ONE MILLION B.C. (1940) Blu-ray
Director: Hal Roach & Hal Roach Jr.
VCI Entertainment

After years of limited availability (with the exception of early VHS tapes and Super 8 shorts) VCI Entertainment has released a digitally restored ONE MILLION B.C. to Blu-ray (and DVD.) This film was a break-out feature for most of its cast and some of its footage has probably been seen more in other pictures than any other movie in history.

A mountain hiking group caught in a thunderstorm finds shelter in a cave. Once inside, they discover an archaeologist interpreting the prehistoric paintings and drawings on the cave wall. To pass the time, the archaeologist explains what he has translated so far and uses the two younger hikers (Carole Landis and Victor Mature) for his story’s protagonists.

Tumak (Mature, THE ROBE, SAMSON AND DELILAH) is violently cast out of The Rock Tribe by his father and clan leader Akhoba (Lon Chaney, Jr., THE WOLFMAN, THE MUMMY’S TOMB) and is found by Loana (Landis, TOPPER RETURNS, FOUR JILLS IN A JEEP) of The Shell Tribe. The clan takes him under their wing and Tumak rehabs himself back to health while struggling to understand new concepts like stone arrows, spear fishing, singing and the idea of a community meal. Then a Tyrannosaurus Rex attacks the tribe, but Tumak kills it with a spear owned by a clan member and tries to keep it for himself for which he is banished once again into the wild. Loana chooses to follow, to Tumak’s pleasure or annoyance, we’re not sure which.

After wandering through the jungle they witness a tremendous battle between two dinosaurs and escape with their lives only for Tumak to reunite with The Rock Tribe. Loana and Tumak try to bring civility to his former clan by sharing the daily kill with everyone and teaching Rock Tribe members to gather food and to laugh, breaking the “only the strong survive” mentality. Suddenly the local volcano erupts, spewing lava, creating landslides and opening crevasses that swallow many dinosaurs. There is a scene of a mother trying to rescue her child from the lava flow, but the burning rock stream catches up and she is buried by the magma, a pretty shocking scene for 1940. Tumak and Loana save the child, but get separated during the disaster. Loana makes her way back to The Shell Tribe where a dinosaur has them pinned inside a cave. Tumak leads The Rock Tribe to the scene, and helps defeat the creature in a high-paced, fast-edited shot, the best sequence of the film. The two tribes integrate as one while Tumak and Loana face the sunset for a positive future. Strangely, the audience is not returned to the cave where the archaeologist is telling this tale to the hikers in the beginning of the film.

Obviously the big attraction of ONE MILLION B.C. is dinosaurs! Special effects supervisors Roy Seawright and Elmer Raguse used various techniques to create animals from the Jurassic Period. There were elephants dressed as mastodons with fake tusks and woolly hair, pigs in Triceratops costumes, a stuntman dressed in a rubber Tyrannosaurus Rex suit and live animals including crocodiles and lizards with fins and horns attached to their bodies to create the “Slurpasaur” effect. However, when viewing this on Blu-ray, the rear projection effect work, superimposing the live lizards and animals with the actors is very impressive. Audiences had not seen anything like this since 1933’s SON OF KONG. Seawright and Rague’s work was nominated for an Oscar for Best Special Effects.

In today’s cinema, great care is taken to prevent harm to animals appearing in films. You’ve seen the claim during credits: “No animals were injured in the production of this film.” That rule didn’t apply when it came to ONE MILLION B.C. There’s no documented reports of protests about the live reptiles fighting each other, but when the film was released in England, it was heavily edited due to the country’s animal cruelty laws. However, I can hardly imagine being one of the special effect staffers prodding and antagonizing these animals off-camera to fight to the death on a SFX sound stage. Since the “dinosaurs” were cold-blooded, heaters were used on set to raise the temperature of the lizards so they would be more active and irritable.

The dinosaur battles of ONE MILLION B.C. became prime stock footage for movie producers who didn’t have the time or money to spend on special effect work. According to “Dr. Maniac” writing for Scary Monsters Magazine, the battling dinosaur scenes appeared in at least 15 other films including VALLEY OF THE DRAGONS and ROBOT MONSTER. Castle Films released two Super 8 digests, one as ONE MILLION B.C., with some prints having sound to include the archaeologist's narration. The other was BATTLE OF THE GIANTS that only featured the lizard vs. crocodile fight. Even if you never saw ONE MILLION B.C., it’s likely you’ve seen footage inserted in many other films.

ONE MILLION B.C. was a springboard to stardom for its principal stars. This was Victor Mature’s second film where he was cast as the lead actor. Lon Chaney Jr. had just completed OF MICE AND MEN, playing the role of “Lennie” to critical and public acclaim. To follow in his father’s footsteps, Lon Chaney Sr., aka “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” Chaney Jr. created his own make-up effects to portray Akhoba, but the union stepped in and required that the make-up staff handle the actor’s make-up. A year later, Chaney signed with Universal and starred as what he called, “his baby,” THE WOLF MAN in 1941. From there, his long horror career began until his death in 1973.

ONE MILLION B.C. was also the break-out film for Carole Landis. She had previously starred in small roles, but this picture made her a star. Unfortunately, her stardom was cut short when she committed suicide at the age of 29 in 1948. First wed at the age of 15, she had several broken marriages and affairs, when she began a relationship with actor Rex Harrison (MY FAIR LADY, DOCTOR DOLITTLE), who was married at the time. Harrison would not divorce his wife, even though he and Landis’ affair was common knowledge in Hollywood. Carole Landis died in her California home after ingesting a fatal amount of barbiturates.

Legendary director D.W. Griffith (BIRTH OF A NATION, INTOLERANCE), was hired by Hal Roach to gather up the cast and technicians to make the film. Griffith was rumored to have directed part of the picture, but he only directed auditions and test shots. There was an idea to hype the film as “D.W. Griffith’s Last Film,” but according to Landis, though he was around the studio in the beginning, one day he stopped showing up for work. During early promotional material, Griffith received a credit on the film, but he told Roach to remove his name from the movie. Ironically, ONE MILLION B.C., with the exception of the intro, is a “silent film” with hardly any dialogue, a format that Griffith excelled in 20 years earlier, where he created most of the standard editing techniques still in use today.

VCI Entertainment presents ONE MILLION B.C. in 1080p HD in an aspect ratio of 1:37:1 and mono PCM for audio. Extras include English subtitles, a segment of photo stills, and an informative commentary by film historian Toby Roan. Having never seen the film on TV or video tape, I imagine this 2k restoration is the highest representation of ONE MILLION B.C., as there are extremely few video imperfections or audio distortions in the black and white presentation. Even the very fine detail work of rear-projection, glass work shots, the jungle scenes and the extraordinary cave sets look as beautiful as they had on first release to theaters. (Jim Flack)