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Battle Beneath the Earth


Back in 1967, my brother Mark and I hit a massive old movie palace in Phoenix to see the sci-fi extravaganza BATTLE BENEATH THE EARTH. As a six year old, it had everything I needed to think it was legendary. Explosions, bad guys with awesome weapons and plenty of mysterious tunnels beneath the planet’s surface.

Well, watching it again in 2021 on TCM is a bit of a different experience.

It’s LOADED with unintentional laughs, horrific special effects and acting just this side of an Ed Wood flick. As a matter of fact, if you gave Wood a much bigger budget from MGM, his version would probably look a lot like this. Horrible camera work, silly romantic music every time a young woman is on screen, bizarre set lighting that will make even the most casual movie watcher raise an eyebrow, this one is very much of its time.

Chinese General Chan Lu (inexplicably played by Englishman Martin Benson of “Goldfinger” fame) has gone off the rails and dug a massive system of tunnels from China to the USA and created a network under much of America.

Please leave all your commonsense notions of the sheer scale of that effort at the gate, especially when you see the rather small scale of his apparent army. Hey, at least he took time to decorate his lair with giant rugs and a pet falcon.

Our hero is Commander Jonathan Shaw, played by Kerwin Mathews (7th Voyage of Sinbad) in a near perfect early 60’s blend of B-movie bravado and poor acting. Every woman seems to swoon in his presence, while bad guys cower in fear. It’s damn funny. Shaw’s friend Arnold (Peter Arne, so great in many Blake Edwards films) opens the film by sticking his ear to a sidewalk in Las Vegas, screaming “Ants! They’re like ants!” as his super hearing detects the Chinese marauders tunneling toward Sin City.

He’s bailed out of the looney bin by Shaw to lead an opposing force beneath the Earth to defeat the invaders.

It looks like the filmmakers actually built about 100 feet of real tunnel and then shot it from every conceivable angle. Blurry matte paintings and forced perspective, sub-Harryhausen effects attempt to create massive vistas, but all you’ll remember are the scenes with our actors in a jeep being bounced by crew in front of a giant spinning wheel of rock, which is supposed to be the walls going by as they drive. It’s so cheap it made me laugh out loud almost every time they used it.

Thankfully just when you get sick of seeing those tunnels roll by, Viviane Ventura appears as a “world class spelunker” and geologist who has to be warned not to step on molten lava, cause “it’s hot!”. I guess she missed that day in school.

The fact that all the Chinese senior bad guys are played by English actors with Spock eyebrows and bad makeup is nearly as distracting as the bad special effects.

As a kid, I really loved this and you can see why, its slightly mad and looks like a globe hopping Bond movie with all kinds of wonders. Now, just enjoy its hilariously bad editing, photography, music and acting that still serves as a silly Saturday morning sci-fi diversion. This battle sputters do a D.

“You fool! They’ve got tunneling machines! They’re coming in under us and you sit there like an idiot!”

Lighten up, Francis…..

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