From Georges Méliès Trip to the Moon to Walt Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, filmmakers have taken to adapting the works of science fiction giant Jules Verne like a duck to water, with even lesser known pictures like Master of the World earning a certain amount of screen cred. But in 1961, producer Al Zimbalist tried to prove that a movie based on a Jules Verne story could succeed despite having a poor script and an “on-the-cheap” budget. That film was Valley of the Dragons, which was based on one of Verne’s lesser known novels Off on a Comet, and though the film did manage to turn a profit, it’s been mostly forgotten by even the most astute genre fan.
The movie opens with two men preparing for a duel in 1881 Algiers. American Michael Denning (Sean McClory) and Frenchman Hector Servadac (Cesare Danova) have decided a duel to the death is the only honorable way to solve their issue of being attracted to the same woman, but when a passing comet carries them away, the issue of their love lives becomes the least of their problems. The two men at first think some natural disaster has wiped out the nearby city – a logical assumption to sudden the disappearance of a major metropolis – but after noticing that the Southern Cross is now in the sky overhead, instead of the North Star, they conclude that the Earth must have shifted on its axis. Then one night they realize that the oversized moon they were staring at is not the moon at all, but in fact the Earth. So they finally tumble to the idea that they are actually on a passing comet, one that somehow chipped off a piece of Earth, atmosphere and all. What is hilarious is that these realizations come to them after having seen a pterodactyl, other dinosaurs partaking in titanic battles, and after they were attacked by a Neanderthal. I myself would have assumed that a time rift of some kind had occurred, but then again anything would make more sense than being safely scooped up by a passing comet.
Granted, the original Jules Verne story had that same basic premise, though the novel had no dinosaurs or cavemen, but the group of people that were carried off by Verne’s celestial body were quick to figure out that due to a noticeable lesser gravity, water boiling at 66 degrees Celsius – which would indicate a thinner atmosphere – and finally that day and night were now about six hours long, not the standard twenty-four, meant they were no longer on Earth. In the case of this movie, we must assume that these idiots never even graduated public school as not only is their theory preposterous – even by quickie science fiction standards – but Hector goes on about how dinosaurs and Neanderthals must have been picked up when the comet last passed Earth 100,000 years ago. I know that this movie takes place before mankind had really nailed down when the dinosaurs roamed the Earth, but most Universities, even at that time, knew that the differential time between man and dinosaurs existing on Earth was at least in the millions of years, not in the thousands.
Michael and Hector eventually come across cave people who look a lot closer to modern man than the Neanderthals that attacked them earlier did, and their first act after meeting them is to steal food and furs from these primitives. Truly heroic acts define our protagonists. Our duo is shortly separated by a rampaging Woolly Mammoth, who knocks poor Hector off of a cliff and down to a raging river far below, and thinking his friend to be dead, Michael ends up back with the cavemen they robbed earlier. Michael quickly uses his superior intellect to defeat the tribe’s alpha male and win himself a cute brunette cave girl (Danielle De Metz). At the same time good ole Hector is found by a cute blonde cave girl (Joan Staley) belonging to a rival tribe, and the two of them quickly become a couple.
This section of the movie is easily the most entertaining as it’s hilarious to watch the blonde bombshell cave girl stake her claim on this clean-shaven hunk of a man (with the men of her tribe consisting mostly of bearded hairy brutes, you can’t really blame the girl), and her chasing off all the other hot cave women, who also would like to try out this thing called kissing; it’s goofily charming. There is, of course, trouble in paradise because even though Michael is able to take over his tribe – by re-inventing the basic sling to take out these primitive Goliaths – he runs into trouble while hunting in a cave for the ingredients to make gunpowder. He and his cave girl find themselves being chased by low-rent Morlocks.
The blonde cave girl escapes the Morlocks, but is then quickly captured by passing members of Michael’s tribe; lucky for her, she had managed to pick up enough English from Hector for Michael to figure out that his friend must still be alive. Things start to head towards a happy reunion when all of a sudden a nearby volcano erupts – you really can’t have a proper prehistoric movie without at least one cataclysmic eruption – and the ground is torn asunder. Rivers of lava aren’t the only threat facing our heroes as Michael’s tribe soon find themselves trapped in their cave by a bunch of angry dinosaurs who were displaced by the disaster.
It’s a good thing that Hector had earlier discovered the ingredients for gunpowder, as this allows the group to explode the rocks above the cave and bury the dinosaurs under tons of rubble – how this didn’t cause a cave-in is the true mystery here. But such trivialities as logic and geology cannot get in the way of our valiant heroes; they have more important things to do, like hugging and kissing their primitive partners. The movie ends with Hector mentioning to Michael that he’d been studying the heavens over the last few nights and has deduced that the comet they are on is in a new orbit and that it will be passing by Earth again in about seven years. Michael states this is great news, and that seven years is not that long at all, especially when these two guys can basically set themselves up as gods.
Valley of the Dragons is one of those ridiculous science fiction movies that probably did great business as a second feature at the local drive-in – where the audience was probably too busy in the backseat to care about what was going on up on the big screen – but this is why the film is mostly forgotten. This movie was so on the cheap, that not only did it use footage from such films as One Million Years B.C. and King Dinosaur, with even cheesy moments lifted right from Cat-Women of the Moon (see horrible giant spider attack), but most egregious of all was that it used footage from the Japanese kaiju film Rodan, which they tried to pass off as a random pterodactyl.
Producer Al Zimbalist and director Edward Bernds took a fairly absurd premise from a forgotten Jules Verne story, crafting it into an even sillier prehistoric travelog, and starring two leads that would have been more in keeping with the heroes of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot. If you are one of those people who get a kick out of those on-the-cheap adventure tales, and don’t mind the tasteless footage of real animals fighting each other, you may get some entertainment value out of Valley of the Dragons, but overall it’s not one I can easily recommend.