Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Ice Age: Continental Drift is the fourth entry in the inexplicably durable franchise that teaches our children a fantastically inaccurate version of what happened in the last glacial period. Dangerously irresponsible, says I. Let us thus pay attention to a movie that teach ADULTS a fantastically inaccurate version of what life was like 25,000 years ago.
However, the 1986 movie based on it? Not ingenious in any way (it is a blight on the career of screenwriter John Sayles, responsible for many fine genre flicks and observational indie movies about small communities). No, the cinematic Clan of the Cave Bear is even something of a disaster, losing an immense sum of money, and the author took the extreme and unusual step of suing the filmmakers for spoiling her property so badly; meaning that if nothing else, we cannot use the sins of the movie to judge the novel. Lucky for the novel, because the sins of the movie start early and they never really do stop.
Now then, somewhere around the end of the last ice age, there was a tribe of Neandertal people who called themselves the Clan of the Cave Bear. Near to where they lived was a small Cro-Magnon community that was decimated in an earthquake, leaving only a small girl named Ayla, who was adopted into the Clan of the Cave Bear because of the kindly medicine woman of that tribe, Iza (Pamela Reed). Many years later, Ayla (all grown up into Darryl Hannah at the very height of her popularity - a popularity that this film's monumental financial failure played a major role in ending) is the odd woman out in the Neandertal community: tall and graceful and blonde and blue-eyed, while they are all swarthy and stocky. Also, and this part is really important, she is better than them at everything. That's basically the plot of the movie: Ayla, being a woman in a patriarchal clan, is not permitted to do many things, and being a foreigner in a tight-knit community, is seen as different even by those who love her; she retaliates by busting all the clan's taboos and proves to be a better hunter, gatherer, doctor, scientist, leader, storyteller, and mother than all the rest put together. Mold that into a dramatic spine and you pretty much have what passes for plot: Ayla contends throughout her life with the brutish Broud (Thomas G. Waites), son of the current leader, and that is the whole of the film's conflict.
Now, nothing about that synopsis necessarily predicts that the movie will be one thing or another; it could be a hoot, it could be fascinating and serious, it could be a fiasco, it could just be really not interesting at all. Spoiler alert: it is the last of these. Now, what is actually important about the film is not the setting exactly, and certainly not the story it only barely tells, but the manner in which the setting influences how the story is told. First, let us cast our view back just a few years, to 1981; this was the year of the Canadian film Quest for Fire (La guerre du feu to all y'all Québécois), a very serious and extremely well-received "serious caveman movie", which sought to re-create the actual physical facts of life in three different species of the homo genus using a combination of scientific research and narrative fancy. Insofar as the caveman genre had ever been terribly robust, Quest for Fire killed it dead; after this, no movie featuring Raquel Welch or her latter-day descendants in a fur bikini could possibly be released as anything other than a parody. Most crucially for our present purposes, that film included an invented language for its primitive characters, and not a single word of English - or French - appears anywhere in the whole thing.
The Clan of the Cave Bear, following its lead, utilises a synthetic language that is a combination of grunted vocalisations and hand gestures. The Clan of the Cave Bear also cheats: first, by subtitling the Neandertal language, and second, by offering up a narrator (Salome Jens), who interprets the whole movie for us in vaguely mystical English. Also, and this really can't be overlooked, it's a star vehicle for Darryl Hannah, who does not, admittedly, appear in a fur bikini, but still has awfully nice skin and teeth for a presumed cave-dwelling primitive. In essence, it is an attempt to meld the super-serious approach of Quest for Fire with some of the narrative and character tropes of the older, goofier caveman movies that were now theoretically extinct, and it is a terrible fucking attempt.
There was a way to make this movie work, I am sure of it. Quest for Fire is hardly flawless, but it's fascinating in exactly the ways that TCotCB supposes itself to be; and many years before either of these films, 2001: A Space Odyssey begins with a lengthy, dialogue-free sequence involving proto-humans that manages to clearly express a far more esoteric narrative than "smart Cro-Magnon woman really show it to those dummy Neandertals". Of course, 2001 was directed by Stanley Kubrick, one of the most visually innovative filmmakers of all time, and The Clan of the Cave Bear comes to us from a certain Michael Chapman, a cinematographer of minor note who only directed four movies, of which the other three haven't remained alive in the public consciousness whatsoever. It is clumsy, I mean to say: embarrassingly clumsy at points, in its mangled attempt to balance the attempted physical authenticity of the setting with the anachronistic modernity of the characters (most obviously, the hardly uncommon pre-feminist feminist, especially out-of-place here because we simply don't know whether Neandertals formed that kind of patriarchal group; but this is only the obvious, awkward anachronism that can be easily ignored, while the smaller ways that Hannah's performance of Ayla feels very much like a run-of-the-mill 20th Century woman who happens to speak in a grunting argot can neither be waved-away nor overcome), and sometimes outright incompentent, as in the opening earthquake that sets Ayla on her path to destiny, depicted via the judicious trick of shaking the camera. Exactly what they did on Star Trek, the famously low-budget 1966 TV show where everything looked to be made of either Styrofoam or cardboard, and which still managed to make that shakycam effect look more realistic than it does here.
We have, then, a goofy and ill-made movie that wants to be deadly serious and acts incredibly daft, and the average between these two points is of a joyless, dull nothing: at 98 minutes, we can hardly accuse the film of being too long for its own good, but those 98 minutes ooze by like an earthworm on a cold day. It's hell, and neither the melodramatic content, filmed crudely by Chapman (in a decade that raised the tasteless rape scene to an art form, the scene of Ayla being raped by Broud is still noticeably awful), nor the blank-eyed performances by everybody but especially Hannah (maybe just because she's onscreen the most) can make it any less hellish.
The worst thing, though, is the movie's ghastly underlying message, which is thankfully so obscured by the dreadfulness of the film as a work of cinema and a piece of entertainment that it hardly survives. Still, what we have here is a paean to genetic predeterminism that may or may not be grounded in history - with the species status of Neandartals still a debating point, one cannot say comfortably - but still comes off icky. This a movie, lest we forget, in which the hero is a lithe, blonde, blue-eyed warrior woman who is consistently presented as being the best person in her community at every possible task, and her constant perfection is part of the exact same heritage that makes her blonde and blue-eyed. The movie obviously isn't a commercial for Aryan eugenics, but you'd have to be a complete idiot not to notice that the argument is just sitting there right on the surface of the movie... stupid enough, in fact, to make The Clan of the Cave Bear. Meanwhile, the poor Neandertals are presented as being slaves to a literal genetic memory that hard-wires "the way we do things" into their very bodies; it's why they can't compete with the savvy, millennia-ahead-of-her time Cro-Magnon genius who by virtue of being a better species deserves to win in a way that her thuggish comrades simply don't. All of this is baked in to the characters at the DNA level, and the movie consists solely of watching the genetic drama play out.
And sure, the hindsight of history, in which modern humans did out-compete Neandertals, bears this idea out, but the scientific reality of the movie is so warped and wobbly to begin with that using it as an excuse for an odious theme feels like an intellectual cheat for me. No, the message "winners and losers are born that way" is a grotesque one, and it would have been grotesque even if The Clan of the Cave Bear was otherwise an admirable work of anthropology; it's all the more repugnant of a theme coming as it does out of a flailing mess of a movie that never feels any better than watching a bunch of kids with a movie camera playing caveman dress-up in the Canadian Rockies.