Wednesday 19 October 2016

Atlantis (Popular) Rising #3: Warlords of Atlantis (1978)

Oh hell yes.
Now, the first time I did one of these posts, I looked at something recent. The second post was something from the era of my childhood that I had missed the first time around. But now, now we're talking something formative, something that I saw more than once as a kid, or at least I feel like I did.

I'm talking about Warlords of Atlantis, with Peter Gilmore, Shane Rimmer and the legendary Doug McClure.

I actually thought to take screenshots this time, you'll be glad to know.

Now, while I was researching this piece, I found that in his native USA, Doug McClure is best known for Westerns, both cinema and TV. But that's not, for British people, what that name conjures. Nope, what we immediately think of when we hear the name "Doug McClure" is a big guy in a torn shirt fending off a rubber dinosaur.

Because, after the Western fell out of vogue as a thing, McClure came to the UK and made a succession of four fantasy adventure movies, all directed by Kevin Connor. All were reasonable box office hits, and all were frequently repeated on TV in the 1980s (when, lest we forget, we only had four channels). The first three – The Land that Time Forgot, The People that Time Forgot, and At the Earth's Core – were based on novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs. This last one was original, from a script by a prolific British TV writer named Brian Hayles (Doctor Who fans will know him as the creator of the Ice Warriors) who died shortly after the film's release.

I was surprised how much of the movie I remembered. I haven't seen it for maybe 25 years, but I remembered entire sequences clearly. And to my delight, it's not a bad movie!

OK, it's a bad movie.

But it's a good bad movie. It's got a lot to commend it. And I can fully understand why I, as a kid, would find myself saying, "Warlords of Atlantis is on! I love this movie!" ...and settle down in front of the telly, enthralled.
It's Doug McClure! And the bloke from The Onedin Line!

Doug McClure plays Greg Robinson, a Victorian engineer who has invented a diving bell that will enable his odd-couple pal archaeologist Charles Atkin (played by Peter Gilmore, best known for being him off The Onedin Line) to investigate the Atlantic floor for archaeological ruins. Charles' father, also an archaeologist, is trying to find evidence of Atlantis. Greg has invented a diving bell and on a trip down to the bottom, Greg and Charlie find a solid gold idol. It's guarded by a dinosaur!

Thankfully, Greg fights it off and they get their find to the surface.
The idol.
Charlie's father is overjoyed at the find, but at the same time slightly disturbed. The crew meanwhile are more bothered that it's solid gold. When Charlie's dad won't let them have the idol, the crew mutiny, cutting the diving bell tether and shooting's Charlie's dad. Before they can do anything more though, a giant octopus attacks the ship and drags off the captain and the three mutineers, leaving the cabin boy to nurse the elderly archaeologist back to health, who, in his delirium, begins to make portentous comments about "Warlords of Atlantis..."

Charlie, Greg, Captain Daniels and the three mutineers don't drown! Instead they come up in a vast underground cave kingdom that inexplicably seems to benefit from sunlight.
Note that one of the mutineers (the one on the left) is Cliff from Cheers. Captain Daniels (front) is Shane Rimmer, best known as the voice of Scott Tracy in Thunderbirds.  
A man who looks like an Aryan painting come to life introduces himself as Advir, and tells them that they're in Atlantis, and that they'll be safe if they come with him. And then leads them off with armed guards.
Seriously, he looks like a Nazi painting come to life. Later we'll find that's not accidental.
Notwithstanding monster attacks, they come to a city which they're surprised to find is full of Europeans, who all seem to be working for the Atlanteans. Charlie gets taken away to meet some Important People and Greg and the crew cause a ruckus over a girl and get themself put in jail.

Charlie meets a middle-aged Atlantean noblewoman named Atsil (1940s idol Cyd Charisse) who's interesting as a character because she's both presented as dignified and sexy, wearing a cloak over a very short dress, but at the same time, there's no question of anything going on. She's played by a 58-year-old woman, and the intent is that you go "whoa" at how gorgeous she is, in her own way, without any irony or qualification there. Whether this works or not is neither here nor there, but you have an older woman who's a siren, and it's not weird. The role she serves is as a lure to Peter Gilmore's character, and the intention of the film is that you're sort of lured too. It's terribly camp (and there's enough going on under the surface with the Broadway/Aryan camp of the Atlanteans and the bromance between Greg and Charlie to maintain a pretty healthy theory of gay subtext).
Where the other half live.
Atvil takes Charlie on a tour of the places where the Atlantean nobility live and play and float in mid-air.
Click for closeup of levitating Atlanteans, and revealing costume.
She tells him that the original Atlanteans were from Mars; they came down to Earth and settled on Atlantis, and since the beginning of time they've guided human evolution with their mental powers. She introduces him to the leader Atraxon (a brief cameo from Daniel Massey) and they put a crystal helmet on Charlie's head which enables him to see the future they've mapped out. It shows our Victorian adventurer his future (and our past). The idea is that his superior intellect will join theirs and help them to control the course of human history.
But check out what side they're going to back...
Meanwhile, Greg and the others are told by Captain Briggs of the Marie-Celeste (yes, really), now an Atlantean slave, that they're all due to be surgically operated on so they'll be able to survive in Atlantis's weird Martian atmosphere (because they'll be dead in a few days if they don't). The slaves have gills!
There isn't a single scene I recalled better than this. It's why the Blue Women always had gills, in fact.
So Greg and co, taking advantage of the chaos caused by dinosaurs attacking the city and helped by Briggs's daughter Delphine, escape, knock Charlie out before the Atlanteans' seductive ways make him join them and they all get away. There's a big long chase with Atlantean guards, explosions, more dinosaurs, and eventually they get back to the ship, where the mutineers remember they're supposed to be having a mutiny, until the giant octopus comes back and sinks the ship and the survivors get away in a lifeboat.
Two man-eating giants scale the city walls and eat people, and that is frankly badass.
Seriously, it's better than it sounds.

Look, the cast, several of whom are very good, gamely play along. The camp Atlanteans take their roles the right kind of seriously (Cyd Charisse is enjoying herself immensely) and the nicely painted backdrops and practical monster effects are perfectly adequate, and better than most examples of this sort. It's the work of experienced, confident hands and it shows. Oh yes, there are some gaping plot holes, but it seems almost churlish to point them out. It looks weirdly like it could have been made at any time in the preceding ten years; certainly it's one of the last artefacts of what sci-fi and fantasy movies looked like before Star Wars. 

As a kid, I always remembered thinking it took an awfully long time to get to Atlantis, and actually, I was right – it takes nearly 40 minutes of a 92 minute movie for them even to arrive. Not that the first half of the film isn't packed with incident, I mean there's two monsters and a mutiny before they even get to Atlantis, but Atlantis is only really in the second half of the movie, and more than half of that whole sequence is them escaping the place, with the climactic octopus fight happening after they've escaped. The actual exploration of Atlantean society takes up maybe a total of seven minutes of the movie.

Still, what there is is pretty fascinating.

What I like about this movie, speaking as an adult, is that Brian Hayles, in writing this, took one particular take on Atlantis current in the 70s and critiqued it. Many New Age and mystic writers (Edgar Cayce being a major one) prophesied that Atlantis would rise one day soon and would lead the world to a new golden age. Hayles seems to have looked at the sci-fi Atlanteans and went, "hmm, hang on." So the very Aryan Atlanteans who look like art-deco statues, almost, will explicitly back the Nazis in the future. As images of Nazi Germany flash in front of Charlie, Atraxon says:
A military state. It will not merely set the world beneath its heels. It will, by force of war, release the full creative energies of twentieth century science.
Charlie, not understanding what this means as well as the viewer, who has the benefit of hindsight, is very nearly seduced by the utopian future the Atlanteans say will follow. Because he's Victorian, and presumably a bit racist.

This weird sci-fi Atlantis that owes nothing to Plato (other than a brief namecheck where Advil says "yeah, Plato got it wrong") exists entirely as a critique of utopian sci-fi Atlantises as the fetishistic Aryan fantasies they are, with their slavery and their implied fascism. And Doug McClure fights dinosaurs. No wonder I remembered it so fondly.