As audiences’ always fickle tastes changed over the course of the 1960s, Hammer Films sought to bolster their corner on the Technicolor gothic horror market by branching out into moody monochrome post-Psycho studies in madness with titles like Paranoiac. They experimented with pirate films and campy prison melodramas, often starring their horror stalwarts Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. With One Million Years B.C., the studio hit on a heady blend of peplum, biblical epic, and creature feature, not to mention girls in skimpy leather bikinis, that would become a subgenre unto itself with Prehistoric Women and When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth.
Marking a one-off collaboration that was an FX geek’s dream, Hammer imported visual-effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen—renowned for his stop-motion animation in fantasy and sci-fi films like Earth vs. the Flying Saucers—to oversee their remake of 1940’s One Million B.C. That film, which starred Lon Chaney Jr. and Victor Mature, had somewhat notoriously used live animals (like an armadillo with glued-on horns) to double for its dinosaurs. Harryhausen does likewise with his opening salvo, an attack by a giant iguana, as a sort of nod to the original. After that, One Million Years B.C. is nothing but one remarkable stop-motion set piece after another, with the slenderest of storylines (lifted whole-cloth from the original) serving as mere pretext.
The film follows tribal outcast Tumak (John Richardson) into a brave new world of primordial lava flows and saurian monstrosities, where he encounters the more cultured Shell tribe, and soon falls in love with Loana (Raquel Welch). As you might expect, the climactic collision between Tumak’s aggressive Rock clan and the pacifist Shell people seems inevitable. Still, the finale doesn’t play out quite like you would anticipate. In fact, if there’s one theme that eventually emerges, it would be that groups who seem radically opposed in their philosophical approach to existence must nevertheless learn to work together if they hope to have a chance at survival.
Strange as it might seem, One Million Years B.C. is a direct precursor to Stanley Kubrick’s abstract tone poem 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then again, both films are concerned with human evolution, albeit two very different varieties. Mario Nascimbene contributes eerie Ligeti-like music to leisurely pre-credits shots of landscapes as yet unspoiled by human beings, a suite entitled, fittingly enough, “Cosmic Sequence” on the soundtrack. The scene where Tumak and Loana seek shelter up a tree from cannibalistic ape-men likely had an impact of the “Dawn of Man” sequence in Kubrick’s film. There’s also a direct connection: The wordless prologue was designed by Les Bowie, who subsequently worked on 2001. What’s more, footage of the climactic rock fall was recycled into Alex’s masturbatory fantasy montage in A Clockwork Orange.
Because what little dialogue there is in this film consists of animalistic grunts or a kind of prehistoric pidgin, the actors are called upon to do a lot of histrionic heavy lifting through facial expressions and body language. Wilkie Cooper’s cinematography lends a hand with plenty of close-ups, and some strategic camera placement to articulate relations between the characters. One notable low-angle shot of Rock tribe leader Akhoba (Robert Brown) exerting alpha-male dominance is later reprised when his son, Sakana (Percy Herbert), threatens to send him plummeting to his death off a promontory.
The film’s ending overshadows petty intertribal squabbles with the looming spectacle of natural disaster: In this case, it’s a massive volcanic eruption that’s been foreshadowed throughout the film in repeated shots of its smoldering cone emitting plumes of smoke in the far background. After the catastrophe, the film suddenly takes on an unexpected sepia tone, tantamount to some old-timey photograph, as the straggling remnants of both tribes dust themselves off. Only by combining forces do they possess the strength in numbers to successfully seek their fortune elsewhere. One Million Years B.C. ends where the story of humanity begins: in a seemingly endless saga of strife and solidarity that resonates down to the present day.
Kino Lorber presents One Million Years B.C. in new 4K restorations of the film's 100-minute international cut and the 91-minute U.S. cut on separate Blu-ray discs. The transfers are vibrant and vividly delineated. Colors really pop, and the fine details of the costume and set design catch the eye, right down to the fur fringes on the skimpy leather bikinis. Skin tones are lifelike, and grain levels look suitably cinematic, only getting a little noisy during some of the effects shots. The Master Audio stereo tracks put Mario Nascimbene's wide-ranging score center stage, as it keeps shifting from discordant scrapes and rumbles, to lush orchestration, to choral and solo arias of striking beauty.
The main draw here is another authoritative commentary track from Tim Lucas, who lays out the film's production history, outlines the careers of key cast and crew, explores the mechanics of the multitudinous effects shots, and even translates the prehistoric pidgin for his listeners. In an interview from 2002, Raquel Welch has nothing but humorously self-deprecating things to say about her star-making role. Welch laments getting "stuck in sci-fi hell" after appearing in Fantastic Voyage and this film, claiming she took the role of Loana because she assumed she'd be filming in Swinging London (instead she would up in the Canary Islands in midwinter) and expressing mixed feelings about the iconic production still turned pinup poster that made her an overnight sensation. Also from 2002, the interview with visual effects wizard Ray Harryhausen lets him show off his stop-motion dinosaur models, admit his misgivings about using live animals to double for dinosaurs, and claim that "much of modern filmmaking is simply reinventing the wheel." In a more recent interview, actress Martine Beswick talks about making a name for herself in a pair of Bond films, pulling apart a fire-roasted pig on set, why she and Welch insisted on doing their own catfight choreography, and how her first meeting with co-star John Richardson left her completely gobsmacked.
Kino presents One Million Years B.C. in phenomenal 4K restorations of both the uncut international and U.S. theatrical versions, bolstered by a handful of edifying supplements.