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Journey to the Beginning of Time, A

Entry updated 30 May 2022. Tagged: Film.

Czechoslovakian film (1955; original title Cesta do pravěku; vt Journey to Prehistory). Filmové Studio Gottwaldov. Directed by Karel Zeman. Written by J A Novotný and Karel Zeman. Cast comprises Vladimír Bejval, Petr Herrmann, Zdeněk Husták and Josef Lukáš. 93 minutes. Colour.

After a boy finds a fossil trilobite near a cave, his three teenaged friends take him to Prague's natural history museum to see the exhibits, which inspires them to experience the prehistoric world directly. Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) suggests that caves are an appropriate means of achieving this end; this supposition proves correct when they boat along the river running through the aforementioned cave; it is not clear whether this is Time Travel or a Lost World/Hollow Earth scenario.

The river eventually opens onto a frozen landscape – an ice age. Rowing down the river takes them further back in time, eventually reaching a Silurian sea (see Time Abyss). The habitats and wildlife they encounter reflects the eras they passing through (see Prehistoric SF): they start off seeing mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses, as well as a cave used by early humans (see Origin of Man), though no cavemen are met; later sightings include a Deinotherium, an ancestor of the elephant; sabre toothed tigers and a Phorusrhacid – giant, flightless carnivorous birds, sometimes called terror birds. They go on to encounter Pterodactyl, Hadrosaur, Styracosaurus, Uintatherium, Camarasaur and watch the inevitable Tyrannosaur fight, here with a Stegosaurus (see Dinosaurs); thanks to its spiked club tail, the latter forces its attacker to retreat, but its wounds prove mortal. At the sea they find a trilobite and compare it with the fossil.

This is a travelogue with minimal plot: there are various attempts at drama – falling into a pit, being chased by a Phorusrhacid, bad weather and having a dinosaur tread on their boat – but, save for the Phorusrhacid attack, none are particularly exciting (the boy who falls into the pit simply climbs out again). This is primarily an educational film for Young Adults (see Education in SF), with great care being taken to portray the animals and plants accurately, based on the work of Czech palaeoartist Zdeněk Burian. Various forms of puppetry and animation (including stop-motion) were used, along with forced perspective. Though there are some weaker moments – the Tyrannosaur/Stegosaurus fight is not the highlight it should be – the special effects are usually very good, especially where the Phorusrhacid pursues one of the boys; the mammoth and dinosaurs have also been praised. The landscapes are well realized (save for one that is too clearly a drawing), particularly the vegetation of the older eras.

The film was internationally successful, and first released in the USA in 1960. In 1966 – under the guidance of Fred Ladd – an English dub was written and recorded, with new footage added – including having the boys (faces not seen) falling asleep and dreaming their adventure whilst visiting the American Museum of Natural History in New York; the new opening section inserts a reference to Creation, while the ending quotes from Genesis 1:1: "In the beginning God created ..." (see Religion). This version was cut into short episodes for serialization on US children's Television. The film has been praised by Steven Spielberg: the scene where the boys examine the dead Stegosaurus is seemingly echoed in Jurassic Park (1993). Karel Zeman was an important Czechoslovakian film-maker, combining animation and live-action, after initially working in the former medium (see Czech and Slovak SF). [SP]


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