Even if you have never seen “One Million Years B.C.,” it’s entirely possible you’re familiar with the iconic promotional photos for the film. Think of a buckskin-bikini-clad Raquel Welch, arms bent at the elbow, looking out into the distance. And indeed this image does give an idea of what the film has to offer if you’re not here for the stop-motion dinosaurs or awe-inspiring tale. Originally produced in 1965 by the U.K.’s Hammer Films, a studio most famous in the U.S. for their horror movies echoing Universal’s classic horror creature output, this recent release to home video by Kino Lorber is a pure treat on multiple levels.
“One Million Years B.C.” may be primarily remembered as the vehicle that brought screen-siren Raquel Welch to fame, but the movie also features two completely separate tribes of cave-persons, gigantic prehistoric beasts, seismic catastrophes and beautifully stark landscapes shot in remote portions of the Canary Islands. And, yes, a story. Just don’t expect any discernible dialogue. This is a film telling of the time before time, before speech or Twitter, when all geological eras prior to the modern age collided - the One Million years B.C. of the title is a sort of shrug to “we’re incorporating all the stuff from your local museum of natural history and assuming it took place in the same week” à la The Flintstones.
In a period before man so much as carved a wheel or tilled a patch of dirt, in a prehistoric wasteland, a gruff tribe of cave-dwellers cast out a chieftain’s son, Tumak (John Richardson), when he becomes a threat to both chieftain and his shady brother. After run-ins with all manner of gigantic beasts, troglodytes and other challenges, Tumak is found by Loana (Raquel Welch), one of the “Shell People,” fishers with fairer complexions and something bordering on a more civilized manner. The two join together and the world changes around them.
In a story carried by grunts and expressions, it’s a bit unfair to share much more.
Working without words, the film is carried by impressions via some surprisingly strong photography, editing and downright filmmaking that seems to have clearly influenced the first portion of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Our grunting humans are threatened by dinosaurs, and vultures co-exist with tarantulas the size of a McDonald’s via a mix of Ray Harryhausen’s matting of stop-motion over real backgrounds and the insertion of film of standard-issue animals into the frame to give the illusion of gigantism, as in “The Giant Gila Monster” or any number of other 1950s-era atomic creature flicks.
There’s something universal in such a primordial tale, almost as universal and primitive as the appeal of pictures set in American high schools. And maybe it’s operating on that same basic set of recognizable virtues and emotions, un-fraught with complication.
That this is all in the service of metaphor, allegory, primeval storytelling and stone-age women with immaculately coiffed Bond-era bouffant-dos, perhaps a full discussion of religious parallels, mythic symbolism, et cetera is a bridge too far to cross for the purposes of this review. But even at its simplest reading, what we do get from the film is a universal, translatable story about society, how people lead each other to be better, and how being out in the open makes one easy prey for a peckish pterodactyl.
For the modern viewer, the film works as a curiosity, a camp classic, an earnest attempt at daring filmmaking, a fantasy/sci-fi epic, and certainly as a worthy entry in the lengthy filmography of Ray Harryhausen, master of stop-motion animation. Harryhausen’s work includes a stunning battle with a bi-pedal dinosaur, a pair of angrily fighting pterodactyls, a brontosaurus and a very large sea turtle. Also, Raquel Welch engages in a savage brawl with Bond Girl Martine Bewswick in a scene sure to sear itself into many a 13-year-old boy’s mind’s eye.
Certain ideas in the movie could be interpreted as having racial complications (our advanced fair-haired Shell People vs the gruff and grim Rock People), and there’s the casual sexism of any movie released during the time period, regardless of topic. The acting is not exactly out to win any Academy Awards, but it never feels exactly bad.
The film occupies a curious space on the chronology of an effects-laden movie as major motion picture. Three decades after “King Kong,” less than a decade after “20 Million Miles to Earth,” but just about ten years before “Star Wars” (and about 25 years before “Jurassic Park”). Despite having some crew members in common, “One Million Years B.C.” doesn’t manage the prestige approach of “2001.” But it’s worth noting that no matter how we see this movie now—most likely as a product of its time—someone was allowing for the willing suspension of disbelief, taking it seriously, and managed to borrow some of the same ideas and weave those concepts and even shot selections into cinematic gold.
As far as a star-turn in her first major role, there’s no doubt that Raquel Welch leaves an impression. It’s difficult to say, exactly, if she benefits by the lack of dialogue and sheer physicality of the role, as she wound up a fine actress in subsequent roles, but there’s no question she draws focus in every shot she wanders into.
The score by Mario Nascimbene is a unique blend of movie symphonic scoring and rattles and percussion meant to evoke an age of prehistory and mystery, and one that would make for an interesting comparison piece with Jerry Goldsmith’s classic ”Planet of the Apes” recordings (which cannot be beat. This is a scientific fact.).
If you’re still in doubt, I can guarantee there are two magnificent reasons anyone would be interested in the latest Blu-ray offering from Kino Lorber - the package includes both the US and International cuts of “One Million Years B.C.” Also included on the disks are an outstanding commentary track by film historian Tim Lucas, an interview with Welch, a separate interview with Martine Beswick (“From Russia With Love”), and some stills and promotional materials, including a trailer.
No matter how you want to view “One Million Years B.C.,” you can’t argue with the production quality of the transfer or care put into this retrospective package. And, for those of you who’ve dismissed the film or never seen it, Kino Lorber’s release gives you a terrific opportunity to re-examine the movie and reconsider it in context. Whether as late-night creature-feature or an attempt at something a bit more, it’s definitely worth a spin in your player.