I got two responses to my query late last week on Facebook about a film I’d seen in the mid-1960s and only vaguely remembered, a film about boys in a rowboat going back in time — responses from Alan P and Gary W. The answer is “Journey to the Beginning of Time”, and it’s rather a more significant film than I’d thought (considering how in my earlier Google searches for this, 5 and 10 years ago, I’d not found a trace). It was originally a 1955 Czech film, noted for its depiction of ancient animal species — it did not, as I’d thought, repurpose old Ray Harryhausen stop-motion animation — and was later adapted and partly refilmed to the US version that I saw in 1966.
And as Gary Westfahl remarked (“The Internet is amazing”) the full move is right here on YouTube. (With very weird opening title graphics.)
What I found remarkable watching it again this morning is how academic it is. The opening scenes (in the refilmed US version) take place in New York’s American Museum of Natural History, with the four boys viewing skeletons of ancient dinosaurs, and graphic diagrams of family trees of life across the history of Earth, in which the narrator goes into great detail (as he takes notes in his diary) about various types of dinosaurs. (Note that these scenes, filmed for the US version, don’t show the boys’ faces, only their backs, since the US filmed scenes needed to match the earlier Czech scenes, and presumably used different actors.)
For its time, this is a pretty sophisticated depiction of our understanding of the evolution of life on Earth. (They knew then that lizards descended from dinosaurs, though the realization that *birds* descended from dinosaurs came a decade or two after this film was made — though this film has even a suggestion of that.) Key insight: “And the farther you go back in time, the simpler life becomes.”
For the most part, watching this film again this morning confirmed my remembrance. The boys are on a rowboat, go through a cave in the lake in New York’s Central Park, and when they come out into an ice-crusted lake, they realize they are somewhere else — they realize that somehow they are traveling back in time. (As they proceed, they somehow have supplies for camping that one wouldn’t have thought they’d have had just renting a rowboat in Central Park… but never mind.) The narrative travels back through the broad periods of Earthly history — early mammals, dinosaurs, primitive worms… all the way back to barren rocks, and the edge of a sea they realize is the primal sea, where life first began. We see scenes of volcanic rock with biblical narrative about the “beginning”… and then — ****spoiler alert**** — they wake up back in the American Museum of Natural History. They fell asleep, under the hypnotic spell of a wooden statue of an American Indian shaman in the museum, whose icon they saw on the cave entrance in their ‘dream’…
But then there is a big reveal, of the sort that must have some essential term in (I would guess, without looking it up, in Clute and Grant’s ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FANTASY) — which is to say, the boys wake up in the museum, but on the bench next to them is the water-damaged diary that the narrator wrote on their supposedly dream-journey. So: did it really happen, or was it a dream?? The films ends. How many Twilight Zone episodes can you remember that had the same analogous ending…?