Leapin’ Lizards! The original cavemen vs. dinosaurs saga is a winner — if viewer involvement trumps visual effects, it’s got a narrow lead over the Hammer/Harryhausen remake. Victor Mature, Carole Landis and Lon Chaney Jr. all made career hay out of their weeks spent running in loincloths, out in the desert. And VCI’s new disc is a terrific UCLA Archive restoration.
One Million B.C.
1940 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 80 min. / Street Date September 12, 2017 /
Starring: Victor Mature, Carole Landis, Lon Chaney Jr., Conrad Nagel, John Hubbard, Nigel De Brulier, Mamo Clark, Jean Porter, Inez Palange, Edgar Edwards, Jacqueline Dalya, Mary Gale Fisher.
Cinematography: Norbert Brodine
Film Editor: Ray Snyder
Original Music: Werner R. Heymann
Visual Effects: Roy Seawright, Jack Shaw, Frank Young
Written by Mickell Novack, George Baker, Joseph Frickert
Produced and Directed by Hal Roach
In the late 1930s fantasy and science fiction movies were few and far between, excepting kiddie films and an occasional serial re-run; Paramount’s big Technicolor release of Dr. Cyclops was reportedly not a big hit. But another more popular 1940 sci-fi fantasy came from Hal Roach, who thanks to his hit film Topper had been trying to reinvent himself as a maker of features. One Million B.C. has largely been overshadowed by the enormous fan enthusiasm for Ray Harryhausen, who supplied effects for Hammer Films’ 1966 remake, also a big success. Both films are credited with introducing new stars. Fox and Hammer’s Luana put Raquel Welch on the map, just as Roach’s Loana brought Carole Landis to the attention of Hollywood. The tragic blonde didn’t achieve top tier stardom, but her beefy co-star Victor Mature did.
The original One Million has maintained only a so-so reputation for a number of reasons. Fans gravitating toward stop-motion dinosaurs had limited interest in the lizard-o-saurs seen in paste-up photos in Famous Monsters magazine. Kids watching TV in the 1960s can verify that One Million ’40 was also over-broadcast, cut up in ragged prints that didn’t allow a clear view of its impressive special effects. Over the years, clips and outtakes of earthquakes, volcanoes and lizardian dino battles from Roach’s film could be found in scores of cheapo sci-fi pix; the shots are so identifiable that even Daily Variety could name their source. Finally, all of the fantasies that used live iguanas, monitor lizards, tegus and alligators as dinosaurs now carry a negative rap. The filmmakers glued fins and horns onto their sensitive hides, goaded the creatures into biting each other, shoved them into crumbling miniature sets and seared them with fire. Even in the beloved Journey to the Center of the Earth, it looks like lizards are being harmed. It’s much the same as watching horses take what look like neck-breaking tripwire falls in the battle scenes of well-known period epics. Leathery reptiles have finally been deemed worthy of the sympathy afforded warm-blooded mammals.
Good prints of One Million B.C. have been scarce for quite a while. Thanks to a new UCLA Film Archive restoration, VCI’s Blu-ray enables a full re-evaluation.
Although the film has three credited screenwriters, we’re told that Hal Roach wrote the script, and that pre-production suggestions from none other than David Wark Griffith were rejected. (see this Sprocket Vault article by Kit Parker). Way back in a volcanic pre-history, cavemen live in primitive conditions. The savage Rock People hunt and fight in a brutal existence, with the strongest male Akhoba (Lon Chaney, Jr.) serving as the chief. When upstart Tumak (Victor Mature) offends Akhoba he’s expelled from the cave, and ends up with a different tribe, the mellow and gentle Shell People. With the assistance of the admiring Shell girl Loana (Carole Landis), Tumak learns some radical liberal concepts: table manners, sharing, and respect for elders. These are giant steps for a Rock galoot used to pushing and shoving for everything. Defending the Shell folk against a dinosaur attack, Tumak gains full tribal acceptance, only to be expelled when he tries to claim brute Alpha-male authority. Loana goes with him, out into the wild ruled by giant monsters.
Caveman short subjects derived from the comics had been around since early silent days, and the Sunday feature Alley Oop appeared eight years earlier in 1932. One Million B.C. has some humor but is a straight fantasy with a broad streak of innocence. The D.W. Griffith connection makes sense when one realizes that it’s almost a silent movie — the cave tribes share a rudimentary language but all interactions are communicated through mime. No wonder things are primitive: all knowledge must be passed on by example.
As such the show is a delight, the kind of movie that could play internationally with minimal audio dubbing. We are launched into the prehistoric story with a modern-day prologue where some hikers encounter a professor (Conrad Nagel) who is interpreting ancient drawings in a cave. Two of them happen to be played by actors Landis and Mature. The costuming ID’s the hikers as Austrian or German, but no contemporary political context is offered. Well, except for the obvious fact that the entire naïve tale to follow is about warring savages finding a way to live together in peace. What’s changed?
Strangely enough, One Million is an example of a ‘flashback bookend’ structure that’s missing the ending bookend. We never return to those Alpine hikers in the present. Did the storm end? Did they ever get out of the cave? It’s a case of, ‘let’s do the time warp again.’
One Million B.C. is so well directed, we’d think Hal Roach had to have considerable help from somebody, if not D.W. Griffith. For a long time the grand old man of cinema was rumored as an uncredited co-director, even in Andrew Sarris’ book The American Film. Frankly, with its flexible staging and complex camera moves, this show doesn’t look directed by either man. The film’s special effects are so well integrated, we’d sooner believe that a supervising production designer had called the shots. If Griffith’s pre-production effort included laying out the direction, he’d certainly have had to be experimenting with contemporary film styles — and he hadn’t directed a feature in over eight years. Filmed on various L.A. rustic locations (Vasquez Rocks) as well as in Nevada’s Valley of Fire State Park, the exteriors are terrific. Roach also built a variety of excellent interior cave sets.
All the leads offer expressive nonverbal performances. We warm to Loana and are amused by Tumak. Eventually crippled and mutilated, Lon Chaney Jr.’s Akhoba becomes a friendly character as well. Although what we see is as simple as a school pageant, we respond to a storyline in which Things Get Better, where kindness and mercy overcome selfish brutality. The Shell guy who loses Loana’s affections (John Hubbard) learns to be magnanimous. The brutalized Rock men and women only slowly take to the notion of everyday decency, but they definitely like it. The show is practically a secular peace ‘n’ solidarity variation on a faith-based born-again myth. The world situation was definitely dark in 1940, and even now we’re starved, emotionally speaking, for some sign of the simple goodness of people. One Million B.C. is naïve, but not emotionally deceptive or invalid.
It just occurs to me that Creationists might find One Million to be fully compatible with their belief system, if these prehistoric folk were presented as fundamentalist Christians. And I have no useful response to that thought.
Now, about those special effects.
Hal Roach’s show is packed with great effects shots and well-integrated effects sequences. Excellent split screens combine live action with finely crafted miniature sets. The most common method of putting cavemen and giant lizards in the same shot is rear-projection; the reason it succeeds better than usual is that Roach’s experts frequently give us multi-angle coverage, the same variety of shots of monster fights, etc., that they’d take if effects weren’t needed — more than one wide master and and appropriate angles from other points of view. Since the editor can cut the action as if it were ordinary reality, it comes across more like ordinary reality.
One particularly effective trick is to photograph the stars walking on a treadmill in front of rear-projected miniatures. Everything moves in perspective. It’s a surprisingly effective feat of ‘artificial’ stylization.
Big lizards normally don’t move much unless they have to. The shots of the monster fights tell us that the reptile wranglers must have spent hours prodding and goading the poor things into making sharp head movements, threatening to bite, and snapping at the camera. If even worse abuses are involved, I really don’t want to know. When placed in proximity to fire, more than one lizard seems to be suffering badly. In the biggest dinosaur battle an iguana traps the Shell People in a cave. Editor Ray Snider generates excitement with a flurry of fast cuts of spear-jabbing and jaw-snapping, with more angles than he needs. It’s a far cry from later ’50s shows by the likes of Bert I. Gordon, where a single flawed composite may be all we’re given of a particular monster confrontation.
Remember the flimsy floppo rubber man-in-suit-asaurs of the lovable turnip Unknown Island? Roach’s picture has a similarly unconvincing suited Allosaur. Again, they wisely overcome the liability by restricting the shots to views through obstructing bushes and tree branches. The Tumak-Allosaurus skirmish is directed and edited with enough verve that I doubt that King Kong fans would have booed. Other beasts are played by cows and elephants wearing giant hairy coats, with oversized horns and tusks. The circus elephant playing a wooly mammoth is first seen shaking her head violently, as if saying, ‘Are you nuts? Get this damn stuff off me!’
The frequent optical composites are mostly excellent, and many painted scenes are difficult to pick out. By sheer overkill, we accept the film’s artifice and buy into the story.
Volcano scenes in old movies are usually pretty tame affairs, but One Million B.C.’s is a winner. Rivers of fast-moving lava rush down a mountainside. A wall of bubbling lava goop gobbles up the screen faster than a person can walk. I think I share one semi-traumatic memory with a million ’50s kids that saw One Million at an impressionable age. Cave mother Nupondi (Mamo Clark of Mutiny on the Bounty) races across the screen before the advancing lava flow. Before our very eyes she’s overtaken, knocked down and buried in molten rock. It all takes less than a second — instant horror fondue — and remains the film’s most indelible image. Hammer’s color remake assaults its cave-folk with boulders shooting up out of the ground and falling from above, but doesn’t approach the impact of this.
Although the Hammer remake is more technically advanced and has some wonderful Canary Island landscapes, it doesn’t weave quite the same spell either visually or dramatically. The Harryhausen sequences are sensational, but the ’60s cynicism gives us little entry into the emotional storyline. Both pictures are good but I can predict that fans that check out the original will be pleasantly surprised. At least, those not fundamentally opposed to hiring lizards to play dinosaurs.
VCI’s Blu-ray of One Million B.C. is a welcome winner, a great restoration of this former fossil / worthy wonder movie. The show is intact and in great shape, and the sharp and detailed image sports excellent contrast. One happy surprise is that the enhanced resolution and contrast range make the special effects look better, not worse. The multitude of rear projection shots are all but flawless, and in several of the wide composites, I had difficulty playing the old Find-The-Matte-Line game. Face it, we often picked apart the effects in our favorite monster movies because the storylines weren’t always fully engaging (to be kind). Here we get both quality and quantity. The effects are so consistently good that we stop worrying about them. Even that rubber Allosaurus begins to seem benign.
I could barely find any flaws in the presentation — the only thing that didn’t look perfect on a first viewing are a fade or two that seemed to gray-out instead of getting darker. And that’s just an idle observation.
Toby Roan and Jennifer Thomas have compiled a huge number of stills and advertising materials for a ten-minute photo montage: SEE! How One Million B.C. was re-titled into half a dozen languages! I would guess that the picture didn’t find its way to continental Europe until after the war.
A special treat is Toby Roan’s excellent unforced audio commentary. Roan knows the picture well and offers up practically every nugget of information that can be found on it, in plain language. He addresses the D.W. Griffith authorship question directly, asserting that the famed director helped pre-plan and cast the show, as suggested by trade paper quotes and Hal Roach’s own testimony. Yes, Griffith may have thought he was going to direct, and it’s not known exactly why he left the production. He took no credit on it. Until the story comes out in detail, I prefer to imagine that the gig started as a worthy ‘help out the old guy’ gesture that turned serious, and then the proud director had second thoughts about being associated with a non-prestige picture.
Roan relates the show to Hal Roach’s string of feature successes; Lon Chaney Jr. had just scored big in Roach’s Of Mice and Men. We learn that Chaney worked up his own makeup interpretation of Akhoba, but was then told that the Guilds wouldn’t allow it, and another makeup was used instead. A still of Chaney’s version (right), once printed in Forry Ackerman’s publication Lon of a Thousand Faces, is not included in the stills montage.
Toby Roan offers a welcome testimonial to the talented Victor Mature and details the brief, ill-fated career of Carole Landis. Roan points out when Yakima Canutt is doing stunts, and identifies many smaller roles. The commentary is informative and reasoned.
The most amusing revelation is that the screaming girl in the tree in the Allosaurus scene, Loana’s little sister, is none other than a fourteen year-old Jean Porter! Ms. Porter is unforgettable in a sexy adult role eleven years later in the great noir Cry Danger! Now I’ve got to go spot her in 1938’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as Becky Thatcher’s girlfriend Pauline.
Gary Teetzel contributed research; the unusual makeup photo was pointed out in a post by Ted Newsom.
Note, 12.30.17: I’ve received VCI’s replacement disc for this title; early review discs and some sales copies had a slight visual flaw — odd artefacting in minute detail texture — that I didn’t even detect on a first viewing. The replacement discs are perfect.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
One Million B.C.
Supplements: Still gallery montage, feature commentary by Toby Roan.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 10, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson