Rixflix A to Z: At the Earth's Core (1976)

Director: Kevin Connor // AIP/Amicus; 1:29; Color
Crew Notables: Edgar Rice Burroughs (novel), Ian Wingrove (special effects supervisor)
Cast Notables: Doug McClure (David Innes), Peter Cushing (Dr. Abner Perry), Caroline Munro (Princess Dia), Cy Grant (Ra), Godfrey James (Ghak)
Cinema 4 Rating: 5

If you would like to know the sort of film that I was allowed to see in theatres before that magical summer of 1977 when Star Wars, Dirty Harry and James Bond took over my adolescent cinematic focus, then look no further than At the Earth's Core. Presumed to be fairly benign -- rated PG, it featured rather obvious men-in-monster-costumes, barely believable special effects, and a poorly constructed prehistoric world that almost makes Land of the Lost look positively polished in comparison -- parents took it be the then-ideal type of movie (barring Disney trips) for the 12-year monster nut.

That the film is actually rather bloody was probably missed on by the parents who never actually attended the film with their kids. The majority of this blood, though, spurts out in rather fake streams from the bodies of giant, slobbering creatures, either done in by each other or at spear-point by the film's hero, David Innes, played without a trace of actual charisma by the serviceable "70s-hunky" leading man with the punching bag face, Doug McClure. Parents also probably missed out on the fact that the film also features just enough light T&A to make even a prepubescent only recently acquainted with his Dad's Playboy stash happy. A handful of girls in loincloths is very nice indeed, but the princess amongst them was none other than Caroline Munro, who loomed large in my heart in those days.

Yes, I loved Farrah like all the boys did, and had recently felt my tongue hit the floor when I espied Raquel Welch in the fur bikini for the first time, but Caroline was then showing up on the movie screens I was then frequenting. I had already seen her in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, and in the year following this film, I would get to ogle her with James Bond in The Spy Who Loved Me. Late night TV would afford me glimpses of her as Vincent Price's late bride in the Dr. Phibes films and helping to fight the undead in Hammer's Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter. Near the end of the decade, I would make the ill-fated decision to go see Starcrash: The Adventures of Stella Star, an Italian Lucas ripoff that nonetheless was slightly worthwhile to see Munro running around in what basically looks like licorice body-floss. (I had no idea who David Hasselhoff was in those days... nor did anyone. Oh, to be blessedly innocent again...)

But the lovely Ms. Munro was not my reason for really, really, really begging my Mom to let me see this film. In the year previous to its release, I had became a huge Edgar Rice Burroughs fan. I had already swung my way through every Tarzan book at the Eagle River Public Library, and had set aside enough of my baseball card and comic money to start purchasing my own paperback library of his works. (Dammit! Those books cost a whole $1.25 apiece back then! An exorbitant fee, I tell you...!) At the bookstore, I became familiar with John Carter, Warlord of Mars, Carson Napier of Venus, the Mucker and the Outlaw of Torn. And I was also able to purchase and read the first couple of David Innes novels, At the Earth's Core and Pellucidar.

Innes, like most Burroughs heroes, is quite literally a superman: all of them are always in peak physical condition, outrageously muscled, above average in intelligence, able to learn the nuances and subtleties of any foreign language in the space of about twelve hours, and natural leaders of both men and beasts. Innes builds an "Iron Mole" machine with his friend Abner Perry, and burrow to a world inside our own world: Pellucidar, populated by the evil pterodactyl-like race, the Mahars, possessors of psychic abilities which allow them to control a pig-like race called the Sagoths, who in turn control via whip and chain the human tribes for the Mahars. Innes decides to lead the humans in rebellion against these cruel masters, and along the way, he has numerous close encounters with large, evil beasties (and some human beasties, too).

The film resembles Burroughs world for the most part, but never comes close to the chief weapon in Burroughs' arsenal: excitement. The guy could script an action sequence like nobody else, even given the obvious limitations of his talent. Even when plausibility (never really a factor in Burroughs) sinks into the quicksand, and when science takes a rocket beyond the farthest star in order to maintain as little connection with his tales as possible, one still will likely get caught up in the deathless and breathless exploits of his too, too heroic protagonists. Unfortunately, while the film never sits around for too long, it is never able to catch up to Burroughs' staggering pace

This film floats a bit on the charm of Peter Cushing, playing the dottering but brave Prof. Perry, who is smart enough to take one look at the Mahars and recognize immediately that they belong to the Rhamphorhynchus family, despite the fact that Rhamphorhynchusi (--uses...?) were much smaller than the Mahar, who are, due to the fact that they are played by humans in costumes, well... human-sized. Still, you believe it from Cushing, who lends his usual practiced authority to even the most ridiculous and stock roles.

But McClure, who also gained Burroughs experience in The Land That Time Forget and its sequel, People... (both of which I saw in theatres, as well), hits all of his marks physically (even in the badly staged battles against the beasties), but fails to truly involve the audience as a hero. His character almost just happens to be there, and you never believe that he had a hand at all in conceiving the Iron Mole, and if he did actually build it, it's only because he has the ability to lift heavy things. As it turns out, this will come out handing when tossing a large rock at a flame-belching firetoad, even if it is the Professor who saves the day with a wobbly-aimed reed-arrow. (Who knew firetoads explode when they fall off cliffs?)

I rip on McClure, but it is only half-heartedly. I have actually always liked the guy, and somehow ended up seeing most of his films as I grew up. And I'm sure that the deficiencies in his character are really due to the screenwriter making the outrageous warrior of Burroughs' vision into a more recognizable form of human being. Which is precisely what is wrong with the film: with the very rare exception, one does not go to a Tarzan movie to see the Jungle Lord in a suit; likewise, one would not like to see a John Carter story where he couldn't jump fifty feet in the air. But here is the movie version of David Innes -- looking for all the world like an unexceptional guy who does moderately exciting things in haphazardly blocked battles against men in monster suits in an unbelievably hokey jungle world. With Caroline Munro...

So, yes, I still like the film...


Anonymous said…
It's time to make this again. Moderately big-budget ($100 to $120 million), CGI and animatronics, follow the books more closely, and give me that horizonless landscape with the thrice-big sun at the center of it all!

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