The dinosaurs, or least the lizards, stalk again in One Million B.C., one of the big hits of 1940. Released independently through United Artists, this movie has suffered the ragged fate of many such indies over the years, yet this digital restoration is the sabre-toothed tiger’s pajamas.
The film opens with modern simpletons in lederhosen stumbling into a cave to wait out a storm. The cave turns out to be quite the spacious split-level abode, occupied by a venerable archaeologist (silent film star Conrad Nagel) who tells the party a story based on the cave drawings. The rest of the movie is a flashback or illustration of that tale, with the modern actors doubling in prehistoric roles, although now they just exclaim bits of gibberish here and there.
The simple plot is one thing after another. The muscular Tumak (Victor Mature, all pecs and bushy hair) belongs to a brutal, carnivorous, dark-haired, déclassé tribe of Rock People, where might is right. After his father or chief (Lon Chaney Jr., very good) tosses him out of the cave for being uppity, Tumak winds up among a peaceful vegetarian tribe of Shell People, full of blondes like Loana (Carole Landis), who teach him to share and hum and laugh and no doubt show him a few other things.
Quiet moments never last for long, as this imaginary history lesson posits that human share the stage with dinosaurs who are constantly butting in. These dino encounters occupy most of the movie’s running time, or at least serve as the extended highlights.
This film was produced and co-directed by comedy pioneer Hal Roach, best known for introducing Mr. Laurel to Mr. Hardy and for that alone earning our undying gratitude. Most of the comedy here is of the unintentional campy kind that seems to dog the subgenre of prehistoric dramas of which this is a pioneer, and one whose Oscar-nominated effects hold up very well, thank you.
So do the spectacular and picturesque cave sets around which Norbert Brodine’s camera continually glides and circles to the accompaniment of an Oscar-nominated score by Werner R. Heymann, one of the many refugees from Nazi Germany who graced Hollywood with their pedigree.
Roach’s son, Hal Roach Jr., was responsible for directing the effects scenes, and his approach was partly to dress up real animals, including elephants and pigs, with prehistoric accessories and film them from a distance, along with one man-in-suit tyrannosaurus.
For the last half of the movie, he directed process shots in which humans flee in front of footage of real lizards. One particular scene of battling lizards has been endlessly recycled in countless other films and TV shows. It’s safe to say that the Humane Society wouldn’t approve of the cavalier manner in which the critters were handled, and in fact the British release cut the film significantly in accordance with their anti-animal cruelty laws.
Historian Toby Roan provides an excellent commentary full of background on the production and many of those involved — most astoundingly, film pioneer D.W. Griffith, who’d been kicked to the curb for most of the two decades since talkies took over.
Although he didn’t direct the picture, Griffith was responsible for the casting, choosing Landis because she could run well. Roach ran early PR announcements promoting Griffith as producer until Griffith asked him to remove his name from the project. Apparently Griffith felt the characters were thin (true) and he’d wanted to use stop-motion dinosaurs in the manner of Willis O’Brien’s work on The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933). That would have been an accomplishment and would certainly have been easier on the lizards. As it turned out, the composite shots work excellently and had the advantage of being much cheaper.
If only Griffith had consented to leave his name on the film, he’d have gone out with a hit and there’s no telling where his career might have headed. Instead he did nothing further and died forgotten. Griffith was Hollywood’s oldest living dinosaur, and obviously still capable of kicking among the up-and-coming young things who threw him over. As Roan points out, he’d founded United Artists once upon a time. But Hollywood has little use for its pre-history, and Griffith never had Roach’s business sense. In One Million B.C. you hear, distantly, Griffith’s final roar.