Tumak (a chest-shaven Victor Mature) gets kicked out of the perpetually grumpy Rock tribe by its perpetually grumpy leader (Lon Chaney Jr.) and floats down the river to be found by the ubbermen (and women) of the shell tribe. Loana (Carole Landis), the local hotty who has invented hair care, takes a liking to this svelte hunk of man meat, but his inability to understand sharing (see, kindergarten is important) sends them both into the wilderness alone, to battle giant iguanas, oversized armadillos (really, armadillos), and the Rock tribe, that’s still grumpy. I’m sure that volcano in the background won’t cause any problems…
Hal Roach, Hal Roach Jr., and D.W. Griffith combine their talents to create the definitive caveman movie. “Definitive” does not mean good, simply defining. Yup, every troglodyte film cliché is here: the evil hairy cavemen, the good Aryans, the elaborate hairdo and miniskirt on the lead female, the grunting, the mixing of dinosaurs and prehistoric mammals, the monster trapping the weak humans in a cave, and of course, the volcano. They were all repeated in movie after movie, and were often done better, but they were done here first.
I can’t say watching One Million BC isn’t fun. It’s hard to stop laughing, which is what one should expect from one of Hal “The Little Rascals” Roach’s pictures, except this isn’t a comedy. Well, not intentionally. I have this sad feeling that everyone involved thought they were making an epic. Or maybe it was just a cash grab. Either way, it’s a pretty sorry piece of filmmaking filled with plenty to laugh at. See the amazing two dimensional jungle. Marvel at the non-stop grunting and incessant chest pounding (yes, yes, “You Tarzan.” I get it). Be astounded as mankind invents good table manners. And quiver at the acting. Yes, I said “quiver.” Victor Mature, later known as “The Hunk,” started his less than illustrious career here, not that his grunting is any worse than anyone elses. Carole Landis is cute in her nice, neat, cave-girl outfit, but is harder to take seriously than Mature. She proves that prostitution was not the world’s oldest profession. Hair styling beats it by centuries.
Since this is a caveman vs. dinosaur story (don’t dwell on historical or scientific accuracy; you’ll just hurt yourself), there needs to be some dinos, and there are…kinda. Enter the slurpasaurs (a modern term for the results of the cinematic practice of gluing horns and fins onto living reptiles and projecting them at enlarged sizes to represent dinosaurs). All kinds of lizards, and a few mammals, stand in for the giants. This trick might have worked for an audience with a significant degree of suspension of disbelief, if anyone involved in filming had the slightest notion of how to put spear-wielding humans and the slurps in a frame together. The fights are comical, and tend to consist of close-ups of a caveman thrusting a stick at the camera, followed by a shot of the head of the beast.
It’s hard to say if the use of slurpasaurs eventually died out because audiences would no longer accept it in action pictures, or because of legal difficulties due to the animal abuse involved. It certainly was cruel, which is best demonstrated in One Million BC when a baby alligator (or crocodile, I can never tell which is which) with a large rubber fin attached to its back, fights a lizard, and real bites and death rolls are exchanged. Pressure from anti-cruelty organizations did make filming slurps tricky, so the footage from One Million BC was simply used over and over again, in at least ten films and several early TV shows.
If you are writing a paper for your sophomore film history class on the caveman subgenre, on the development of special effects, or on the filmography of Victor Mature or Hal Roach, then One Million BC will be of interest. If not, you’ll never miss it, but it is just amusing enough to sit through for a laugh.