Movie dinosaurs are almost as old as cinema itself. But our big screen version of these prehistoric beasts may be very wide of the mark, argues Quentin Cooper.

The documentary Dinosaur 13 may be the most accurate film about dinosaurs ever made. It’s also among the most moving, telling how fossil hunters in South Dakota unearthed the largest and most complete T-rex skeleton ever found. Instead of it becoming the centrepiece of their nearby museum – as they planned – what followed was a bitter custody battle over the fossil, an FBI raid, a trial and a long prison term for one of the palaeontologists.

The remains were sold off at auction for close to $8m, none of which went to the discoverers, and now reside in a private museum in Chicago almost a thousand miles away.

The power of the documentary comes from the story itself and the way we come to know and care about most of the key individuals involved – including the T-rex. Just as important is what’s not there. It has none of the visuals that have become so familiar from movies and TV shows about dinosaurs: no computer generated tyrannosaurs, no animatronics, not even any stop-motion creatures or men in monster suits stomping about on screen.

Lumbering reality?

As well as going back to the dawn of time, dinosaurs go back almost to the dawn of cinema itself. For a century, film and television-makers have been using every bit of evolving technology at their disposal to raise the dead and make dinosaurs walk the Earth again. They’ve turned these extinct prehistoric beasts into living icons of contemporary culture and shaped our thinking about every aspect of their appearance and behaviour.

The problem is, much of what they’ve taught us is wrong.

From Gertie, a perpetually peckish Brontosaurus (a name now formally phased out in favour of Apatosaurus) which starred in a series of black and white silent cartoons in the 1910s right through to today’s overwhelming 3D surround-sound CGI creations, audiences assume that what’s lumbering in front of them is what dinosaurs were really like.

Sometimes they assume even more. In 1922, while on a lecture of America, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was invited by his friend Harry Houdini to a meeting of his fellow illusionists. He decided to play a trick of his own, presenting a short film without comment. The front page of the New York Times on 3 June relates how Doyle “Mystifies World-Famed Magicians with Pictures of Prehistoric Beasts”.  Many of them apparently thought the moving images they had been shown were of genuine living dinosaurs that had somehow escaped extinction. The truth, only revealed the next day, was this was footage created by Willis O’Brien – later of King Kong fame – for a forthcoming film adaptation of Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World.

Colour conundrum

By today’s standards the stop-motion animation looks clunky and jerky and obviously fake, but seeing is believing. Back then when no-one had witnessed anything like it, the illusionists – despite their expertise – struggled not to believe what they saw.

Little has changed since Conan Doyle hoodwinked Houdini and company. Today’s special effects are vastly more sophisticated, but they still have the same goal of fooling us into accepting what we are seeing is real. We think we know what dinosaurs looked and sounded and moved like simply because we’ve watched countless hours of them galumphing around in films and documentaries. But although animatronics and CGI advances have made them much more compelling and convincing, what we see on screen remains at least as much the product of fantasy as reality.

For all the huge strides made by palaeontology and the use of new imaging techniques to get pigment and tissue details from fossils, we still have only the haziest idea what colour most dinosaurs were. Maybe they had polka dots or were purple like Barney. Many more than we used to believe now appear to have been feathery not leathery, including Jurassic Park’s velociraptors (which were also much smaller than in the movies, about the size of a large chicken) and quite possibly T-rex itself. And bar a couple of exceptions, we are still largely clueless as to what noises they would have made. Work on a well-preserved Parasaurolophus skull indicated it may have made sounds akin to low notes from a trombone. As to how they moved, what and how they ate and many other key details, it’s fair to say our ideas are still in flux.

Documentary dilemmas

In the end, fiction is fiction, so it’s arguable that it doesn’t matter that much if Jurassic Park and its ilk stomp on a few facts in the cause of creating drama. All monster movies take liberties: the latest incarnation of Godzilla, for instance, is far too big to be plausibly supported by his own legs. Where this blurring of what-we-know and what-we-conjecture is more significant is in programmes that could be mistaken for reality

The archetype is Walking with Dinosaurs, often cited as the most successful television documentary series of all time. Technically dazzling and entertaining as the programmes undoubtedly are, can they truly be classified as documentaries? With a format familiar to viewers from nature programmes, scores of scientists credited as consultants, and (in the UK version) Kenneth Branagh’s compellingly matter-of-fact narration, it often feels like everything you are being shown and told is established beyond doubt. It hasn’t. These are creatures, environments, situations and behaviours from tens or even hundreds of millions of years ago.

Shows of this kind are of necessity simulations fuelled by speculation: some elements are based on what most palaeontologists are very confident about from the fossil record, some are what their current best hunch is, and some are possible but far from probable scenarios weaved in to make it more gripping television. New finds and new theories mean our thinking is continuing to develop, so that various details depicted in Walking With Dinosaurs – right up to how some of the biggest dinosaurs would have walked – are now thought to be wrong.

None of this makes these sort of programmes any less of an achievement, but because the levels of certainty behind different aspects of what’s presented is seldom clear it’s hard not to feel you are watching something far more definitive than it is, a work of reference not of inference. They may hide it well, but they share some of their dino DNA with that classic Hammer creature feature One Million Years BC. That B-movie classic featured battles between assorted dinosaurs and early humans – even though the two never came within 60 million years of each other – and boasted the audacious tagline “This is the way it was”. As long as we realise many of today’s dinosaur “documentaries” also depict not the Way It Was but, at best, the Way It Might Possibly Have Been, they can be enjoyed as the hybrid of science fact and inventive science-fiction that they are… rather than as the real-life wildlife programmes they mimic.

Dinosaur 13 is showing at selected cinemas in the US and UK.

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