Legendary filmmaker George Pal is known for being the man behind such classics as The Time Machine, War of the Worlds and When Worlds Collide, but he also had a few stinkers on his resume such as Conquest of Space, Doc Savage, as well as today’s entry, Atlantis, The Lost Continent. Stories of Atlantis dates back to the philosopher Pluto, who used this fictional tale as an allegory for the hubris of the nations of his time, but this hasn’t stopped countless people from insisting that Atlantis did really exist. Hollywood has certainly taken the love of this myth to heart – we’ve seen it depicted in everything from Disney animated movies to Stargate spin-offs – but it was director/producer George Pal who first brought it to the big screen, and yes I know I’m ignoring the Republic serial Undersea Kingdom that came out a year earlier, so sue me.
The movie follows the adventures of a Greek fisherman named Demetrios (Sal Ponti) who, while fishing with his father one day, came across the wreckage from a ship and it’s sole survivor, a beautiful woman by the name of Antillia (Joyce Taylor). This beautiful castaway says she is from a land beyond the Pillars of Hercules, but Demetrious and his father discount such claims because no sailor has ever returned from the Edge of the World, and her claims of being a Princess they take about as seriously.
Note: History buffs will know that Plato stated that Atlantis lay beyond the “Pillars of Hercules” but as the movie takes place during the last days of Atlantis this places the film’s timeline at about 9,000 B.C which puts the story many years before Hercules was even born.
Not wanting to live her life as a fisherman’s wife – and can you blame her – Antillia tries to steal their boat, Demetrious catches her and offers a deal saying that he will help her find her way home but, “If by the space of one moon I do not sight your land we will return to my land, and when we return you will become my dutiful wife for evermore.” She agrees, as she has fallen in love with him – as one expected to happen – and overall it’s not a terrible deal. They set sail across the dangerous waters where they are tossed by violent storms, menaced by an impenetrable fog and Demetrios is haunted by nightmarish visions.
They are aided in their travels by a crude compass that Antillia devised, which Demetrios claims his father would call sorcery, until eventually they are accosted by what at first appears to be a massive sea creature but turns out to be an Atlantean submersible. On board we meet the villainous Zaren (John Dall) and Sonoy the Astrologer (Frank DeKova) who seem very happy to find Antillia safe and sound, but shortly after arriving at Atlantis Antillia is spirited away to the palace and Demetrios is detoured into slavery.
When Antillia discovers that Demetrios has been placed in slavery she goes to her father King Kronas (Edgar Stehli) to protests, but unfortunately he is not the strong man she remembers and has basically become a puppet to the usurper Zaren. Her protestations that she owes her life to Demetrios fall on deaf ears as one of the most sacred laws of Atlantis is that all strangers are to be enslaved, and worse is that there is a prophecy that a Greek fisherman’s arrival will portend the end of Atlantis.
Note: The culture of Atlantis here is a bit of a hodgepodge as budget constraints forced George Pal to use old sets, costumes and props from other movies that included stuff from films that took place in varying time periods and cultures. We see a large pagan idol from The Prodigal, Greek and Roman architecture, statues of the Egyptian goddess Bast, costumes from Ben Hur and even scientific gauges from Forbidden Planet.
Even stranger is that we meet an Atlantean high priest named Azar (Edward Platt) who encourages Antillia to abandon the false gods of Atlantis and pray to the one true God. Not only is this a very forward thinking priest but we also learn that he was once a scientist and had abandoned his calling when he saw his inventions being used as weapons of war. It’s he who warns Demetrios and Antillia that Atlantis’s days are numbered as he believes some catastrophic event will see their world come to an explosive end. He had apparently noticed the birds, bees and ants getting the hell out of Dodge.
The drama of impending doom is the not only problem facing our heroes as Demetrios believes that Antillia had lied to him from the start, and that she lured him into slavery. She tries to explain the current situation, and that she still loves him, but he will have not of it, “Your heart comes dear Princess, it is not worth the price I pay.” This scene between Demetrios and Antillia is wonderfully written and fantastically acted and almost makes up for the ridiculous plot.
It should be noted that George Pal didn’t just settle for borrowing props from other movies he also rips off H.G. Wells for in this film we find Demetrios being sent to the “House of Fear” where mad science is used to turn slaves into half-man half-animals. In the H.G. Wells book The Island of Doctor Moreau the lab was called “The House of Pain” and that George Pal simply changed it to “The House of Fear” shows just how much he cared about originality.
For some bizarre reason Zaren has Demetrios taken from the House of Fear, just as the mad doctor plans on turning him into a pig-man, and sentences him to the ‘ordeal of fire and water’ where a slave can win his freedom. And why exactly would he do this? Sure, the chances of Demetrios surviving this are remote but if he did happen to win you’re forced to free the man your betrothed is in love with, while on the other hand I doubt their love would survive him having a pig’s snout.
Of course Demetrios wins and is able to use his new won freedom to work against Zaren’s plans for world conquest. The priest informs our hero that Atlantis will meet its end in by the next full moon and that all they have to do is delay Zaren’s production of his newer and greater crystal-laser weapon. Now let’s take a moment and discuss the scientific wonders of Atlantis; aside from the turning of men into animals and cool submersibles the key achievement seems to be the harnessing of the suns powers through the crystals that the slaves mine for them. We learn that the beams emitted by these crystal devices can melt metal, explode boats, and skeletonize people in the blink of an eye, which leads one to ask the big question, “Why haven’t they tried to take over the world before now?”
Even more amazing is that even though Atlantis is roughly the size of Australia, and sitting right in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, it has somehow managed to remain a secret to the rest of the world. Anyone who arrives on the shores of Atlantis is enslaved and I guess the people of Atlantis don’t have very curious minds as they’ve never ventured to any other land. Are we to believe that until the evil Zaren broached the idea of global conquest none of these yahoos thought of war? You have submarines and lasers that can immolate any threat, what the hell were they waiting for? Being they have slaves, and seem to have no qualms about turning people into animals, I find it hard to believe these people are all so peace loving that the idea of war is foreign to them.
Demetrios is able to use Zaren’s belief that anyone will betray their people for money to infiltrate the slave camps, sabotage the worksite and speed up the volcanic destruction of the island. Despite borrowing lots of footage from the Rome burning scenes in Quo Vadis there is still a lot of good miniature work in the sinking of Atlantis, and the shots of the city falling beneath the waves as the fleeing Demetrios and Antillia watch from their boat is pretty impressive.
As historical epics go Atlantis, The Lost Continent is clearly a victim of a limited budget allocated to a story that obviously required a lot more, the script was cliché ridden and only the performances of leads Sal Ponti and Joyce Taylor, as well as the pretty cool destruction scenes, make this worth checking out. Only diehard fans of the genre need bother with this sword and sandal flick.
Note: When Zaren meets is ironic end by laser, the crystal accidentally fires a blast at him, the crease on his skull shows he must have had some form of brain surgery prior to the events here. Which would explain a lot.
Atlantis, The Lost Continent (1961)
George Pal tried to bring the world of Atlantis to life but financial constraints and a weak script resulted in a rather forgettable picture.