A little while back here in Schlock & Awe, I wrote up the movie One Million Years B.C., a movie about the anachronistic, not at all real time in pre-history when hirsute men and bikini models ran around alongside dinosaurs. Ultimately, I came down on the side of that movie having enough going for it to make it a good movie. Well, Hammer knew a hit when they had one, so in 1970, they made another humans-and-stop-motion-dinosaur movie, but this one’s just delightfully hilarious.
It’s When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, now out on a gorgeous looking Blu-ray from Warner Archive.
Hammer was the kind of mid-level studio that would try to strike while the iron was hot. After their initial ’50s Frankenstein and Dracula movies, they made a tons of sequels of both. They also made a string of mummy movies, Psycho-esque thrillers, general vampire movies, and sci-fi chillers. So when they had a bona fide hit on their hands with One Million Years B.C. — their biggest hit to date, and the biggest hit they’d ever have — the British studio wanted to keep the momentum going. All-told, they made four movies that were lovingly called the “Cave Girl” series, but only once more did they try to replicate the Ray Harryhausen stop-motion… this movie.
But before we get to those effects, let’s talk about the storyline. A narrator takes us back to a time before civilization, a time when men and beasts ran together, a time “before the moon.” Okay, let’s stop right there. A time…before the moon. I feel like this line was added strictly to explain all the day-for-night shooting that took place, where there’d obviously be no moon. Because the moon is INCREDIBLY old. The Earth is about 4.54 billion years old, and the moon formed not super long after, at about 4.51 billion years ago. So, like, I guess that’s still 30,000,000 years between formation of Earth and the moon, but the earliest life on Earth didn’t appear until at the EARLIEST 4.28 billion years ago. And that was like single cell organisms. This science lesson is almost entirely to appease Kyle Hill, but it’s also because COME ON, MOVIE!! I don’t know what was actually on the Earth before a Mars-sized chunk of debris hit it and caused the moon to form, but I’m damn skippy it wasn’t dinosaurs and bikini ladies.
Okay, so now that that’s out of the way, we can have some fun. As with One Million B.C., this movie largely follows the foibles of two different tribes of cavepeople. The first one is rather hateful, and routinely sacrifices three attractive blonde women to the sun gods in exchange for…prosperity? Maybe. At the beginning of the movie, during one such sacrifice, a particularly smart sacrificee, Sanna (Victoria Vetri), escapes the ritual and jumps into the ocean. Naturally, the high priest is not happy about this, and spends most of the movie looking for her.
She is eventually found by the manly dude Tara (Robin Hawdon) from the other tribe, who takes her to his seaside village, just in time for it to be attacked by a large swimming dinosaur. After immolating the dinosaur using a stockpile of flammable oil, Tara takes Sanna to his tribe’s feast, where a brunette woman named Ayak becomes jealous of the newcomer, owing to her love of Tara. Sanna and Ayak are made to fight in the water, and just as her former tribe arrives and Sanna runs off. The men give chase and are each in turn killed by some kind of dinosaur or snake or vulture or whatever. Sanna hides in the empty egg shell of a dinosaur in a nest and falls asleep. The other egg hatches, and the dinosaur (of a nonexistent species of quadrupedal predator [all predatory dinosaurs are bipedal by default]) thinks Sanna is its sibling. Cute!
She can’t stay with the family of dinosaurs for long, and her tribe and Tara looking separately find her. She and Tara are eventually reunited and get it on, but the honeymoon is brief because those damn high priests are after them. The final showdown includes a beach full of giant fiddler crabs and the “parent” dinosaur of Sanna’s shell brother helping to save everybody, just as the moon begins to form (because fine, why not?).
When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth is certainly nowhere near as good as One Million Years B.C., but it’s not terrible either. It was written and directed by Hammer veteran Val Guest, who did one of my favorite early Hammer flicks, The Quatermass Experiments. While the direction is quite good, instead of using indeterminate grunts or nonsense words, the script created a vocabulary of 25 words and phrases to mean different things. You eventually get so irritated by the continued use of the same word for “Look!” or “Death!” that muting it would almost be preferable.
That said, the dinosaur stop-motion footage is beyond excellent, and that is definitely the reason this movie is worth a watch. There are some truly great sequences designed by effects photographer Jim Danforth and it ranks right up there with Harryhausen’s stuff in the earlier movie. In addition to the dinosaurs already mentioned, Danforth and his team created sequences of Chasmosaurus and Rhamphorhynchus and even a giant anaconda. And there’s a quick shot — perhaps as an homage to Harryhausen’s misjudged idea in the previous film — of a real lizard dressed up to look like a dinosaur. Many effects people who came later point to this movie as a breakthrough for believable stop-motion effects, and it shows.
But it’s also impossible not to look at this movie cynically. There’s an innocence to One Million Years B.C., even with the scantily-clad Raquel Welch, but because she had become such a sex symbol — and because Hammer was across the board trying to up the sex in all of their movies to contend with the bigger budget American movies — they decided to make the fur bikinis even more revealing, and show actual nudity and sex scenes. It feels much more like an exploitation movie.
When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth is still an enjoyable dino flick, just don’t watch it with the kiddos.