Monday, March 30, 2009

7. One Million Years B.C. (1940

Director: Hal Roach

Starring: Conrad Nagel, Carol Landis, Victor Mature, Lon Chaney, Jr.

Caveman Quotient: Whole tribes! Two of them even! It’s a veritable Caveman Calgary Rodeo!


Ah, yes. Finally the day has arrived. Granted, it took me a while to get to it, what with restarting University and supposedly working on my thesis, but it's finally here... Enough with you phoney cavefolk – you Piltdown men of the Pleistocene Picture. Seven films in, and we hit the mother load. It doesn’t get much cavemanlier than this.

First things first: One Million BC is not the movie where Martine Beswick and Raquel Welsh get in a catfight while wearing fur bikinis. That much-vaunted entry is still a few years on. But One Million BC, in its own special way, is perhaps more enticing a cinematic spectacle. It’s certainly not as good as One Million Years BC, mind, and I’d argue that it also fails to succeed on the more visceral level of being as much fun, but at the same time it does manage to lay-down almost all the rules of the “proper” caveman film, while simultaneously juggling ridiculous science, hammy performances, weighty themes of the civilisation of man and special effects techniques which are by turns preposterous, inspired, and utterly despicable. In short, it constitutes a must-see proposition for anybody who loves completely ridiculous crap.

The best part of One Million BC may actually be the framing narrative, which manages a delicate melding of narrative superfluousness, didacticism, over-acting and tin-eared dialogue that seems almost calculated in its idiocy. During a thunderstorm, a bunch of lederhosen-wearing Tyrolean mountain-climbers take refuge in a cave and just happen to stumble upon a palaeontologist (Conrad Nagel). This guy is really a sight, I must say. With his wild eyes, beard and enormous pipe, he could just as easily pass for either Captain Nemo or Moses, and he speaks every word with such earnest and overblown enthusiasm that you’d think he’s just uncovered the latter’s alternative draft of the Ten Commandments. The palaeontologist is in the process of documenting a section of primitive rock art, which he believes can actually be interpreted to tell the saga of an ancient people. Fascinated, the mountaineers beg him to share his interpretation, and the palaeontologist just about jumps for joy at the chance. And so, Conrad Nagel launches into the tale of two peoples – the savage and near-bestial Rock tribe, who ruled by force alone, the strongest amongst them leader and the weak left to fend for themselves; and the lovable and enlightened Shell tribe, who had little things like agriculture and good manners, and who despite their name did not live anywhere even remotely near the sea. Of course, Nagel’s narration vanishes about ten minutes into the film and never tells us anything we couldn’t have figured-out for ourselves, but then I guess that’s a small price to pay for the following screencap:

Robert Mitchum Conrad Nagel with pipe.

Anyway, we begin with the Rock tribe, who are just about the most savage savages you could ever care to meet. Their language consists of about four words, their concept of compassion is non-existent (when an old dude falls of a cliff they just sort of roll with it), and the pinnacle of their technological evolution is the realisation that, if you hit an animal many times with a large stick, eventually that animal will stop biting you and you will be able to bite it instead. The chief of the Rock tribe is Akoba (an unrecognisable pre-stardom Lon Chaney, Jr.) and he’s a big mean bastard at that. He yells; he screams; he tapes-over the VHS cassettes of others; and when dinner time comes around he takes a lump of triceratops ten times larger than anyone else’s. When that doesn’t satisfy him, he then tries to steal the food of his only son Tumak (Victor Mature). Tumak is having none of that, mind, and things soon escalate into a full-blown battle for alpha male status. Tumak is a tough one but Akoba has some bite in him yet, and the old guy kicks his son’s butt right out the cave mouth and into the waiting arms of homelessness.

Exiled, Tumak is left to fend for himself, and must wander out alone into the harsh, monster-haunted wilderness of the Hollywood Dreamtime. He somehow ends-up drifting down a river in a tangle of branches, and before long he washes-up asleep at the feet of Loana (Carole Landis), daughter of the chief of the aforementioned Shell tribe. The Shell tribe are a magnanimous lot, and despite the fact that Tumak is clearly bad news they agree to take the young man under their wing. Things go along a bit rough for a while, what with Tumak’s homicidal rage and complete lack of social graces, but slowly a process of cultural exchange occurs. The Shell tribe gradually acquaint Tumak with such concepts as individual property ownership, comedy, and the right to freedom from oppression, while Tumak in turn uses his great strength to shake apples from a tree and beat-up a truly ridiculous man-sized marauding theropod (in a movie chock full of goofy things, this may well be the goofiest – so silly is it, in fact, that the film makers never even show it in full profile, which is a pity as it makes it impossible for me to get screen caps of the thing). Aided by Loana, who has taken a quasi-romantic interest in him, Tumak begins to soften gradually, and becomes valued member of the tribe.

Unfortunately, not all of Tumak’s old habits can be broken. When Loana’s former beau Ohtao (who, interestingly, shows no ill will towards Tumak at all), shows the newcomer one of his fancy newfangled shell-tipped spears, Tumak is naturally enthralled. But try as he might, he can’t quite get his head around the idea that, instead of just stealing Ohtao’s spear, he should get off his arse and make one himself. What’s worse, when Ohtao tries to reclaim his spear Tumak just about makes to kill him, and he’s only stopped by the timely intervention of the rest of the tribe. The chief, deciding that enough is enough, kicks Tumak out. Luckily for Tumak, Loana has by this point more or less fallen for him, and she decides to follow him (for whatever sick, twisted reason) out into the wilderness, braving ferocious dinosaurs and prehistoric mammals in the hopes of making it back to Tumak’s old tribe. I’m not sure what Tumak hoped to achieve by this, honestly – I guess he just planned to try and beat Akoba up again (because it worked-out so well for him the first time, after all). In any case, the question has been rendered moot by events back at Rock City during the course of Tumak’s absence. You see, Akoba got himself messed-up pretty bad during a dangle with a bison one afternoon, and now that he’s a sickly old cripple a new guy has taken-over as king of the Rock tribe. Which might seem to pose just as big a problem, except that muscling-out a crippled old man is a hell of a lot easier than facing-off against a battle-hardened young Turk and his hot, frizzy-haired, spear-savvy new girlfriend. Pretty soon, Tumak is chief, and Loana is busily at work inventing the White Woman’s Burden and bringing civilisation to his brutish, furrier-frequenting new subjects. Things are just grand for all concerned, although that volcano in back of shot sure has an ominous cast...

I’m tempted to give One Million BC much more than its due. Released as it was in 1940, its proclamations about the savagery of the Rock tribe appear, almost unavoidably, to be a loud and angry cry against the evils of Global Fascism. That Hal Roach would decide to couch his parable on the evils of the “Might is Right” philosophy within a caveman movie where Victor Mature fights a giant armadillo is, needless to say, both a peculiar and an admirable choice of strategy, and his broad-strokes prehistoric morality play would have a strong impact on later films like Teenage Caveman and, God help us all, Yor, The Hunter from the Future. In addition to this, the movie looks great. The film obviously wasn’t a mega-budget affair, but the prehistoric world it portrays is, for all its inaccuracies, really cool to look at. The Rock tribe cave is dripping with Gothic menace, the desert landscapes are blasted and gigantean, and the jungles are impossibly lush and bestrewn with great tangles of vines and weird-looking pot plants. The acting, on the other hand, is never especially good, and in the opening prologue is actually outright ludicrous; but the actors playing cavemen all rise to meet the minimal challenge of this sort of old-timey matinee fair, and Carol Landis even manages to be good. Not good good, but caveman movie good, and certainly gives a better show than Raquel Welch would twenty-seven years later.

The jewels in the film’s crown, however, are its action scenes. Admittedly, Tumak’s fight with the man-in-suit theropod is pretty goofy, but the rest of the dinosaur fights in the film are much more convincingly portrayed. With stop-motion obviously beyond the production’s means, Roach decided instead to employ the somewhat more crude technique of using trick photography to allow real animals to stand-in for his dinosaurs – the special effects technicians dinosauring-up the baby alligators and goannas by gluing fins to their backs and horns onto their heads. Sometimes this looks silly, such as when a giant armadillo attacks Tumak and Loana as they hide in a tree, but the monitors look damned convincing, if not as dinosaurs, then as giant monitor lizards wandering around in the jungle (which, honestly, is just as scary a thought). The optical work in this film is truly beyond reproach. In the climatic scene, where the Shell tribe must be rescued from a marauding giant iguana, the animal really does look as though it’s moving through the landscape, and the characters’ interactions with it are perfectly convincing to boot.

Unfortunately (and I bet you knew this was coming) the use of real animals has a downside. It didn’t have to, mind, but that’s never stopped anyone before. You see, this is a dinosaur movie as much as a caveman movie, and in dinosaur movies the dinosaurs always fight. And what’s the easiest way to show a battle between a goanna and a crocodile? How about having them fight for real? As impressive and powerful as it is to consider in the abstract, watching a giant goanna have its throat torn-out becomes positively horrifying once you realise that it’s happening for real. And what’s worse, it’s not even an isolated incident. In this film, snakes get eaten alive by bears... iguanas are buried under rock piles... One Million BC is one of those films that make you realise just how long sixty years actually is. That the makers of this films stage such scenes without pausing to consider that, rather than being horrified by the carnage and savagery of the animals on display, the audience might instead be horrified by the production itself, is bizarre. Then again, Cannibal Holocaust was only thirty years ago, after all... Although perhaps the most bizarre thing is just how often the battling dinosaur footage got recycled in later, cheaper films. We’ll be meeting that poor old goanna a fair few times again before this blog is out. In any case, it’s a real pity that the producers took the path they did, since while the rest of film is nothing special it at least has a sort of goofy charm. It certainly problematises any positive opinion I may have of the film as a whole.

Before I finish-up, I suppose I should also tackle a couple of the “firsts” posed by this here film. After all, One Million BC may not be the first serious caveman movie (it apparently rips-off those old D.W. Griffith ones pretty heavily, which I can well believe given its rampant moralising), but it does seem to be the only one much available, and as a consequence it’s responsible for a lot of the clich├ęs, does and don’ts of the genre. For example, here the film presents a typical good tribe/bad tribe scenario, except that here for once not all the good cave people are bottle-blondes. As another example, here we get another prominent example of that damned volcano that’s always just about to erupt. The interesting thing here, however, is that the volcano doesn’t erupt at the climax of the picture, but instead blows its top at the beginning of the last act. There’s a whole dang iguana attack waiting back of that thing. It makes sense, I suppose, since in this film the volcanic eruption causes fissures that sort of swallow-up all the dinosaurs, and then humanity has to move-on in a spirit of comradeship into a brighter, dinosaur-free tomorrow. However, in the opposite direction, the film is relatively free of sexploitative elements. Granted, Victor Mature shows a lot of skin, but only by the standards of 1940s mainstream cinema could this film ever be billed as deliberately titillative.

I’m No Scientist, But...

Three words: Giant Freaking Iguanas. When you’re dealing with shit like this rationalisation goes out the window. Observe:

Wag – Good sir! Mr Roach, old man! You do know, old bean, that human beings never cohabited with dinosaurs don’t you, wot wot?

Hal Roach – Yes, but what about giant freaking iguanas?

See? Pointless to argue.

What is funny, however, is the lengths to which the makers have gone to try and disguise the fact that they were making a fantasy film. They aren’t quite so brazen as Hammer were with the remake, the wonderful poster of which involved bikini-clad cave girls, dinosaurs and a volcano all brought together beneath the characteristically bombastic tagline “THIS IS THE WAY IT WAS!”, but having a guy in lederhosen receive a lecture of questionable accuracy from a beardy in a cavern runs a close second. I’m actually confused as to why this section was included, honestly. Maybe in 1940 audiences just weren’t ready to leap forth into a dialogue-free caveman fantasy without a bit of easing.

Anyway, leaving aside the obviously fantastical nature of the film, I do still take issue with the representation of the caveman language. All the humans in this film are just that – thoroughly modern Homo sapiens sapiens. Given that one expects that language would have developed to a fair degree of sophistication with the early species such as the cro magnons, Neanderthals, and other, earlier species of human, the fact that the caveman languages in this film consist of about ten words each is inexplicable and irritating. There isn’t even any sort of explanation behind why “misha” is a monster, or “akita!” means help. Given that the cavemen don’t even appear to have a grammar, expressing everything as they do in concrete, single-word statements, I’m not sure why they aren’t just communicating with a series of grunts and gestures. Why yell “Akita!” when a loud, panicked shout would suffice? Yes, I realise I’m complaining about a language not being dumb enough, but I don’t care. The laziness of the film makers, in cooking-up a few catch-cries so that their somewhat limited actors wouldn’t have to struggle with complex dialogue, is infuriating. Why the hell not just have them speak in English, anyway! Were they trying to be faithful to original text? Did they not want to loose poetic intricacies of such cavemanese statements as “Tumak! Loana Tumak! Loana Tumak grishu!” delivered with a thick American accent. Well, I personally consider Robert Fagles’ translation perfectly suitable for non-native speakers, even if some prefer Pope or E.V. Rieu, and I’m sure that Carol Landis was up to the challenger of delivering dialogue such as

“O valorous Tumak! You of the stern-wooded staff;

I, Loana, of the thick-ferned vale, do kneel to you

In the sweet slavery of my love. Now, Tumak, let us

Voyage this valley, let us brave the mighty serpents

Of the veldt, and in the bourn of your distant homeland

Shall we suckle the coming bounty of our young”.

(Fagles, R. 1986 – The Saga of Tumak, Prince of Rockland,[l. 2372-2373]).

In any case, the “mumbo jumbo” convention is a very peculiar one, and something that I’m not entirely sure I’m in favour of. I am, however, looking forward to the monkey-man language that Anthony Burgess cooked-up for Quest for Fire (which I intend to watch this week, if I remember to buy it); and I’ll also admit that it’s a great deal of fun, when alarmed by something, to be able to raise your arms in the air and shout “AKEEEEEEE-TA!” to the complete bemusement of your family and friends.

Over all:

Two McClures out of Five.


  1. So is the 1967 ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. a remake of this movie? Or are they just two movies about cavemen with similar titles?

    Also I have always been disappointed when movies use lizards as fake dinosaurs because (among many other problems) lizards just sit there and blink most of the time. I guess this movie found a horrible way around that problem by having more vicious reptiles brutally attack each other.

    That armadillo though -- possibly the best use of the animal since their inexplicable appearance in Tod Browning's DRACULA?

  2. Damn it, now I can't stop imaging how much better this movie would have been if had included an interlude involving a giant, vampirical bee.

    Also yes, this 1967 version is a remake - and a remarkably faithful one at that. I didn't go into details much because that might rob me of having anything to talk about come the later film. Otherwise my only other options involve a tirade regarding the correct proportions of Archelon and a screed on Martine Beswick's being infinitely superior to Racquel Welch in almost every conceivable way.

  3. I like this new blog of yours.

  4. It could be even better if I'd only update it more.