VALLEY OF THE DRAGONS (originally titled "PREHISTORIC VALLEY") is a loosely-based film adaptation of Jules Verne's lesser-known novels "Hector Servadac a.k.a. Career of a Comet, or Off on a Comet" (and the term "loosely" is used in the highest sense). The basic plot of the novel concerned of its central character, a Frenchman named Hector Servadac and his plight to survive, along with an assortment of other colorful characters, as all concerned are swooped up by a comet and hurled into outer space, along with small portions of the Earth along with them. Here is where any similarities to the film and Jules Verne's novel begin and end. There is little doubt that producers had purchased the film rights to Jules Verne's story in order to sell this film as an adaptation to a Verne property, which had proved to be popular at the box-office around the time of its release. Adaptations of Verne's 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS and JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH all proved to be blockbusters in the mid-to-late 1950's (VALLEY OF THE DRAGONS appears a bit late in the game, having been released in 1961).
Here, filmmaker Edward Bernds, (who worked on numerous Three Stooges shorts for this film's studio, Columbia; in addition, directing some solid science- fiction films in the late 50's, including THE RETURN OF THE FLY) takes the bare-basic synopsis of Verne's story and alters it into a comic-book fantasy to include exciting (and exploitable) elements lacking in the original source material. The film scales back on the amount of characters allowed to partake on this peculiar adventure from a few dozen down to only two: Frenchman Hector Servadac and Irishman Michael Denning, played by likable and competent character-actors Cesar Danova (who appeared in MEAN STREETS and NATIONAL LAMPOON'S ANIMAL HOUSE) and Sean McClory (who had supporting roles in THEM! and THE QUIET MAN), respectively.
At the start of the picture, the two are about to duel over the affections of a woman of shared interest (who is never seen, only mentioned). As they are about to draw their pistols upon each other, a storm dramatically interrupts their duel and are swept away by an orbiting comet. As they are the only two left alive, they quickly resolve their differences and work together in order to survive on this (as McClory's character exclaims "nightmare world") that differs considerably from the novel's iteration. Here, our heroes are transported into a world of the prehistoric past, whose apartment life consist of lizards dressed in dorsal fins and extra horns to resemble dinosaurs, pteradactyls (the closest thing to a "dragon" the viewer sees in the picture), giant spiders, Neanderthal men, cavemen (and cavewomen; two lovely ones, at that), and underground dwellers (that are no doubt an attempt to cash in on the Morlocks from George Pal's cinematic interpretation of THE TIME MACHINE the year before).
At some point along the way, both Hector and Michael are separated from each other and join forces with warring tribes (one that wears tan cloth; the other draped in dark fur). Each find new love with their respective clans: Hector falls in love with a blonde cavewoman, played by Joan Staley (from GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN), whilst Michael becomes infatuated with a brunette cavegirl (played by lovely Danielle deMetz, who had appeared for director Bernds in RETURN OF THE FLY two years prior).
Eventually the two tribes prepare to clash, as a nearby volcano erupts and causes much devastation upon the valley. As Hector and Michael had to set aside their own personal qualms, so must the two tribes work together in order to face off with wandering nomadic "dinosaurs" that threaten both parties. The climax has Hector introducing gunpowder to the uncivilized brutes in order to do away with the pesky intruders from the past.
Shot in a reported eight days (!), VALLEY OF THE DRAGONS is a low-budget jab at the cinematic Verne fantasies that utilizes mostly stock footage from epics past to supplement the film's requisite special effects. Perhaps the biggest complaint about the film is that everything seems handed-down and left-over from some previous project. The majority of the picture is garnished with lifted f/x scenes from the 1940 semi-classic ONE MILLION B.C., in which lizards were dressed and presented to the public as dinosaurs (this being 1961, this was perhaps one of the last motion pictures to utilize the by-then 20-year-old film of its saurian escapades, as the public was undoubtedly experiencing deja-vu--having seen these repeated scenes of animal cruelty in multiple pictures prior).
Some of the comet shots were re-used from CAT-WOMEN OF THE MOON; the take-off sequence from EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS is re-used; the giant spider is a mock-up familiar to fans of the sci-fi camp classics WORLD WITHOUT END and QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE (not surprisingly, both were also directed by Bernds). Godzilla fans will be quick to point out that the pterodactyl is lifted from RODAN. The only truly original creations seem to be the underground dwellers and the ape-like cavemen that attack Hector and Michael at night early on (in what is perhaps its most successful and effective scene).
It is not all for naught, as some critics are quick to dismiss the picture overall. The music by Ruby Raskin is surprisingly memorable and effective, especially for such a low-budget picture as this, and elevates the action numerous times throughout. Personally, I'll have to disagree with Joe Dante's comments about the two lead actors "phoning in" their roles in this picture.
While I am a fan of Dante's work and respect his opinion, Danova and McClory both put in a lot of heart and fun into their lead characters (an opportunity they were unfortunately not afforded in their later careers) and both give it their best effort. The addition of Joan Staley and Danielle deMetz as love interests, both of whom are unfortunately not given much else to do but grunt and look away in horror, are exceptionally wonderful to look at and make it entertaining to watch.
On a personal note, I first saw this film on TNT's "100% Weird" program back in the early 1990's, when I was a child of about four or five. Their program usually consisted of several unusual films in a marathon that shared a certain theme. That particular night was a "prehistoric" theme, which consisted of the feature films DINOSAURUS!, TROG, this film and NEANDERTHAL MAN. As a lover of all things dinosaurs, this turned out to be the perfect entry and, having never seen ONE MILLION B.C. or the other respective films from which this movie lifted most of its effects from, VALLEY OF THE DRAGONS became somewhat of a childhood favorite of mine (though, as forewarned, animal-lovers beware, as the effects footage was shot before Animal Rights were strictly adhered to and yes, sadly, animals WERE harmed in the making of the film). While this is certainly no classic in the ranks of other Verne adaptations, it is an enjoyable, if improbable, not to mention corny programmer that at least holds a promising concept that perhaps could one day be revisited with the proper special effects.
(As a side-note: Czech director Karel Zeman, himself a fan of Verne, also adapted Verne's ON THE COMET in 1970 and included stop-motion animated dinosaurs as well to the proceedings! Worth a look if ever given the opportunity.)