For a movie that not only depicts human beings living at the same time as dinosaurs, but that also creates said dinosaurs with a number of methods that might be considered cruel to animals, One Million B.C. (1940) is surprisingly effective. As film historian Toby Roan says on the commentary track to the new VCI Entertainment Blu-ray, audiences at the time had truly seen nothing like it.
A miniature Triceratops that cave man Tumak (Victor Mature) wrestles to the ground is actually a pig in a rubber costume. A giant wooly mammoth that later chases him up a tree is actually an elephant named, “Queen” from the Tarzan movies of the era. And a man-sized Tyrannosaurus rex that he later slays is actually a man in, not a completed costume, but a prototype. (Roan comments that there’s a reason director Hall Roach Jr. keeps it hidden behind a tree.)
Real lizards substitute for dinosaurs, a badger (I think) substitutes for a “ferocious cave bear,” and an armadillo with (rubber) spikes glued to its head substitutes for… I don’t know what. Roan says, “I don’t think they worried too much about the well-being of these animals.” So far, this all seems pretty harmless. However, when an alligator with a sail fin glued on its back fights to the death with a lizard, it’s hard to watch. I’ll pretend the defeated creature is not really bleeding.
You’re more likely to have seen the 1966 remake from Hammer Films, One Million Years B.C., featuring Raquel Welch in a fur bikini. The stories are much the same. Tumak comes from the aggressive “Rock People.” When he’s voted off the tribe following an argument with his father, he encounters Loana (Carole Landis) from the passive “Shell People” and learns some manners like sharing his food and helping others before he helps himself.
They’re star-crossed lovers simply trying to survive on a planet still in the process of being born. That means when a volcano erupts, it threatens to completely alter the landscape. This is a truly impressive scene for any age of filmmaking; it held me in suspense as it chaotically unfolded. Well-shot with very good special effects, a poor cave woman is covered in flowing hot lava as she tries to escape. In glorious black and white, it looks like she’s been buried in cement.
This isn’t even the climax of the film. The tribes unite against one final threat. While the effects are a little more expected from a 1940 movie that puts real people in front of an enlargement of a lizard doubling as a dinosaur, it’s nevertheless well handled. With some editing trickery to speed the action, it’s not difficult to suspend disbelief.
Add Lon Chaney Jr. as Akhoba, Tumak’s father, who wears some hideous makeup after losing an eye and being left for dead, and One Million B.C. is right up every monster kid’s alley. I probably procrastinated watching it believing it would be bad, but that was a mistake. I couldn’t say it any better than Roan does at the end of his commentary, “It may not be good history, but it sure is a good time!”
Written by Mickell Novack & George Baker & Joseph Frickert
Directed by Hal Roach Jr., Hal Roach
Starring Victor Mature, Carole Landis, Lon Chaney Jr.
Released April 5, 1940
RT 80 min.
Home Video VCI Entertainment (Blu-ray)