You go out in a field and you look up in the sky and you see the stars and some of that light that's coming down to your eye has been travelling for millions of years. So you look up and you're looking at the past and then you look down and you’re looking at the past. You know, those dinosaur bones are like millions of years old and that light (from space) left there maybe at the same time that you're looking.. It's just.. you're kind of sandwiched in that world and it's really a.. It's really a wonderful place. Being out in a field.
Terry Wentz – Chief Fossil Preparator, Black Hills Institute.
For a large part of my childhood I was OBSESSED with dinosaurs. I think all little kids develop some kind of fascination with them when they’re younger. I spent hours poring over pictures of those terrifying-looking creatures that were so unbelievable that it didn’t seem possible to my child's brain that they once walked the same planet that I did.
Plastic dinosaurs entered my toy rotation along with He-Man, Kenner Super Powers and Marvel Secret Wars toys that I played with daily. They were crude, made of a single color of plastic. I remember them vividly still. There was a bright yellow Stegosaurus, a blue Brontosaurus (back when they still existed), an orange Spinosaurus and, my favorite, a red T-Rex. But He-Man, Superman, and Spider-Man didn’t just see a crude single color toy, and neither did I, for that matter. We all saw the most ferocious creatures ever to walk the earth. In the end the good guys always won, but they always suffered casualties in their victories (RIP Captain America, Robin, and Kang).
Eventually, I put the dinosaurs away. Then, in 1993, Steven Spielberg somehow brought dinosaurs back to life with Jurassic Park. It was as if he knew exactly what I had imagined in my brain all those years earlier as I played with those plastic dinosaurs on my bedroom floor. The film was a hit and spawned a trilogy that ended in 2001 and is poised to make a comeback in a big way next year with [Jurassic World](movie:32752), boasting [Guardians of the Galaxy](movie:424073) star Chris Pratt in the lead.
So when I found out that I’d be screening Dinosaur 13, I was excited. All I knew about the documentary was that it was about the discovery of the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever found.
What I didn’t know was the fascinating and infuriating story around the discovery.
Back in 1990, a crew from The Black Hills Institute of Geological Research Inc. in South Dakota made an amazing discovery of an 80% complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton. The crew named the specimen Sue, after the scientist who made the discovery, Susan Hendrickson. Up to this point there had only been 12 other T-Rex skeletons found, none more than 40% complete. The Black Hills Institute intended to use Sue as the centerpiece to a planned museum that would put their small town on the map. To ensure this, the crew paid the landowner Maurice Williams $5,000.00, at that time the most ever paid to a landowner for a fossil discovery.
The 17 days it took to dig the skeleton out of the cliff-side in 115 degree weather and the ensuing two years spent meticulously separating and carefully removing the debris from each piece of the fossil would turn out to be the easiest part Sue’s long journey: The FBI moved in and seized Sue on the basis that they say it was stolen from Federal land. Over the course of the three days it took to pack the skeleton and haul it away the small town rallied together to protest Sue being taken from their community. Adults picketed the seizure as kids literally chased the military vehicles yelling “Shame! On! You! Shame! On! You!” over and over again in unison.
And Institute president Peter Larson and his Black Hills Institute fought back, suing the Federal Government to get Sue back. But things took a turn for the worse when original land owner Maurice Williams also stepped in and said that he hadn’t sold the fossil to the Black Hills Institute. Things were further complicated due to the fact that Williams was a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and needed to obtain permission from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to sell anything from that land. Since Williams hadn’t applied for and paid $100.00 for a permit to sell Sue, the skeleton technically belonged to the Bureau of Indian affairs. A complicated fight between all four parties commenced, as it turned out that the location in which Sue was discovered was the worst place possible, from a legal standpoint.
I don’t want to spoil the rest of the story, but suffice to say this is only the first act of the documentary. From here it travels a crooked path and goes places you would never expect. It’s a fairly frustrating journey, at every turn it feels like the Black Hills Institute ends up deeper in the ever-rising quicksand. All the while you feel for Peter Larson, a man having made the biggest discovery of his life, only to have it pried from his grasp and then made to suffer even further indignities.
Filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller does a excellent job navigating a story that could have easily gotten confusing and convoluted. This isn’t a documentary where two sides of a story are laid out and you’re challenged to pick a side, where it comes down to a judgment call to decide where you fall on the issue. The film is told fairly objectively but from the very beginning you know that you’ll be rooting for the ragtag band of paleontologists, as they are the David to the U.S. government and Maurice Williams’ Goliath.
The end of the story is both satisfying and heartbreaking. I’d never expect a story of a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton to make me emotional, but to hear the stories of Pete Larson visiting the building where his discovery was being kept under lock and key just to look through the window and talk to it… It’s touching and not nearly as weird as it sounds.
I really enjoyed this film. Like any great documentary, it presents to you an extremely compelling story, one that makes you feel like you’ve been taken on a ride to a place you’d never have been if not for the filmmaker taking you there. It’s a story that I felt compelled to tell a friend about as soon as it was done, but I eventually stopped and told him to just seek the film out.
I guess that’s what I’m telling everyone - telling you. Seek it out. You won’t be disappointed.
Dinosaur 13 is in theaters this Friday, August 15th.