Old-School Dinosaur Movies That Time May Have Forgotten — But I Sure Haven’t

an image from the 1969 movie
Courtesy Everett Collection
A Styracosaurus, left, and an Allosaurus prepare to clash in The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

I am publishing this post on Dinosaur Day 2023, and just ahead of the 30th anniversary of the original Jurassic Park film. But honestly, I don’t need an excuse to talk about dinosaurs in general, or their appearances across a variety of pop culture, particularly the ones I enjoyed during my most formative years growing up in the 1970s, when my dino obsession took hold.

While I still am very interested in dinosaurs, that interest is not nearly at the obsessive level it was when I was a kid, when they occupied my waking mind (and probably my dreams, too) a good portion of each day.

A scene from the 1974 movie "The Land That Time Forgot." It depicts a flying dinosaur, Pteranodon, swooping low to the ground and picking up a caveman in its jaws and beginning to fly away, as a modern man, playing by Doug McClure, runs just below it in an effort to stop it.

Even a cheesy-looking scene like this one from 1974’s The Land That Time Forgot remains charmingly endearing to me. (Courtesy Everett Collection)

Starting at about age 5 in the middle of the ’70s, when I wasn’t reading books about dinosaurs or helping my kindergarten teacher correctly pronounce some of their names or rambling on about them to anyone in my vicinity or imagining my own stories about these long-extinct creatures that fascinated me so much, I was watching dino movies and shows on TV.

I’m sure I’ll get into some of the dino books and TV shows I enjoyed back then in future posts, but here I want to revisit the movies featuring dinosaurs I most enjoyed — usually over and over and over again, whenever I happened to notice they were on TV, either as part of some creature-feature program, or simply one of the morning or afternoon movies that local TV channels used to air regularly.

Dinosaurs and related prehistoric creatures feature at least in bit parts in many films that I loved then and still love now, and I always got excited to see them in even cameo appearances — like the T. rex, Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus and Pteranodon in King Kong (1933), and even that quick-but-shocking appearance of the Brontosaurus in the “Odyssey of Flight 33” episode of The Twilight Zone — but I’m going to focus on movies in which dinosaurs were the main attraction.

These are also movies I liked because they had representations (or attempted representations, based on what was known about them at the time of the film’s production) of actual creatures; while I also loved monster movies featuring the dinosaur-like Godzilla and the fictional “Rhedosaurus” of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), I knew even then that they weren’t “real” dinosaurs. I appreciated seeing films featuring dinosaurs that looked like, and were maybe even named in the story, like the ones I was reading about in my beloved dino books, maybe because it enhanced my childhood fantasies of wanting to see one of these beasts in real life …

… oh, dear. Here I am rambling on about dinosaurs as if I were 5 years old again. Let’s get into the movies:

My Three Favorite Old-School Dinosaur Movies

Here are the dinosaur films that were my main “go-tos” whenever I happened to notice they were on TV as a youngster in the ’70s. It’s hard to believe some of them were made less than 20 years before the special effects of Jurassic Park changed the game for dinosaur (and other) movies, but most still look pretty good to me, perhaps largely, but not entirely, because I’m looking at them through the lens of nostalgia.

The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

still from the 1969 movie "The Valley of Gwangi." it is a stop-motion special effects shop detailing a group of cowboys on horseback in a mountainous desert environment who are surrounding an Allosaurus dinosaur and roping it with their lassos.

Cowboys meet dinosaurs in The Valley of Gwangi (Courtesy Everett Collection)

My all-time favorite old-school dino movie is also one of the most delightfully unique ones. Led by James Franciscus, Gila Golan and Richard Carlson, The Valley of Gwangi is a rare Western/dinosaur film combo, and it works. I was never really into cowboys as a kid, so this was one of the only even remotely Western type of movies I watched, and I found it fascinating.

I especially liked the array of dinosaurs, and even a prehistoric mammal, the film included, which were brought to life by stop-motion special effects legend Ray Harryhausen, teaming once again with Jason and the Argonauts producer Charles H. Schneer.

While Harryhausen had created mythical creatures for Argonauts, in Gwangi he gave us plenty of reality-based monsters that are discovered in a lost Mexican valley, starting with the title bad guy himself, the Allosaurus named Gwangi.

Also on hand are an Eohippus (an early prehistoric form of horse); a flying Pteranodon that swoops down and attempts to pick up one of the men who happen upon it; an Ornithomimus (which is snatched while running by a suddenly-emerging Gwangi in a scene that seems to have been echoed by Steven Spielberg in the Jurassic Park scene where the T. rex suddenly appears and grabs a fleeing Gallimimus; and a horned Styracosaurus that battles Gwangi.

The effects are some of Harryhausen’s best, especially the Pteranodon sequence, the dino fight and the scene where a group of cowboys try to lasso Gwangi, which must have been especially time-intensive to create.

The Land That Time Forgot (1974)

 a still from the 1974 movie "The Land That Time Forgot." It depicts a World War I German U-boat which has surfaced in the waters of a previously hidden prehistoric world. A German officer is standing on top of the boat and beginning to run as, behind him, an enormous, green, crocodile-like Mososaur comes out of the water and lunges at him with its jaws wide open, exposing lots of sharp white teeth.

A Mosasaurus welcomes a U-boat crew to Caprona, the land that time forgot. (Courtesy Everett Collection)

This film from Britain’s Amicus Productions, based on the story by pulp fiction master Edgar Rice Burroughs and starring Doug McClure, is overall much weaker in the special effects department than Gwangi, opting for handheld or stringed puppets for its dinosaurs, but it was still one of the movies I regularly tuned in for.

The story is set during World War I and follows some survivors of a British ship that has been torpedoed by a German U-boat. The U-boat picks them up, and eventually it gets lost in the South Atlantic, eventually coming upon the previously unknown subcontinent of Caprona — (switches to dramatic and ominous-sounding voice:) “the land that time forgot.”

Almost immediately, the people run afoul of a few aquatic beasts, which seem to be a Mosasaurus and Plesiosaurus.

I found then, and still do now, these creatures to have been the most effective and creepy-looking ones in the film. The first glimpse we (and the passengers) get of the Mosasaurus — when it suddenly and briefly leaps in and out of the McClure’s view as he is looking through the boat’s periscope — always made me jump, even when I knew it was coming.

The land-based dinosaurs encountered later aren’t as compelling, and the story does get rather silly as prehistoric humans are also discovered on Caprona (I knew even then that people and dinosaurs never coexisted, but I tried to suspend my disbelief; a 1977 sequel, The People That Time Forgot, would revisit this topic).

A scene where a Pteranodon grabs and flies off with one of the cavemen is especially ridiculous-looking, but I still can’t help but have a soft spot in my heart for this movie that I enjoyed many times as a kid — despite it not having scenes anywhere near as cool-looking as those depicted in this British theatrical poster:

theatrical poster art for the 1974 movie "The Land That Time Forgot."

This British poster for The Land That Time Forgot looks pretty kick-ass, even if much of what is shown never happens in the movie. (Courtesy Everett Collection)

The Last Dinosaur (1977)

I only saw this film once, when it aired on ABC in February 1977. When I looked in the TV Guide and saw the title and description, I knew I had to tune in.

Richard Boone stars as a wealthy big-game hunter with the hilariously manly name of Masten Thrust Jr., who is determined to stalk and kill a Tyrannosaurus rex in a recently discovered prehistoric valley somehow existing below the polar icecap. Joan Van Ark costars as a photojournalist chronicling his efforts.

Along with the T. rex, the film also features appearances from Pteranodon again, as well as a Triceratops and even a Uintatherium — a very large prehistoric mammal that lived after the dinosaurs.

I don’t recall the Uintatherium scenes, but I’m guessing I must have been surprised and happy to see it, since my interest in creatures from the early Age of Mammals was also high back then. (Frankly, prehistoric mammals haven’t been used in movies enough, considering there were so many cool-looking ones; maybe I’ll get a Cenozoic Park film franchise started.)

I do remember the T. rex in The Last Dinosaur, which which was created via the good-old “man in suit” technique famously used by Japanese studios like Toho.

That makes sense, given how this film was coproduced by, and filmed at, Tsuburaya Productions, which was founded by Eiji Tsuburaya, the Japanese special effects pioneer who cocreated the Godzilla and Ultraman franchises. I wasn’t aware of this at the time, but if I had, it would have been yet another strong selling point for me to tune in, given how Godzilla movies and after-school reruns of the 1960s Ultraman series were also favorites of mine back then.

Another thing I was not aware of in 1977 — and, in fact, only just became aware of in recent days as I researched this post — was the identity of the person who sang the movie’s main theme, “He’s the Last Dinosaur.” To be honest, the refrain from that song was the thing that has stuck with me the most about this movie since I saw it once over 45 years ago. For some reason, though, in my mind I kept hearing that refrain in a man’s voice.

I was genuinely, and pleasantly, surprised to learn that it was actually a woman who sang “He’s the Last Dinosaur.” And not just any woman — it was performed by famed jazz/blues/soul/R&B singer Nancy Wilson (“(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am”).

And I was even more pleased to hear it again thanks to YouTube; the refrain is as catchy as I recall, but hearing it now in Wilson’s voice, it sounds even cooler, almost like a James Bond opening theme.

Also coproducing The Last Dinosaur was Rankin/Bass, with Jules Bass providing the lyrics for that title song. The tune and film score was by Maury Laws, who created the incidental music for most of Rankin/Bass’ more familiar stop-motion TV specials, while it was arranged and composed by Bernard Hoffer, who would later provide the music for Rankin/Bass’ animated 1985-89 series ThunderCats.

The Last Dinosaur was the first of two wonderfully weird live-action collaborations between Tsuburaya Productions and Rankin/Bass featuring prehistoric beasts that I remember enjoying in the late ’70s.

About a year later, early 1978, came The Bermuda Depths, which also premiered on ABC. That film had a gigantic sea turtle that left an impression on me. While I don’t believe was referred to as such, the turtle did resemble the prehistoric Archelon, which, while not a dinosaur, was still a prehistoric animal of great interest to me and fun to see in a film.

And Some Recent Old-School Dino Movie Discoveries I Need to See ASAP!

In putting this post together, I learned that I’ve been remiss in seeing some intriguing-looking dinosaur movies from the 1960s and ’70s, and I hope to right that wrong soon! I’m not sure how good these are, but they sound like they might provide some old-school dino entertainment from the long-extinct Paleo-CGI Era.

Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965)

Seeing Roger Corman and American International Pictures attached to this was enough to pique my curiosity. Add to that the fact that it is led by Basil Rathbone land Faith Domergue, in new footage that has been added to lots of repurposed footage from the 1962 Soviet sci-fi film Planeta Bur, and I’m officially sold.

That footage, like most Soviet sci-fi, looks eerie, and that is played up by the great YouTube video just below in which a user updated the trailer for Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet with a modern, and pretty creepy, sensibility that makes the movie look like Solaris-meets-Land of the Lost.

I don’t know if the film itself is actually as good as it appears to be in this trailer, but it has added to the mystique for me, and I hope to see it soon.

When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970)

Britain’s Hammer Films, a coproducer of 1966’s One Million Years B.C. (which gave us Raquel Welch in her iconic fur bikini) and 1967’s similarly themed Prehistoric Women, returned with another story about sexy prehistoric cave girls in this production led by Victoria Vetri (and the studio apparently wasn’t done with that theme; in 1971, it released Creatures the World Forgot).

key art from the theatrical poster for the movie "When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth." It's an illustrated poster; in the forefront is star Victoria Vetri as a cavewoman, crouching with a spear and looking determined. In the background are a variety of other cavepeople, as well as land dinosaurs and flying dinosaurs.

(Courtesy Everett Collection)

While I’ve been vaguely aware of When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth over the years, I have not seen it, for whatever reason. I’ve only seen One Million Years B.C. at this point, and besides Raquel Welch, one of that film’s charms for me was the Ray Harryhausen-generated special effects for its creatures. A similar stop-motion animation technique is used here, from what I can tell, and while they aren’t created by Harryhausen this time, they were nominated for an Oscar, so I guess they can’t be too bad.

Also of note to me, when reading about this film, is the different sort of prehistoric beasts featured in it. Among other creatures, there appears to be an aquatic Tylosaurus and a flying Rhamphorhynchus, a couple of dinosaur-adjacent ancient animals I haven’t ever seen in a movie before, so it at least has that going for it!

Legend of Dinosaurs and Monster Birds (1977)

Just the name and the crazy-looking poster for this Japanese kaiju production is really all I need to see to want to watch the movie. It apparently was skewered in an early episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which doesn’t surprise me, given how silly it looks like it could be. It never had a U.S. theatrical run, but it did become a big hit in the Soviet Union.

theatrical poster art from the 1977 Japanese movie "Legend of Dinosaurs and Monster Birds." It an illustration of a scene set on a stormy sea, where a long-necked aquatic dinosaur has destroyed a boat and is carrying a woman in its mouth. Meanwhile, a pterodactyl is swooping in to attack that dinosaur, biting it in the neck. Mt. Fuji looms in the background.

(Toei Company, Ltd./Courtesy Everett Collection)

Planet of Dinosaurs (1978)

This film also looks pretty wild based on its poster, which shows the film clearly tried to combine its dinosaurs with a little space opera action in the wake of the then-recent blockbuster Star Wars.

I’m not able to tell if Planet of Dinosaurs ever received a theatrical release, but from clips I’ve seen, it looks like the stop-motion dinosaur effects are pretty decent for a low-budget feature like this. The human actors, on the other hand, don’t seem too effective.

In their defense, maybe they weren’t fully into the project after a certain point, because it sounds like most of the budget went into those cool effects, and at least some of the stars had to wait to receive payment, if they received it at all.

I recently noticed this movie is airing on Tubi, so I expect I’ll be visiting Planet of Dinosaurs soon.

theatrical poster for the 1978 movie "Planet of Dinosaurs." It is illustrated in a "space opera" style depicting various characters, men and women in relatively skimpy outfits, on the rocky landscape of a planet. They are in the foreground and are aiming laser guns and spears at a tyrannosaurus rex-like dinosaur that is in the backdrop of the poster, set against what appears to be the planet's yellowish moon.

(Courtesy Everett Collection)