One Million Years BC/Review
From The Grindhouse Cinema Database
Although Hammer Film Productions is mainly remembered for its lurid horror offerings, the studio also waded into other genre fare from time to time. While it delved into everything from war movies to comedy films, it was features set in the prehistoric world where Hammer came closest to replicating the success of its Gothic horror cycle. And of these prehistoric productions, none were as successful as Don Chaffey’s One Million Years B.C., a remake of the 1940 Lon Chaney Jr. feature One Million B.C. Used as stock footage in movies like A Clockwork Orange and TV shows like Malcolm in the Middle as well as boasting an eye-catchingly provocative poster that was used as a plot point in The Shawshank Redemption, the film has quite the legacy to live up to, and by God, Darwin, or what have you, it does!
Told through the primitive languages of the cave people it follows, the film relies on their actions and expressions to convey the story and their roles in it. It helps that the story is simple and straightforward, yes, but it’s no less remarkable that the actors are able to express their characters’ emotions and personalities without the aid of dialogue or even subtitles. The bulk of this burden falls on lead John Richardson, who must - and succeeds at - convincing viewers that Rock People outcast Tumak can credibly evolve from a brutish hunter to a noble leader without uttering so much as a word of English through the entire film. Also deserving of praise is Raquel Welch as the fur bikini-clad Loanna, and not necessarily for the first reason that might come to mind. Indeed, it’s tempting to dismiss Welch’s Loanna (the iconic image of whom people are probably more familiar with than the film itself) as mere poster bait, but there’s actually a strong, intelligent woman who’s not afraid to rescue hapless men from such dangers as giant turtles behind that skimpy outfit of hers.
Of course, Tumak, Loanna, and the rest of the cast are bit players compared to the real stars of the movie, the dinosaurs and other creatures that threaten them. Running the gamut from Allosaurus and Triceratops to giant spiders, an Archelon (the aforementioned giant turtle), and everything in between, the film’s creatures are brought to life by special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen in what, interestingly, was his only collaboration with Hammer. Some of the visual effects probably weren’t convincing even by the standards of 1966: a real live iguana blown to gargantuan size by the wonder of composting and sicced on poor Tumak is more laughable than lifelike, for example. The effects that do work, however, remain impressive, with the battle between Loanna’s Shell Tribe and the Allosaurus being a crafty blending of live action and stop motion animation that easily ranks with the Rhedosaurus from The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and the cyclops from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad as some of Harryhausen’s finest work.
Shot in the Canary Islands, the natural locations are surprisingly plausible as the desolate landscape that the movie is set in. With its craggy rocks and arid valleys, it’s easy to believe that this barren land really is a place where savage dinosaurs might roam if they still walked the Earth. Interior scenes make use of studio sets but the best use of in-house material has to be the climax, where footage of an artificial volcano shot in studio is mixed with location footage of the human cast to create the impression that the characters are fleeing a catastrophic eruption. Giving the film even more of a prehistoric punch is Mario Nascimbene’s score, with its looming brass and pronounced percussion lending themselves to the primeval story and setting very well. However, Nascimbene gives his compositions an unconventional twist by utilizing not only synthesizers and ambient sounds but vivid string arrangements and high-pitched female vocalizations as well, making the movie sound almost like an Ennio Morricone-scored Spaghetti Western at times.
The sum of these uniquely effective elements is a film that drives home the perilous existence that its human characters face. True, the dinosaurs were actually long gone by the time the first Homo sapiens arose, but there is something about the dangerous lifestyle of Tumak and his cave-dwelling compatriots that resonates with something deep in one’s psyche. Perhaps it’s some old bit of genetic code reminding us of the days when our ancestors battled mammoths and their lives could be upended by natural phenomena they didn’t understand, but it certainly makes One Million Years B.C. a thrilling adventure akin to the epic stories of ancient man.
Reviewed by Reggie Peralta