When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970)

When it’s on: Sunday, 10 June (12.30 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Flushed with the success of One Million Years B.C, Hammer ploughed its prehistoric furrow several more times, with varying results. The interior sets and costumes were either recycled for the bargain basement camp classic Prehistoric Women, or a straightforward repeat was attempted. Such is When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, made in 1969 but not released until a year later due to the extensive post production work by Jim Darnforth and Roger Dicken in developing the film’s stop motion creatures. Mario Nascimbene was once again called on for the score, whilst the shoot enjoyed a stay in Fuerteventura to recreate the prehistoric landscape. The film’s credibility was further enhanced by having a treatment put together by then science fiction writer, J.G. Ballard (who would later declare his pride in having his first film credit be for such errant nonsense). Val Guest, one of Hammer’s best known directors and responsible for early classics like The Quatermass Xperiment and The Abominable Snowman, was behind the camera.

The result is an uneven picture. The ‘science’ is as rubbish as anything served up in One Million Years B.C. and even has the cheek to contrive an origin story for the moon that slaps the face of any known facts, though frankly there’s little point in criticising it on those grounds. Darnforth and Dicken’s effects are rather good, clearly a step up from those produced by Ray Harryhausen for the earlier film. Whilst there remains a sense of the plot doing nothing more than string together the appearances by creatures that time forgot, the interactions with dinosaurs have more point than to show cavepeople endlessly running away from animated models. The pair were Oscar nominated for their trouble (losing to the visual effects from Bedknobs and Broomsticks) and may very well be responsible for the best looking dinosaurs in the pre-CGI era.

Elsewhere, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth exhibits all the signs of the time in which it was made. With restrictions dropping over the amount of skin that could be shown on screen, the costumes are tinier than ever before. Men happily skip about in loincloths; caveladies favour micro-bikinis. Raquel Welch would no doubt be appalled by the next to nothing worn by this film’s star, Victoria Vetri, who looks like she’s stepped straight out of a lurid Frank Frazetta concoction. Cast in the Hammer tradition for offering movie roles to Playboy Playmates, Vetri gives a game performance as Sanna, the bottle blonde whose yellow hair is seen as responsible for the worrying fluctuations of the sun. On the run from her tribe, she comes across kindly fisherman Tara (Robin Hawson), who takes her back to his seaside village. It’s love at first sight, but Sanna’s presence causes consternation among the people, none more so than Tara’s discarded squeeze, Imogen Hassall. The ‘Countess of Cleavage’ inspires further hate for Sanna and the lovers are forced to flee for their lives.

Cue dinosaurs, including a pissed off Triceratops that gores anyone stupid enough to try stepping into its cave, and a matronly creature that believes Sanna is its offspring after she falls asleep inside the shell of its egg. Pterodactyls swoop in for a cameo, and there’s a sea monster that emerges from the waves to save Tara.

Where this film disappoints following One Million Years B.C. is that the earlier entry put some effort into creating a prehistoric environment. Daft science aside, there was a grizzled rawness to the way the people looked, whilst the landscape had a harsh, forbidding feel about it, helped along by the sulphur bombs that suggested volcanic activity was ever imminent. Any serious attempts at authenticity are largely absent here. The one thing retained is the unintelligible ‘cave language’, dreamed up for the film by Guest and including a vocabulary of between twenty and thirty words – ‘Akita’ seems to cover most bases. Otherwise, these are the most scrubbed up of cavepeople, whilst the location looks exactly like the sun-kissed resort it was becoming in the late 1960s. According to an interview with Vetri, the cast and crew spent their spare time ‘screwing around’ and having fun, making for a pleasant shoot that wasn’t taken seriously for one moment. Apparently, so much sleeping around took place that sheepish faces and broken relationships were rife upon the production’s return to the UK.

This writer remembers seeing When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth as a child, astonished by the scenes in which a naked Sanna capers about with Tara. Even then, seeing this sort of thing in an early afternoon screening was unusual and presumably a mistake on the broadcaster’s part. It’s unlikely to be repeated today. Looking at the 95-minute slot given to the film, it’s almost certain we will be getting the slightly shorter version, the one released in America, which excises all nudity. To their embarrassment and the delight of viewers, Warner Brothers released a DVD of the film in the States several years ago (double billed with Moon Zero Two) that carried a ‘G’ rating yet retained the uncut content. Hubba hubba!

When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth: **

One Million Years B.C. (1966)

When it’s on: Monday, 21 May (1.10 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

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.: ***

A Challenge for Robin Hood (1967)

When it’s on: Friday, 4 May (1.05 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

It’s one of those brilliant side-effects of the DVD revolution that so many old Hammer films are finding new audiences. The British studio churned out so many titles over such a short space of time that it’s inevitable some of them would be forgotten over the years, but thanks to the efforts of digital restorers this is increasingly less the case, and a good thing too. Obviously best known for their work in the horror genre, Hammer’s clutch of thrillers – often filmed in lurid black and white and most paying their nodding respects to Psycho – are beginning to emerge as some of the studio’s best efforts. A fantastic collection of Hammer’s forays into suspense can be found here.

Perhaps less can be said of their attempts to corner the matinée market. The ‘make ’em cheap’ approach produced mixed returns, though this writer has a great deal of fondness for the comfort food that is The Pirates of Blood River. The legends of Robin Hood produced three Hammer entries, of which A Challenge for Robin Hood is the last and arguably the best. None of these films forms any kind of series, incidentally; each features a different cast and takes time to reset the tale. 1960’s Sword of Sherwood Forest might have starred Richard Greene, offering some semblance of continuity with his role in the long-running Robin Hood British TV series from the 1950s, yet Challenge is better, with its bigger budget, impressive set-pieces battles, decent cast and promise of adventure.

Ask any more of it than that and the picture quickly falls apart. The script works fast to move Robin (Barrie Ingham) from his initial status as a Norman noble and into Sherwood Forest, leading his merrie men and fighting the Sheriff of Nottingham. A jobbing TV and film actor whose credits run impressively from 1960 to 2005, Ingham might not stick in anyone’s mind as the archetypal Hood, but he’s actually good value in the role, putting decent levels of agility into his work and convincing both as a lord and an outlaw. Especially neat is the change in his dress that reflects his shifting circumstances, from the gaudy, scarlet-clad oligarch of his opening scenes to the standard Robin costume, complete with green hat and feather.

Elsewhere, actors slot into their standard HERO and VILLAIN roles to type. John Arnatt makes for a splendid Sheriff, lusting after Marian and clever enough to guess every next move of his partner in crime, the boorish Roger de Courtenay (Peter Blythe). Of the merrie men, James Hayter reprises his Friar Tuck from the 1952 Disney entry, The Story of Robin Hood, to winning effect. Eric Flynn is really interesting as a murderous Alan-a-Dale, laying down the lute (mostly) for his quest to knife any Norman he comes across. It’s a surprisingly dark role, though more could have been made of his laying down of the outlaws’ leadership to Robin. Of the cast, only Gay Hamilton has cause to complain – her Marian has little to do but wait to be rescued.

Whilst the production standards are as high as one might expect (on Hammer’s usual shoestring), utilising Black Park for the Sherwood scenes and Bodiam Castle as the obligatory medieval fortress, the plot is as deferential to the box office alchemy of 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood as it gets. There’s much thigh slapping, an excruciating balladeering scene, doltish Norman guards, standard issue green costumes and a tussle that ends (I’m not joking) in a custard pie fight. It’s by the numbers stuff, and some of the dialogue is terrible e.g. ‘I love to watch men wrestle.’

Still, anyone watching A Challenge with the hope of some gritty, medieval action is going to be ill-served. It’s a U-Certificate film made for ninety minutes’ worth of easy entertainment, and it fills its brief well enough. Before Optimum released a Region 2 disc in 2010 (the one I own), the film was only available on German/Spanish imports. The restoration standards are high indeed, which bodes well for those other, elusive Hammer efforts that deserve a second look.

A Challenge for Robin Hood: **