Todd Douglas Miller’s engaging, sometimes enraging feature documentary debut, “Dinosaur 13” chronicles a decade of legal battles over one of the great finds of natural history—the largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex ever excavated. That T-Rex, of course, is “Sue,” star attraction at the Field Museum since 2000. Amiable paleontologist Peter Larson and a team from the Black Hills Institute made the discovery in 1990, but museums, the government, Native American tribes and other paleontologists challenged possession of the dinosaur. And it only grew worse after that, as the film explores. Shot widescreen like a Western, “Dinosaur 13” is a study of curiosity, investigation and a search for justice. But, as Miller tells me one sunny afternoon at the Field, “In the guise of a ninety-five-minute film you have to focus on a story, and for us, it was one man’s passionate pursuit of his girlfriend, his first love and it just happens to be a dinosaur.”
Friends to whom I mentioned my upcoming interview had the same, child-like curiosity, the same question. Sue was eighty-percent intact, a rarity, but still, how do you tell which bones are which? Aren’t they all jumbled in with other finds? Larson responds with the kinds of terms of art that are fascinating out of the mouths of experts in almost any field. “’Cos it was all found together,” Larson says in a tone that shows he still relishes the memory. “It was found in partial articulation. So one leg was articulated, the vertebral column was articulated from in front of the pelvis all the way almost to the tip of the tail. Chevrons were attached. The skull was articulated. There were parts of other animals in there, including some duckbill dinosaur bones. There were bones from the dinosaur called Thescelosaurus. We found crocodile teeth, we found a turtle’s skull, we found parts of turtle shell. So there were other things in there, but it’s predominantly this one dinosaur. The dinosaur carcass, actually, acted as a trap that caught some of that? Some of the duckbill bones were actually in the gullet of the dinosaur. These were with some coprolite, fossil turds.” Larson laughs. “And partially acid-etched things, so part of it was stomach content, part of it was not. It’s the context is how that we know it’s the dinosaur. We know her last meal was a duckbill dinosaur. There were other parts of other T-Rexes in there, there was a tibia and fibula that were both bitten in half with marks on the bones from teeth and micro-scratches where the serrations matched, so we know it was bitten in half by a T-Rex, whether it was Sue or someone who attacked Sue. We don’t know. Frontal bones from an even smaller T-Rex were in there, too.”
Were there many “aha” moments, I ask. “There were many ‘Ah-HA!’ moments as we were excavating and even more ‘Ah-Has’ as we prepared [the dinosaur],” Larson says. “So we saw some of the damage to her bones, for instance, the left fibula, you could see that in the field. The lower leg was broken, badly broken, then partially healed, then that got a bad infection.” In another once-infected, healed area, “we didn’t know there was a piece of T-Rex tooth in there until we cleaned it, ‘Oh man, this was from a bite?’ There was a piece of a tooth in there, how awesome is that? And as you work more, the more you learn. A lot of it was done here at the Field Museum, too. We’re still studying Sue.” (Ray Pride)
“Dinosaur 13” opens Friday, August 15 for two weeks at Siskel, the Logan and on video-on-demand.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.