'Warlords of Atlantis,' 'an unheralded attraction at two dozen area theaters, turns out to be surprisingly robust and enjoyable hokum. A British-made adventure fantasy in the lost-in-prehistoric-times tradition, the film displays more than enough dash to finesse juvenile B-movie limitations. These are perhaps best represented by the aging Doug McClure as the two-fisted he-man lead.

Between Kevin Connor's breezy direction and the production company's fondness for monsters, there is rarely a dull moment. Every quarter-hour or so a slimy, funny new beast seems to spring out of the ocean or primordial ooze to ceuse the stelwart heroes sheer terror, in convenience or unavoidale delay. My favorite menace was a species of flying fish that at catapulted out of the water like missiles to nip at the characters' limbs and necks while they were trying to hotfoot it out of Atlantis.

Screenwriter Brian Hayles sets his tall tale in 1896. An occeanographic exploring party drops anchor in a neighborhood of the Atlantic that just to happens to conceal the gateway to what Hayles envisions as the protofacist lost civilization of Atlantis. Brawn, somewhat flabbily embodied by McClure, and Brains, likably embodied by Peter Gilmore as a bespectacled, abstract scientist, dessend in an experimental diving bell to study underwater flora and fauna.

Almost instantly, they are set upon by a monstrous type of fauna, a giant sea serpent who keeps poking his neck through the open bottom of the diving bell to take bites at them. Surviving the peril, the heroes make trouble for themselves when they discover and retrieve a gold monolith standing near the gateway to Atlantis. A trio of greedy, mutinous crew members sends McClure and Gilmore spinning to the bottom on their next dive. However, the miscreants themselves are dragged overboard by a giant octopus evidently sent to track down the missing gatepost.

Miraculously, good guys and bad guys alike survive these accidents and find themselves stranded in Atlantis, where they must pull together to avoid the fate suffered by earlier cast-aways - indentured servitude and surgery that transforms them from humans into "gilled creatures." Gilmore, immediately spotted as "a surperb alpha brian," is offered a spot among the ruling oligarchy, the Council of the Elite, by resident elitists Cyd Charise and Daniel Massey. Can McClure break out of confinement in time to sock him back to his senses?

The snooty Atlantians are a kick in their own right. Michael Gothard as a tribune called Admir appears to blend the funniest supercilious traits of Richards Chamberlain, Leonard Nimoy and Michael Ansara. Cyd Charisse sports a preposterous wig, but her costume is wittily designed to emphasize her legs, which still look sensational. Her prosaic vocal equipment also does wonders for oratory like, "We are a master race; we control, we manipulate, we do not soil our hands with blood." Massey, whom I haven't seen since he played Noel Coward in "Star!," has acquired a grave, deep-voiced authority, amusingly reminiscent of his father, Raymond Massey, in "Things to Come."

In short, "Warlords" teems with diverting incidents and details. Although it's a little too hasty and throwaway to compare with "The Time Machine" and "Planet of the Apes," it's more rousing than most of the competition - the Sinbad series also distributed in this country by Columbia, Disney vehicles like "island at the Top of the World," nature adventures like "The Sea Gypsies." It might be fun if a collaboration could be arranged between Connor and Ray Harryhausen, who invents the monsters for the Sinbad pictures. Connor, who began directing about five years ago and made film versions of Burroughs' "The Land That Time Forgot" and "At the Earth's Core" with virtually the same crews before shooting "Warlords," might also be recruited to pick up the pace at the Disney adventure shop.

"Warlords," ironically, is superior in every respect except production and advertising costs to an inflated, overtouted monster picture like the De Laurentiis remake of "King Kong." The monsters in "Warlords" actually recall the ravenous charm of the original Kong: they regard humans as munchies.