Wednesday, January 21, 2015


Ray Harryhausen is generally regarded as the principal auteur of most of the films for which he created his iconic stop-motion visual effects. Where does that leave his directors, the people most often credited today, and in retrospect, with authorship of movies? In particular, where did that leave Nathan Juran, who directed Harryhausen's breakthrough hit The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and his earlier 20 Million Miles to Earth, and would work with Harryhausen later on First Men in the Moon? Juran is clearly an important figure in the fantastic cinema of the Fifties and Sixties, but how important? What did he contribute creatively? Juran himself had a mixed view of his work, choosing a virtually transparent pseudonym, Nathan Hertz (his full name was Nathan Hertz Juran) for such camp cheapies as Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and The Brain From Planet Arous. On other occasions he was more ambitious. He was director, writer and producer for Flight of the Lost Balloon, bankrolled by the Woolner Brothers. Here, presumably, we can see what Juran could do given his druthers, if not a proper budget.

Lost Balloon is a flight of fancy in the Jules Verne mode set by the 1956 Oscar winner Around the World in 80 Days and Disney's 1954 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Steering clear of Verne's own Five Weeks in a Balloon, which Irwin Allen presumably had already spoken for and would release a year later, it resembles Five Weeks insofar as Juran's story involves a balloon flight to Africa. Dr. Joseph Farday (Marshall "Daktari" Thompson, just as boring here as on TV) is tasked with finding a missing explorer, whom we know from a prologue to be held captive and subject to torture by an unseen turbaned villain. Coincidentally, a turbaned man in black known only as "The Hindu" (James Lanphier) is a self-appointed tagalong for the balloon trip, the lovely Ellen Burton (Mala Powers) completing the airborne threesome.

Give Juran a good location and he's all right. He makes good atmospheric use of some Puerto Rican ruins that stand in for the east coast of Africa. It's when we turn to special effects that the absence of Harryhausen or much in the way of money is felt. The most damning shortcoming of Flight of the Lost Balloon is the absence of a full-scale hot-air balloon. Such flights as the balloon takes are done with blatant process shots using a model balloon. The actors obviously must have a full-sized passenger basket to stand in, but this exists either on a soundstage (for more process shots) and at the end of a crane for exterior shots in which the balloon itself is all too conspicuously absent. Worse still is Juran's staging of an attack on the balloon by giant condors. Juran's effects here are fifty years ahead of their time -- ahead of Birdemic, that is. Juran may have been proud to sign his work here, but this moment looks more like the work of Hertz. It certainly isn't the work of Avis, because they try harder ... and now that I've really dated myself, let's move on.

Juran has little to be proud of as a writer, either. There's no other way to describe his depiction of an African tribe than as stupidly racist. He gives us the typical pulp scenario in which the white "god" -- the god part is actually the Hindu's idea -- is trusted to heal an ailing chieftain. In this case it's a queen, and the diagnosis is that she's dead drunk. Smelling salts and coffee hit the spot, and our protagonists are rewarded with the chance to watch an "orgy" of drunken dancing and disgusting repasts. But when the moon rises over the hungover tribe it sinks in that the two whites and the Hindu did not travel to them from or via the moon after all, and we all know how savages are when their childlike credulity is abused. Fortunately, the tribesfolk are so falling-down drunk that the good guys can easily outrace them.

The story ends up at the site of the prologue, where to no one's surprise our Hindu reveals himself as the explorer's captor, eager to learn where the white man had found a treasure trove left thousands of years ago by Cleopatra. The captive explorer is so greedy that he not only withstands his own torture but vows to ignore the threatened torture of Ellen. Finally freed, he proves more interested in getting the treasure than in aiding his rescuers, and for his trouble he ends up crushed under what looks like some of Cleopatra's luggage. The treasure is actually so poorly hid that the Hindu looks stupid for having to torture the location out of his foe. Meanwhile, since our white heroes seem relatively uninterested in the treasure, eventually jettisoning it from where the explorer had put it in their basket, that you wonder why Ellen, who had seen the explorer return to the site, simply doesn't tell the Hindu where to find it so he'll stop chasing them.

Other bits leave you wondering whether to blame a low budget or Juran's limited imagination. At his headquarters, the Hindu has a giant minion, Golan (Felippe Birriel), whom he tasks with hunting down Faraday after our hero jumps from the balloon in an act of gallantry to rescue his fellow passengers. We're supposed to find Golan imposing because of his height, but Birriel, like many very tall men, appears very slow and sickly. I was surprised to learn afterward that he lived into his seventies. The Hindu also has a couple of gorillas on hand to guard his sanctuary. These are played, and quite broadly, by what look like smaller men in suits than usual, or at least they look that way next to Golan. His battle with the gorillas is Flight's comic highlight. Moving with a speed that makes Tor Johnson look like a human cannonball, Golan approaches the apes with arms out as if to hug them both. Instead, he feebly swats at one and the breeze, for all we can tell, sends the gorilla crashing into a wall. Just as feebly, the gorillas double-team Golan until they've beaten him to death or he's simply passed out. It's unlikely that this is what Juran wanted Flight of the Lost Balloon to be remembered for, but I can't resist the temptation to say that the truth Hertz.

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