Wednesday, July 27, 2022

ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966) Blu-ray Review

One Million Years B.C. (1966) d. Don Chaffey (UK) (100 min)

“This is a story of long, long ago, when the world was just beginning. A young world, a world early in the morning of time. A hard, unfriendly world. Creatures who sit and wait. Creatures who must kill to live. And Man, superior to the creatures only in his cunning. There are not many men yet. Just a few tribes scattered across the wilderness. Never venturing far, unaware that other tribes exist even. Too busy with their own lives to be curious. Too frightened of the unknown to wander. Their laws are simple: the strong take everything. This is Akhoba, leader of the Rock Tribe... And these are his sons, Sakana and Tumak. There is no love loss between them. And that is our story.”

Looking to capitalize on the success of (and re-use the expensive sets from) the previous year’s She starring Ursula Andress, Peter Cushing, and Andre Morell, producer Michael Carreras hit upon the idea of a super-souped-up version of the 1940 dinosaur epic with Victor Mature and Lon Chaney Jr. When Andress turned down the gig, Carreras hired a recent 20th Century Fox contract player who had just been featured in the miniature sub adventure yarn Fantastic Voyage. Raquel Welch exploded onto the screen in all her fur bikini-ed glory and the rest is pop culture history.

Or at least that would be the story if not for the fact that the film also featured the stop-motion magic of Ray Harryhausen, bringing his first big-screen dinosaurs to cinematic life, finally walking in the prehistoric footsteps of his mentor, Willis O’Brien, whose King Kong effects had inspired the young animator to pursue his craft in the first place. (To ensure authenticity, Harryhausen recruited the services of Arthur Hayward, a sculptor from the Natural History Museum in London.)

So, is it a Hammer Film or a Harryhausen Film? The answer, happily, is a little of both. With Chaffey in the director’s chair, fresh off the hugely successful Jason and the Argonauts, the live-action narrative keeps pace with the eye-popping set-pieces, and Harryhausen’s go-to cinematographer, Wilkie Cooper, from Jason, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, Mysterious Island, and First Men in the Moon, had already served time in the Hammer stable, shooting their 1963 black-and-white thriller Maniac (as well as Stage Fright for Hitchcock 16 years prior).

The son of legendary Hollywood producer Hal Roach (creator of countless Harold Lloyd and Our Gang short subjects), Hal Roach Jr. (who directed the 1940 original with his dad) was brought on board by Fox as an associate producer alongside future Hammer prime mover Aida Young. Carreras delivered the screenplay, following the original “Ugh-Ugh” script by Mickell Novak, George Baker, and Joseph Frickert while expanding it to accommodate Harryhausen’s spectacular inspirations.

Right, the story! As mentioned in the above opening narration (replacing the 1940 version’s hackneyed modern-era framing device), we follow the tale of blue-eyed Tumak (John Richardson) who is cast out of the Rock Tribe (read as: literally tossed off a cliff) after he refuses to let his dad Akhoba (Robert Brown) share in his share of dinner. Tumak wanders the wasteland, encountering all manner of threats to life and limb, until he ends up at the shore and meets up with the kinder, gentler, blonder members of the Shell Tribe. After being saved from a giant turtle by Loana (Welch) and her legion of lovelies, Tumak learns a more civilized way of life that includes farming, fishing, laughing, crying, and apple tree shaking.

Unfortunately, our hero has a hard time letting go of his brutish ways and, following an argument regarding the rightful ownership of a spear, he is once again banished from the group. Loana elects to follow her newfound mate, and they eventually make their way back to the Rock Tribe where the nefarious Sakana (Percy Herbert) has wrested leadership from Akhoma and claimed Tumak’s former squeeze Nupondi (Martine Beswick) for his own.

To make a long story short, Tumak quickly bests Sakana, Loana not-so-quickly bests Nupondi (the prolonged scuffle between the scantily clad females is genuinely well-choreographed, a step above the stereotypical hair-pulling Hollywood catfights), Loana is carried off by a Pterodactyl and ends up back at the Shell Tribe, who then partner with the Rock Tribe to quell Sakana’s attempted coup before the whole place is rocked by a massive volcanic eruption and earthquake that wipes out half of the world’s human population and unites the rest in their quest for a new home. Whew!

In true Tinseltown fashion, bombshell Welch received top-billing in the U.S. and Pierre Luigi’s iconic publicity photograph became THE pop-culture pin-up of the latter 1960s. (The more established Richardson received top billing elsewhere.) The production, which shot on location in the Spanish Canary Islands and at Elstree Studios in London, cost a fair shilling but grossed an astonishing $8 million worldwide, making it Hammer’s most successful release of all time, a winning combo of Hammer Glamour and Harryhausen Razzle-Dazzle.

Are there some quibbles to be had? Sure. As nice as she is to look at, Welch is particularly unimpressive in her pantomiming and intoning of gobbledegook, and her anachronistic blown-dry hairdo, pearly white teeth, and foundation makeup require substantial suspension of disbelief. In the acting department, she is outclassed by pretty much everyone surrounding her, from Richardson (star of Italian classics Black Sunday, Torso, and Eyeball, as well as She and The Vengeance of She for Hammer) to Brown (M in the latter-era Moore/Dalton-era 007 movies) to Beswick (the first female to appear in two different Bond movies, who became a legit Hammer star with Prehistoric Women and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde). Welch's voice is even dubbed by go-to replacement artist Nikki Van der Zyl! I mean, when you can’t even say “Akita!” convincingly, that’s a problem. Still, she IS nice to look at, which apparently was all that was required.

Doing the job he was hired to do, Harryhausen delivers at least four incredible show-stopping sequences: The aforementioned turtle assault on the beach (beautifully detailed and articulated), a stunning attack of a junior Allosaurus on the Shell Tribe village (seamlessly interweaving the human actors with animated models), a ferocious battle to the death between a Triceratops and Ceratosaurus (replacing the infamous finbacked alligator and lizard fight from the 1940 original, later repurposed in myriad other features) that employs any number of camera angles as opposed to a simple static set-up, and the airborne acrobatics of a Pterodactyl and Rhamphorynchus quibbling over who gets to have Loana for lunch. All of these represent the FX legend at the height of his powers and all deserve their place in a “best of” retrospective.

Now, that’s not to say that the decision to kick things off with a few rear-projected sequences of enlarged real animals (an iguana and tarantula, respectively) doesn’t raise a few eyebrows. Rather than being a tribute to the original film, as some have posited, according to Harryhausen, the idea was that by showing real animals, viewers would believe that all of the subsequent creatures were also real. He admits that this was a “huge miscalculation” on his part, and that the only upsides were that a) there was a considerable savings of time for those sequences as opposed to animating them and b) they made the stop-motion moments that much more impressive!

Longtime Hammer fans may notice several new names in the credits, with art director Robert Jones (Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death, Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter) stepping in for Bernard Robinson, composer Mario Nascimbene (who continued his prehistoric themes with When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth and Creatures the World Forgot) in for James Bernard, and Tom Simpson (The Nanny, The Frozen Dead, It!) sharing the editing shears with James Needs.

Speaking of trims, the British version runs 100 minutes and features nine minutes of footage cut from American prints. These include Nupondi performing a provocative dance for Sakana, Tumak tasting from the container of paint in the Shell Tribe's cave, an extended fight scene between the ape-men while Tumak and Loana hide, and extended scenes of Tumak wandering the valley, eventually coming across the skeleton of a giant lizard.

While far from the first to feature humans running from dinosaurs, the film’s success kicked off a number of imitators (including the 1981 childhood fave Ringo Starr vehicle Caveman, which cribs heavily from its predecessor), as well as a mini-trend of loinclothed Hammer flicks: Prehistoric Women (1967), When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970), and Creatures the World Forgot (1971). 55 years later, it still delivers the nostalgic feel-goods and represents dual high points for both Hammer’s and Harryhausen’s legacies.

Trivia: John Richardson and Martine Beswick met on set, fell madly in love, and were married the following year!


4K Restoration of both the 100-minute International Cut and the 91-minute U.S. Cut
Audio Commentary by film historian Tim Lucas
In the Valley of the Dinosaurs: Interview with actress Raquel Welch
An Interview with SFX Legend Ray Harryhausen
Interview with actress Martine Beswick
Animated Montage of Posters and Images


Ian Simmons of Kicking the Seat and I sat down this week to talk about the film on the YouTubes as part of our year-long "Son of Hammerland" series! Check out our conversation HERE:

One Million Years B.C. is available now on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Classics and can be ordered HERE:


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