(1955) Directed by Karel Zeman; Written by: J.A. Novotný and Karel Zeman; Starring: Vladimír Bejval, Petr Herrman, Zdenek Hustak and Josef Lukás; Available on DVD (PAL, Region 0)
“I made Journey to the Beginning of Time because I wanted to show the scale of nature, because I love it so much. It hurts me that the sense of romance is inevitably disappearing from our lives. The beauty of nature knows no equal.” – Karel Zeman (from DVD featurette, “Why the Film Was Made”)
Thanks to Ruth of Silver Screenings and Rich from Wide Screen World (https://widescreenworld.blogspot.ca/) for hosting the Time Travel Blogathon, a survey of cinematic excursions through time. Despite a multitude of obligations and projects, I realized there was no time like the present to discuss another fine offering from the brilliant filmmaker Karel Zeman, Journey to the Beginning of Time.
I was a latecomer to the world of Karel Zeman, not having seen my first title from the Czech director/effects pioneer until a year ago, with The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (1958).* I was instantly hooked, and felt compelled to see more. Unfortunately, because Zeman hasn’t enjoyed the same name recognition as Ray Harryhausen, finding his movies can be a little tricky. Thanks to my local video store (may they never go out of business), I was able to find another title, albeit in the PAL format. Zeman acknowledged being heavily influenced by the works of Verne and French illustrator Gustave Doré, which provided the inspiration for his films. Journey to the Beginning of Time is no exception, with its obvious inclusion of Verne’s themes. The novel Journey to the Center of the Earth serves as the template, as the film’s protagonists attempt to duplicate the exploits of the fictional voyage. Zeman and crew brought their story to life through a combination of studio sets, and filming on location in Northern Bohemia in the Czech Republic, along with the river Waag in Slovakia.
* Please check out my review here.
Four pre-teen boys, Peter (the leader and journal-keeper), Georgie, Jack and Tony set off on a voyage of discovery, through various prehistoric eras. The seed of their journey germinates after the kids wander around a natural history museum, lamenting the fact that they’re unable to view the ancient creatures as they existed, other than bones on display. Thus, the film builds on the premise: If they did it in the book, why can’t we? The intrepid young explorers travel through time in a boat.* The filmmakers aren’t interested in the mechanics of time travel,** only what the characters discover when they get there (Take that, modern era and time travel paradoxes! We’re voyaging through prehistory, and there’s nothing you can do about it.).
* Random Musing: I can’t help but wonder if Zeman influenced Sid and Marty Krofft to create Land of the Lost, which appeared two decades later.
** Fun fact: According to producer Karel Hutecka, the original concept for the film was a trip to the moon, but Zeman insisted on keeping the adventure on earth.
Some might be irked by Journey to the Beginning of Time’s deliberate pacing, but it’s more of a travelogue, as opposed to an action-packed, effects-laden thrill fest. The adventure is all about experiencing the discoveries that reside around the bend, as our intrepid explorers encounter strange beasts and lands from a bygone era. One refreshing aspect about Zeman’s film, compared to countless movies with similar content (King Kong, The Land Unknown, etc...), is the lack of trigger-happy characters. In most of these flicks the first impulse of the characters is to shoot the poor beasts. Our heroes, however, don’t possess the same blood-lust.* While we’re on the same track, I’m happy to report no one meets an untimely (and grisly) demise, although I was surprised Georgie, with his tendency to wander off from the group, wasn’t eaten by one of the many prehistoric beasts. This is probably for the best, since such a scene would have likely traumatized many of the intended audience members. While there are a few potentially life-threatening incidents, it’s all about the experience. After the kids have a close scrape with a giant, frightening bird Phorusrhacos, Peter speculates that this prehistoric bird formed the real-life basis for such mythical creatures as dragons and basilisks when people first found the remains of the bird.
* Peter commented, “Georgie wished we had a rifle, but it was better we hadn’t. We were on a scientific mission, not a safari. We just had to let nature be, and observe.”
Zeman and crew pull out all the stops, using all the tools in the toolbox to make the ancient flora and fauna come to life. Their effects work provides a distinctive look, with a unique blend of stop motion effects, paper cutout animation, puppetry and full-size mock ups. Instead of having the characters simply point to something off-screen, Zeman takes pains to integrate the characters into the footage. At once quaint and innovative, the effects style resembles book illustrations that have sprung from their two-dimensional boundaries. Zeman’s pastiche of techniques differs from Ray Harryhausen’s effects, but both approaches are admirable, and deserve to occupy the same pantheon.
This fanciful trip through various prehistoric eras (the journey begins and ends with a trilobite, representing 500 million years of evolution) is an informative primer on some of the many creatures that inhabited the various prehistoric eras. Starting with the ice age, we’re treated to scenes with a wooly mammoth and sabre toothed cats. As the voyage continues, we gradually make our way through stranger eras with more unusual creatures. There are some inaccuracies here and there (in one scene, the kids encounter a Brontosaurus – scientists are still debating whether this was a distinct species), but nitpicks aside, Journey to the Beginning of Time would be an excellent teaching tool, and an ideal departure point for a more detailed discussion of prehistoric earth. Much like The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, one could accuse the film of not having much of a plot, but the setting is the thing. There’s a childlike sense of wonder and naiveté to everything, which recalls the time of a kid’s life when everything still seems possible. It’s a delightful trip through time. Just don’t ask how they got there.
* In one scene, while admiring a particularly odd-looking species, Uintatherium, Peter explains to his cohorts (yeah, he’s the resident know-it-all) how scientific naming conventions employ Latin and Greek roots.