The Evolution of the Movie Caveman

THREE AGESOkay, first off, let’s not get into a big Darwinism-versus-Creationism debate here. After all, Hollywood’s been muddying that argument for decades with films featuring dinosaurs and early man living side-by-side. No, the purpose of this article–inspired in part by today’s release of DreamWorks’ animated prehistoric family tale The Croods–is to look at some of the more exciting, comical and just plain off-the-cave-wall ways that our antediluvian ancestors have been portrayed over the years on the silver screen. So, if you’ll grab your animal skins and club and join me in the Wayback Machine…

Fittingly, the first notable examples on our journey come courtesy of two pioneering filmmakers. The since-lost Vitagraph short The Cave Men (1912), from director/star Ralph Ince, was said to depict “the sentiments and feelings, the manors and customs of the people of the stone age,” although with lead characters named Eric and Chloe one has to wonder how accurate it was. That same year director D.W. Griffith gave us his own paleolithic vision with Man’s Genesis, subtitled “A Psychological Comedy Founded Upon the Darwinian Theory of the Evolution of Man,” in which milquetoast troglodyte Weakhands learns to use a club to win his sweetheart Lillywhite from her burly suitor Bruteforce. The Biograph short must have been well received, because Griffith followed it up two years later with a sequel, Brute Force, also known as The Primitive Man, which has the dubious distinction of boasting the first cinematic depiction of cavemen battling dinosaurs (a dressed-up alligator and a 10-foot-tall tyrannosaurus model apparently made out of papier-mâché).   

HIS PREHISTORIC PASTThe popularity of D.W.’s semi-serious efforts inspired an up-and-coming Keystone comic named Charlie Chaplin to spoof them in his final film for the studio, 1914’s His Prehistoric Past. Chaplin–still with his trademark derby hat, cane, and mustache–played a hapless caveman who tries to woo one of tribe leader Mack Swain’s many wives. A later Griffith work, his time-hopping allegorical saga Intolerance (1916), would likewise inspire another silent send-up–this time by stone-faced funnyman Buster Keaton–in a segment of Keaton’s 1923 feature Three Ages. Arriving on the back of a brontosaurus (yeah, I know there’s now no such animal, but then folks didn’t travel on dinosaurs’ backs, either), a fur-clad Buster must compete with mastodon-riding rival Wallace Beery for the hand of a beautiful cavegirl. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy found themselves on two sides of a similar Stone Age love triangle in their 1928 silent short for slapstick impresario Hal Roach, the oddly-titled Flying Elephants (which featured no mastodons, but for some reason did include a shot of those airborne pachyderms).

A slightly more serious look at primeval fauna came in the 1925 film version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. Along with the impressive stop-motion dinosaurs brought to life with special effects wizard Willis O’Brien, Professor Challenger (Beery once again) and his fellow explorers encounter a cave-dwelling “ape-man,” played by wrestler-turned-actor/gorilla impersonator Bull Montana. O’Brien himself had earlier made a number of comedic short films–The Dinosaur and the Missing Link, RFD 10,000 B.C, and Prehistoric Poultry–with stop-motion caveman creations for Thomas Edison’s studio, all the while warming up for his triumphant work in 1933 on King Kong.   

ONE MILLION BC2In 1940 Flying Elephants producer Hal Roach released the movie that would set the tone for prehistoric cinema for years to come, One Million B.C. Beefcake leading man Victor Mature, in his second film role, played Tumak, a cast-out member of the warlike Rock Tribe who falls for Loana (Carole Landis) from the shore-dwelling Shell people and winds up playing peacemaker between the two groups. Along the way you also have Lon Chaney, Jr. as Rock Tribe leader (and Tumak’s father) Akhoba; lizards and alligators with fins stuck on their backs to simulate dinosaurs and elephants in shag outfits to denote mammoths; some animal fight scenes that would have had PETA up in arms (and were recycled in everything from Robot Monster to the Three Stooges short Space Ship Sappy); and a soundtrack of grunts and made-up words (“Akita! Akita!”) that became a genre mainstay. Amazingly, One Million B.C. (which our old pal D.W. Griffith had been hired by Roach to work on, and some say direct, until disagreements ended the arrangement) did garner a pair of Academy Award nominations, for Best Special Effects and Best Musical Score. That wasn’t enough to help it at the box office, though, and its fiery volcano climax seemed to signal the end–at least for a while–for dramatic depictions of the Cro-Magnon lifestyle.         

TEENAGE CAVEMANFor the next quarter-century or so, cavemen would be reduced to the level of B-movie monsters (the 1944 Bela Lugosi mad scientist shocker Return of the Ape Man or Universal’s 1958 scf-fi tale Monster on the Campus with Arthur Franz, among others) and Amazonian male fantasy objects (as in the 1950 howler Prehistoric Women). Roger Corman’s Teenage Caveman (1958) starred a well-coiffed Robert Vaughn as the young title hero, whose questioning ways arouse the anger of his elders and lead to a “shocking,” Cold War-themed plot twist in the otherwise goofy goings-on. Two years later, a construction crew on a Caribbean island unearthed a brontosaurus, a T-rex, and a prehistoric man that all came to life in the juvenile-yet-still-enjoyable thriller Dinosaurus! Greg Mantell was actually rather good as the Neanderthal who befriends a young boy, starts a pie fight, and is frightened by a woman with beauty mud on her face. And before he tangled with James Bond in The Spy Who Loved Me, hulking Richard Kiel donned an ill-fitting bearskin to play a modern-day troglodyte in Arch Hall’s classically inept “Beauty and the Beast” tale Eegah (1962).     

ONE MILLION YEARS BC1966 was a watershed year for fans of Stone Age cinema, as England’s Hammer Films decided to remake Roach’s 1940 feature. The result, One Million Years B.C., is best known for two things: the creative contributions of effects wizard Ray Harryhausen, whose stop-motion animal antagonists included an allosaurus, a dueling triceratops and ceratosaurus, some man-eating pterodactyls and a giant sea turtle; and co-star Raquel Welch modelling “mankind’s first bikini “(okay, so make that three things). To judge from Raquel’s look in this film, early man apparently developed leg shaving and mascara before coming up with the wheel, agriculture, or other everyday items.  The picture itself hewed pretty close to the storyline of the original, as Rock Tribe refugee John Richardson finds refuge with Welch’s Shell Tribe, and ends with a similar volcanic eruption (which probably didn’t happen all that often in the Cenozoic Era, but always makes for great action scenes). Oh, and the real-life hominids who were around one million or so years ago really looked more like apes than people…a fact that director Stanley Kubrick managed to get right, two years later, in his “dawn of man” opening to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

After the success of One Million Years B.C., Hammer went back to the “scantily clad cavegal” well several times over the next few years with such unimaginative genre entries as Prehistoric Women (1968), When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970) and Creatures the World Forgot (1971), while their formula was appropriated by Italian filmmaker Pasquale Festa Campanile for two softcore romps starring Senta Berger, When Women Had Tails (1970) and the inevitable ’72 follow-up, When Women Lost Their Tails. Meanwhile, ’30s screen queen-turned-’60s scream harridan Joan Crawford made her movie swan song playing an anthropologist who attempts to educate a man-ape (Joe Cornelius, not to be confused with Cornelius from the Planet of the Apes films) living in 20th-century England, in the unintentionally funny Trog (1970). The mid-’70s found Hammer’s main competitor in the fantasy field, Amicus Productions, teaming up with Sam Arkoff’s American International Pictures to make a trio of sci-fi movies based on the writings of Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs. The Land That Time Forgot (1975), At the Earth’s Core (1976), and The People That Time Forgot (1977). Each featured prehistoric animals (played unconvincingly by puppets and life-size dummy heads) and primitive men living in modern times on lost continents or in subterranean worlds, and quite frankly I have a tough time remembering which ones starred Doug McClure and which featured Patrick Wayne.       

The 1980s didn’t get off to a very auspicious start for the genre. Sid Caesar led a bunch of comical cave-dwellers in the first segment of Mel Brooks’ 1981 satirical saga History of the World, Part I, and that same year saw Ringo Starr play the hapless title hero of the Cro-Magnon comedy Caveman, which featured performances by a young Dennis Quaid and Shelley Long, depicted a tyrannosaurus getting wasted on fermented berries, and introduced the ex-Beatle to his future wife, co-star Barbara Bach. Three more serious efforts, however, would round out the decade. 

QUEST FOR FIREDirector Jean-Jacques Annaud followed a trio of Neanderthal warriors sent by their tribe on a Quest for Fire (1981), a search that brought them into contact with hostile tribes of ape-like Homo Erectus and more advanced Cro-Magnons, as well as saber-toothed cats and woolly mammoths (without a dinosaur in sight). The film–which featured Ron Perlman, Everett McGill and Rae Dawn Chong (who in one scene apparently demonstrates mankind’s invention of oral sex) among the actors playing the various human species–was notable for featuring a Neanderthal language devised by A Clockwork Orange author Anthony Burgess. 1984 saw another anthropologist–Timothy Hutton this time –trying to communicate with a caveman–John Lone, freed from suspended animation in the Arctic after 40,000 years and revived by modern science–in Iceman. Lone’s wonderful, dialogue-free (not counting the requisite grunts and monosyllables, of course) performance was the highlight of Fred Schepisi’s speculative drama. The final entry in the ’80s troglodyte troika was 1986’s The Clan of the Cave Bear, starring Daryl Hannah as a young Cro-Magnon separated from her people as a child and raised by a tribe of Neanderthals, leading to an inevitable culture clash. Based on the first novel in author Jean M. Auel’s “Earth’s Children” series, the film was similarly intended to lead off a string of Stone Age dramas, but its poor reception at the box office (despite an Oscar nomination for Best Makeup) killed off those plans.

No, it seems that American moviegoers like their big-screen cavemen silly, which would certainly explain how a lowbrow comedy such as 1992’s Encino Man, featuring Brendan Fraser as a prehistoric man thawed out of the ice by California teenagers Sean Astin and Pauly Shore, would make nearly 20 times the money that Clan of the Cave Bear did in theatres. Similarly, TV’s animated “modern Stone Age family,” The Flintstones made the jump to the live-action big screen in 1994 with John Goodman, Elizabeth Perkins, Rick Moranis, and Rosie O’Donnell starring as Fred, Wilma, Barney, and Betty, respectively (there had already been a feature-length cartoon, The Man Called Flintstone, out in 1966). Aimed at kids and family audiences, it did well enough to spawn a 2000 follow-up, The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas, with Mark Addy and Stephen Baldwin taking over as Fred and Barney. Another actor known for comedy, Robin Williams, got his chance to go primitive–and did so relatively straight–when he played a Bronze Age everyman named Hector in Bill Forsyth’s era-spanning 1994 character study Being Human.

As the new millennium dawned, early man (and woman) could be glimpsed on the periphery of such family-friendly films as the animated Pleistocene saga Ice Age (2002) and Night at the Museum (2006). The dawn of civilization was the focus of Roland Emmerich’s 2008 actioner 10,000 B.C., which mixed Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, marauders on horseback, and mammoths used to help build pyramids in a mess as anachronistic as Hal Roach’s One Million B.C. Meanwhile, the satire subgenre was covered the following year by Jack Black and Michael Cera as would-be “mighty hunters” who wind up crossing paths with a variety of Old Testament figures (there’s that Darwin vs. the Bible debate again) in producer Judd Apatow’s Year One.

If the last century of Stone Age movies has proven anything, it’s that audiences aren’t nearly as interested in scientific accuracy as they are in giant animals, or goofy jokes, or buxom women in skimpy animal skins. These elements probably would have proven to be just as popular with our prehistoric forebears, and may well be millennia from now, when the humans of that time come up with stories about the savage and primitive time known as the 21st century.

If you have a favorite film (We skipped TV shows and cartoon shorts, so there’s no Korg: 70,000 B.C., Captain Caveman or insurance spokespeople here) about early man that we overlooked, or just want to offer your own opinion on matters antediluvian, let us know about it. No need to chisel your thoughts in a block of granite; just click on the comments below.