An excerpt from the booklet essay by Michael Brooke

It cannot be overemphasised just how technically ambitious Zeman’s film was, not just by Czechoslovak standards but those of practically any other film-producing nation by 1955. Indeed, there’s a strong case for hailing it as the cinema’s most sophisticated blend of live-action and animated special effects since King Kong, and by some distance. Consider: Willis O’Brien himself never topped his masterpiece, and his protégé Ray Harryhausen’s career had only reached his second solo feature Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (Fred F. Sears, 1956), with his heavily creature-populated Technicolor fantasy epics such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (Nathan Juran, 1958) and Jason and the Argonauts (Don Chaffey, 1963) still some years away. Zeman and his colleagues (as with Stanley Kubrick and 2001: A Space Odyssey thirteen years later, Zeman personally headed the special-effects team, which otherwise comprised Arnošt Kupčík, František Krčmář and Jindřich Liška) ensured that their film doubled as a showcase for everything that mid-1950s ‘trick films’ (a direct translation of the Czech term) were capable of.

Some of the technology, particularly the use of split-screen and superimposition, dates back to the heyday of Georges Méliès more than half a century earlier, but Zeman’s attitude has always been that if a technique still works, why not use it? After all, until the advent of digital media coinciding with the new millennium, there was little practical difference between the way that images were recorded on the film passing through an Edison Kinetoscope in the 1890s and a state-of-the-art Arriflex a century later. Much of the time it’s clear how certain effects were pulled off (a tropical storm is achieved via a mixture of day-for-night shooting of the boys, matted-in clouds and lightning and cutaways to shaking trees, with the soundtrack doing much of the heavy lifting), but it’s easy to suspend one’s disbelief. Similarly, the giraffe stampede would appear on closer examination to be traditional cel animation, but the illusion is remarkably convincing. When Jenda encounters a Phorusrhacos (a flightless bird related to the ostrich), Zeman rapidly cuts between the live-action actor running for dear life and the stop-motion bird giving chase – they don’t appear in the same shot until the very end of the sequence, but our imaginations are more than capable of filling in the blanks. Most of the creatures were brought to life via stop-motion animation, but when interacting more directly with the actors Zeman used puppets and occasionally full-size models with limited articulation (with careful camera angles chosen to suggest that more is happening outside the frame)

This was Zeman’s first (mostly) live-action feature, and is strikingly different from what followed. From 1958 onwards, courtesy of Invention for Destruction (Vynález zkázy, 1958), The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Baron Prášil, 1961), A Jester’s Tale (Bláznova kronika, 1964), The Stolen Airship (Ukradená vzducholoď, 1967) and On the Comet (Na kometě, 1970), Zeman became one of the few filmmakers whose work could be instantly identified by a single random freeze-frame (even by somebody who might not have seen that particular film) thanks to Zeman revelling in the beguiling artificiality of their hyperstylised universes. Conversely, Journey to the Beginning of Time takes a remarkably realistic approach for something so crammed with fantastical creatures. The boys behave exactly like real boys (down to the all too familiar exhaustion-fuelled bickering), the environments look exactly as one would expect them to look, and the creatures… well, if they ultimately lack the uncanny realism of late Harryhausen (none of the dinosaurs here can rival the inhabitants of Gwangi, as Zeman would doubtless have been the first to acknowledge), they were certainly state-of-the-mid-1950s-art.


Michael Brooke's complete essay, from which this excerpt is taken, appears in the booklet which accompanies the release.

Disc Info

Czechoslovakia, 1955
(Blu-ray/24fps): 86 mins
(DVD/25fps): 83 mins
Special features: 39 minutes
Sound: 2.0 Mono LPCM (48k/16-bit)
Original aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Language: Czech
Subtitles: English

Blu-ray: BD50 / 1080 / 24fps / Region ABC (Region Free)
DVD: PAL / DVD9 / 25fps / Region 0 (Region Free)

DVD £12.99 / Blu-Ray: £19.99
Release Date: 07 Oct 2019


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