Paleontology writer Brian Switek
, author of "Written In Stone
" and the Laelaps
blog, recently stumbled upon a cleverly nuanced bit of animated Soviet propaganda that touches on his field of expertise. It impressed him enough to share in a post headlined "The Saddest Dinosaur Cartoon Ever
The headline is a reference to a nearly 10-minute Russian film, 1967's "Mountain of Dinosaurs
" ("Gora Dinozavrov"), and its subversive genius.
Switek notes several of the 20th-century contexts in which the term "dinosaur" has been used as "perfect foils for our worries and fears" in the West -- by antiwar protesters as "brutes who drove themselves to extinction by investing too much in their armor and weapons" or by Cold Warriors as hapless victims of a meteorite in the same way that "mutually assured destruction" could rain nuclear annihilation down on us all.
"Mountain of Dinosaurs" director Rasa Strautmane and writer Arkady Snesarev, he says, used the mass extinction some 65 million years ago "in a more specific and culturally subversive way." It is a broadside on the Soviet system's disregard for individual rights, depicting a metaphorical caretaker gone berserk.
There's much to behold in between the film's opening "Many millions of years ago, dinosaurs lived on Earth..." and its closing headscratcher (literally), "Look at this. The dinosaurs are extinct."
It's worth a watch:
If you can't spare the nearly 10 minutes, the climatic climax comes with the weather "worsening with every passing century." Soon, the dinosaur eggs are fighting plummeting temperatures through an "extraordinary quality," their ability to grow thicker shells. It's the only way they can "protect the little creature from the harsh environment." Unfortunately, the adaptation comes at the expense of their charge.
"I must fulfill my duty! I must fulfill my duty!" the egg enjoins as would-be hatchlings are trapped inside the increasingly well-girded walls of calcium carbonate, crying, "I want to see the sun!"
While it espouses one in a multitude of theories about dinosaur extinction, Switek notes that the film isn't a "literal lesson" about dinosaurs.
Instead, Switek says:
the short warns about what happens if powerful stewards meant to care for individuals actually stifle those they are charged to protect. Dinosaurs didn't die because of climate change, the short says, but because their eggs became so thick-shelled in response to colder temperatures that the baby dinosaurs couldn't hatch. The shells (yes, the eggshells speak) mindlessly drone that they are doing their “duty,” but by growing thicker and thicker they kill the nascent sauropods. The scene is the saddest dinosaur cartoon I've ever seen, and it seems to be a metaphor for the Soviet government suppressing the rights of individual citizens. Indeed, the death of dinosaurs was not only used by Americans to issue dire warnings -- they are an international symbol of extinction.
"Mountains of Dinosaurs" is among the oldest of 45 animated Soviet-era shorts included in the "Masters of Russian Animation" collection that debuted in 1997. The "Masters" series of four discs was a joint project of Films by Jove and Soyuzmultfilm studios.
-- Andy Heil