10 great films set in the prehistoric era

Cavemen had cave paintings. We’ve got movies. Here are some of our favourites about our prehistoric past.

Trevor Johnston

Early Man (2018)

Early Man (2018)

If you’re looking for anthropologically correct depictions of the prehistoric era, it’s fair to say that the cinema is not the place to find them. On screen, comedy has frequently been the default mode for portraying our far-off forefathers, whose somewhat basic manners and mores play out in laughter-making contrast to our modern sophistication.

Not that the laughter is always at the expense of the bearskin-clad, club-waving cavemen. Often the primitive settings provide an unexpected route to commenting on our own times, whether it’s The Flintstones providing witty insight into the consumerist drives of aspirational 1960s America, or now Nick Park’s stop-motion epic Early Man, which uses its bronze age high-jinks to reflect on the English national football team’s confidence-sapping history of underachievement.

Relatively few directors have taken a more authentic route of representing the early tribes’ rudimentary communication skills. Telling a story through grunts and gestures can prove somewhat challenging over feature length, so it’s not surprising that the likes of Hammer’s iconic One Million Years B.C. (1966) blithely ignored the science and wheeled on a few rampaging dinosaurs to liven things up a bit – notwithstanding the fact that man and tyrannosaurus never actually walked this earth together.

For these reasons, only a few of the selections below, in all honesty, could justify the term ‘great’. Yet, however seriously you take them, these movies all serve to remind us that we’ve certainly come a long way, baby.

His Prehistoric Past (1914)

Director Charles Chaplin

His Prehistoric Past (1914)

He’s got the moustache, he’s wearing the hat and he’s twirling the cane, but in the last of his shorts for the Keystone company, Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp is also sporting a fetching bearskin, having been transported in a dream back a few thousand years. His first entrance in that particular get-up is probably the biggest laugh in this slightly scrappy two-reeler, which audiences at the time would probably have twigged as a take-off of a recent D.W. Griffith feature, the snappily-titled Man’s Genesis: A Psychological Comedy Founded on Darwin’s Theory of the Genesis of Man (1912).

The setting aside, it’s business as usual for Charlie the mischief-maker, since there are fair maidens to flirt with, and burly regular foil Mack Swain as the brutish King Low-Brow to get the better of. Chaplin himself is characteristically sly, dainty and mercurial, with the stone-age twist proving its worth as a fresh angle for the prolific director-star in what was his 36th short that year.

Three Ages (1923)

Directors Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton

Three Ages (1923)

In contrast to Chaplin’s bustling screen persona, the point about Keaton’s deadpan poise is that this guy’s never phased by anything, which allows him to play the same plucky underdog character across three distinct time periods in this comic triptych. So we start in leopard-skin for the opening prehistoric frolic, before the scene changes to ancient Rome and thence to 1920s Los Angeles (subtitled The Present Age of Need, Greed and Speed), in each instance Buster continuing his pursuit of love interest Margaret Leahy against he-man rival Wallace Beery.

A snook is certainly being cocked in the direction of D.W. Griffith’s magnum opus Intolerance (1916), though these days the opening section looks more like a precursor of The Flintstones’ gleeful eye for anachronism, as Buster invents golf, carries a stone-carved business card and hitches a ride on an endearingly primitive stop-motion brontosaurus. There were more silent masterpieces to come, but as Keaton’s directorial debut it’s an auspicious beginning.

Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur (1939)

Director Chuck Jones

Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur (1939)

Daffy Duck is on relatively restrained form in this Merrie Melodies offering, which is a pioneering example of how animation’s elasticity of form could put itself to good use in depicting prehistory. Fido, the lolloping brontosaurus who thinks he’s a pet dog, is but the forerunner of many cute animated dinos, including the cast of Don Bluth’s The Land before Time (1988) and Disney’s subsequent Dinosaur (2000), though the thrust of the humour here is in taking comedy anachronism to surreal ends.

It all peaks when the ever-cunning Daffy outwits hungry hunter Casper the caveman, with a hilariously extended series of painted and even neon signs promising the world’s most delicious duck breakfast. As with many of the classic Warner Bros animated shorts, the punchline is suitably eye-watering…

One Million Years B.C. (1966)

Director Don Chaffey

One Million Years B.C. (1966)

Looking for a new venture beyond their cash-spinning Dracula and Frankenstein horror franchises, British indie outfit Hammer took on one of their most ambitious projects with this remake of Hal Roach’s similarly titled landmark prehistoric adventure from 1939, which pitted lusty primitive Victor Mature against rival tribes and sundry over-sized lizards.

The update has the advantage of Ray Harryhausen’s ace stop-motion dinosaurs (and even a frisky giant turtle), who intrude every 10 minutes or so when the Bone People vs Shell People storyline looks like running out of juice. All of which is about as historically authentic as leading lady Raquel Welch’s fur bikini, emblazoned on the poster to become one of the iconic images of the 1960s. And while you’re wondering, the garment in question was actually only fur-trimmed round the edges, only suggesting a complete pelt lining and hence saving the thrifty British studio a few more shillings in the process.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Director Stanley Kubrick

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

It took Stanley Kubrick and his co-writer Arthur C. Clarke to think about a celluloid representation of prehistory that wasn’t simply about the contrast between then and now, but looked at the span of human existence as a single through-line. What they get across is that this space travel malarkey is all well and good, but you have to walk before you can run, even if that entails the simple act of an early primate picking up a bone and bashing a few heads in.

Filmed in the studios in Borehamwood, the ‘Dawn of Man’ sequence still holds up pretty well, though it was actually a bunch of mime artists kitted out in fur and latex, sweltering under the lights. There were medical personnel on standby blowing compressed air into their suits to stop them passing out. All this, of course, builds to the most famous cut in cinema history, matching bone to spaceship and thus eliding millions of years in one bravura swoop – a shot conceived when Kubrick was throwing a broomstick into the air when walking to the set!

Caveman (1981)

Director Carl Gottlieb

Caveman (1981)

“They don’t call it ‘the stone age’ for nothing!” ran the tagline for this unashamedly silly exercise in prehistoric knockabout, which, a bit like Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke (1978) from the same era, seemed to be conceived for an audience under herbal influence. Critics at the time were not kind, but even viewed sober now it’s hard to resist the unstoppably endearing Ringo Starr in the title role, looking for love – and what the film’s jolly caveman patois terms ‘zug-zug’ – with cavegirl Barbara Bach, who is already claimed by a brutish rival.

A few of the gags go absolutely nowhere, but the scene where Ringo and pals contrive to invent music certainly raises a smile, as indeed does the cutest, goofiest stop-motion tyrannosaurus rex ever to grace the screen. The movie didn’t, in the event, do much for Ringo’s screen career, but he did marry Ms Bach a mere 10 days after the shoot.

Quest for Fire (1981)

Director Jean-Jacques Annaud

Quest for Fire (1981)

While the lingo in Caveman sounds like something they came up with after a few light refreshments, the producers of this somewhat more ambitious prehistoric adventure assigned polymath and Clockwork Orange author Anthony Burgess to create the tribal languages for this saga about a community of Neanderthals who’ve been keeping their campfire going but have no idea how to relight it after it’s extinguished during an attack by rivals.

The result remains by far the strongest celluloid drama focusing entirely on early man, benefitting from convincing prosthetics, striking worldwide locations and a screenplay by regular Roman Polanski collaborator Gérard Brach that aptly conveys the human significance of the Neanderthals’ subsequent discoveries. The most striking of which turns out to be… love – expressed, at the urging of Rae Dawn Chong’s sensitive female, by the change from doggy-style congress to the more emotionally fulfilling missionary position.

Clan of the Cave Bear (1986)

Director Michael Chapman

Clan of the Cave Bear (1986)

Finnish-American Jean M. Auel became a million-selling publishing phenomenon with her debut novel about Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon tribes, and soon Hollywood was on board with this ill-fated adaptation, directed by the cameraman who shot Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980) for Martin Scorsese.

Whereas Quest for Fire succeeds with its elemental storyline, the material here is more ambitious, revolving around primitive spiritual beliefs the resulting movie rather struggles to articulate. Daryl Hannah scores as a proud female heroine in a man’s world, but the fact the film was originally released with subtitles translating the characters’ guttural language but is now available in a version where an intrusive voiceover keeps explaining the plot gives some indication of a storytelling conundrum that’s never satisfactorily resolved.

Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey (2016)

Director Terrence Malick

Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey (2016)

Decades on from his 1970s milestones Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), maverick director Terrence Malick’s more recent output has proved the very essence of Marmite cinema, and with no UK cinema release forthcoming for this ruminative potted history of the planet, devotees have been seeking out the French Blu-ray instead. From primordial nothingness to our own time’s embattled humanity, Malick takes on the whole lot, working from the latest scientific visualisations to picture the Big Bang and scouring the globe for locations, flora and fauna whose unchanged nature represent a living window into our distant past.

Gracefully intoned by Cate Blanchett, the voiceover – couched as (ahem) mankind imploring the maternal spirit of creation not to abandon us – will certainly not be to all tastes. However, the beautifully captured images of nature have a majesty and mystery that’s often stirring to behold, aptly underscored by selections from the spiritual music of J.S. Bach, Haydn and Arvo Pärt.

Early Man (2018)

Director Nick Park

Early Man (2018)

Compared to the latest CGI graphics, Aardman Animation’s signature handcrafted stop-frame animation looks like the work of primitive tribesfolk, but that’s precisely the point in Nick Park’s long-awaited new feature. It starts out in the ‘Neo-Pleistocene Age’ when a crashing meteor does for the dinosaurs, then moves forward to the relatively advanced bronze age where Franglais-speaking invaders aim to colonise a community of harmless but rather backward forest-dwellers.

This being a Nick Park offering, much of the delight is in the details, including a loveable ginger warthog and the naughtiest of bunny rabbits, but most commentators will be picking out how the amiably daft humour plays against some very contemporary concerns, with more than a hint of Brexit anxiety in the air and much typically English musing on why we’re no good at football when we invented the game in the first place. It might seem out of place, but somehow celluloid prehistory was ever thus.

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