Josef Antonín Novotný
Directors of Photography:
Running time: 84 minutes
Original title: Cesta do pravěku
The fossils of prehistoric creatures housed at the National Museum are just a collection of bones, either spread out or assembled in a skeletal structure or set in stone as a result of petrification over millennia. They are not alive, and they only hint at the original. Sometimes, a museum may have an exhibit that is a representation of what one of these animals from long, long ago looked like. Usually, it’s a mammoth.
What the luminary Czechoslovak special effects director Karel Zeman realised, was exactly the same motivating force that must have compelled Steven Spielberg to shoot Jurassic Park in the early 1990s: The ability of the cinema, and of skilled filmmakers, to bring to life what until now we could only imagine, and make the past almost physically present.
Journey to the Beginning of Time was released in 1955, but as the country was isolated internationally at the time and would only open up a few months after Zeman’s death in 1989, his fame and magic were confined to the borders of the landlocked country in Eastern Europe.
What we realise more and more, however, is how far ahead of his time Zeman was. Inspired by Georges Méliès and explicitly referencing Jules Verne, whose work is the obvious forebear of both these artists, Zeman’s Journey to the Beginning of Time is a beloved classic in the Czech Republic and deserves widespread recognition, even though its visual effects have by now, more than half a century later, been surpassed by computer-generated effects.
Three teenagers, Petr, Jenda and Toník, and a younger boy named Jirka set off on a journey through the ages. Having read Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, they consider themselves explorers and set off on a canoe upstream from the present day all the way back to the beginning of life on earth, where the fossil of a trilobite that Jirka found in stone will be seen for real.
It is a journey that obviously boggles the mind, and we are left wanting for an explanation of how the children go about skipping from one time period to the other (the film does employ some mist to cover the transitions, though), but what is obvious is that these machinations of the fiction are not what we should be focused on. The real reason we watch the film is to see the prehistoric animals come to life, and do so in the presence (and in the same frame!) as the children.
Petr, the de facto leader of the group, obliquely speaks for the viewer, too, when he observes:
We haven’t made this journey just for fun; we came to study what prehistoric life really looked like. We are so lucky to have the opportunity to do just that, to see everything with our own eyes.
Indeed, this is a privilege, and as the children travel back from the time of the cavemen to the time of the dinosaurs and beyond, we find ourselves constantly aware of the fact that while the events are about as possible as time travel, the thrill of seeing creatures from these two very different times in one place is extraordinary, and Zeman assembles and stages the actions with a very firm and steady hand.
While the special effects are not on the more or less seamless technical level of Jurassic Park, they are breathtaking considering the film was made in the early 1950s, in a country that had a few months earlier been racked by its infamous currency reform that cut the worth of everyone’s money by 90% while prices remained the same (a tale told in great detail by the remarkable 2012 film, Ve stínu). Often, the stop-motion animal movements would seem to be too fast or too slow, or when the mammoth stands still but raises its trunk, the bushes around it move without reason with jerky movements.
But Zeman achieves some impressive results during the staging of a nighttime fight between a Stegosaurus and a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and while many animals don’t have a reflection in the water because they were not shot next to the river, but separately, the Brontosaurus’s appearance in the river, reflection included, is gorgeous.
At another point, the camera follows the enormous dragonflies called Meganeura as they fly between the trees, the camera apparently tracking down below while looking up at them. The effect is powerful and this technically ambitious sequence is very rewarding.
In some ways, the film can be called superficial, but covering the various life forms of 5 billion years in 80 minutes is no small feat. From time to time, mention is made of life in the present, and the juxtaposition is worthwhile, for example when club mosses were the size of trees, their eventual stratification would give rise to coal mining in the 20th century.
The four boys, with the exception of the inquisitive Jirka, don’t get up to much trouble, and have a surprisingly easy time of all this travelling through the ages, so in the end we learn little about them, but their awe at being able to see all these creatures is something the viewer understands all too well, as Zeman’s film awakens a curiosity in us for the life of things we may never really have considered beyond the bare bones of a museum exhibit.