Of Czech auteur Karel Zeman's films, the one best known in the West is Journey to the Beginning of Time. Released in its original tongue in 1955, it was given an English-language working over in 1966 when brought to American shores. In its time, it became one of the best-loved of the 1960's dinosaur films by acting as a nearly perfect kiddie matinee married to palaeontological content strong enough to be cut up into short educational segments for use in schools.
The Americanized version begins with a quartet of school kids, whose faces we never see, taking a trip through Manhatten. They end up at the American Museum of Natural History, where "Doc" gives us a crash course in earth sciences. After relaxing for a spell in front of a statue of a Native shaman paddling a Pacific Northwest tribe canoe they decide to go canoeing in Central Park themselves. A dissolve fade through a cavern leads the boys down an ice-filled river. They soon realize that they're paddling upstream on the river of time, passing glaciers, Mammoth, Uniatherium, Styracosaurs, Pteranodons, Stegosaurs and Ceratosaurs, a Paleozoic swamp and the full breadth of geological time. In the original, the framing is simply Doc's reminiscence of the voyage, which explains why four children are better prepared for an extensive camping trip than warranted by a trip through downtown New York.
Unlike Zeman's magnum opus The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, Journey to the Beginning of Time doesn't claim to be inspired by the French maestro of Scientific Romances. However, where Fabulous World is an amalgam of various Vernian tropes, Journey is a thematically perfect adaptation of Journey to the Centre of the Earth. In many ways, it's an even purer adaptation than the several proper versions that have cropped up over the years.
For the most part, adaptations of Journey to the Centre of the Earth exchange the true theme of the story for an adventuresome romp through the underworld where there happen to be dinosaurs and giant mushrooms. That is quite enjoyable, of course, but it misses the point of Verne's novel. That novel is essentially a time travel story without need of a time machine, allowing the reader to go into deep time by going deep into the earth. Instead of the inner earth, Zeman substitutes a canoe ride down the river of time, but the effect is essentially the same. Journey to the Beginning of Time is a travelogue of prehistory.
The American version presents the great Dr. Edwin H. Colbert, then vertebrate palaeontology curator of the American Museum of Natural History, as its scientific director. Considering that it was filmed behind the Iron Curtain, that was unlikely. The biggest inspiration was undoubtedly the work of Czech paleo-artist Zdeněk Burian, one of the most influential painters of prehistoric subjects to have ever put brush to canvas. Burian already illustrated a centre-of-the-earth tale in Vladimir Obruchev's 1915 novel Plutonia, about a lost world of dinosaurs beneath Russian Siberia. When Zeman turned his attention to making a dinosaur movie, it was only natural to mirror the style of his fellow countryman.
This accuracy lends itself immeasurably to the concept. We're taken along with the boys' personal adventure, but for the most part we're in as much awe as them, watching the spectacles of ancient life passing by the canoe. At the outset, the world is familiar. Glaciers and icebergs give way to mountains and pine forests filled with stop-motion woolly mammoths. These forests pass into desert landscapes of palms and cycads in which Stegosaurs and Ceratosaurs square off to the death (a rare example of contemporaneous dinosaurs in battle). The boys are able to examine the fight's loser up close when their canoe is wrecked by an anonymous dinosaur. Building a raft, they sail on to the hazy, atmospheric tree-fern swamps of the Paleozoic Era, swarming with giant insects and amphibians. Finally they hike across the dry and lifeless Precambrian landscape before reaching the primordial sea, beyond which lies the volcanic fury of earth's creation and the void from which God drew it.
As a tour of prehistory, Journey to the Beginning of Time is a wonderful film and a fitting addition to the filmography of one of the most brilliant and creative minds in the history of the silver screen.