TCS Daily

Time Travel

By Jon Haber - July 14, 2005 12:00 AM

I've recently been enjoying a delightful piece of kiddie-hokem with my 6-year old son, the 1960s fantasy film Journey to the Beginning of Time.


The movie chronicles the adventures of four young New York borough boys who travel "across the Bridge" to Manhattan one morning to visit the Museum of Natural History followed by a boat ride in Central Park.  The trip takes an unexpected turn when the craft they are rowing begins a voyage back through time where the young heroes encounter mastodons, dinosaurs and eventually the starting point of life on earth.


My child's announcement that this was his favorite movie has special resonance since Journey represents my first film memory, seen more than 30 years ago in a local cinema that was later subject to a wrecking ball before my eyes. 


Without diminishing the impact of the stop-motion dino-duals on the imagination of a 6-year-old, watching the movie with adult eyes was an even more profound experience.  While the same effects that wondered the child-me and my boy look cheesy and cheap today, on the small screen were some telling details that were clues to an even more remarkable story than the time-voyage itself.


To begin with, the film stock used for all of the New York shots is clearly different than that used during the time-travel portion of the movie, and while in New York, the boys are only shot from behind (meaning their faces don't make an appearance until they reach their first mastodon).  And once that voyage begins, the kid's Central Park boat is suddenly equipped with all manner of camping equipment, from kerosene lanterns to Dutch ovens.  There are two possible conclusions for what film professionals refer to as this "continuity error:" (1) moms were exceptionally good at preparing their boys for day trips in the 1960s or (2) Journey to the Beginning of Time began life as an entirely different picture, Americanized for the U.S. matinee market.


A few minutes of Googling reveals that most of Journey was actually the 1955 Czechoslovakian film Cesta do Praveku, directed by Karel Zeman, one of the fathers of the respected Czech animation field.  In the 1960s, the film rights were purchased for serialization on U.S. TV, and were later turned into a feature film, adding a U.S. "wrapper" to a story that once consisted of the adventures of four Eastern European lads.


Zeman went on to direct a number of significant films, including in 1961 The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, an extraordinary mix of live action and animation that inspired fantasy auteur Terry Gilliam, whose early work as animator for Monty Python's Flying Circus strongly resembles the style and technique of Zeman.  Gilliam's under-appreciated 1988 version of the Munchausen tale was also influenced by Zeman's 1961-take on the German folk tale.


The use of footage from international big-budget pictures by American exploitation producers was not uncommon during this period.  Many in my generation remember excruciating Saturday matinee features such as Rumpelstiltskin or Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy that turned out to be badly dubbed German fairy tale pictures or Mexican wrestler-superhero movies produced by the Florida-based auteur K. Gordon Murray (making use of student labor at a nearby university for dubbing voice talent).  Similarly, European erotica first entered American screens as sliced and dubbed sexploitation pictures for the one-handed cinema set, before they entered the art houses of New York and LA.


I've previously commented  on how exploitation kingpin Roger Corman imported several important Soviet films into the U.S. market, turning huge-budget, Stalin-approved blockbusters that would have never seen the light of day in North America into fantasy kiddie pix that briefly unburdened parents of their offspring during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.


In all of these cases, the underlying story remains the same: genuinely interesting (although varyingly important) work of global artists being given new life (in the form of American distribution and now immortality on tape and DVD), not by film institutes or members of the cultural glitterati, but by crass exploitation filmmakers whose interest in even significant films took a backseat to the bottom line.


Today, there is a mini-Renaissance of sorts in the work of Eastern European directors such as Karel Zeman, partly due to the accessibility of their films and stories with the demise of the Berlin Wall, but also due to the fact that many people teaching and working in film today had the same initial exposure to cinema as I did, through bastardized versions of works like Cesta do Praveku /Journey to the Beginning of Time, produced to feed the maw of pre-multiplex independent cinemas for what we today refer to as "content."


Thus does the "invisible hand" work its will on culture as it does in commerce in ways Adam Smith would have never imagined (although his kids might have enjoyed).


Jon Haber has worked as a film writer for the Boston Globe and movie reviewer at WBUR in Boston. He now runs SkillCheck, Inc., a software publisher in Burlington Massachusetts, and occasionally finds time to write about the intersection of politics, film and culture.




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