If ever there was to be a king of lost cities or lost civilizations that king would be Edgar Rice Burroughs; Tarzan couldn’t swing fifteen feet through the jungles of Africa without running into some ancient lost city or another, and of course there is The Land That Time Forgot where dinosaurs still roam the Earth in a mysterious continent locked behind the ice in the Antarctic. But before all that, there was Pellucidar- a whole world locked hundreds of miles beneath the Earth’s crust where creatures from every geological era roam free and evil reptilian masters dominate the race of man.
Published in 1914 as a four-part serial for All-Story Weekly At the Earth’s Core is one of my favourite of Burroughs’s series second only to Tarzan which makes their eventual cross-over that much more awesome. The series is of course based on the Hollow Earth theory which has been around since ancient times but even much later people such as Edmund Halley believed the Earth could be in part hollow but without the dinosaurs. That people of the 20th century often believed this to be the case is what led Burroughs to write his tale.
The book begins with the author telling us of how he ran into David Innes and his amazing drilling machine in the middle of the Sahara Desert and who related to him the amazing adventures at the Earth’s core. David Innes was heir to a mining company and with his best friend and inventor Abner Perry, they constructed an “Iron Mole” to explore deep beneath the Earth’s crust, unfortunately for our two heroes, once their journey began they quickly found out that they were unable to turn the machine around. That is a serious design flaw. Unable to turn, and stopping meant death by asphyxiation. They continued burrowing 500 miles deep but instead of plunging into a molten core they arrived in the fantastic interior world of Pellucidar where they encountered creatures from almost every era of prehistory.
David and Abner bounced from one nasty predicament to another as they were chased by a giant bear, captured by strange simian people who tried to sacrifice them to the wolf-like hyaenodon and then rescued/captured by the gorilla-like Sagoths who were the foot soldiers to Pellucidar’s dominant species the Mahars, a race of evil flying reptiles who either enslave or eat the humans of Pellucidar. It’s while in this slave caravan that David encounters Dian the Beautiful of Amoz and it is from her that David and Perry learn the local language, but when David saves Dian from the unwanted advances of fellow Hooja the Sly One he makes the colossal blunder of not claiming her for his mate thus disgracing her in front of all her people. Not knowing local customs can really hamper one’s love life in a Burroughs story. Worse while on route to the Mahar city Hooja escaped and took Dian with him.
While enslaved in the Mahar city of Phutra Perry makes a startling discovery, the Mahars are all female, reproducing pathogenetically by means of a closely guarded “Great Secret” contained in a Mahar book. It is this bit of knowledge that can really tip the scales for when David and company escape they steal the book thus dooming the Mahars to eventual extinction.
David Innes is a unique hero in the Burroughs canon because not only does he plan genocide of an entire sentient species his method of escape involves killing four sleeping Mahars, gutting them, and wearing the skins as a disguise. That is pretty damn cold. Also, David unites multiple tribes of humans to form a federation against the Mahars with himself as emperor. David is able to achieve this by introducing modern weapons and tactics to these primitive people. So clearly David Innes is not following the Prime Directive.
What makes this book so good is the amount of thought Burroughs put into this world at the center of the Earth. Their sun is a large ball of light in a fixed position so that it is a world of “eternal day” making time meaningless and almost impossible to gauge. At one point David was off having month-long adventures but when he returned to rescue Perry his old friend thought David had been gone only a short time. Natives to this world have a built-in homing sense allowing them to unerringly find their way home, but for David and Perry without a moving sun getting lost is all too easy in this strange nightless land where the horizon curves up instead of down.
In 1976 Amicus Pictures made At the Earth’s Core their follow-up picture to The Land That Time Forgot and even with a relatively small budget they managed to pull off a rather decent and fun adventure film.
The film stars Doug McClure as David Innes while British icon Peter Cushing plays inventor Abner Perry and the two of them have excellent screen chemistry, the brash American and the ever-British gentlemen make for a great dynamic. The first difference between the book and screen version is that in the book David and Abner were doing the first test of the Iron Mole in secret while in the movie they are doing it for an entire press junket and local spectators. Also in the book, the Iron Mole was aimed down into the Earth’s crust while in the movie the plan was to go through a mountain. So David and Perry’s experiment fails in both versions just more spectacular out of the gate in the movie.
Shot entirely on soundstages the sets are dubious at best with plastic trees and giant mushrooms littering the landscape but what is really missing is the sense of scale. Gone is the idea that this world is on the inner shell of the Earth with the horizon curving up around a stationary sun instead it all seems as if it is just a giant cavern with luminescent walls. Also, their first encounter has been changed from a cave bear to a bipedal parrot dinosaur.
As it is in the books David and Abner are captured and forced into a slave caravan by the brutal Sagoths but no thought is given to explain as to why the natives of Pellucidar are all speaking English. Whenever Doug McClure encounters someone he starts out talking in Pidgin English, “Me David, you Dian” but then in the very next moment that person is speaking back to him in fluent English. Burroughs never explains how all his heroes have amazing abilities to learn primitive or ancient languages but at least he addresses the fact that they have to learn the local lingo.
As in the book David encounters Dian the Beautiful (Caroline Munro) or Dia as she is called in the movie, and makes the faux pas that causes Dia to hate him, but after this, the movie greatly diverges from the book. The Mahar’s “Great Secret” no longer has anything to do with a formula that allows the female Mahars to fertilize their eggs without the need for males, now it is about how the lava both powers and endangers the Mahar city as well as incubates their eggs. So when the heroes of the movie cause the Mahar city to self-destruct they aren’t causing genocide just mass murder. So that’s good, right?
The Mahars themselves are nowhere near as threatening as they are in the book. The filmmakers were severely limited by budget and special effects capabilities of the time thus the Mahars in the movie are poor stuntmen in goofy suits who are flung around on wires. The book gets a little more in-depth with the creatures and how their society works. The Mahars have no auditory organs or spoken language and communicate with the Sagoths with a type of sign language and among themselves, Perry believes they use some form of sixth sense which is cognizant of the fourth dimension and not telepathy for they are unable to communicate unless within close proximity. In the movie, it is straight-up telepathy and mind control with the Mahars just staring and blinking at people.
Because the movie is ostensibly a kid’s film the more gruesome aspects of the Mahars are left out, we see them putting their victims in a trance before swooping down for the kill but with clever editing, nothing is seen and certainly no blood. In the book, the Mahars are amphibious and can soar through the water as easily as they can through the air and when they mesmerize their victims they draw them into the water where the Mahars casually bite off portions of their enthralled victims. Eating them alive- one morsel at a time.
In the book, David encounters an aborigine of one of Pellucidar’s islands who upon suspecting that David is going to steal his dugout, he charges at David with a spear. Unarmed and not wanting to be a shish kebab David jumps into the dugout and tries to escape via the sea but the angered native dives in, swims after him and due to David’s inexperience with this type of boat quickly catches up with him. Just when things look bad for David a sea creature seizes the swimmer and the tide is turned, but David cannot stand idly by and watch a man being eaten by some foul sea beast so he takes the discarded spear and saves the man. Thus the Mezop known as Ja befriends David Innes and is the start of what will be the unification of humans against the mighty Mahars. In the movie, they changed the character’s name to Ra (Cy Grant) for some reason but his introduction is somewhat similar, instead of an aquatic dinosaur, it is a man-eating plant they stumble upon while fighting in a cave.
And that ends the similarities between the book and the movie, aside from Perry and David teaching the locals how to manufacture bows and arrows to fight back against the Mahars nothing else is from the book. Hoojah the Sly One (Sean Lynch) is still a main nemesis in the movie but is killed off during the raid on the Mahar city while he is a key recurring villain in the book’s sequel. That David in the book doesn’t take any of the numerous opportunities to kill this treacherous asshat is one of the story’s weakest elements and which brings us to the end of the story where neither book nor the movie has a satisfactory ending. In the book, Abner will remain in Pellucidar while David and Dian plan to take the Iron Mole back to the surface world to get books and weapons to aid them in defeating the Mahars and Sagoths once and for all but through the most contrived circumstances Hooja is able to substitute a cloaked captured Mahar for Dian which David fails to notice until he reaches the surface.
In the movie, David and Abner just decide they have had enough fun adventuring under the Earth and want to head home. Dia shocks David by telling him she cannot go as she would not fit in amongst the surface dwellers and that her duty is here with her people. With a shrug of his shoulders, he and Abner hop into the Iron Mole leaving Dia Pellucidar behind for good. Amicus Pictures did return to Caspak with The People That Time Forgot but they never made a sequel to At the Earth’s Core.
The book by Edgar Rice Burroughs is a fantastic read and David Innes is one of his more complex heroes as he is both good and noble while also being rather arrogant and genocidal. The movie has a great cast and though the budget was limited they did manage to create an interesting-looking Pellucidar if not the one described in the book. Director Kevin Connor helmed all three of the Amicus Burroughs movies and all three are worth a watch.
At the Earth's Core
At the Earth’s Core is easily one of my favourite Burroughs as it deals with a nuanced character in a fantastic world. The movie version stars “The Ham that walks like a Man” Doug McClure and Peter Cushing who gets to visit his comic roots as the oh-so-British Abner Perry. Both the book and the movie are fun and vastly entertaining.