When it’s on: Monday, 21 May (1.10 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
Raquel Welch didn’t want to be involved in One Million Years B.C. Under contract with Fox and ordered to go, she eventually came around to the idea of working for Hammer because of London’s newfound status as the capital of the Swinging Sixties, only to find the production was taking place in the Canary Islands. Wearing naught but a tiny fur bikini and forced to work in freezing conditions on the peaks of Tenerife and Gran Canaria, the shoot was anything but happy, yet by the time Welch returned to the States she discovered she was a global sex symbol thanks to a photo taken of her on set. It was this photo, shot as the actress recoiled from the effects of a sulphur bomb that had been released to help create the film’s prehistoric, volcanic atmosphere, which transformed both Welch’s personal fortunes and created one of Hammer’s biggest hits.
The film was a remake of the 1940 release, The Cave Dwellers, and took advantage of a passing craze for prehistoric pictures. If it seems like an excuse to film nubile starlets in bikinis, then that’s probably because it was – Martine Beswick also features prominently in the cast. The plot is an excuse to pit cavemen in situations where they battle dinosaurs. Tumak (John Richardson) is booted out of his tribe and crosses the volcano-pitted land, eventually coming across the blonde, more advanced Shell People. Here, he meets Loana (Welch). The pair fall in love and head back to his original dwelling to confront the treacherous Sakana (Percy Herbert).
The 1940 film, which starred Victor Mature, used live lizards that were optically magnified to make them look bigger. Hammer referenced the earlier work by having Tumak’s first dinosaur encounter be with an iguana in a bullying mood. Unfortunately, the reptile kept falling asleep under the studio lights, meaning they had to move it along manually. From there, Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion special effects took over. A big fan of dinosaurs, Harryhausen loved the idea of humans combating creatures that had died out millions of years before, sidestepping the point that these situations were impossible by arguing, quite rightly, that he was involved in the entertainment business, not making a film for professors. In One Million Years B.C., he serves up a giant turtle, a Velociraptor, Pterodactyls, and for his big set piece a stand-off between a Tyrannosaur and a Triceratops. Viewers spoiled by the CGI of Jurassic Park and beyond will no doubt find the technical work to be at best quaint, and possibly laughable. But these scenes have real charm; the effort that went into both animating the creatures and having them interact with live actors must have been phenomenal, and until digital effects took over this was about as good as these things tended to get.
The film was directed by Don Chaffey, who had cut his teeth in television and worked with Harryhausen previously on the masterly Jason and the Argonauts. Chaffey does a good job here, using visual prompts to make the plot flow without the benefit of having actors speak any exposition. After a few lines of narration, we’re left with characters who grunt at each other. It’s unintelligible, which is entirely the point, so the direction does the work for us. Besides that, Chaffey had a nice eye for composition, taking in some spectacular Canarian scenery. Also notable is the score. Hammer hired Mario Nacimbene to provide One Million Years B.C’s distinctive music. Best known on this site for his evocative work on The Vikings, Nascimbene combined overblown orchestral overtures for the panoramic scenes with what sounds like prehistoric sticks being banged in rhythm for the film’s fights.
But the show belongs to Welch, in her star-making role. The former dancer was never going to be the stuff of acting masterclasses, and even her voice in One Million Years B.C. was dubbed by Nikki Van der Zyl, but the studio knew best how to showcase her talents. With little to do but run around and occasionally get wet in her fur bikini, Welch provided one of the most iconic images of her age and for that, there’s much to be thankful.
One Million Years B.C.: ***