Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Journey to the Beginning of Time


Notes: William Cayton Presents, New Trends Associates. 83 minutes.
Pete (“Doc”): James Lucas
Joe (“Jo-Jo”): Victor Betral
Tony: Peter Hermann
Ben: Charles Goldsmith

Producer: William Cayton
Director: Karel Zeman
Screenplay: Karel Zeman and William Cayton
Additional Dialogue: Fred LaddUnit Director at American Museum of Natural History: Fred LaddMusic: E.F. Burian

Pre-Commentary: This Czech film was released in 1955 as Cesto Do Praveku and updated by William Cayton a decade later with sequences involving American boys in New York who looked sufficiently like the Czech originals (since we don’t see their faces). The film was serialized and shown on National Educational Television.

Summary: We begin with psychedelic credits, modern art music, and the promise of the seeing the “sSpectacle of Life.” Pete, called “Doc” because of his scientific aspirations, narrates the story of three friends and himself visiting New York’s American Museum of Natural History “on a warm, hazy day in May.” Pete, who is nicknamed “Doc,” ostensibly because of his interest in science, tells us that they bought hats (a convenient system of identification for this American frame to the Czech film). “A wonderland in mid-Manhattan,” the American Museum of Natural History, has them gawking at dino displays: “Look at the size of that monster!” In Brontosaur Hall, the littlest, Jo-Jo, makes an arbitrary comment about footprints. “Jo-Jo didn’t realize it then–how could he?–but his words of jest were soon to become a prophecy!” [Now either they are prophetic or they’re not. They don’t become prophecy.] They call a stegasaur “a ponderous dinosaur that resembled an armored tank lumbering” and an allosaur “the grim hunter.” In Jurassic Hall, they see “the king of dinosaurs, Tyrannosaurus Rex.” What with the eggs and all, “It makes you wonder whether lizards are related to birds!” Doc insists in his journal that “the farther you go back in time, the simpler life becomes,” making mammals and “man” the “most highly evolved,” conveniently.

They note hypnotic wooden indian (a “medicine man” with “the evil eye”) and go rowing on Central Park Lake on their way back. They enter a cave with an “indian hex sign,” like the one on the canoe at the Museum, expecting to emerge on “the other side of the lake,” but instead they enter “a whole new world” and run into ice. “It never occurred to us to turn back.” They “c’mon, heave” until “it’s getting worse”: the ice stops them and set up camp for the night. Doc speculates in his journal about the nature of this odd journey. Day 2 is warmer and they row past a hairy elephant. But in New York? and that big? “That is a prehistoric mammoth,” says Doc. “My words fell like sledgehammers on the boys’ ears.” The last ones died 10,000 years ago before the Ice Age. They are travelling backwards in time and soon they seem to have travelled over a million years back.

Day 3 the terrain changes again and they tow the boat upstream. On land and follow a path to a cave, finding tusk portions, hunting garbage, a club, and cavepaintings. “Just because he can paint doesn’t necessarily mean he’s friendly.” Jo-Jo wants a souvenir but that will burden us down. Tony, looking for a photo-op, sees ducks and bison. He finds a pit and a spear and falls into the former. The others search and see a woolly rhinoceros fight. Jo-Jo thinks he sees a caveman, but it’s just Tony covered with mud and carrying the spear. “It’s a swell spear!” They take a picture.

Now back one or two million years, they’ve decided to continue back to the beginning of time, as if they can decide this. They now see palm trees, flamingoes, gazelles, a dinotherium, and “the meanest killer of the Tertiary period”: a saber-tooth tiger. Jo-Jo wanders off, ignores calls, and catches a fish. They continue their journey, deciding to start naming locations with unimaginative designations. A storm harasses but does not kill them. At night, Doc records in his journal that they soon should be seeing less familiar animals. Crocodiles loom, but Doc drives them away with the lamp and appreciates fire.

The next morning, a leopard threatens Jo-Jo. They drive it off with fire, and make a boat escape. In the Tertiary period, they see a Uintathereum. “What an ugly monster; is he dangerous?” “Nah, he’s a vegetarian.” [Idiots.] A “carnivorous ancestor of the ostrich” charges Doc but fails to bite his ass off before he gets to the boat, dammit. Mesozoic pterodons are called “flying lizards” and “flying monsters.” Jo-Jo arrogantly insists they’d give up fish-eating if they ever tasted a boy. Doc shows off his knowledge of ancient plant life. A stegasaur sighting prompts, “You can tell from all that armor he’s built for fighting.” [Not defending?] Regarding its skin, “It would take big teeth to penetrate that!” “For offense he uses his spiked tail, like a club.” “Look! A Spoon-bill!” They quietly row past this swamp-feeder. A brontosaur — “Wow! Thirty tons if he’s an ounce!” — is safe to approach: “He’s too stupid” [to know that these idiots deserve to die?]. Tony takes a picture. At dusk we see a stegasaur fight off a ceratasaur but die in the sunset. Approaching the carcass in the morning, Jo-Jo throws rocks at it. “I’m sure glad he’s dead…. He looks just like a big tank to me” [they should know?]. Doc wants to collect scientific data but has forgotten his diary in which to jot down notes. Jo-Jo goes to retrieve Doc’s diary but finds the boat smashed by some “monster” that trampled over it on the beach. But the diary’s all right and they decide to build a raft.

The misty Paleozoic period, over 300 million years ago “when life was at its slow beginning,” contains insects. Jo-Jo wanders off in search of the source of a cricket-noise and gets lost. He sees a cheeky amphibian and tries to drive it off to retrieve Doc’s diary again, which he returns after having a snit.

We end up in the Precambrian period, “the age before life,” and wax biblical: “for the earth was barren and void.” “We had to push on; we had to see what lay ahead…. We were witnessing the begining.” We arrive at the sea, “the sea in which life began,” and “we could only pause and stare in awe at the great drama.” Beyond the sea we see volcanoes “gushing red from the furnace of creation.” “Beyond creation lay the beginning of time.” Stock footage of lava inspires Doc-narrator to recite Genesis 1 passages.

We wake up to the “inscrutable face of the indian medicine man” and wonder if we dreamed the journey to the beginning of time. The diary is wet though. “Can man transcend the barrier of time? Project himself into the past or into the future? I wish I knew!”

Commentary:Eastern European science fiction often tries to be educational. This film is poorly dubbed, but for an early example of edutainment the stop-motion looks better than one would expect. The masculinism can be irksome: anything unfamiliar is a “monster,” and size determines how “boss” an animal is. But despite this, the film is well-intentioned.

The Genesis rapture is a big cheese-out and really doesn’t conveniently mesh. Odd too the insistence on progressivism, yet we travel backwards which inevitably must be anticlimactic or contradictory.