When in 1974, I eagerly sat down aged nine for the BBC1 premiere of One Million Years BC, I didn’t know much about prehistory. I took the adventure’s thrilling skirmishes between loin-clothed cave people and marauding dinosaurs at face value.
Had I consulted a proper geological timeline, I would have learnt that poster-girl Raquel Welch and the film’s other homo sapiens didn’t come on the scene until 700,000 BC. Meanwhile, animator Ray Harryhausen’s spectacular stop-motion dinosaurs would have been long gone, thanks to the CretaceousPaleogene extinction event approximately 66 million years previously.
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But time seems to bend when it comes to appropriating these giants for our entertainment. That old Victorian craze fuelled by the 19th-century fossil boom shows little sign of cultural extinction, with Aardman’s Early Man (and its dinosaurs named Ray and Harry in tribute) just out on DVD and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom roaring into cinemas on Wednesday 6 June.
You can’t blame Hammer Films, whose One Million Years BC was first released in 1966, for massaging the timeline. After all, without humans, there would be no sense of scale or jeopardy. Director Steven Spielberg clearly understood this when he brought dinosaurs back in 1993 to populate Jurassic Park – and trained his camera on the first brachiosaurus from the perspective of palaeontologists craning their necks upwards in awe.
Thousands of species have disappeared from the Earth in our lifetimes, predominantly shrews, birds and butterflies. But it’s the massive ones we’ll queue up to see again and again… something we’ve been doing since 1854 when the first, full-size dinosaur sculptures were unveiled to the public in London’s Crystal Palace Park.
Experts generally agree that cinema’s first dinosaur appeared in DW Griffith’s silent short Brute Force in 1914, where primitives throw rocks at a visiting T-rex in long shot, its jaw clearly being operated by a piece of string. A major celluloid evolution occurred with another silent, The Lost World (1925), which took Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel about explorers bent on proving the existence of dinosaurs in Venezuela and declared in the trailer, “Mighty prehistoric monsters clash with modern lovers!”
The ground-breaking effects by model-maker Willis O’Brien subsequently enhanced King Kong (1933), in which a giant ape also lived in a place that time forgot, roamed by stop-motion dinos. A theme started to cohere: prehistoric reptiles go about their business until bothered by humans with ulterior, usually commercial, motives. Result: a deadly clash of the epochs.
The 1950s monster boom saw giant beasts co-opted as metaphors for communism or atomic energy, not least in Japan where Toho studios created Godzilla, a lumbering sea creature disturbed by H-bomb tests. The franchise abides, most recently with Shin Godzilla, the umpteenth film to bear the creature’s name. (I’m sure some of you remember the Aurora Glow-in-the-Dark Godzilla model kit – I bought it the same year I saw One Million Years BC.)
A second take on The Lost World from “Master of Disaster” Irwin Allen initiated a 60s cycle, while in the 70s, pin-up star of TV’s The Virginian, Doug McClure, donned the ripped shirt for a trio of rubber-suited creature features from Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs: At the Earth’s Core, The Land That Time Forgot and sequel The People That Time Forgot. King Kong also enjoyed a 1976 remake, produced by a film-maker aptly called Dino (De Laurentiis). But in Kong ’s famous jungle rumble, the dinosaur from the 1933 film is replaced by a giant rubber snake.
Meanwhile, the 1977 first issue of cult comic 2000 AD featured a strip called Flesh, in which dinosaurs are farmed for their meat by cowboys from the future.
But it was Michael Crichton’s crafting of an unmade screenplay into bestseller Jurassic Park in 1990 that had Spielberg gobbling up the rights for a live-action revival. His company had produced cutesy 1988 cartoon The Land before Time and its numerous follow-ups. But now, marrying analogue modelwork with cutting edge CGI, Jurassic Park turned dinosaurs into scaly superstars and merchandising gold. It even inspired the BBC Natural History Unit into digital action with Walking with Dinosaurs, which hoovered up all the awards that year.
When I was young, I was captivated by book illustrations of dinosaurs. But as if by magic, the CGI revolution allowed animatronic beasts to tour the country live. The T rex is now as much a rock star as the 70s glam rock band of the same name, and 2015’s Jurassic World had to live up to the hype, upping the evolutionary ante to compete: cue a genetically modified, chameleonic, extrasensory hybrid, Indominus rex, as the 50ft baddie of the piece.
Dinosaurs remain indestructible, educational fun for all the family. Having been on the Jurassic Park water ride at Universal Studios in LA, I can attest to the daft, cathartic pleasure of a fibreglass T rex head bearing down on your automated raft as a voice calls out, “It’s in the building! IT’S IN THE BUILDING!” For a cultural brand that was “65 million years in the making”, dinosaurs never get old.
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom will be released in UK cinemas on the 6th June