When I was a kid, I was gob-smacked by the movie “The Beast of Hollow Mountain.”
This glorious American-Mexican co-production featured rugged cowboys, the low-cut charms of Patricia Medina (who fostered strange stirrings that I wouldn’t understand for a few more years), stampeding cattle and treacherous patches of quicksand – the essential ingredients for a kid’s classic. But haunting the dark center of this 1956 horse opera was an astonishing Tyrannosaurus Rex that chowed down on cows and vaqueros alike. A stop motion idea by animator Willis O’Brien (whose career peaked two decades before with “King Kong”), this dinosaur lodged itself in my cerebral cortex and planted a lifelong passion for these magnificent creatures.
Fortunately, there was plenty of cultural dross and gold to nurture this budding romance. Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World” and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “The Land That Time Forgot” set the template for the strata that would pile up over the years – an isolated land where dinosaurs are still able to fulfill their destiny (eating one another in spectacularly bloody battles), betrayals, cliffs or swamps or some form of treacherous natural barrier, and, somewhere, somehow, a tiger-skin-bikinied cave chick to rescue and fall in love with.
There were variations of this theme in pulp novels, comic books, TV shows and movies, and for a dedicated kid like me it was an endless banquet. It found its full flowering in 1933’s “King Kong,” still a dazzling achievement after all these years – if you ask me, “Kong” is the quintessential American movie, technically astonishing, operatic in its oversized emotional core and leavened with surprising moments of playfulness and sensuality (witness Kong toying with the shattered jaw of the T-Rex, and how on earth did O’Brien get permission to animate Kong slowly stripping Fay Wray down to her dainties?).
The only trouble was, back in those days, scientists were convinced that dinos were sluggish, slow-witted reptiles whose own gigantism ensured that they’d be out-played by the frisky mammals playing in their shadows. It was hard to imagine that your plastic brontosaur was stomping a native village when it really didn’t have enough strength to haul itself out of the lake.
But thanks to revolutionary discoveries in the 1960s and 70s, it became apparent that there was a lot more to dinosaurs than anyone had guessed. They became hot-blooded, agile and as dynamic as they always were in kids’ imaginations. Paleontologists began to explore the Mesozoic Age as a discrete ecological system of which dinosaurs were only a part. For a remarkably complete view of this new interpretation and the evident excitement that now informs this science, read “Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life” by Scott D. Sampson.
Well, eventually this new vision of the Terrible Lizards was translated into the popular descendants of Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World,” reaching its apex in Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park” and Steven Spielberg’s irresistible widescreen adaptation. All those new notions that we dino-lovers had held close to our hearts were finally planted into the general public’s consciousness – they were energetic creatures capable of sudden bursts of speed, intelligent problem solvers, and the forerunners of the birds that have blossomed in nearly every environment.
But here’s the thing – in the 20 years since “Jurassic Park” premiered, the understanding of dinosaurs has rendered big chunks of the novel and movie as moribund as those beasts that used to float around in their swamps. It turns that our views are still evolving in ways as surprising as Tyrannosaurus done up in feathers and sniffing around late Cretaceous plains looking for carrion.
If you’d like to explore this new world, pick up “My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs” by Brian Switek. It’s a paleontologist’s valentine to these remarkable creatures that will not be corralled and a meditation on the ways science will not be contained. Even if you still think of these creatures as sluggish lizards, you can’t help but be caught up in Switek’s wide-eyed enthusiasm for his subjects. “My Beloved Brontosaurus” is a new book that’s been waiting 65 million years to be told.