17 May 2013

HARRYHAUSEN WEEK: DINOSAURS AND SEXY LADIES

To begin with, let us first point out that One Million Years B.C., Hammer's 1966 contribution to the caveman genre, rests its success on two qualities that are impossible for any 12-year-old boy to resist: some of the very best dinosaurs found anywhere in cinema before Jurassic Park came along with its CGI creations, and Raquel Welch at her absolute peak of physical attractiveness, wearing a pretty insubstantial animal hide bikini. Let us then confess that the author of this review, if he was not exactly 12 years old when first we saw the film, was certainly not older than 13, and these many years later is alas! too easily able to return emotionally and intellectually to that age while watching this particular movie. He shall concede the film its faults, while somewhat defensively arguing that they are plainly the fault of the caveman genre itself, rather than this film specifically - indeed, this is close to being the very best caveman movie ever made - and shall not pretend that its merits as cinema move even a little bit from the world of dubious B-pictures. But he cannot deny that watching the film is for him a thoroughgoing joy, warts and all.

The film is a remake of, and significant improvement over, the 1940 Hal Roach production One Million B.C., though the plot points involved are sufficiently standardised across the genre that "remake" in this case doesn't mean a whole lot more than the character names are all the same. Such as the character names are even a particularly important element in a movie where the dialogue consists of a made-up language with a vocabulary of maybe 50 words. But regardless, we are introduced (thanks to a helpful, English-speaking narrator) to Akhoba (Robert Brown), leader of a tribe called the Rock People, and his two sons, Tumak (John Richardson) and Sakana (Percy Hebert). The Rock People are a brutal people, led by whomever is the strongest - a reasonable survival strategy for a population so primitive that it can only hunt game by beating the animals to death with sticks - and Sakana is enough of a greedy bastard that he's prepared to overpower both his father and brother to take leadership. Thus it is that Tumak ends up exiled, chased down by a few dinosaurs (the first of them played by a magnified iguana, in what I gather to be a hat-tip to the original film), and ultimately found by Loana (Welch), a blonde member of the seaside Shell tribe of fishers and tool-users. Tumak is at first dazzled by the considerable technological advancement of the beautiful Shell tribe, and they in turn are pleased by his physical strength, impressively demonstrated in a fight with an allosaur.

But Tumak is still primitive enough in his behavior that he's eventually banished from the Shell people, with Loana willingly going with him. Eventually, they make it back to the Rock people, where Sakana and Tumak finally have their confrontation; the Shell people end up coming along to help Tumak fight his good fight, and then a volcano erupts. A volcano always erupts.

Every word is a cliché, of course, and that's not even mentioning the oft-noted elephant in the room, which is that a film titled One Million Years B.C. and presumably set in that year presents modern homo sapiens alongside dinosaurs from two separate geological periods. Which, however legitimate a complaint, is missing the point to an incomparable degree. Caveman movies include attractive white people and impossible zoology as surely as musical involve singing and dancing, and in both cases the solution to being offended by those elements is simply avoiding the genre altogether.

So taking all of that as given, the good thing is that One Million Years B.C. is just about as good as any caveman movie has ever managed to be. Still hokey and dumb, you understand. But hokey and dumb in a way that succeeds in being charming more often than not. Director Don Chaffey has a good eye for setting his actors in the sun-baked exteriors, and keeping the film clipping along (there exist both a 91-minute U.S. cut, and a 100-minute version in the film's native Great Britain that I have not seen; it's at least possible that those 9 extra minutes slow the pace down too much for comfort). More importantly, he doesn't pretend that the material is especially serious or dignified, and so he doesn't belabor the scenes of cave people grunting at each other in an approximation of character-driven dram that could be as tedious in the wrong hands as the Wookiee family scenes in The Star Wars Holiday Special. Instead, he treats the plot scenes with as light a touch as possible, foregrounding instead the action scenes, of which there are many, and not all of the good ones involve anachronistic dinosaurs.

The best ones do, of course. These are Ray Harryhausen dinos, after all, and taken as a whole, they're the best he ever did (taken individually, Gwangi from The Valley of Gwangi is his single best dinosaur, but the rest of that film's menagerie isn't up to the same level). It's the second and last film he made without Charles H. Schneer after their first collaboration, 11 years prior (coincidentally, his only other non-Schneer film in that span was The Animal World, also a dinosaur project), and whatever Hammer producer Michael Carreras had to do to entice him over was worth it: the work Harryhausen did here was of benefit both to himself and to the movie in which it appears. The giant Archelon, a sea turtle, is one of the smoothest-moving animals in the Harryhausen bestiary, and the allosaur that Tomak single-handedly kills with a spear features some of the most impressive combination of live-action and stop-motion footage of any of the effects work he ever did. Not everything is absolutely perfect (there's a ceratosaur-on-triceratops fight that's not at all up to the level of the rest), but it's as thoroughly satisfying as any collection of dinosaurs I can personally name, finding exactly the right mixture of personality and animalistic movement that make them as believable and natural as anything in the man's career.

Put that next to the crisp storytelling and unashamed willingness to be what it is and no more, and One Million Years B.C. triumphs as B-moviemaking at its most basic and effective. One needn't look any farther than structurally weird, pacey, and frequently idiotic One Million B.C. itself to see how much worse this same material could be when it wasn't handled right, and it makes the later film's triumph, however shallow the results, all the more impressive.Stupid, mindless spectacle is like anything else: it can be done well, or it can be done carelessly. Hammer was a good studio for making sure the audience got what it wanted in a high-quality form (monsters, cheesecake), and nothing Harryhausen ever did could remotely be accused of carelessness. There's nothing respectable about One Million Years B.C. (half of what makes it a timeless classic is the attention lovingly bestowed on its female lead's inordinately photogenic cleavage, for God's sake), but the integrity with which it was made more than compensates; this is some of the very finest dopey schlock ever put onscreen, lovingly hand-crafted escapism that attempts to do very few things and does them as well as anything else ever did.

3 comments:

DerFuhrer said...

Your mention of The Star Wars Holiday Special only makes me want a full review from you. Just sayin'.

Tim said...

Oh, God. I knew somebody would go there. Let's see how suicidal I'm feeling come December.

Cody Rice said...

Ah yes, Raquel Welch. And, you know, dinosaurs and cavemen and stuff. But even as a ten year old, it was mostly Raquel Welch that short-circuited my brain those 91 minutes.

But seriously, LOVE the Harryhausen retrospective. My favorites were always The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Jason and the Argonauts, and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, but I too had quite a soft spot for Valley of Gwangi.