One Million B.C. (1940)

One Million B.C. (1940)

One Million B.C. (1940). 80 minutes. Directed by Hal Roach and Hal Roach, Jr. Starring Victor Mature (as Tumak), Carole Landis (as Loana), Lon Chaney, Jr. (as Akhoba), Conrad Nagel (as narrator), John Hubbard (as Ohtao), Nigel De Brulier (as Peytow), Mamo Clark (as Nupondi), and Inez Palange (as Tohana).

If you have never seen One Million B.C., chances are that if you like old B movies, you have seen it in some other capacity. Portions of it were used as stock footage for years afterwards in such films as the awful Robot Monster (1953) and Teenage Cave Man (1958). Additionally, its Academy Award-nominated visuals inspired the special effects of other monster movies that may also be known to you, such as The Giant Gila Monster (1959) and The Killer Shrews (1959). One Million B.C. is marginally better than those movies—less exploitative, more thoughtful, and more ambitious. But it remains a great example of why movies about prehistoric people fundamentally do not work, although they continue to amuse me a great deal. It is worth noting that if your touchstone for caveman movies is the universally reviled Eegah (1962), the movie about a prehistoric giant trapped in 1960s Los Angeles, you will probably be more impressed with the professional quality of One Million B.C., but you will also probably locate in it many of the same failings.

The movie begins with a group of Germanic mountaineers taking refuge from a storm in an Alpine cave. They find a scholar there who is studying its prehistoric wall paintings. He interprets one of the stories depicted there, which takes place in a prolonged flashback. The narrative concerns the caveman Tumak, who is a member of the Rock tribe, a group of brutish and violent hunters who live in an arid stone wasteland. One day Tumak comes into conflict with his father Akhoba, the leader of the tribe, and is banished. He wanders until he reaches the green, leafy territory of the Shell people. They are caring and generous, but plagued by dinosaur attacks, and Tumak falls in love with a cavewoman among them named Loana. Tumak fails to adapt fully to the Shell people’s ways and eventually is exiled, taking Loana with him. The two make their way back to the Rock tribe, where Loana teaches the tribal members about sharing and agriculture. Their happiness is threatened by the cataclysmic eruption of a volcano and more dinosaur attacks, but the Rock tribe survives, and its members come together with the Shell tribe in the final scene.

I must admit that while I found this movie to be exceedingly cheesy, I enjoyed its badness much in the way that I have always enjoyed the badness of the low-budget monster movies that had their heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. This movie has monsters aplenty, plus lots of scantily clad cave people. Actor Victor Mature’s flank is prominently exposed, although I noticed his caveman wrap clung effectively to the rest of his flesh, leaving him consistently just barely covered in spite of scenes of fighting, rolling on the ground, hunting, and swimming. Throughout, I realized that I was experiencing One Million B.C. as a delicious and very guilty pleasure, and I can confidently recommend it as such.

When I say that this movie is cheesy, I mean it in every way: in terms of plot, characterizations, special effects, and art direction. I would mention dialogue, too, except that there is hardly any: the characters mainly grunt and issue made-up names for things. Mature, who plays Tumak, said in a later interview that he recalled having to say “ugh” a lot in this movie, and “ugh” was also my reaction to much of One Million B.C, especially its costumes and hairstyles. The appearance of the actors is laughably unbelievable. The leads have perfectly coiffed manes, cropped short and shaped delicately as if fresh from the studio blow dryer. The men are cleanly shaven, and the women’s legs are free from hair. Loana wears a spaghetti-strap top, anachronistically made from agrarian-era cloth.

But the nefarious dinosaurs who constantly attack both the Rock and Shell tribes are also laughable and lay the foundation for some of the worst monster movies of the 1950s. At times, the dinosaurs are simply lizards filmed on small-scale sets so that they appear large. The worst of these is probably the sluggish gila monster that stalks Tumak and Loana in the forest at night. It prefigures the dreadful movie The Giant Gila Monster (1959), which uses the same special effects technique to make its lizard nemesis appear huge. But there is more, such as the truly embarrassing mastodons that are actually elephants with something like shag carpeting draped over them. The mastodons anticipate the antagonists in The Killer Shrews (1959), a movie that dresses dogs in the same material to make them look strange and menacing.

Other special effects examples are equally bad but at least show us that the filmmakers were thoughtful in their approach to creating monsters. In particular, I think of the dinosaur that first terrorizes the Shell tribe: an Allosaurus. (I will pretend for a moment that Allosauri, which lived approximately 150 million years ago, could have feasibly coexisted with prehistoric people.) It first appears in a long shot trudging out of view on the far righthand side of the screen. A good movie-goer should instinctively realize at this point that something about this creature is going to be very unimpressive, or else it would not be filmed in such a way. The next time the Allosaurus appears, it is obscured by tree branches and bushes. Then Tumak fights with it, half-hidden by the same plant growth, and as he does so the beast seems to grow smaller, until it basically resembles a large dog. It is in reality a man in a rubber dinosaur suit. This is not great filmmaking, but it does show us that at least the filmmakers are being as resourceful as they can be, trying to make do with limited special effects technology. As a point of reference we could compare the effects in One Million B.C. with those of King Kong (1933) from seven years earlier. Whereas King Kong relied mostly on fairly crude stop-motion animation, One Million B.C. uses a much wider range of techniques to shape its fantasy world. That is presumably one of the reasons its effects were nominated for an Academy Award.

It is probably the case that as long as a caveman movie does not look convincing, it is never going to work, no matter how accomplished its story. But One Million B.C. lacks a story that can even attempt to transform its cheesy visuals into something more credible or profound. The feeble and contrived narrative follows the liberal-minded Shell tribe, with its gentle ways, pescatarian diet that is heavy in fruits and vegetables, light hair, and oasis-like habitat. Through peace, love, sharing, and affection, the Shell tribe as represented by Loana transforms the crude and brutal, dark-haired, meat-devouring Rock tribe, whose members hit each other and behave without compassion. The story of the Rock tribe’s conversion seems weirdly to anticipate popular leftist movements of the 1960s. I kept thinking of the Shell people as proto-hippies let loose from a Star Trek episode about a groovy planet stuck in a prehistoric milieu. They sing inanely, sit around a gurgling spring that cooks their communal vegetable stews, and ladle up food into large abalone shells that serve as bowls.

This movie has a weird obsession with proper eating rituals. The shots of the abalone shell bowls are numerous; the dishware is partially what the Shell tribe is named for (the members of the tribe also carry around little conches on string that they use to call each other). Notably, when Loana teaches the Rock people how to be good and decent, she starts by passing around makeshift wooden plates that they apparently, inexplicably have tucked away in their cave but have never seen or used. The plates are a strange metaphor for the coming of civilization, as if tableware were at the heart of what makes us human beings. Thus the concept manages to be both historically odd and politically inane: if changing people were as easy as making them eat with decorum, the world would be easy to transform indeed.

The plot of One Million B.C. does not allow for the kind of character development that would permit us to detect complicated struggles beyond the world of proper dinner etiquette. But I do not think that One Million B.C. is entirely to blame. I have never seen a movie about prehistoric people that has imbued its characters with the kinds of rich inner lives that we would expect to see in a movie set in any other time period. Then again, we know very little about prehistoric people. We may dig up their bones and draw conclusions about how they died, but we lack more information about their culture because traditions, rituals, creativity, and history are difficult to transmit and preserve. What that earliest culture looked like will probably be forever unknown to us, and that is a great loss potentially as culture is one of the things that define humans and sets us apart from other animals. It is touching, in a way, that One Million B.C. asserts that its cave dwellers have something in common with us. But the mystery of who the earliest people really were disappears amidst the movie’s easy platitudes, even if they are possibly authentically grunted.

That brings me to an aspect of this movie that in retrospect I actually enjoyed. As I mentioned, none of the cave dwellers actually speaks in recognizable language to each other. The result is that I experienced the movie as a silent film for the most part. The acting makes sense in that context—the characters, after all, are gesticulating because that is how they communicate to each other, but the actors are also gesticulating for our benefit. And it is a testament to the fact that they were doing something effectively that I was able to understand everything that happens with a minimum of confusion. In fact, I can imagine that the movie would be much worse if its characters spoke mellifluous English with heartfelt speeches. Perhaps One Million B.C. is not the worst of the caveman movies. At least in this regard, it has something to teach us about what works in this genre, in addition to what does not.