ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966)

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A prehistoric man called Tumak is banished from his savage tribe, only to meet a beautiful woman called Loana from a gentler coastal tribe, but to win her heart he must fight caveman Sakana.

In June 1965, in the wake of the significant British success of their adaptation of Rider Haggard’s She, Hammer Films signed up to an 11 picture deal between Seven Arts, 20th Century Fox, ABPC, and Warner Pathe. Warner would distribute Hammer’s films in Britain and Fox would handle the same for the US and the rest of the world. Kenneth Hyman, the VP in charge of European Production at Seven Arts, had originally suggested She and its star Ursula Andress to Hammer. He approached Hammer with the idea of reuniting Andress with her handsome co-star John Richardson in a remake of Hal Roach’s One Million B.C. (1940).

Made by United Artists, One Million B.C. was a fantasy film starring Victor Mature as Tumak, a caveman attempting to unite the peaceful Shell tribe with the uncivilized Rock tribe. Carole Landis played his love interest, Loana of the Shell people. This initiative was beset with problems. Not only were there power struggles between the two tribes, but there were also erupting volcanoes and perilous encounters with dinosaurs to contend with. The dinosaurs were rather crudely realised; including photographically enlarged uncooperative reptiles brandishing rubber appendages, a pig in a baby triceratops costume, and a man in an allosaurus costume. Despite their quality, these effects sequences certainly earned their money and appeared as stock footage in numerous B films for the next 30 years.

Hammer’s producer, Michael Carreras, based the screenplay for One Million Years B.C. (1966) very closely on Roach’s original, but was determined the realisation of the dinosaur effects would be the best that Hammer could afford:

We decided if we’re going to make the film at all, we had to have the latest technique of making these things look real.

Enter visual effects legend Ray Harryhausen, who’d just completed The First Men in the Moon (1964) for Columbia and, with no further projects in the pipeline with his partner Charles Schneer’s Morningside Productions, accepted Hammer’s offer to work on the film. He recalled:

I hate remakes but I felt we could do better than the original 1940 version.

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Although Hyman was keen to bring Andress and Richardson back together for One Million Years B.C., Hammer was unable to sign Andress to the film, because making She hadn’t been an altogether positive experience for her. Instead, joining Richardson (who agreed to play Tumak), was Fox contract player Raquel Welch. She’d just completed Richard Fleischer’s Fantastic Voyage (1966) and was loaned out to Hammer’s production by Fox Vice President Richard Zanuck.  Rather reluctant to take the role of Loana, Welch feared she would be ridiculed for making such low-budget fantasy fare.  Convinced that “nobody will remember this thing. I can shove it under the carpet,” she agreed to join cast and crew for location filming in the Canary Islands on 18 October 1965. Little did she know that the press coverage of the location filming would turn her into an icon of the 1960s, despite the harsh effects of the dye job on her hair causing it to turn bright orange and break off.

Joining Welch and Richardson were reliable British character actors Percy Herbert and Robert Brown. Vying for Welch’s glamour crown was Martine Beswick as the villainous Nupondi, her Rock tribe rival. Beswick’s reputation as a Bond girl secured her the part, having just completed her role as the doomed Paula in Thunderball (1965). She’d also briefly appeared as a dancer, uncredited, in the Dr. No (1962) title sequence and made a striking impression during the gypsy girl catfight sequence in From Russia With Love (1963). Taking their cue from the latter, she and Welch were staged in a similar fight sequence for One Million Years B.C. Although both were offered stand-ins to film the fight between Loana and Nupondi, the actresses insisted on performing it themselves. Beswick would headline in Hammer’s follow-up Slave Girls (1967), hastily shot as post-production on One Million Years B.C. concluded, using the dinosaur epic’s still-standing Elstree sets, and offer a remarkable turn in Brian Clemens’ droll Freudian Hammer horror Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971).

Directing the live action, and coordinating with Harryhausen on visual effects, was director Don Chaffey. Hammer was wise to hire Chaffey as he had prior experience collaborating with Harryhausen on Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and understood the complexities of shooting the effects for the film. Joining Chaffey was cinematographer Wilkie Cooper. Cooper was another safe pair of hands, having worked on several Harryhausen films, including The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Jason and the Argonauts, and The First Men in the Moon, and was described by the visual effects legend as “one of the finest photographers in Great Britain, I think.”

As the location shoot in Tenerife, Lanzarote and Gran Canaria began, the crew were beset with harsh weather conditions. Rain lasted three days, the wind blew all the trees down, and, as Welch recalled, “a clear sunny sky would switch to dropping snow with no warning at all.” Despite the delays caused by the elements Chaffey and Harryhausen choreographed their actors on the rugged, volcanic landscapes and, as Welch remarked, “told us exact eyelines” to match the, as yet, unrealised stop-motion dinosaurs.

A good example of how the live-action and stop-motion was staged on location can be seen in the sequence where the pteranodon attacks the Shell tribe and snatches Loana. Welch reacted to the unseen monster, then threw herself into a hole out of view as the unseen flying reptile grabbed her. The animated creature was inserted later, and when it settled on the ground Harryhausen switched the live-action Loana (now hidden from view on the location footage), for an animated version as it took flight again. This was combined with Cooper’s camera pans to suggest the creature’s flight.

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For the film’s opening sequence of the Rock tribe hunting and killing a warthog, Chaffey filmed from a low angle in a dug out with his reluctant animal star, who had a penchant for escaping and running for the hills. A sequence that didn’t make it into the final cut involved several bird handlers trying to coax trained vultures to swoop down on the cast. Harryhausen also used optically enlarged iguanas and a tarantula in the film’s first scenes, perhaps in homage to the 1940 original, but more likely as a budget-saving measure. Harryhausen confessed he thought using them “might add to the realism if the first creature we saw was a living specimen.” The iguanas fell asleep under the studio lights and had to be cajoled into performing by their trainers and the tarantula was motivated by the occasional snack of a grasshopper, one of which makes a cameo in the completed footage.

When the cast and crew returned to ABPC studios in Elstree to complete the film, on the magnificent sets designed and dressed by Robert Jones and Kenneth Tait, Welch’s image as Loana had already caused a sensation in the press. The unit photographer Pierre Luigi’s iconic image of her, windswept and glamorous on the plains of Lanzarote, had already transformed her into a pop icon. Costume designer Carl Toms “designed a fur-bikini for Raquel Welch” and using “a very soft doe skin, we stretched it on her and tied it together with thongs. We took tiny pieces of fur and glued them at the edges of the bikini to make it appear as though Raquel was wearing two strips of fur inside out.” Hammer was canny enough to use this image in its promotional materials and the rest is history (or pre-history if you prefer).

Principal photography completed on 6 January 1966, and Harryhausen was already underway on a nine-month stint completing the stop-motion animation effects for the film. Pre-production work involved an intense period of research and model making in collaboration with Arthur Hayward of the British Museum of Natural History. With Arthur’s help, he was able to examine the fossils available to create very accurate representations of the extinct dinosaurs featured in the film.

Harryhausen on Hayward:

We wanted the creatures accurate. He sculpted the clay models based on my drawings, and made molds for me, and then I cast and built the animated models. He was a very good artist.

Although a brontosaurus is briefly glimpsed in the background as Tumak is cast out of his tribe and treks across the wasteland to encounter Loana and the Shell tribe, it’s the superb sequence where they encounter the Archelon, a giant turtle on the beach, that first ushers in the Harryhausen magic. The Archelon is then surpassed by the allosaurus attack on the tribe, a wonderful piece of animation that ranks with Harryhausen’s best and culminates with the allosaurus squirming and slowly dying on the end of Tumak’s stake. He revealed this was achieved through a combination of models of Tumak’s arm and the stake, suspension wires and a bladder in the dinosaur model to simulate its breathing. These were all filmed March to July 1966 along with the climactic fight between the triceratops and ceratosaurus and the complex pteranodon scene, where their flapping wings, held up by wires, were animated one frame at a time.

The briefly seen brontosaurus was all that remained of a planned scene where it raided the Rock tribe’s cave and was crushed by rocks that, in turn, caused the violent volcanic eruption that ends the film. Some scenes of the brontosaurus attack were set up to create promotional stills for the film but the actual sequence was cut because of time and money constraints. Another creature that didn’t make it into the film was the phororhacos (a caged prehistoric bird kepy by Loana), which escaped and then ended up as an introductory entrée for the allosaurus when it attacked the Shell tribe.

Hammer’s visual effects maestro Les Bowie was charged with creating the film’s prologue, and confidently informed the studio his team could produce four minutes of the creation of the Earth. He was equally pleased to claim, with some irony, he achieved this in six days on an allocated budget of £1,100 with an overspend of only £100. However, his hard work creating cosmic dust, nebulae and the molten surface of the Earth (boiling porridge in a frying pan) was deemed unsatisfactory. Most of it was replaced by stock footage of erupting volcanoes with barely a few shots remaining in the prologue of Les Bowie’s handiwork.

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Complimenting Welch’s glamour, the exotic locations and Harryhausen’s superb animation was an evocative, avant-garde score from Mario Nascimbene. Nascimbene was an interesting choice and the music was recorded in his Rome studio using rocks, shells, and jawbones combined with electronically manipulated orchestra and choir. The severe tonalities for the Rock tribe, punctuated by the rattling noises of an instrument Nascimbene referred to as a Rastrophon, were contrasted with the use of woodwinds and ethereal choral tonalities for the Shell tribe. Hammer’s erstwhile musical director Philip Martell reportedly found Nascimbene’s work too avant-garde for his tastes, but the music was a major aesthetic of the film and, as David Huckvale observed, the work offered a “significant interface between the exclusive world of the esoteric avant-garde and the commercial world of popular entertainment.”

Fox removed 9-minutes from the original 100-minute cut for US distribution. These included trims to the brief suggestions of cannibalism in Tumak’s encounter with the sinister cave dwelling ape creatures, shots of a severed head they mount on a stake, Nupondi’s erotic dance, the tribal battle at the end of the film and, bafflingly, slight cuts made to all the Harryhausen stop-motion sequences (bar the fight between the triceratops and the ceratosaurus). Despite this, and a budget that rose to £422, 816, Hammer extensively promoted and pre-sold the film, and was rewarded by substantial box office takings when One Million Years B.C. opened in December 1966. It became their most successful film to date, bringing in about $8 million globally.

Today, despite the unintentional laughs it evokes, the film’s reputation is maintained by the presence of Harryhausen’s effects. It feels nostalgic in this era of CGI but his meticulous animation is always a delight to watch. He imbues his creatures with presence and character. The allosaurus attack on the Shell tribe is a highlight and still dazzles with the technical virtuosity he brings in matching live-action to animation. Granted, the film’s blue screen effects and processed shots look ragged now, and these mar the impact of the pteranodon sequence and the climactic volcanic eruption’s otherwise competent miniature work by George Blackwell.

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What is still extraordinary is how, for want of a better word, experimental the film is. The 1940 film had Mature and Landis converse in fully understandable English, but here, despite longueurs in the pacing of scenes, the entire cast has to rely on their physicality and no dialogue save for grunts and screams to project character. Chaffey uses his camera to import the athleticism and endurance of the human body in the tribal behaviour, the fights, and hunting sequences. It goes without saying that Raquel Welch, transformed into a star by the film (but certainly not the best of the actors here), also exerts sheer presence when she appears onscreen.

There are sections of the film where Wilkie Cooper’s radiant, often bleak, landscapes combine with Nascimbene’s strange score, the guttural exchanges of the cast and the bellowing of dinosaurs to produce a real sense of unearthliness. Sound, not dialogue, is used to its fullest extent by Chaffey to propel the story forward, aided by Cooper’s majestic views of the Canary Islands and Harryhausen’s creatures.

On the 50th Anniversary release from StudioCanal, the film looks and sounds great in high-definition. The 4k restoration significantly improves the colour, contrast, and detailing, so there’s an added richness in the costumes, faces, and landscapes. Granted, with the use of many processes and matte shots combining live action with animation, there are fluctuations in picture quality and film grain but that’s a consequence of the processes used at the time. Overall, this restoration is a very pleasurable viewing experience.

The new release offers two new interviews with Welch and Beswick, full of lovely anecdotes about how they were cast, their costumes, the fight scene, and the location shoot. Their affection for Harryhausen is clear and Beswick fondly recalls John Richardson, whom she married after they met and fell in love working together on One Million Years B.C. The features are rounded off with two galleries: one containing Harryhausen’s original artwork, models and storyboards and the other a small selection of colour and monochrome production stills.

One Million Years B.C., whatever its merits when one looks at it today, demonstrated Hammer was adept at turning its hand to genres other than Gothic horror and were equally as willing to embrace science fiction, psychological drama, crime noir, comedy, swashbucklers, and epic period adventure with its customary zeal. This film also marked a turning point. A month prior to its December release Hammer ceased operating out of its original home at Bray Studios and was, for economic reasons, obliged to use the facilities at Elstree and Pinewood to fulfill its contracts with distributors. While One Million Years B.C. inspired a run of sequels, including When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970) and The Creatures the World Forgot (1971), their diminishing returns perhaps signaled the eventual decline in Hammer’s output.

Cast & Crew

director: Don Chaffey.
writer: Michael Carreras.
starring: Raquel Welch, John Richardson, Percy Herbert, Robert Brown & Martine Beswick.

The new 4K remastering of ‘One Million Years B.C’ is playing at the Cambridge Film Festival on Monday 24 October.

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