Four boys travel back through time in a row boat, escaping cave-men and dinosaurs. Czechoslovakian animator Karel Zeman’s 1955 edutainment film is a beautifully rendered and heart-warming family movie about evolution. 7/10
A Journey to the Beginning of Time. 1955, Czechoslovakia. Directed by Karel Zeman. Written by Karel Zeman, J.A. Novotný. Starring: Vladimir Bejval, Petr Herrman, Zdenek Hustak, Josef Lukás. IMDb: 7.3/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
In 1955 American audiences were being wowed by Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation in films like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, review) and It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955, review). But Europe had its own Harryhausen, who was much less known to American audiences, partly because he worked behind the iron curtain, and partly because the one film he made that got a wide release in the US, A Journey to the Beginning of Time (Cesta do praveku), downplayed his contribution when studios tacked on a newly filmed American beginning and end when it was released overseas in 1966. This was Czechoslovak director Karel Zeman, one of the most brilliant, artistic and inventive animators in the history of cinema.
Globetrotter Zeman was born in 1910 in what was then Austria-Hungary, current day Czech Republic, and worked in advertising in Paris and Marseilles in the twenties and thirties. It was at this time he was commissioned to make an animated ad for soap for the cinemas, and found that he loved the work. During his stay in France he had also fallen in love with author Jules Verne’s fantastic stories, as well as with the wonderful lithographs that accompanied his books. After some extensive world travelling, he returned home to what was at the time Czechoslovakia, and continued his work in advertising. The name of his home country again changed in the forties, becoming The Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, or as we now call it: ”Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia”. He tried to escape to Casablanca, but wasn’t allowed to leave the country. After WWII, he started teaching at a window-dressing school, when one day in 1946 something happened that changed his life: he met animator and filmmaker Elmar Klos, who would go on to win an Oscar for The Shop on Main Street (1965).
Highly impressed with Zeman’s old commercials, Klos immediately gave Zeman a job at movie studio Zlin’s animation department, as an assistant to Hermina Tyrlova, known as ”the mother of Czech animation”. It wasn’t long before he started directing his own short films, and had some success with a series of films about an inventor called Prokouk, as well as the classic short A Christmas Dream (1946), which won the prize for best short film at Cannes. He made his feature film debut in 1952 with A Treasure on Bird Island, which was a huge hit in Czechoslovakia, and was released in several other European countries. After this he took on a huge task, to create a journey back through history until the very beginning of life on Earth, by combining live-action footage, animation and puppetry, thus carrying on the spirit of his hero Jules Verne, as well as Willis O’Brien’s groundbreaking stop-motion work in films like The Lost World (1925, review) and King Kong (1933, review). This was A Journey to the Beginning of Time, or Cesta do praveku (literally “Journey to the Prehistoric”).
The film really is more of an ”edutainment” film than an actual entertainment film – the plot is thin and the characters flat. There really isn’t much of a plot, as the movie plays more like a cinematic tour through a natural history museum. But the four young actors at the heart of the journey play their roles with wonderful conviction, and it’s a beautifully naive and heart-warming little story, so it doesn’t really matter much that it’s quite banale. The film opens with three teenagers (Petr Herrman, Zdenek Hustak and Josef Lukás) taking their younger friend Jirka (Vladimir Bejval) to the natural history museum of Prague, where he becomes enchanted with the bones of dinosaurs and a stuffed mammoth – and in particular a fossil of a trilobite, which he buys in a gift shop. Jirka wants to see all these wonders for real, so being the strappy lads that they are, they decide to take a row-boat down a river in a cave and travel backward in time – to the beginning of time. They reason that if Jules Verne’s characters could find a lost world in Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864), then so can they. As this is juvenile fantastic fiction, no more explanation is needed.
So the boys grab their camping gear, and their all-important journal in which to record all they encounters, and travel back through the ice-age and the prehistory of man, where they meet mammoths, giant birds, sabre-tooth tigers and other extinct species, they avoid a brush with a cave-man and go further back. Back to the age of dinosaurs, where they meet brontosaurs and brachiosaurs and witness a sunset battle between a T. Rex and a Stegosaurus. They move on to the Carboniferous period with its endless swamps and marshes, giant dragonflies and lizards, and finally reach the barren, rocky wastelands of the Silurian period. Through the lifeless mountains they walk until they reach the sea, where life is slowly beginning to crawl up on land. And here they find Jirka’s prize – a living prehistoric trilobite.
Most of the film takes place with the boys rowing and looking at things on the river bank, or being attacked while they rest for the night. Jirka goes running off and gets in trouble, and the boys flee back to the boat and continue their journey. Petr (Lukas) acts as expedition leader, recording the events in the journal, while at the same time narrating the film, explaining all that the boys meet to the audience. There’s a lot of scientific explaining going on, almost creating the feeling of sitting in a classroom. But the boys fill it out with enough pranks and good-natured boy scout hijinks for the film never to get boring. Their sense of awe and wonder is palpable and easily draws the viewer into the adventure. They are chased by predators, scare off crocodiles, get caught in a lightning storm, lose and find their journal, their boat gets crushed by a dinosaur, and Jirka constantly gets lost, so there’s enough action and adventure to keep the juvenile audience quite entertained. The film provides danger, but is never really scary.
Although Zeman depicts a whole range of animals, it is his mammoth and especially the dinosaurs that have gone down in history. Zeman and his team based their designs of prehistoric animals on the paintings and illustrations by Czech palaeo-artist and illustrator Zdenek Burian. At the time Burian was fairly unknown outside of his home country, but in the late fifties he was introduced to international audiences thanks to a number of books depicting extinct animals – especially his renditions of dinosaurs were not only striking, but scientifically groundbreaking. Burian had worked for two decades alongside renowned palaeontologist Josef Augusta to create scientifically correct depictions of both dinos and other creatures, and his artwork took the scientific world by storm. Today he is considered as perhaps the most important palaeo-artist in modern times. Especially Augusta’s and Burian’s work on the Brontosaurus and Brachiosaurus changed the way these animals were viewed, and they also made a famous depiction of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. They were the ones popularising the idea that the Brachiosaurus primarily lived in water to support its weight, although this theory is today seen as highly unlikely.
One inspiration for A Journey to the Beginning of Time was surely Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation on the 1953 film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. That film was made in black-and-white, and depicted a fictional rhedosaurus bearing down on New York. What made that film especially spectacular was the way Harryhausen’s dinosaur interacted with live-action footage, through the means of travelling mattes and rear projection. However, these techniques had their drawbacks. Rear projection placed a semi-translucent screen behind the live-action, and an image was projected on the screen from behind. The main problem with this approach was that the projected image always appeared a bit faded, even in the best of cases. Travelling mattes – or bluescreen photography – solved this problem, but it was a time-consuming and laborious process, and almost inevitably resulted in colour leakage, creating fuzzy outlines, and in colour blue halos (or whatever colour was used as a background) around actors and objects, akin to chromatic aberration.
What is interesting about Cesta do praveku is that the film uses none of these techniques. One reason for this may have been that the studio, Ceskoslovenský Statní Film, didn’t have the resources or equipment to do these effects, but the more likely explanation is that Zeman knew that they wouldn’t look convincing, especially not in colour. Instead he relied on a myriad of other tricks to combine the animals and the humans in the same frame. One was as simple as editing. In many instances, animals and boys are shown by themselves, but cleverly filmed and edited in such a way that they seem to be interacting. He also used a lot of traditional puppeteering, often combined with forced perspective, to make small puppets seem gigantic. There are both mechanical puppets, rod puppets and hand puppets, as well as people in suits. Other times he used either traditional cutout animation with flat drawings, replacement animation and stop-motion animation with puppets. To combine the animation with live-action footage, Zeman mostly used simple static matte and split-screen effects. In a whole number of shots the screen is cut in half. The bottom half consists of the boys rowing along the river, and the top half depict animated animals and environments on the river bank. The water and the land serve as natural framing devices and allow Zeman to combine the footage between the two elements without the need for them to overlap.
To create the illusion of overlapping realities, Zeman every now and then substitutes animation for puppets, flat ”profiles” or a combination of these. Often he uses a flat, inanimate profile for a creature’s torso and legs, carefully blending it into a three-dimensional, moving puppet head. In these shots Zeman can put the actors in front or behind the animal, as they can appear on the same set and are filmed by the same camera. The live-action puppets are often far less convincing than the stop-motion puppets, but they work well when the shots are kept short. The first creature the boys encounter is the mammoth, and it is one of the most memorable scenes of the film. It is a combination of a stop-motion puppet inserted by way of split-screen, and mechanical puppet filmed in forced perspective. It is obvious that only the head and trunk are mechanised on the puppet, while the rest is just a stationary prop, as beautifully rendered as it is.
Interestingly enough, Czech entertainment website Kinobox writes that Zeman never even intended the film to have a dramatic plot, Cesta do praveku was intended strictly as an educational film. There’s a couple of interludes where one of the boys gets lost, and we follow the three others – and another which follows only one of them. These are deviations from “journey” itself, and as such the parts of the film that most resemble a dramatic plotline. But these came about purely by accident. One day the boys were playing around with stilts on set, as one of them fell and hurt his leg. As a result, he was unable to work for a few days, but due to the film’s gruelling schedule, Zeman couldn’t halt the production. Instead, he rewrote the script so that part of the film could be shot without the injured actor.
Apparently, Zeman didn’t consider himself a creator of fictional films at all, nor was it his intention of becoming one. However, the worldwide success of A Journey to the Beginning of Time changed his mind. I haven’t found any contemporary reviews for the film, but it seems to have been a huge hit not only in the Eastern bloc, but in countries like Japan and eventually the US as well. According the Kinobox’s user rankings, Cesta do praveku is the best liked Czech SF movie ever made. The film also has a very good 7.3/10 IMDb rating, albeit no Rotten Tomatoes entries. However, modern online critics are not quite blown away by the movie. Richard Scheib at Moria gives it only 2/5 stars, lamenting that it lacks the visual poetry of Zeman’s other films, as well as a proper plot: “Crucially, there is very little drama to any of it – just the boys moving from era to era, viewing the sights and continuing on. The most dramatic the film ever gets are a couple of occasions when one of them is separated from the main party. It is hard to find anything more to the film beyond that of the juvenile naturalism tour brought to life.” Glenn Erickson at Trailers from Hell calls it “the least ambitious” of the three Zeman films released by Criterion in 2020: “This is a leisurely visit to a ‘dinosaurland,’ and its stop-motion animation workout does not compare with the unique creations of Ray Harryhausen.” Mark David Welsh writes: “Squarely aimed at children with a thirst for knowledge, Zeman’s first feature may fall short in its dramatic respects, but it’s still a fine showcase for his skills as an SFX artist, model maker and animator.” Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings is more positive, though: “There’s really not much in the way of a plot; the children just go from one setpiece to another. I find the movie to be a wonderful ride; the special effects aren’t convincing on a realistic level, but they have a charming variety to them and retain a sense of wonder and poetry. And even though some of the situations the children get themselves into are a little silly, it all fits well into the spirit of the movie.”
As far as edutainment films go, A Journey to the Beginning of Time is certainly among the very best ever made. As entertainment and film art it is severely flawed regarding dramatic arc, plot and characterisation, viewed with adult eyes. However, the film must have captivated its juvenile audience in 1955, as it most certainly did when it was released in the US in 1966, and has continued to do so over the years. Even young audiences accustomed to the near-flawless CGI effects of today would probably enjoy its sense of awe and wonder. Its strengths lies in the hand-crafted artwork on display, combined with on-location and studio-based footage which produce a heightened reality. It has a fairy-tale feel, but much in the same way as Peter Jackson managed to root the fantasy of The Lord of the Rings in a believable world working within its own logic, so does Zeman make us believe the journey his four protagonists make. While not fleshed-out characters, the four boys’ sympathetic, naturalistic performances help to make them likeable characters, which are enjoyable to watch. In its best moments the stop-motion puppet animation is on par with Hollywood standard, and the the avoidance of faded rear projection and leaky travelling mattes help retain the sense of flawless immersion – even if some of the methods used for the special effects are creaky, obvious and flawed. Modern audiences will probably feel it is rather slow-moving and lacks a decent dramatic structure, but it was nonetheless one of the greatest fantasy adventures that had ever been put to screen in 1955, Hollywood included. Its no-nonsense attitude makes it a refreshing alternative to the flowery song-and-dance-infused kiddie pictures by Disney, and it manages to be fun without resorting to slapstick and cheap laughs.
Here, in a way, I think I have an advantage from the way I review movies from some of the critics cited above, as I watch these films in chronological order. It is one thing to intellectually be aware of when corresponding movies were made, and another to actually feel and experience the impact of a movie that would have been a completely new kind of experience for a contemporary audience. When, for example, Glenn Erickson compares the effects of the movie to those of Harryhausen’s, he doesn’t take into consideration that Harryhausen had yet to create any of his masterpieces. When Cesta do praveku was released, Harryhausen had not yet made a single film in colour. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, while containing impressive work, was still a rushed debut, and his octopus for It Came from Beneath the Sea was a cost effective mass of tentacles. The latter film is now available as a pristine, digitally coloured restoration, which adds a punch to it which wasn’t there when it originally viewed in black and white. When viewing Cesta do praveku as an audience would have in 1955, the film really is like nothing anyone had ever seen at the time. And while the animation is clumsier than Harryhausen’s, no film to this date had brought this kind of a menagerie of prehistoric animals to life in such wonderful colour and imagination.
This film is different from anything else Zeman ever did. In all his other films he wilfully blended reality and fairy-tale, as in his most famous film, The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (1958), where he literally put his characters inside the lithographs of his beloved Jules Verne books. A Journey to the Beginning of Time was the only instance that he actually strove for a degree of photorealism. One can perhaps surmise that he wasn’t completely satisfied with the results, as he never went down the same path again. The problem was, perhaps, that he had to do too much with too small resources. Ray Harryhausen toiled away for seven months on the rhedosaurus of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and he would sometimes work for several years on his big stop-motion epics, and still his films only had a limited amount of animation. In this movie, Zeman had to create over a hundred creatures that fill most of the film’s running time. Granted, Harryhausen worked alone and Zeman had a whole staff of animators and puppeteers, but there still was no way he would have been able to create everything in stop-motion, nor could he make puppets for every creature. Shortcuts had to be made, and unfortunately the quality of the art suffers because of it.
When I was a teenager (mid-nineties, that is) I had a friend who would cover his VHS tapes containing porn films with labels reading ”Czech puppet animation” in the hope that whoever might find them (his mom) wouldn’t have the slightest interest in watching them. Growing up in Finland in the eighties and early nineties, Czech puppet animation, or Czech animation in general, was a phenomenon. Shows like The Mole (Krtek) and Pat & Mat (A je to! Pat a Mat) were staples on Finnish TV alongside American cartoons like Daffy Duck or Mickey Mouse. But they were often more child-friendly than Looney Tunes or Disney. Although relatively late to the table, Czech animation really took off after WWII. In the sixties and seventies and Czechoslovakia was second only to the US in terms of both quantity and quality of animation, and was often the predominant alternative to American cartoons on European TV channels, not just in the Eastern bloc.
Along with Jirí Trnka, director of The Hand (1965), Zeman was a poster child for Czech animation in the fifties and sixties. He won international acclaim with films like The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962), A Jester’s Tale (1964), The Stolen Airship (1966), On the Comet (1970) and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1976). Cesta do praveku got a US release in 1966, after Zeman had become known in the States, albeit with dubbing and new footage added at the beginning and end of the film, substituting the Czech actors with American boys visiting the Museum of Natural History in New York, rather than Prague. Instead of the strict Darwinian realism of the original film, the dubbing and added-on dream sequence at the end of the movie (the standard solution for fantastic adventures – ”it was all a dream”) hinted at a more ”Christian” or creationist message.
The Americanisation of the film was overseen by Fred Ladd, a specialist in the Americanisation of international cartoons. He started out in radio and TV commercials in the early fifties, and one of his first feature film jobs was to edit a number of nature documentaries into a feature film for distribution in Europe, in exchange for a number of European cartoons, which Ladd dubbed in English. His breakthrough came when he released two hour-long TV features called The Space Explorers (1958) and New Adventures of the Space Explorers. The films were a re-edit of three European films; the Soviet cartoons Flight to the Moon (1953) and The Universe (1951), and the German short film Weltraumschiff 1 startet (1937), from which special effects were lifted. The two Space Explorers films were cut into 6-minute segments and made into a TV series in the early sixties.
Ladd is perhaps most famous for introducing Japanese anime films to an American audience. While working at NBC, Ladd acquired the rights to the Japanese series Tetsuka atomu, and edited a few sequences into a dubbed pilot, which won the studio’s approval. The TV series premiered on the network in 1963 as Astroboy, and, as we know, became an international phenomenon, with feature films being made as late as 2009 (with Nicolas Cage as a voice artist). During his career Ladd helped Americanise a number of European films and TV series, both cartoons and live-action. In 1965 he oversaw the dub of the Belgian film Pinocchio in Outer Space and then set his eyes on two Japanese animes: Kimba the White Lion, which premiered in the US in 1965, and Gigantor, 1966. Ladd also oversaw the colourisation of a number of old American cartoons in the sixties, seventies and eighties. Over the years he oversaw the dubbing of a number of animes, and one of his last works was as creative consultant on the popular Sailor Moon series (1995-2000). In addition to his cartoon work, he also oversaw the dubbing of such films as the Swedish live-action children’s films about Pippi Longstocking, based on the books by author Astrid Lindgren.
You can probably find the American dubbed version of A Journey to the Beginning of Time on DVD, but I implore you to instead get the original Czech version, available in superb print with English subtitles. It is sold through the website of the Karel Zeman Museum (yes, there’s a bloody museum in his honour in Prague) for the ridiculously low prize of 5 dollars, see this link.
If Ray Harryhausen’s films were an inspiration for A Journey to the Beginning of Time, then the admiration was mutual, as Harryhausen praised the work of Zeman in interviews. Directors like Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam and Wes Anderson have all named Zeman as an inspiration, however they were probably more inspired by his films that were less photorealistic and more avantgarde. Steven Spielberg (and George Lucas, for that matter) would surely have learned about Zeman when he attended film school in the sixties, and almost certainly watched every dinosaur picture ever made in his research for Jurassic Park. In fact, the scene in Jurassic Park where the heroes find a dying Triceratops feels like an almost exact copy of some of the images of the boys in Journey to the Beginning of Time inspecting a dead Stegosaurus. My guess is that this was Spielberg’s subtle homage to Zeman.
Journey to the Beginning of Time. 1955, Czechoslovakia. Directed by Karel Zeman. Written by Karel Zeman, J.A. Novotný. Starring: Vladimir Bejval, Petr Herrman, Zdenek Hustak, Josef Lukás. Music: E.F. Burian, Frantisek Strangmüller. Cinematography: Antonín Horák, Václav Pazdernik. Editing: Zdenek Stehlík. Production design: Karel Zeman, Ivo Mrdzek, Zdenek Rozkopal. Special effects: Karel Zeman, Jindrich Liska, Arnost Kupcik. Produced for Ceskoslovenský Státni Film & Filmové Studio Gottwaldov.