making short stop-motion films. As a teenager filming dinosaur movies in his parents’ garage, he was even able to arrange an audience with O’Brien himself, where he showed off some of his models and screened a reel of his work.
Harryhausen would recall years later that O’Brien was blunt in his criticisms, but supportive of the young animator’s work. O’Brien was apparently more than mildly impressed by what he saw given that in 1947, he hired Harryhausen to be his assistant on the next of O’Brien’s “giant ape with a heart of gold” pictures, Mighty Joe Young.
The film was another big hit, and a few years later in 1953, Harryhausen was given the chance to handle all the special effects on The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.
Watch The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms on Amazon
As providence would have it, not only would this be Harryhausen’s big break—it also gave him the opportunity to work with an old friend, writer Ray Bradbury. The two had met in school and became lifelong friends. The first thing they had learned about one another was that they were both King Kong fanatics, and both loved dinosaurs.
Based on Bradbury’s short story “The Fog Horn,” and directed by production designer Eugene Lourie, the plot of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is a simple one. An atomic blast in the Arctic Circle awakens a giant prehistoric creature that promptly works its way down the East Coast, smashing boats and coastal towns along the way. Once it hits New York, it knocks over some buildings and snacks on policemen until finally reaching Coney Island. There, a sharpshooter lodges a harpoon carrying a radioactive isotope in the beast’s throat, and it dies a convulsive death on the Boardwalk.
The film was yet another big hit. A few months prior to its release, King Kong had been re-released for the second time and went on to make more money than it did in 1933.
Around this same time, Toho producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was on a flight back home from Indonesia, trying to figure out how to fill an unexpected sudden gap in Toho’s release schedule.
read more: King Kong vs. Godzilla – A Monster Movie for the Ages
It’s not irrelevant that both King Kong and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms had both been in theaters within the past year, and both had made lots and lots of money. Even though The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms had not yet been released in Japan, you have to figure that Tanaka was aware of it, given the original title he gave the project that resulted was “The Giant Monster from 20,000 Miles Beneath the Sea.”
You also have to figure that Shigeru Kayama, the writer Tanaka hired to come up with a story, was familiar with the film too (or at least Ray Bradbury’s story), given that his initial scenario included a scene in which the creature attacks a lighthouse, echoing a scene in both Bradbury’s original story and the subsequent film.
In another interesting parallel, the dinosaur in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, along with crushing everything in its path, was also carrying an unknown prehistoric disease, so even those people who crossed the monster’s path without getting crushed ended up with a horrible prehistoric bacterial infection. Godzilla, as the Japanese monster would of course come to be called, was meanwhile radioactive, so those people who crossed his path without being crushed or burned still ended up with radiation poisoning.
In fact, in ways too numerous to list; you could say that the original Gojira script was an amalgam of plot points lifted from both King Kong and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. You have a prehistoric creature awakened by an atomic blast, you have superstitious natives on an isolated island offering up human sacrifices, and you have giant footprints and a rampage in a major metropolitan area.
Toho’s special effects genius, Eiji Tsuburaya, whom Tanaka had immediately hired for the project, freely admitted that he—like Harryhausen—had been originally inspired to become a special effects artist after seeing Willis O’Brien’s work in King Kong. The very first sketches of what the monster would look like, in fact, decidedly apelike in nature, but were soon discarded in favor of a more saurian design.
Tsuburaya said years later that before being hired for Gojira that he’d been planning to make a stop-motion monster movie of his own. Unfortunately making Gojira as a stop-motion film, as Tsuburaya initially proposed, would have taken years to complete, while they only had a few months to film, and so he decided to go with a guy in a big rubber suit instead.
read more: Where Godzilla 1998 Went Wrong
It’s amazing that in spite of a tight budget and a tighter production schedule, the final film, released in November of 1954, was the masterpiece it was. It was far more than a simple monster movie. Director Ishiro Honda crafted a dark and somber allegory about the horrors of nuclear war. It was nothing to laugh at. The film ended with a sacrificial suicide, Tokyo in ruins, and the streets littered with the dead or dying.
And boy, by some accounts, was Ray Harryhausen pissed.
Following the huge success of King Kong, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, and Godzilla (though it wouldn’t be released in the States for another two years), a young Wisconsin-born filmmaker named Bert I. Gordon entered the movie business for real by jumping on the giant monster bandwagon in 1955 with his no-budget independent feature, King Dinosaur.
When a new planet, appropriately dubbed “Nova,” suddenly appears in the solar system in an orbit somewhere between the Earth and the moon, a frantic race is on to be the first nation to get a crew of astronauts up there to see what’s what. The two couples who make up the American team get there first of course, and discover Nova to be a perfectly habitable and lush planet (bearing an uncanny resemblance to LA’s Griffith Park), complete with birds and trees, and water, and chimpanzees, just like home. The only fly in the ointment is that dinosaur over on the island in the middle of the lake.
Given that he didn’t have major studio money behind him, Gordon was forced to rely on his own ingenuity and sheer chutzpah to pull off a film whose script obviously called for elaborate effects including spaceships, alien planets, and live dinosaurs. The first third of the film is composed of stock footage, and the scenes on Nova were filmed in, yes, Griffith Park (which explains the resemblance).
When it came time for the titular dinosaur to finally make an appearance toward the end of the film, Gordon knew stop-motion was out of the question. It cost a lot of money, it took a lot of time, and he had neither. But why waste time with models when he could just shoot a series of close ups of a Gila monster and use rear projection to convey the illusion of mammoth size? Gila monsters were just little dinosaurs anyway, right? And they move more realistically than those models Harryhausen used.
There was nothing new in rear projection itself, but using rear-projected close-ups of real animals to transform them into gigantic monsters was still a fairly new move. In the previous year’s Killers From Space, W. Lee Wilder used the process to create a few giant spiders and lizards of his own. With no money on hand, it was a cheap and effective tool. Effective enough, anyway.
Dinosaur aside, the film had other issues. There were pacing problems (which is to say any pacing at all would’ve been nice), and the script left something to be desired. Never have I seen four less scientific scientists in a science fiction film. They arrive on an alien planet full of wildlife and vegetation, and what do they do? Do they test samples or explore? No, they adopt a chimp and have a picnic. They treat the whole thing like a camping trip.
Watch Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) on Amazon
And when they do encounter something remarkable and unexpected in the form of a dinosaur (which they grossly misidentify as a T. Rex) what do they do now? They blow it up with an atom bomb they happened to be carrying with them. So not only did they make a large portion of a lush and earthlike planet uninhabitable, in simple sci-fi terms, they may have destroyed one giant monster but released the radiation that’ll create a thousand more to take its place.
But it’s best not to dwell on things like that when you’re trying to enjoy a damn movie.
Gordon may not have been the first to use rear-projected animals, but few used the technique so extensively or to such great effect. With Gordon, the technique would become a career trademark, prompting Forry Ackermann to dub him “Mr. B.I.G.”
King Dinosaur may not have been a very good film, but it was made at the right time. It was also made with such confidence given that there was so little on screen that you have to admire it. The people at AIP did, and signed Gordon up. In the years that followed, he would make a dozen giant monster pictures, but sadly his debut would include his only actual dinosaur.
In 1956, Harryhausen and O’Brien would team up again briefly to create an animated segment about dinosaurs for the film The Animal World. The 20-minute sequence, a kind of miniature version of O’Brien’s unfinished Creation, featured every dinosaur you can imagine and lots of epic dino battles in what was the only thing about the otherwise dreary nature documentary worth remembering.
With several techniques available to put dinosaurs onscreen, and with every kid in the world passing through a dinosaur obsession at one point or another in their lives, the floodgates were pretty well open. Harryhausen would go on to make a few more dinosaur pictures, including 1966’s One Million Years B.C. and 1969’s cowboys vs. dinosaurs epic, The Valley of Gwangi. But that would only be the second cowboys vs. dinosaurs picture, the first being 1956’s Beast of Hollow Mountain, based ironically enough, on a story by Willis O’Brien.
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Oh, and then there was Fantasia, and all those Center of the Earth movies, and The Land that Time Forgot, and The People That Time Forgot, and most any movie with “Island” in the title, and that silly Ringo Starr comedy, Caveman, and Land of the Lost, and countless others.
Beginning in the late ’50s, dinosaurs became the ready go-to beasties for filmmakers in search of a giant monster of some kind. They were recognizable, easily understandable, each species had its own well-established personality, and best of all, you couldn’t trademark them.
Well, then along came CGI and Jurassic Park, and Steven Spielberg, and that was pretty much that.