As a child I was crazy about dinosaurs. It turns out that much of that craziness is somehow related to Steven Spielberg. It all started with Littlefoot, a little Apatosaurus. He starred in an extensive series of cartoons. The most notable, scary, heartbreaking, and profitable one is the first, The Land Before Time, in which Littlefoot finds his way to the Green Valley through a lot of hardships, mostly caused by a cruel, big Tyrannosaurus. I remember watching it dozens of times, Littlefoot fighting with Herbie for my attention, and I am not shy to admit that I watched it once more quite recently.
In 1993 Steven Spielberg directed Jurassic Park – one of my all time favourites. The movie portrays John Hammond (played by Richard Attenborough) who manages to finance and set up a theme park featuring cloned dinosaurs. During a preview tour, the park suffers a major power breakdown caused by one of its disgruntled computer engineers (superbly played by Wayne Knight – I still hate him for ruining the park) that allows its cloned dinosaurs to run amok.
As a sceptic I believe that there is way more we don’t know as that there is we do know, as Bill Bryson‘s famous A Short History of Nearly Everything argues to be the case for science in general, for historical geology and biology specifically, and even more to the point, for the discipline of taxonomy (although his work is not free of inaccuracies). Since we actually don’t know much for sure about the distant past and of dinosaurs, imagination (and some frog DNA) can fill up the gaps, especially when it is not easily disproved. This is why I believe that the bulk of the public’s “knowledge” of dinosaurs is based on what Steven Spielberg and his colleagues fed to us.
(Although it doesn’t really fit in this post, I cannot really continue without mentioning Michael Crichton, the writer of the 1990 novel Jurassic Park, on which the movie with the same name is based. Crichton, who passed away in 2008, was a daring writer. Most of his novels, and indeed the most famous ones, contain a great deal of action, combined with a significant amount of technology. In most of his books the plot revolves around some kind of (bio-)technologic breakthrough. The greatest trait of his books is that they manage to enthuse you about complex technologies you would otherwise disregard. There exists some tension between being demonstrably and factually right and writing a potentially popular novel, resulting in inaccuracies like in Bryson’s work. This may upset the small expert community that actually has some advanced knowledge of the described technologies – but in this matter I remain fortunately ignorant. And if it results in people becoming more interested in technology, who cares, really?)
Anyhow, Steven Spielberg’s works have been extremely influential in how people imagine dinosaurs and how they lived, at least in my case. An interesting follow-up thought may be to ask oneself, what fuelled Spielberg’s imaginations? Well, I think I got a little clue to it when I was watching Hatari! a few days ago, a 1962 movie starring John Wayne, in which a group of people is followed on and around their idyllic farm. For a living, they go out to catch African wildlife to sell them to zoos. They do so by driving cars into herds of animals, trying to separate out the ones they would like to catch. Then, by throwing it or by using a stick, they put a rope around the neck of the animal, reeling it in. Quickly more ropes follow, binding also the limbs, fighting the animals by numbers. The animals are taken down, and put into cages, after which they are transported to the base camp, so that they can be sold and shipped to zoos. Below, some pictures of Hatari! are shown.
Practices are surprisingly similar in The Lost World (the sequel to Jurassic Park), when InGen enters the island on which the dinosaurs live. With fortified cars the InGen-men chase herds of dinosaurs, trying to separate the ones they wish to catch from the rest. Then ropes appear, aimed for the neck of the creatures, after which they are taken down by more ropes and people hanging on to them. In both movies they are put into cages, although the caging itself is not showed (and how to get the incredibly heavy cages onto trucks). Also in The Lost World are the animals caught to be shipped to a zoo – a newly built one in San Diego. One may even observe some similarities in the animals. The mamenchisaurus and the giraffe with their long necks, and the pachycephalosaurus and the rhino that both attack and damage the fortified cars throwing their heads against it. Look at the clip and the pictures below to see for yourself.
Let’s, for a second, ponder whether this really makes sense. InGen flies a small army worth of armoured trucks, weapons, and soldiers onto the island to catch the dinosaurs. Genetic scientists have already succeeded in cloning dinosaurs, so clearly methods have improved a little bit. But to catch them we use… ropes?
To end this post I’d like to point out two main things that were different. Firstly, in Hatari! the catching of the animals is not at all seen as something that some people may deem as undesirable. The characters, hunters if you like, are portrayed as amicable, daring and adventurous. In no way do the hunters think they cause harm to the animals, nor do they treat them intentionally cruelly after capture. In The Lost World the chasing, catching, and caging of the dinosaurs is clearly pictured as something despicable.
Secondly, in The Lost World the hunters do not really chase and catch the creatures (duhh..), whereas everything you see in Hatari! is real. The latter is more crazy than one might suppose at first thought, since the actors have not been replaced by stuntmen, or have they otherwise been helped to ease the difficulties of, well, being hit by a rhino.
In any case, both movies are absolutely worth seeing.