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One Million B.C.

United Artists [1940] 80′
country: United States
director: HAL ROACH / HAL ROACH JR.
cast: VICTOR MATURE, CAROLE LANDIS,
cast: LON CHANEY JR., JOHN HUBBARD

Producer / writer / director Hal Roach was nothing if not prolific, with over 1100 production credits to his name and writer and director credits each numbering over 150. Having worked predominantly in the highly profitable genre of comedy since first stepping into the industry in 1914, he moved on to higher end productions in 1937, resulting in such classics as the TOPPER films and OF MICE AND MEN, as well as the odd prehistoric spectacle reviewed here today.

ONE MILLION B.C. begins with a brief modern framing sequence, in which a friendly professor relates his interpretation of some cave drawings to a group of rain-drenched hikers – but the rest of the film is based squarely in a fantasy prehistory in which primitive man walked the same world as the dinosaurs. Tumak [strapping young Victor Mature in his first starring role] is a young hunter and son of the leader of the Rock people, who spend their days watching their friends fall off of cliffs and fighting over whatever food they happen to come across. After a slight disagreement with his dictatorial father, Tumak is banished from the tribe and cast, unconscious, into a river near their cave home.

As luck would have it, he drifts into the welcoming arms of the more civilized Shell people – a tribe who subsists on fishing and basic farming. Loana [Carole Landis] discovers Tumak and takers him to her people, where he gradually learns their more civilized ways. But when Tumak steals and refuses to return the spear of one of the Shell people, he finds himself banished once again – only this time Loana, who has developed affections for him, is willingly at his side. Together they survive a number of special effects obstacles – an enormous horned armadillo, a roving monitor lizard, and a death-battle between a frilled alligator and another gigantic lizard – on their quest to find Tumak’s home.

After a bit of chest-beating assurances of male domination, Tumak rejoins the Rock people and, with the help of Loana, share with them a more civilized manner of doing things. But happiness is short lived, and a volcanic eruption fries and crushes a goodly portion of the tribe – Loana, with one of the Rock tribe’s children in tow, runs back to her home to escape the disaster. Even that ends in crisis, as a huge iguana stations itself outside the entrance of the Shell people’s cave and threatens to eat anyone who dares to step outside. It’s Tumak and the Rock tribe to the rescue – after an extended futile spearing session they crush the iguana with a man-made landslide. The two tribes come together around the victory, in a marriage of good manners and brutality that will, undoubtedly, shape the world to come.

ONE MILLION B.C. was a rather daring, if not successful, undertaking for the time – there is little dialogue beyond the opening framing sequence and the lines that do present themselves are confined to a scant few words of goofy cave-people lingo [that there are no fewer than three credited writers for the film amuses me in light of this]. While the father of the modern caveman genre, which wouldn’t really take off until the very popular 1966 remake ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. was released, the film is perhaps most notable [or infamous, depending on who you ask] for it’s popularization of the slurpasaur technique, in which real reptiles [and in this case, other animals like coatis and armadillos] are optically enlarged to represent dinosaurs or other prehistoric animals on screen. While hardly the first film to utilize the technique, ONE MILLION B.C.’s heavy reliance on it earned it the ire of animal rights activists while simultaneously ensuring the slurpasaur‘s place in film for decades to come.

There are four scenes which may prove particularly offensive to modern viewers – including that of a coati devouring a snake and a monitor lizard literally roasted to death, as well as the crushing death of an iguana. The most infamous of these three, simply by virtue of how often it has appeared in subsequent film productions, is the fight between a frill-covered alligator and a large lizard that ends in the latter’s rather graphic death. The scene has appeared in dozens of films since, including a highly unlikely cameo during Phil Tucker’s asinine opus ROBOT MONSTER, and was homaged via another death battle between an alligator and a lizard in Irwin Allen’s epic misfire THE LOST WORLD in 1960. A lengthy and uncomfortable rear screen process shot of Victor Mature walking alongside the still bleeding loser of the battle accompanies the scene in its original context and proved surprisingly hard for this reviewer to take [as did the aforementioned roasting of the monitor - easily the most tasteless of the transgressions by the film makers in my mind].

The hideously outdated [and just plain hideous, in general] slurpasaur technique notwithstanding, the frequent miniatures and optical work on display in ONE MILLION B.C. is largely successful given the time in which it was produced. Particularly effective is the climactic volcanic eruption, with its excellent use of miniatures and frequent process shots of people scurrying from and, occasionally, engulfed by a torrent of molten lava [I actually prefer this original scene to its 1966 Ray Harryhausen redux]. That sequence in mind, its no wonder that the film was nominated for an Academy Award for visual effects [losing to the inarguably superior THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD].

Performances are what they are – Victor Mature manages to show some of his charm but the cast is largely restricted by the nature of the screenplay by Mickell Novack, George Baker, and Joseph Frickert. With much of the exposition coming in the form of sign language and grunts, it’s not surprising that none of the performances from the accomplished cast are very noteworthy. Primary direction by Hal Roach Sr. and visual effects supervision from Hal Roach Jr. are both competent, if not terribly memorable. The Academy Award-nominated musical score by Werner Heymann fares much better and is certainly deserving of a release, should the original recordings still exist.

All things considered, ONE MILLION B.C. is okay for what it is – a film about people running amok with dinosaurs. Not as fun as some of its cheapy imitators [VALLEY OF THE DRAGONS, for example] or as classy as some of its contemporaries [KING KONG and the original THE LOST WORLD come to mind], this is one case in which I find myself defending the remake over the original. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 69 years, you’ve likely seen the majority of the memorable effects from this one [definitely its biggest draw] someplace or other. Sure, Victor Mature is hunky and Carole Landis a fine and under-appreciated actress – but neither can compete with Raquel Welch in a fur bikini. Skip it and check out the 1966 remake instead.

I remember ONE MILLION B.C. having a place on all the video rental shelves when I was a kid – since then it’s become pretty much unavailable. Turner Classic Movies has stepped up in a big way, airing the film several times in the recent past and, more amazingly, making the entire film available via their website.

The streaming copy of ONE MILLION B.C. can be found here.

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