Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The English film industry was at the top of its form in 1966, producing genre pictures and
"swingin' London" movies that were exporting well to other countries. Hammer was continuing to
provide horror films for American studios. With the rising tide of retro and campy entertainments,
One Million Years B.C. was written up optimistically in the U.K.'s
Monthly Film Bulletin as a tongue-in-cheek quasi-comedy of substantial wit.
I don't know what the critics saw (or what condition they were in when they saw it), but Don Chaffey's
turgid saga of cavemen foraging, feuding and battling dinosaurs is a dead serious remake of a
1940 Hal Roach oddity that probably holds the record for having been raided for stock footage
more than any other Hollywood movie. The remake has a bigger claim to movie history - it
was the showcase-debut for Raquel Welch, the blonde cave girl with the perfect 60's fur bikini.
A power struggle for leadership of the Rock people results in the banishment of
young Tumak (John Richardson). After wandering through the wilderness, he comes upon the more
civilized beach camp of the Shell people. Enchanted by Shell maiden Loana (Raquel Welch), he
begins to see the benefit of living less aggressively, and for a moment becomes a hero by
defending the Shell camp from an invading Allosaurus. Tumak's uncivilized behavior results
in his ouster from the beach tribe as well, but this time Loana decides to go with him.
At least the movie is different. Hammer had been mired in formulaic, underbudgeted horror offerings for at
least four years and this dinosaur epic was obviously a much bigger undertaking. The volcanic
landscapes of the Canary Islands lend an otherworldly quality lacking in any previous caveman tale.
Instead of going its usual cheap route, Hammer also went out of its way to recruit a top effects
expert Ray Harryhausen for the prehistoric scenes. This was perhaps the first time that a stop-motion
animator was actually courted as star talent for a major film assignment.
One Million Years B.C. is one of Ray Harryhausen's most attractive pictures but it's
also one that's hard to re-watch. Looking for additional subtleties in the plot or characters is
fruitless. More than half of the picture is concerned with motley groups of Rock people hunting
wild goats, or our heroes wandering amid the admittedly breath-taking scenery.
Besides ogling Raquel Welch's fur bikini, there isn't much to really get excited about outside of
the special effects. John Richardson is handsome but too dull-witted, although he does learn to
miss his beach bunny girlfriend when a pteranodon plucks her away. There are hints of possible
insights about mis-matched cultures, but nothing develops. The plotting continually reverts to
Hal Roach logic: whenever something threatens to become a real scene, a dinosaur or a natural
disaster will interrupt it. Some monkey men appear for decorative purposes, but the lack of any
scientific basis for what we're seeing - man and dinosaurs never co-existed - pre-empts any musings
about the Dawn of Man. Stanley Kubrick would address that issue a couple of years later.
Percy Herbert was in Mysterious Island and
returns here to play Tumak's greedy brother. He doesn't try
to do a southern accent this time, however. Teenage James Bond fans immediately recognized
Martine Beswick from From Russia with Love and Thunderball. Her hungry looks and
aggressive attitude distinguish all of her roles.
Harryhausen had only made one straight-out dinosaur feature,
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and the
rather patchy segment from Irwin Allen's The Animal World. Since then he had animated a score of
fantasy pictures featuring monsters that appeared at regular intervals, like vaudeville routines.
The most disappointing thing about One Million Years B.C. is that the dino sequences, although
given a new technical polish, were all too similar to scenes from
The Lost World of 40 years before. Monsters
fight and kill each other while the humans look on from the sidelines. Harryhausen added his impressive
illusions of contact via spears and rocks, but even though some of the beasts are interesting - a
pleasantly benign Archelon sea turtle is allowed the Harryhausen rarity of not being killed - the
formula isn't much different.
Many stop motion sequences look rushed, with a brontosaurus foolishly
composited in such a way as to make it look half a mile long. A lizard and an unlikely spider were
very possibly substitutions for animation scenes Ray didn't have time to complete. I wouldn't be
surprised if Hammer just couldn't wait for Harryhausen to finish his usual months of post-production work.
The really stunning exception to the above (and given a handy chapter stop on this DVD) is the Allosaurus
attack. In one of the film's few bright spots, Tumak is just beginning to acculturate himself to Shell ways
when the Allosaurus jumps into the camp, threatens a child in a tree (a situation lifted straight from
the 1940 original) and proceeds to chomp down on luckless cavemen. The monster is alert, mean-looking
and spry, and Harryhausen's direction of the action is truly exciting. In one nice moment, the Allosaurus
nimbly lifts a spear out of an attacker's grasp, as if saying, "This thing hurts. Let's just put it over
here where you can't reach it." A very nice trucking composite shows the cavemen making the dinosaur
back-pedal to the right, away from the points of their spears. The fight is more dynamic than normal
because the Allosaurus isn't all that much bigger than the cavemen - it's a fair contest.
The technical precision makes the scene some of Harryhausen's best work. The Allosaurus moves like
Gwangi, but the model is more detailed -
this creature has nicely culpted foreclaws instead of Gwangi's little flippers. I like to think
that Ray wasn't able to ever get the dinos out of his system, and that the work-for-hire
One Million Years B.C. whet his appetite to go do a Dino-Rama spectacle of his own.
After the fairly painful scenes of volcanoes and earthquakes in Harryhausen's
Mysterious Island, this saga wraps up
with a truly good eruption. Rocks stab up out of the ground, rivers of lava gush out
of a mountain, and cavemen topple from a landscape that's breaking up like an ice floe. An
iguana is dumbly included in the proceedings, but the sodium-vapor insertion of foreground
action into miniature sets is terrific. One shot of some cavemen being hit by falling boulders
was cribbed by Stanley Kubrick for a montage in his A Clockwork Orange. In terms of technical
polish, it's a high point for both Harryhausen and Hammer.
The final shots show the volcanic survivors staggering together in B&W. Director Don Chaffey must
have dropped the color to give us a style change for the curtain, but the effect is rather
ironic. The monochrome makes it seem that man's prehistory is ready to advance to the next step - B&W
silent comedies with Laurel & Hardy and Buster Keaton!
Fox's DVD of One Million Years B.C. is sort of a disappointment. The transfer, color and
audio are all better than reasonable, and Mario Nascimbene's wailing score comes across just fine.
But we were all expecting to see the 100 minute English original version that had premiered on laserdisc
in 1996. As reported in Video Watchdog, the missing nine minutes weren't just filler. Laser fans
were delighted to see many new shots in the major dinosaur battles. Besides wondering why
Fox trimmed them in the first place (why not shorten a couple of dumb caveman scenes instead?), now
we have to puzzle the mystery of why Fox places a restoration demonstration on the disc that compares
older tape transfers - including clips from a more complete version of the movie.
The only extras are a pile of Fox promo trailers. It's too bad that Fox couldn't give
One Million Years B.C. as nice of a DVD presentation as
Myra Breckinridge, another title in
this month's Raquel Welch promotion.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
One Million Years B.C. rates:
Video: Very Good but a big disappointment, it's the short American version
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Theatrical trailer, Restoration comparison
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 5, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson