The practice of adding large doses of fantasy to what we know of our earliest human ancestors became familiar to audiences in the Movie Century, running parallel to the Lost Land Movies. In this case, hidden valleys populated with throwback dinosaurs were replaced by stories set in the time of the caves. The most obvious and often mentioned anachronism in these popular entertainments came with cave dwellers of roughly 30,000 years ago in pitched battles with dinosaurs, who went extinct 65 million years ago. The other most notable anachronism was the presence of pretty blonde starlets among the swarthy warriors. The “Cave Babe” genre of popular prehistory provides ample opportunity for clinical study of Hollywood distortion.
The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986)
Sometime in the late 1970s, novelist Jean Auell (say “Owl”) took up a fascination with life in the last Ice Age. She was not a scholar by profession but she had a scholarly mind and spent long hours at the library learning all she could about her target time period, about 25,000 years ago. Her first novel, Clan of the Cave Bear, and five sequels were enthusiastically received by the reading public and sold exceptionally well. But there was a fatal flaw in this work.
This disconnect was to be found in Auell’s contemporary idea of creating a heroine for her books that would appeal to modern women. Her name was Ayla, and she was a fabulous young female, smarter than the Neanderthals around her (what modern woman doesn’t know that feeling?), sexually aware, and destined for great things. The novelty of this idea worked well enough in the first book, but it degenerated after that. She meets a fabulous guy of her own species, a kind of Ice Age Fabio, and the fur-bodice-ripping gets out of hand. The agenda of a deeply researched portrait of late Ice Age society was not well served by this salacious “Sex and the Steppes” approach – even though it is probably a fair evocation of the unabashed behaviors of that pre-repression era.
The movie of Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) brought the flaw in this formula into high relief. Darryl Hannah plays Ayla and she appears, to look at her, to be an excellent choice. But the concept of Ayla as a sort of Ice Age Jane Fonda does not play well. Sadly, there is much to like in this movie, and there is a good deal of benefit from Auell’s meticulous research. The early scenes of the film show Ayla as a child, orphaned by an earthquake. She is found by a roaming band of Neanderthals. They are naturally suspicious of her, “She is not Clan, one of the Others.” This is a far more lucid portrait of the populace of the last stages of the Ice Age than we get from Quest for Fire, which is set much earlier.
The prehistoric drama here is in the encounter between between the older Neanderthals and the newly arrived Cro-Magnons (Homo sapiens). The setting is Eurasia in the area along the north coast of the Black Sea (Ukraine/Crimea). Ayla feels bound to prove her superiority over the Neanderthals and it pretty much ruins the movie, feminism notwithstanding. The way is kept open for a sequel, but it is not going to happen. There is not even going to be a Cave Barbie from Mattel. Wikipedia gave this movie almost no attention. Roger Ebert hit the nail on the head.
One Million Years B.C. (1966)
Raquel Welch became a pop culture icon with this movie. She managed to split the difference between sex symbol and strong, self-sufficient young woman and the resulting pin-up poster hung on many a bedroom wall. It was marketing genius. She also became a potent emblem of that misplaced time in prehistory when attractive, nearly naked cave people fought off giant reptiles and amphibians approximately one million years ago. She was Miss Information of 1966.
This is a remake of a 1939/40 version still admired for its special effects. The original, which had similarities to the Tarzan movies of the same period, starred Victor Mature. The 60s version would replace the hunky male lead with a fabulous “cave babe” (this is not my language; it was a tongue-in-cheek movie genre that I found in Wikipedia at the time of writing. It seems to have pretty much disappeared). The Raquel Welch film begins with an almost serious narration about the world at the dawn of time. The location photography is arresting but it quickly becomes unintentionally funny as a small band of cave dwellers capture and kill a warthog and take it back to their clan. The pre-historical inaccuracies pile up as this remarkably good-looking bunch fight over their food and vie for dominance. They all have dark hair. One handsome male, with the inspired name of Tumak, is expelled from the cave for being too ambitious. We will follow his adventures. The outcast makes his way across a forbidding desert, fighting off a giant lizard along the way. Near death, he collapses on a rise above the seashore. As luck would have it, a bevy of blond cave starlets appears on the beach. They are fishing fetchingly. Their leader, Ms. Welch, spots the incredulous man and approaches warily. Just then, they are attacked by a giant sea turtle! It is in fact a real turtle photographed at rakish angles. Raquel sounds a conch shell and the fine-looking blond men of her clan come running to help. They drive the roaring turtle into the sea.
Tumak is taken back to the encampment of the blonds where he recovers and becomes a bad guest. He cannot keep himself from coveting the superior technologies of this group, especially their spears. He redeems himself somewhat when they are attacked by a half-size Tyrannosaurus Rex, inspiring Raquel to go off with him when he strikes out on his own. Her name is Loana. They cross a desolate moonscape, coming at last to a cave with a grotto and a sacred tree by a pool. When a group of ape-creatures appear, the couple is forced to hide in the tree and then to escape through a hole in the top of the cave. Something like love is beginning to happen between them, but the big lug doesn’t understand. A rhinoceros-like dinosaur gives them some trouble, but a full-size T-Rex shows up and there is one of those battles of the plastic beasts (created by Ray Harryhausen). Some men from the outcast’s old clan arrive and try to carry Raquel off, but Tumak defeats them.
They return to his old cave where the dark-haired girls are fascinated by the blond beauty. Still, she must fight Tumak’s old girlfriend. Settling into routine cave life, Raquel is teaching her new friends to swim in a lake when a Pterodactyl swoops down and carries her off. The Pterodactyl is attacked by one of its own kind and drops her on the beach. Tumac can’t find her. The nomadic band moves on, and she is abandoned. Eventually she makes it back to her own people who form a search party to help her find her lover. When the two groups meet, there is a battle. But right in the middle of it, there is a natural disaster involving a volcano and an earthquake! There is much death and destruction. The few survivors band together and march off across the wasteland, perhaps to a new unity. The credits roll. Even thirty-five years later, this is a vividly photographed film, and might have been an interesting parable of the meeting of two early human groups, if it weren’t so completely silly. All of this follows the scenario of the 1940 film very closely except for the shift in dominance between male and female leads.