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Schlock & Awe: ONE MILLION YEARS B.C.

Schlock & Awe: ONE MILLION YEARS B.C.

It’s been, what, a couple months; high time for me to talk about another film made by British studio Hammer Films. But it’s going to be a little different this go-round — the studio was primarily known for Gothic horror output (like Dracula: Prince of Darkness, The Curse of the Werewolf, and others) and some science fiction (like Quatermass and the Pit), but they did a lot of other kinds of films as well. And their largest money maker ever didn’t have vampires or werewolves at all, just a furkini-clad Raquel Welch and some Ray Harryhausen dinos.

It’s 1966’s One Million Years B.C.

Before I get too much further, I need to be very clear about something: this movie is a remake of the 1940 Hollywood film One Million B.C., and both of them depicted human cave people living in the same world as giant dinosaurs. Obviously, several things are wrong with this, including the fact that dinosaurs had been dead for about 64 million years by time 1 million B.C. rolled around. Also, humans (at least Homo sapiens, which skimpy-clothed Ms. Welch and hirsute John Richardson definitely are) didn’t show up until about 200,000 years ago. So unless we’re supposed to believe neanderthals or Homo erectus looked like pin-up models, the timing of this doesn’t work. But people were stupid dumb-dumbs back in the ’60s. Remember The Flintstones?

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Okay, so with the scientific impossibility of this movie out of the way, let’s talk about what this movie is. Don Chaffey, a British director who directed things for Disney (The Three Lives of Thomasina and the original Pete’s Dragon being the two most famous) had been the director of the effects-redefining adventure film Jason and the Argonauts in 1963, which had some of Harryhausen’s very best and most lauded stop-motion creations, namely the sword-fighting skeletons. Eager to get some of that magic for themselves, Hammer and their partner Seven Arts re-teamed Chaffey and Harryhausen for this remake about two tribes of cavepeople…in which nobody speaks English.

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The plot is as follows: the Rock Tribe are a swarthy bunch of cavepeople with a lot of in-fighting and not a lot in the way of cultural development, but they’re strong and can take care of themselves. Akoba, the leader of the tribe, banishes his son Tumak (Richardson) after having a fight over a piece of meat. After surviving run-ins with a giant iguana, ape men, a brontosaurus, and a giant spider, Tumak eventually meets Loana (Welch), a member of the Shell Tribe, a group of fair-haired cavepeople who are more intellectual. After a run-in with a giant sea turtle, Tumak is brought back to the Shell camp, where he saves them from an Allosaurus attack and teaches them to use their spears for more than just fishing, though he still isn’t above stealing meat from the tribe’s elders.

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Tumak is again sent away, but this time Loana goes with him. The pair contend with even more beasts of the prehistoric world, when eventually the Rock and Shell tribes meet and go to war, but band together when Loana is stolen by a pteranodon and then the volcano erupts, sending half of each tribe into the depths of liquid hot magma. A new tribe is made, one that will use both the physical prowess of the Rock and the artful cleverness of the Shell.

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It’s very weird to watch a movie in which there’s almost no dialogue and the little bit that is spoken is not-real words. I do, however, applaud that they didn’t feel the need to make the cavepeople speak in broken, grunted English as though that’s how people a million years ago would have spoken. And really, what the movie had going for it — as evidenced by the now-iconic movie poster — were the supermodel women wearing fur bikinis, most notably Raquel Welch, but also former Bond woman, Martine Beswick. While Hammer was always eager to put attractive women in their films, the sheer amount of skin they could get away with showing made this movie and the other cavepeople films they made much more cheesecakey than the usual bustle-and-corset Victorian-set films.

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But despite being hired for her looks — told by Chaffey that her part was essentially a “stand there and look pretty” role — Welch turns in easily the best performance of the movie, giving Loana a strength and intelligence that I’m positive wasn’t meant to be there. She owns the movie from the second she’s on screen, and even though Richardson was the film’s lone bankable star at the time, he seems like a plank of wood in scenes with Welch, who emotes and captivates despite the dialogue-free character.

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Harryhausen’s stop-motion effects still look amazing, and are even more beautiful now in Kino Lorber’s 4K restoration Blu-ray. The Allosaurus fight is especially impressive in that it makes his model not tower over people the way others do, but as an almost-man-sized threat, looking forward to the raptors in Jurassic Park. When Tumak finally kills the beast, its chest heaves as it breathes its last breaths, and Harryhausen achieved this by putting an expanding and contracting bladder in the belly of his model and filming it using a bellows to inflate and deflate. It’s a stunning effect, one used again following a brutal fight between a Triceratops and a larger-than-real-life Ceratosaurus, with our friend the Triceratops winning and the losing predator breathing heavily before it dies.

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The times Harryhausen decided not to use stop motion are by far less impressive and don’t hold up as well. While the shot or two of a giant tarantula — just a real tarantula made to look gigantic — can be excused given how quickly they come and go, an egregious example is the giant iguana, the first monster encountered in the film. Harryhausen thought using a real animal at the beginning would make people more easily believe the artificial ones. That’s sort of true, but mostly because it’s hard to look at an iguana and think of it as being a behemoth. The special effects master later expressed regret at having done this versus doing another stop-motion, but it only means the best is yet to come in the movie.

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As I said, One Million Years B.C. was Hammer’s biggest box office hit and would result in several more cavepeople-versus-monsters movies. Welch and Harryhausen, however, never returned for any of them, and while When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth in 1970 had some brilliant effects by Jim Danforth, none of the movies ever had a lead as charismatic or, to use the term again, as iconic as Raquel Welch. While parts of the movie are laughable by today’s standards — they were then, too, if you read contemporary criticism — the contributions of the lead actress and effects supervisor are downright historic.

Images: Hammer/Seven Arts


Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. He writes the weekly look at weird or obscure films in Schlock & Awe. Follow him on Twitter!

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