In August 1990, a group of palaeontologists from the Black Hills Institute in Hilly City, South Dakota, discovered the fossilised skeleton of a huge Tyrannosaurus Rex, in a cliff face in Sotuh Dakota’s Badlands. After carefully excavating the fossil – and paying the landowner $5,000 for the discovery – they took the skeleton home to prepare her for exhibition. A year later, the FBI and the National Guard seized the skeleton – affectionately named Sue, after Susan Hendrickson, the woman who first discovered her – claiming the skeleton had been stolen from the land. Sue languished in storage for several years, as a massive court battle was fought over her.
The title of Dinosaur 13 comes from the fact that Sue was the 13th, largest and most complete T-Rex fossil to ever be found. At the time of Sue’s discovery, and at the time she was seized by the US government, the case was shrouded in mystery, petty laws and controversy, with several parties laying claim to Sue, and protests at her removal taking place in Hill City.
Director Todd Douglas Miller has gone back to the beginning of the story, and told Sue’s tale – and that of the Larson family who founded the Black Hills Institute – through talking heads and footage shot at the time. Dinosaur 13 turns into a thriller documentary as the audience is brought on the incredible and tragic journey that the Larsons, Hill City and the Black Hills Institute survived.
Essentially, Dinosaur 13 is the story of a legal battle, but what makes the story interesting is that it is the legal battle over a T-Rex; the biggest and most complete specimen ever found. The US government, the land holder where Sue was found, and those who found and lovingly cared for the fossil were dragged into a legal battle, which saw people imprisoned for petty crimes, families damaged and Sue held in storage for several years.
The trouble with the film is that it gets a little too caught up and bogged down in the legal issues surrounding Sue. This is the story from the perspective of the Black Hills Institute, who were prosecuted for theft for removing fossils, so of course it is a complicated and heart rending story, but a little more focus on the emotional fall out of the events, rather than the laws and crimes being tried could have made the middle section of the film more engaging.
Dinosaur 13 is a heartbreaking, and astonishing story about people whose love for dinosaurs landed them in prison, and the incredible journey that Sue went on, millions of years after she died. The legal debates detract from the film slightly; the heart of the story is truly the people who dedicated years of their lives to Sue, and it could have been a stronger film with a more focused narrative.