Find out why we have more in common with prehistory than you think…
For as long as there’s been movies, there have been dinosaur movies. These prehistoric beasts are intrinsically linked to the history of cinema, and as we’ve evolved so have we.
Find out how dinosaurs have reflected the changes in technology, social norms and philosophies of the past 100 years.
Ever since the dawn of cinema, there’ve been dinosaurs on our screens. But if you compare this to this, it’s clear a lot’s changed since the medium’s primitive roots. Dinosaur movies have come a long way in the past 100 years, so let’s talk about it.
In this video, we’ll be looking at how the way dinosaurs have been portrayed in movies has reflected the change in culture, public opinion and sensibilities over the past century. But before we get started, a few things to note.
This is only a guide, and not a comprehensive look at every dino movie ever made. There’ll be some that buck the trends I’m going to talk about, and I might not mention your favourite. If I do, let me know what it is in the comments below.
The other thing is, for the sake of this video, I’m counting Godzilla as a dinosaur. I know he’s a jumped up iguana, but he fits the role of a prehistoric beast in the context of what I’m going to talk about. You’re lucky I’m not bringing up Godzuki too. Anyway, let’s start at the beginning…
The earliest movie I could find that featured dinosaurs was Brute Force, released all the way back in 1914. This 30 minute long silent film chronicles the life and times of a group of cavemen as they fend off warring tribes and big lizards. By today’s standards, it looks more than a little rough around the edges; two of the dinosaurs are quite clearly a snake and crocodile with extra dangly bits glued on them. But given it came out before the trenches of World War One had even been dug, it doesn’t look half bad, particularly at the end when we see a looming T-Rex scaled next to the cave folk.
And that leads me on to why I think dinosaurs appeared on screens so early in the history of cinema. So much of this period was dedicated to showing the fantastical things that up until that point could only be dreamed of. A decade prior you had Georges Méliès showing us the surface of the moon, and now we had the most awe inspiring monsters walking in front of our very eyes.
One thing I’ve neglected to mention until now is that Brute Force was directed by D. W. Griffith, as he’s the man behind arguably the most racist film of all time, The Birth of a Nation. But if we separate the art from the artist, Brute Force is still a landmark piece, and starts us on our cinematic timeline.
But dinosaurs weren’t just used to show what was possible in front of a camera; they were also used to demonstrate the scope and possibility of the fledgling field of animation. Staying in 1914, we saw the release of Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur. An animated short that sees the titular Gertie perform tricks like a trained elephant, it’s often touted as the very first animated film. Now, this has been refuted by some sources in recent times, but regardless, it’s still really early in the history of moving pictures.
In the 10 minute flick, Gertie moves and acts like a real animal. She waddles from side to side as she walks, her chest rises and falls as she breathes, and her muscles move in a naturalistic way. It imbues her with a personality, showing how mere pencil lines can forge an emotional bond with the audience. Much like Brute Force, Gertie highlights how animation could bring the impossible to life, and for the most part this is how dinosaurs were used in the early days of cinema; an example of its limitless potential.
And this continued to be the trend for the next decade. Seemingly every innovation was brought about by wanting to show cooler, more realistic dinosaurs. 1925’s The Lost World was the first full length film to feature model animation as the primary special effect, or stop motion animation in general. And I tell you what, they still hold up pretty well to this day.
Fast forward to post World War Two, and we enter what I consider the next stage of dinosaur films, which I’m going to label ‘The Other’. This includes films like Unknown Island, Two Lost Worlds and Lost Continent. If you haven’t seen any of these, they’re pretty much exactly what you’d expect them to be; a swashbuckling, all American hero saving the day in a land of savagery.
These themes were present in the earlier King Kong, but they were EVERYWHERE post WW2. I think this trend reflects not only the need for post war escapism, but also the lust for adventure in an ever-shrinking world. With many returning home after being stationed around the globe, as well as the winding down of colonialism, the time of pith helmeted explorers had really been and gone. The fallacy that there savage lands in need of civilising was disappearing rapidly, so people turned to the cinema to scratch that itch.
Dinosaurs hidden on remote islands served as the ultimate portrayal of ‘The Other’, that brutality that only the bravest of men could conquer unscathed. At a time in which the geo-political stage was becoming increasingly complicated and muddy, ‘The Other’ gave a clear delineation between us and them.
But it wouldn’t be long before dinos wouldn’t be used so much as an escape to a bygone age, but as a reflection of modern fears.
I’ll say again, I know Godzilla isn’t a dinosaur, but he looks like one and fits the mold here. Debuting in 1954, Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka used Godzilla as an allegory for the nuclear devastation that crippled Japan less than a decade earlier. He said “The theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the bomb. Mankind had created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind.”
By picking a creature that mankind would’ve never come up against before, it mirrored the unknown threat of nuclear warfare. As Director Ishirō Honda put it, “If Godzilla had been… some other animal, he would have been killed by just one cannonball. But if he were equal to an atomic bomb, we wouldn’t know what to do. So, I took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Godzilla.”
It’s a much more sobering tale than what we’ve covered so far. Whereas before, dinosaurs were shown as things to be conquered or even subjugated in the case of Gertie, now this pseudo-dino is wreaking havoc unabated. Some of these themes will be expanded upon later, but for now it’s really interesting to see how two very different perspectives of the same historical events could result in such different portrayals of hulking lizards.
And while Godzilla would reign supreme for the next two decades in several spin offs and sequels which kinda diluted the whole anti-war message into B-movie shlock, by the ‘q80s we got a decidedly different take on the prehistoric genre. This was found in Don Bluth’s 1988 animated classic The Land Before Time, which follows 5 young dinosaurs as they escape their scorched homeland in search of the sanctuary of the Great Valley.
Firstly, don’t let its label as a kids film put you off from checking it out; Don Bluth was famous for not taking it easy on the heavy themes! It’s one of the best meditations on child bereavement ever, and even the most stoic of viewers will find it hard not to get a little choked up. But to my knowledge, this was the most explicit example of the anthropomorphisation of dinos yet.
Instead of just monsters or pets at best, now they’re the main characters taking centre stage. We’re meant to sympathise with their plight as we would with any human character, and I think this is also a reflection of the times. This was the same decade PETA was founded, and the idea that animal life was something to cultivate rather than dominate was rapidly shifting from the fringes into popular opinion. It made sense that this would also be the time that dinosaurs, which for so long were shown as the grotesque extreme of the animal kingdom, would finally be presented as relatable.
But while kids were enjoying the colourful silly orphan babies, the 90s would swiftly bring us back to pant-wetting terror with undoubtedly the best dinosaur movie of all time, Carnosaur. Nah, of course I’m talking about Jurassic Park, everyone’s seen it and I’m sure it’s the reason a lot of you first fell in love with prehistory.
It’s a film that hits so many highs, from the sense of grandeur felt when we first see the Brachiosaurus to the claustrophobic tension of raptors chasing us through the kitchen. But if we strip away the glitz and the glamour of the special effects and the heart of the human story, what we’re left with is a wry criticism of modern science.
And when I say criticism, I don’t mean the “Keep that 5G out of muh veins” nonsense, but a poignant warning to slow down and take stock. This was the decade that we first successfully cloned an animal, and performed the first full gene sequencing. Even now these feats feel otherworldly, and although they wouldn’t have the Earth-shattering effects that many might’ve predicted (at least not yet), it’s easy to see why many at the time wondered if science was moving a bit too fast.
As Dr Ian Malcolm says, “…scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Much like Godzilla, the sequels that followed Jurassic Park would sacrifice deeper meaning for popcorn action, but that original film will always be a stark reminder of a time when the Pandora’s Box of scientific endeavour was beginning to creak open.
And this leads us onto where we are now; this weird post reality where the everyday feels more bizarre than any fiction. Where do dinosaurs fit into all of this? Can they still help us to make sense of the madness?
Of course they can, what can’t they do? We might not have had any new prehistoric properties crop up recently, but the stalwarts have evolved to fit with the times.
For example, the recent reboot of Godzilla develops the concept that humanity is no longer the conquerors we once were. Instead of the civilisers of the 40s and 50s, we’re now insignificant pawns on the natural stage, and if we’re going to survive, we really need to get our act together and start cooperating with monster and planet alike. It’s like the Gaia Hypothesis but with more teeth.
Even the Jurassic World series, despite its flaws, advocates for a greater awareness of environmental stewardship. In Fallen Kingdom Bryce Dallas Howard’s Clare Dearing is shown to have founded the Dinosaur Protection Group, an organisation fighting for the rights of the former attractions of Isla Nublar. And when the dinos are auctioned off as commodities, the consequences are swift and severe.
So where will dinosaur movies take us next? Well in the short term we’ve got Jurassic World: Dominion coming out, but more long term it’s much harder to predict. If we’ve learned anything over the course of this video, it’s that dinosaurs have always been a great reflection of the times. Whether they’re pushing the boundaries of what’s achievable on screen, contemporary ethics or how we view ourselves and the world around us, they’re more than just mindless monster flicks. And however the future unfolds, with the help of our prehistoric friends, I’m certain that life will find a way.
But what’s your favourite dinosaur film? Let us know in the comments below and if you’re into gaming, we have a list of the best dinosaur video games on our sister channel. There’s a link to that somewhere on screen now, but for now my name is Tom, this has been UDS films and we’ll see you next time.