flashback

Meet the first dinosaurs to have run amok on the big screen

There’s a pesky Ceratosaurus from 1914 and beasts based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel from 1925.

In 2015 alone, there have been two dinosaur movies, Jurassic World and the animated The Good Dinosaur, proof that Hollywood simply cannot get enough of the lumbering giants who walked on the earth millions of years ago.

Ever since the beginning of cinema, filmmakers have been working on bringing dinosaurs to the big screen. Possibly the first animated film about them was titled Gertie and was made by Windsor McCay in 1914. Gertie was also the first to use the technique known as key frame animation. The dinosaur in this silent short is a cute and cuddly sort, who prances around for the benefit of the audience. One of the placards reads, “Come out Gertie, and make a pretty bow”, and she merrily obliges.

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Also made in 1914 was pioneering American director DW Griffith’s Brute Force, credited with being possibly the first live action film to feature dinosaurs in the background. An all-male tribe of cave dwellers sets out to capture wives for themselves. A droll placard reads, “One of the perils of prehistoric apartment life,” followed by scenes of a Ceratosaurus disturbing the peace. The women-capturing tribe proves to be far deadlier than the beast.

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In 1918 came the first serious dinosaur-themed movie. Most of Willis O’Brien’s Ghost of Slumber Mountain has been lost, but whatever survives of the silent film shows its creator’s pioneering use of stop-motion effects. A man tells his young nephews of his encounters with the animals in the Slumber Mountain region. The theme and special effects set the stage for The Lost World seven years later.

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Harry Hoyt’s The Lost World is an adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel of the same name. The 1925 movie created an enduring template for dinosaur dramas as well as creature features: a team of explorers led by a “mad scientist” wanders into a land in which the animals have survived extinction. The explorers bring back a specimen, only to watch it escape and lay waste to the city. The destruction justifies the ravings of the scientist. The Lost World was reworked as King Kong in 1933, with a gigantic gorilla replacing the dinosaur. Michael Crichton re-used the title for his 1995 novel, which was a sequel to Jurassic Park (1990). The novels inspired the hugely successful Steven Spielberg movies.

In the 1925 silent production, billed as “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Stupendous Story of Adventure and Romance,” a team travels to the Amazon to locate a missing scientist. There, they find a dinosaur-eat-dinosaur world. The movie has plenty of action, far-reaching for its time, as well as a romance between the missing scientist’s daughter and a reporter who conveniently forgets that he is engaged. The stop-motion effects by Willis O’Brien, which he later replicated in King Kong, include placing dinosaurs on the top of mountains, getting the animals to battle one another, and transplanting a vengeful Brontosaurus to London, where it destroys the Tower Bridge. Sounds familiar?

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