Friday 23 September 2016

One of our dragons is missing: How Disney’s missing dinosaur appeared in Star Wars

The skeleton in Star Wars that was re-used
from One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing

In the spring of 1976, my birthday treat was to be taken to the cinema with some friends. The film, like almost all of those I had seen at the cinema up to then, was from Disney. It was called One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing. Not only was it the kind of movie that pretty much disappeared after Star Wars, but you can actually see the symbolic death of the Disney family comedy in a memorable moment from Star Wars itself. 

One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing and its surprising link with Star Wars 

The dinosaur in One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing

When the crew of Star Wars were at Elstree Studios packing props and equipment that would be sent to Tunisia, they decided to box an extra item.

Chris Taylor, in his book How Star Was Conquers the Universe, puts it this way: "When [Gary] Kurtz had to charter a Lockheed Hercules to fly some forgotten equipment from London to Tunisia – spending $22,000 to move $5,000 worth of essential gear – it just so happened that there was space on the plane for a skeleton the British crew had uncovered; a diplodocus from the Disney movie, One of Our Dinsoaurs Is Missing, shot at Elstree a couple of years earlier. Up went the cry: Just throw it on the plane." 

The dinosaur was duly unpacked and placed in the Tunisian desert, where it forms a bleak backdrop as C-3PO treks alone through the sands of Tatooine. The expanded universe would later call it a Krayt dragon, the creature whose cry Obi-Wan Kenobi mimics to ward off the sandpeople – but like many things in the 1977 film, it's perhaps best left mysterious.

C-3PO with the skeleton 

One of Our Dinosaurs was one of the fairly fruitful crop of live-action movies that Disney produced in the 1970s. In fact, the studio produced a lot more of them than it did animations. Wikipedia lists 31 of them between the start of the decade and the release of Star Wars. Among the most memorable were The Barefoot Executive, Herbie Rides Again (probably the highlight of my cinema-going life, pre-Star Wars), The Shaggy D.A. and Freaky Friday.

One of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing, shot at both Elstree Studios and Pinewood, was just about the studio's most British film since Mary Poppins (more so, since it was actually shot in the UK) and it shared that film's director, Robert Stevenson. 

It starred Hollywood veteran Helen Hayes, but most of its cast would have been much more familiar to British audiences than American ones. From the Carry On films there was Bernard Bresslaw, Joan Sims and Amanda Barrie, alongside familiar TV faces such as Derek Nimmo, Deryck Guyler, Roy Kinnear, Joan Hickson, John Laurie, Jon Pertwee and Frank Williams. Peter Ustinov had a leading role, while the cast also included Clive Revill (later the voice of the Emperor in The Empire Strikes Back, until George Lucas had him replaced in the DVD release) and Joss Ackland.

The plot has Nimmo as Lord Southmere hiding a top secret microfilm in a dinosaur skeleton at London's Museum of Natural History. Ustinov, embarrassingly playing a stereotypical Chinese villain, arranges for the dinosaur to be stolen and driven away on the back of a truck, and a chase ensues across the city.

The critic Roger Ebert was not impressed. "One of our dinosaurs may be missing, all right, but it's not missing for long enough," he wrote.

"The latest Walt Disney production apparently included a sizable investment in a large dinosaur skeleton, which is then trucked around London in the fog for so long that we wish they WOULD lose the thing. The Disney organization has been turning out some superior entertainment lately (especially Escape To Witch Mountain 
and Island at the Top of the World), but One of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing! doesn't make the grade." 

The chase scene in One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing

All I remember about my viewing of the film is that I loved that extended chase scene with the dinosaur being driven around London. I chuckled through it happily, surrounded by my school friends and family. And that makes me a little wistful.

Little did I know that, at just about the same time I watched the film in 1976, that dinosaur was already playing a bit part in a film that would be released the next year and which would displace Disney in my affections. 

After Star Wars, there would be fewer films my whole family would want to see – you had to really dig space battles to enjoy much cinema-going in the late 1970s.

Disney's live action output would tail off considerably, but in 1978, the studio would attempt its own comic take on the SF craze with The Cat From Outer Space. The year after that, it would try a straight contribution to the genre with The Black Hole.

But Disney's total domination of the family entertainment market was over. And it strikes me as sadly symbolic that the diplodocus from One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing – the film that had so tickled me as an eight-year-old – sits there in the background in Star Wars, the remains of an extinct species.

As for the real life fabricated skeleton, it remained in the desert in Tunisia, where Michael Ryan and David West Reynolds discovered it almost twenty years later, as shown here.


Unknown said...

One Of Our Dinasaurs Is Missing completists must be furious that Star Wars have all the pieces.

Darren Slade said...

Right. But it's surprising that film producers don't take their stuff home with them.

John White said...

That was fascinating Darren.
But most of all, I loved being there with the young you--and your pals--watching the Disney film and seeing your excitement!

Darren Slade said...

Thanks John, you're very kind. I know you're a sucker for that sort of 70s nostalgia. One of Our Dinosaurs might even have been the kind of film Jack and his pals in your Between Wars strip might have seen when they were a little younger.