Sunday, December 11, 2016

One Million Years B.C. (Hammer Studios, Associated British-Pathé, Seven Arts, 1966)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The third film on last night’s Turner Classic Movies marathon of films featuring stop-motion animation — co-hosted by Ben Mankiewicz and Travis Knight, modern-day stop-motion practitioner and director of last year’s film Kubo and the Two Strings (and son of Nike founder and CEO Phil Knight, which means he never had to struggle as an artist or rent space in a crumbling old firetrap like the victims of the recent fire in Oakland) — was another Ray Harryhausen production, or at least a movie he was involved in: One Million Years B.C., a 1966 Hammer Studios remake of the 1940 film One Million, B.C. that Hal Roach not only produced but also co-directed with his son, Hal Roach, Jr. The 1940 original made a star of Victor Mature in the role of Tumak, one of two sons of the chief of the Rock People, who has a fight with his brother, is driven out of the Rock People’s caves and ends up on the beach with the Shell People, where he’s discovered by and falls in love with Loana (played by Carole Landis in the original and by Raquel Welch in the remake that became her star-making vehicle — for years teenage boys hung huge posters of Welch in her scanty fur cave-girl costume, with as much of her breasts showing as they could get away with during the long, slow death of the Production Code, and you can guess what many of these boys were doing and thinking of as they gazed at Raquel’s huge image). Along the way, in both versions, the cave people encountered living dinosaurs and other monstrous creatures that may have really existed on Earth but not at the same time humans did — though, as I joked to Charles when he arrived home in mid-movie and he pointed that out, a “creation scientist” would believe in this movie! In their book The Golden Turkey Awards, in which they named Mature and Welch among the worst actors of all time, Harry and Michael Medved wrote, “It is no coincidence that Victor Mature and Raquel Welch … started their careers in different versions of this prehistoric saga. Playing a caveman demands a minimum of verbal mastery and dramatic subtlety while affording a maximum opportunity for display of the male or female Body Beautiful in skimpy, cunningly designed fur costumes.”

The “minimum of verbal mastery and dramatic subtlety” was predetermined by a mistake Hal Roach made in the original version and which the makers of this one, Hammer studio head Michael Carreras (who not only personally produced the film but wrote its script as well) and his chosen traffic cop — oops, I mean director — Don Chaffey, all too faithfully followed. Roach had originally offered silent-era veteran D. W. Griffith the job of co-directing One Million, B.C. and Griffith, who in 1940 hadn’t made a film in nine years, eagerly accepted the job in hopes it would be the route to a comeback. Then Roach and Griffith had an argument over how the cave people would express themselves: Griffith wanted them to speak recognizable English, while Roach wanted them to speak gibberish that supposedly represented the cave people’s language. Griffith left the project (sources differ on whether he quit or was fired), but when I watched One Million, B.C. I wrote, “Judging from the final film, Griffith was right: hearing the cave people babble incomprehensibly in a made-up language the filmmakers didn’t bother to subtitle gets annoying pretty quickly.” And if Griffith was right in 1940, he was even more right in 1966 (even though by then he’d been dead for 18 years); John Richardson, who I got the impression was probably a very talented British actor given the right role (or at least one in which he could speak English or any other recognizable human tongue!), had the unenviable task of fitting into Victor Mature’s fur garments as the new Tumak. He tries to look interested in Raquel Welch but goes through the whole role — when he isn’t running, hunting or fighting, which according to this script seem to be the principal aspects of cave-man life (that and committing gang rape — there’s the predictable sexist scene in which Richardson has to save Welch’s virtue from all the horndogs among his fellow Rock tribe, and just to make it sexist in both directions there’s an earlier scene on the beach in which Richardson seems to be in danger of being gang-raped himself by all the Shell girls) he goes through his entire role with a blank expression on his face, as if he’s not all that sure what this boy-girl business is about. (Part of that may be due to the fact that in the establishing scenes before Richardson got thrown out of the Rock People for attacking his brother — and seemingly killing him, though he turns up alive later — there appears to be only one woman in the Rock tribe, and though she’s dark-haired and Raquel Welch, at least in this movie, is blonde, she looks like she could give la Welch considerable competition in the mammary department.)

As with Clash of the Titans — but even more so, given that not only did Clash of the Titans have more intrinsically talented actors, they even got to speak English — One Million Years B.C. is really entertaining only when Ray Harryhausen’s creations take center stage. Though the first scene with a dinosaur in it uses the usual cheap expedient that became fashionable in the 1950’s — filming a living lizard in slow motion on miniature sets and trying to pass it off as a dinosaur (Mankiewicz’s commentary suggested that Harryhausen wanted a realistic opening shot before he brought in the stop-motion, but I suspect this was done just to save money on the budget — and it doesn’t work; despite the slow motion, the live lizard still moves too quickly to have the ponderousness one would expect from a dinosaur) — but the rest of the creatures, including a Brontosaurus, a Pterodactyl (who carries off Raquel Welch in a scene that suggests Harryhausen was deliberately copying the scene in which a Pterodactyl carries off Fay Wray in King Kong and Kong kills the flying dinosaur and rescues her), an Allosaurus and a Triceratops — the last two have a big fight scene that is also quite Kongian, as John Richardson and Raquel Welch watch it from behind trees in a window-like setting to make the process work of combining humans and animated models in the same frame easier), as well as a giant turtle which the Shell People call “Achelon” (the actual scientific name of the animal — though it didn’t co-exist with either dinosaurs or humans the Achelon turtle did exist, but under the constraints of a Hammer budget Harryhausen wasn’t allowed to animate its hind legs, so he had to have it emerge from water and not show its back end at all), are vivid, lifelike, absolutely convincing and the only reason anyone today would want to watch this movie (unless you’re a young straight boy who still thinks Raquel Welch is hot!). Part of me wishes that if TCM were going to do a tribute to Ray Harryhausen, they should have picked his best movies, Jason and the Argonauts (whose story, like that of Clash of the Titans, is a cut-and-paste pastiche of Greek myths, but is a good deal stronger, more coherent and a better match for Harryhausen’s spectacular visuals) and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, but there was certainly something to be said for showcasing these two much more rarely seen films — especially One Million Years, B.C., in which Raquel Welch’s posters were far more popular and widely circulated than the actual film!