This often tedious quasi-science fiction saga stands as perhaps the nadir of George Pal’s reign as the leading producer of films in the fantastic genres throughout the ‘50s. Directed by Pal himself, rather than his usual collaborator Byron Haskin, this came hard on the heels of Pal’s refit of H.G. Wells’ speculative satire The Time Machine (1960) as a cheesy but extremely entertaining Boy’s Own adventure. Atlantis, The Lost Continent inflates most of the faults and few of the virtues of Pal’s distinctive brand, turning potentially fascinating ideas into a mostly one-dimensional cartoon, emphasising cornball piety and laboured contemporary parables about science becoming a religion that will result in apocalypse. Atlantis, The Lost Continent brings his apparent ambition to be the DeMille of fantasy films close to fruition, but here fumbling in recreating DeMille’s awesome sense of theatre. Commencing with a prologue by Paul Frees explicating some proto-Thor Heyerdahl theses mixed with Eric von Daniken bullflop in looking at the remarkable similarities of aspects of pan-Atlantic civilisation and positing that Plato’s tale of Atlantis might account for this mysterious cultural and zoological traffic, promises a lot more than the film delivers. It’s essentially The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) with submarines, ray guns, and manimals added. Nonetheless the story had a lot of potential. A young Greek fisherman, Demetrius (Anthony Hall, actually the former songwriter Sal Ponti, and mind-chokingly bland whatever his name) and his father Petros (Wolfe Barzell, but post-dubbed by Frees) encounter a drifting boat one day when casting their nets. They rescue Princess Antillia (Joyce Taylor), a haughty, bossy young lady who describes herself as a princess from a land “beyond the Pillars of Hercules”, and earns a tongue-lashing from Petros who reminds her that in his land there are no kings and that she ought to be a little more grateful.
Antillia manipulates Demetrius into taking her west after she tries to steal their boat. Demetrius acquiesces, they brave the unfamiliar waters, and a man and woman in a small boat together for weeks inevitably succumb to temptation. During a romantic clinch between Antillia and Demetrius, a Verne-esque, fish-shaped submarine sails up behind them, unremarked upon by music or edits, making this the film’s most intelligent, bracingly casual moment. The submarine is of course Atlantean, and its captain, Zaren (John Dall, basically replaying his role from Spartacus) greets Demetrius with gratitude for returning the princess. Soon they arrive in Atlantis, with its blend of Hellenic and Babylonian architecture and arcane dress and social principles, with an oddly patchy infrastructure of super-modern technology. There Demetrius is enslaved, as Atlantean law insists that all foreigners must be, and Antillia finds that her father the king Kronas (Edgar Stehli) doesn’t have the nerve to stand up to the ruthless, xenophobic Zaren anymore to have Demetrius rehabilitated. Instead, Demetrius, believing Antillia has betrayed him, rejects her attempts to help, and wins his freedom by undergoing “the Ordeal of Fire and Water,” that is, fighting a chunky, dim-witted Atlantean champion in a pit filled with hot coals and then with water. Once he’s achieved his victory and warned of Zaren’s plans for world domination by the priest Azor (Get Smart’s Edward Platt), Demetrius pretends to ally himself with Zaren but really takes command of the slaves, who try to speed up an impending cataclysmic volcanic blast that Azor has predicted by drilling into the magma chamber.
The film is built around some familiar principles of the lost civilisation genre, with the xenophobia, paranoia, and militarism of the Atlanteans holding a mirror back to the audience of such elements in their own world. Moments of seriousness still dot the proceedings, saving the film from total disaster, especially in Demetrius’ interaction with fellow Greek slave Xandros (Jay Novello), who’s been in Atlantis for decades. Xandros is slowly mutating into one of the human-animal chimeras created by a sleazy alchemist (Berry Kroeger), who plays at Doctor Moreau – Pal even tips a nod to Wells by naming the alchemist’s laboratory the House of Fear. This grotesque practice supplies the Atlanteans with strong, brainless labour, and Xandros describes the sensation of his intelligence slowly being subsumed by the animal, thus literalising the insidious nature of a slave internalising the values of his masters. Later Xandros gives in to a screaming fit of abuse when he thinks Demetrius has sold out to Zaren, leading to Hall’s best moment in the film as he visibly fights down his shame to continue his ruse with Zaren. Through Azor, played with Platt with admirable seriousness in spite of wearing garb that would defeat men of less moral fibre than the Chief, explicates a warning that Atlantis’ impiety, substituting gods inspired by their own scientific abominations for the “one true god” Azor believes in, has inspired that god to destroy Atlantis. This renders the film a continuation, or prelude to, the punishment from on high that will result in an exodus of the purified as witnessed before in Pal’s When Worlds Collide (1951) and War of the Worlds (1953). Some of the better ideas perhaps stem from Gerald Hargreaves’ source play, adapted for the screen by Daniel Mainwaring. Any attempt to render a serious parable is however undercut by the relentlessly cardboard production and mostly poor acting, ranging from the wooden (Taylor) to the hambone (Dall).
The selling point of Pal’s films was their advanced special effects and sense of epic atmosphere conjured from fairly minimal resources, rendered in lustrous-hued Technicolor. But Atlantis, The Lost Continent steadily falters in this regard, as the concept seems to have stretched the production way too far, resolving in a proliferation of actors dressed from the darkest bowels of the MGM costume department mouthing insipid dialogue, and lumbering through poorly staged action scenes. The science fiction elements are in fact only conveniently pasted on to standard sword-and-sandal stuff that barely holds its own with the era’s relentless peplum films. This is emphasised by the film’s embarrassingly constant employment of stock footage from Quo Vadis? (1951) Little thought seems to have gone into attempting to create a classical civilisation with advanced scientific knowledge – the Altanteans have submarines but no other mechanically powered boats, a colossal ray gun but no firearms, and the alchemist utilises a mix of hypnosis and magic to create his monsters. In truth the script is a clumsy mishmash of inspirations. Still, the climax, portraying the end of Atlantis, with gigantic blocks of stone rising from the sea and sinking back again, the waters wreathing about the columned temples and causing a climactic explosion of the island’s main power source, is worth skipping through to.