A commercial helicopter flying over the desert is warned off when they fly too near to an atomic testing ground that is preparing a detonation. The weather turns bad, forcing the crew to land. After saving the life of a wandering tribesman, they are kidnapped and taken to the fabulous lost kingdom of Atlantis…
If you count GW Pabst’s multi-language versions from 1932 as just the one film, then this is the fourth screen adaptation of Pierre Benoit’s unbearably stodgy 1919 novel about the lost kingdom of Atlantis turning up in the Sahara Desert. Some effort was made to update this undeniably old-fashioned adventure for a contemporary audience; the nuclear threat, the machine guns, helicopter and radio equipment, etc. but the main events of the story remained unchanged and, at times, the developments are just as painfully melodramatic as in the earlier versions of the tale.
Caught in a storm and forced down on a dangerous ledge, pilot John (Georges Riviere), mining engineer Robert (James Westmoreland) and the intense Pierre (Jean-Louis Trintignant) save drowning tribesman Tamal (Amedeo Nazarri) from raging flood waters. What they don’t know is that he’s the regent/head man of what remains of Atlantis and isn’t best pleased when Westmoreland finds a valuable metal in the rocks of their cave. One quick fist fight later and our three musketeers are banged up in the lost kingdom and seemingly at the mercy of the beautiful Queen Antinea (Haya Harareet).
Atlantis is all flowing robes, flaming torches and ritualistic snake dancing, of course, and it’s not long before Westmoreland and Harareet are declaring their undying passion on various soft furnishings and Nazarri is getting hot under the collar about it.
Complications arise when Riviére breaks jail and this development drives a wedge between our two love birds, with Westmoreland ending up as one of the slaves in the underground mine. (l assume they are mining for the metal he discovered earlier, but it’s never specified, and what they use it for is anybody’s guess). Other romantic tomfoolery involves Trintignant and slave girl Zinah (Giulia Rubini) who seemingly falls in love with him just because he tells her she has a nice name. Must have been something in the desert air!
This take on the story does have some interesting aspects; it’s strongly suggested that the occupants of the city are not the direct descendants of Atlantis at all, but a nomadic tribe who have resurrected the old civilisation and its culture in the ruins. More significantly, that Antinea is a young woman who has been groomed by Nazarri as a goddess; a role she no longer wants. But there are problems with that conceit.
When one of our three musketeers is killed by palace guard captain Gian Maria Volonte, she has the body embalmed in gold and enshrined in a temple filled with lots of other corpses. In the book (and previous films), this is the tomb of the immortal queen’s discarded lovers. If that’s the case here, then all I can say it’s that, given her age, she’s been a very busy girl! Actually, the script never gets a proper handle on her character at all; her motivations and actions making very little sense from scene to scene.
This does have the look of a troubled production. Scenes in the underground caverns are mounted on quite a large scale, particular with the inevitable slave rebellion inspired by Westmoreland’s arrival. Extras throw spears and fire machine guns, guards leap off high things and dynamite goes boom when required. But if this seems expensive, then some of the matte paintings and the model helicopter certainly do not.
In addition, the film’s final act seems hopelessly rushed, so much so that the impression is that some scenes are missing or were simply never filmed. Trintingant’s obsession with Harareet arrives very suddenly and is never properly developed, so that his (off screen) actions at the climax are baffling and have no credibility whatsoever. The fact that he suddenly becomes the ﬁlm’s hero at this point as well is almost laughable. Although he does discover that radioactive fallout respects a ‘safety perimeter’ so there is that.
Perhaps this sense of an unfinished project is down to the change of director in mid-production. Frank Borzage was a Hollywood veteran with a number of notable films under his belt, such as ‘Liliom’ (1930), ‘A Farewell To Arms’ (1932) and ‘History ls Made At Night’ (1937). Unfortunately, he fell seriously ill during filming and had to step aside.
His replacement was Edgar G Ulmer, a filmmaker who now has the far better reputation, thanks to a number of notable low-budget cult triumphs: ‘Bluebeard’ (1944) with John Carradine, Noir drama ‘Detour’ (1945) and spooky alien invasion drama ‘The Man From Planet X’ (1950). He also directed the Karloff-Lugosi classic ‘The Black Cat’ (1934) before a love affair with the wife of a close relative of the studio head derailed his career at Universal.
lf the melodramatic source material seems a strange fit for the early 1960s, then the fact that George Pal’s big budget Hollywood production ‘Atlantis, The Lost Continent’ (1961) debuted on most European screens on almost the same day might go some way to explain its existence. However, this film did not reach the UK until 1964 and did not debut in the US until three years after that, which is a pretty good indicator of its quality.
A strangely disjointed experience which has possibilities but suffers from a muddled script and poor execution in general.