Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Don Chaffey’

With the UK in danger of vanishing entirely under a pile of snow, I find myself wanting to watch something light and sunny and daft. And so, to a movie which holds the distinction of being the first Hammer film I ever saw, round about the age of six.

Hammer horror movies were a staple of the schedule (admittedly the late-night schedule) in the eighties and nineties – my own adolescence might have been rather different if they hadn’t – but they’re very little seen on TV nowadays, which I think is rather a shame. However, still relatively common now, as it was in the late seventies, is the appearance of one or other of the Hammer caveman fantasies. You know, I say caveman fantasies, but if we look at the poster we can perhaps get an idea of what the film-makers’ priorities really were:

onemillionyearsbc

Yes, it’s Don Chaffey’s One Million Years B.C., and as you can see the actual cavemen are not the main feature of the publicity. Somewhat more prominent (in every sense of the word) is former weathergirl Raquel Welch, almost wearing the remains of several rabbits (actual rabbits are mysteriously missing from the film itself). If you can tear yourself away from Raquel, I would direct your attention to a couple of other features of the poster: the strapline ‘This is the way it was‘, which is a very brave assertion given the poster features a caveman being eaten by a brontosaurus, and the bit of the blurb concluding ‘…a savage world where the only law was lust!‘ – which, as we shall see, is arguably overegging the pudding.

Anyway, One Million Years B.C. is set in what scientists have come to refer to as the Dumbassic Era of history, and opens with the formation of the Earth – which strongly resembles someone letting off a catherine wheel at the other end of a very smoky shed (I may be giving away special effects secrets here). Eventually we find ourselves in a bleak, prehistoric world (for once, not the woods out the back of Hammer’s Borehamwood production base but the Canary Islands), where we meet the good folk of the Rock Tribe, who – as their name suggests – are the original rockers, with matted hair, beards, and bearskins (well, maybe not the last one). In charge of the Rock Tribe is Akhoba (Robert Brown, later to evolve into James Bond’s boss), but jockeying for preferment are his two sons Sakana (Percy Herbert, a ubiquitous if fairly anonymous film actor) and Tumak (John Richardson). Also on the scene is the luscious, slightly naughty cavewoman Nupondi, played by Martine Beswick. I know everyone goes on about Raquel Welch when they talk about this film, but if you asked me to make a choice between her and Martine, I really don’t know which way I’d jump (so to speak). Even if I plumped for Raquel, I can’t guarantee I wouldn’t be thinking of Martine.

Sorry, back to the film. John Richardson is an interesting example of that very rare stock figure, the Hammer hunk – in most of their films, the juvenile male lead ends up playing a very secondary role to character actors like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Richardson, however, gets to play a proper leading man role here and in She (he gets a reasonable part in Vengeance of She, too), based as much – one suspects – on his good looks as his acting ability. There is a persistent story that he was also married to Martine Beswick, too, so all-in-all his position on the All-Time Jammy Git chart is looking good.

Some things never change, and even in the Dumbassic Era a family barbeque is the cause of friction. Tumak finds himself kicked out of the Rock Tribe and banished into a vast lava desert inhabited only by carnivorous ape-creatures, and poorly-composited giant spiders and iguanas (effects maestro Ray Harryhausen apparently suggested using the blow-ups, the idea being that having seen live creatures, the audience would be more likely to think the animated dinosaurs were real. Ray’s logic is at fault here, as all one is left with are two different kinds of obvious special effect, the animation (which is great) and the blown-up real animals (which are rather embarrassing)).

On the other side of the desert is the sea, where Tumak encounters the Shell Tribe, a more culturally and technologically advanced group (they have invented spears, painting, and leg-shaving). He finds himself strangely drawn to Loana (Welch), perkiest of the Shell Tribe’s young women, although this may be because she had less rabbitskin to work with when fashioning her outfit than anyone else in the tribe. Despite saving a child from an attack by some sort of theropod carnivore (is it a juvenile tyrannosaur? is it an allosaur? does it really matter anyway?), Tumak gets himself kicked out of the Shell Tribe too, mainly because he is a selfish thicko. Loana finds herself caught in the grip of a force beyond her control (I’m talking about the requirements of the script, by the way, not love) and goes along with him.

Meanwhile Sakana has carried out a bit of a coup in the Rock Tribe, Martine – sorry, Nupondi has done some mildly provocative dancing, and Akhoba has been doing some very dodgy I-am-crippled acting. At this point the plot starts to unravel a bit, as is wont to happen when your film has virtually no actual dialogue beyond grunting and people saying ‘Akita!’ to each other. (This appears to mean ‘Please render assistance,’ though I could be wrong.) People start wandering back and forth between the two tribes almost at random (or being flown there by helpful pterosaurs), develop an almost-supernatural knowledge of events they weren’t present to see, and so on. In the end there is a volcanic eruption which switches the plot off and gets rid of various members of the supporting cast (hey, no spoilers – but suffice to say I Am Not Happy).

For a long time this was the most financially successful film Hammer ever made, although I suspect it has lost this crown to the Nu-Hammer movie The Woman in Black. There’s something mildly depressing about that, given that this is such a silly piece of disposable kitsch, but I suppose it’s also understandable given its very, very obvious charms and the fact you know exactly what you’re going to get when you sit down to watch it.

The star attractions, other than Martine and Raquel in those fur bikinis, are Harryhausen’s animated dinosaurs. There are fewer of these than you might think, and it’s quite a long time before the first proper one shows up – a decently animated archelon (surprisingly, the Shell Tribe call the archelon ‘archelon’, suggesting they have also invented Latin taxonomy). However, the actual fight between the archelon and the Shell Tribe is so dull that even some of the characters involved don’t seem that interested in it. Much better is the fight between Tumak and the tyrannosaur/allosaur/whatever – not quite up to the standard of the sequence with Gwangi and the cowboys from The Valley of Gwangi, but still top-tier Harryhausen. Equally good is an all-animated fight between a triceratops and a ceratosaurus, and there’s quite a nice fight (you may have noticed a pattern developing) between duelling pterosaurs as well.

The rest of the time we are watching actors in skins grunt at each other. To be honest, the differentiation between the surfer-dudes of the Shell Tribe and the rockers on the other side of the desert had the potential to be reasonably subtle, but the movie chooses to beat you about the head by giving all the dudes blonde hair and all the rockers brown hair. At least the script shows a rare flash of logic by making Tumak as much of an arse as everyone else from his tribe – as mentioned, he is stupid, selfish, and bad-tempered, at least for the first two-thirds of the movie, at which point he appears to lose all personality and the script starts to unravel too.

And what a script it is. Apparently it took four people to write this thing, which works out at roughly one word of dialogue each – nice work if you can get it. I wonder why they insisted on using made-up caveman language? It surely can’t be out of a desire to maintain historical accuracy, because this film doesn’t have any. I suppose not having any dialogue does mean your film will travel much better internationally (hence those healthy box office returns), but the downside to all the grunting and the ‘Ahot! Akita Tumak!’ stuff is that it not only robs your film of any subtext, it also takes away most of your text. You can’t have any characterisation that can’t be expressed through physical action, your scope for plot complication becomes severely limited, and – perhaps most crucially – it becomes very difficult to be witty or even broadly funny without resorting to slapstick. So you end up with a very simplistic, earnest film which is still palpably absurd.

Although it is still a fairly well-behaved film. All that stuff about the ‘law of lust’ on the poster is rather misleading, as the primitive passions of cavemen and cavegirls get virtually no screen time. The fur bikini stuff is all quite wholesome and not prurient at all (well, there’s a bit where Martine and Raquel have a catfight – you’d’ve thought Martine’s track record in From Russia With Love would stand her in good stead, but clearly not…), and the film isn’t really suggestive at all. This would be amended with the release of the follow-up, When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth, in which Victoria Vetri’s fur bikini memorably goes a-flyin’ (although the version which shows up on TV these days has been expurgated).

In the end one is left with a collection of simple, honest, largely visual and almost wholly guilt-free pleasures – Raquel, Martine, and Harryhausen are, on the face of it, a combination unlikely to produce anything of moment, but One Million Years B.C. does seem to have lasted. It’s silly. It’s very silly, in fact. But it’s also a lot of fun.

Read Full Post »

Warning: may contain spoilers for the Boudicca Rebellion of 60AD.

‘See the accursed blood rites of the Iceni! See men roasted alive in the cage of Hell! As barbarism and passions inflame a pagan pleasure empire! See the occult terrors of the Druids! As the Roman lash tries to tame the will of a golden goddess!’

Gotta love those mid-Sixties Hammer trailer scripts. We are here, as you may have guessed, to discuss Don Chaffey’s 1967 offering The Viking Queen, from the studio’s peak period when they were wandering quite a long way from their horror and fantasy heartlands. The Viking Queen certainly isn’t either of those – it appears to be Hammer’s crack at doing a sword-and-sandal epic, with more than a dash of the dodgy exploitation movie about it.

Oh well. Our story unfolds in the Roman Empire of the first century, where the subject races are apparently kept in their place solely by stentorian voice-overs and stock footage from other, bigger-budget films. The nicer parts of Britain are currently under the joint rule of local king Priam (yes, I know, we’ll come back to this) and visiting Governor-General Justinian (Don Murray), whose accent suggests he’s come not from Rome but somewhere in California.

Priam snuffs it, following a King Lear-ish scene in which he decides to leave his kingdom to middle daughter Salina (Carita), whose own accent suggests she has recently arrived from Helsinki. The local chief Druid (an almost uncannily bad performance from Donald Houston) prophesies she will wield a sword and that the land will run with blood, but everyone ignores him (perhaps they are hoping he will be cut out of the movie at the editing stage). Justinian and the new Queen strike up a close relationship and, following a spot of recreational charioteering which concludes with them both falling in the river, find that shared possession of dubious accents really can be the basis of romance.

Needless to say, the Druids don’t like the planned wedding of the Queen of the Iceni to the Roman Governor, and nor does Justinian’s brutal second-in-command Octavian (Andrew Keir) – any historians watching the movie will probably also have strenuous objections to make, but it’s just too late, guys. With Justinian’s permission Salina really turns the screws when it comes to taxing the local rich merchants (you could get away with this sort of redistribution of wealth pre-Thatcher), which prompts them to cook up a plan with Octavian to get Justinian off the scene for a bit so normal service can be resumed.

As you might expect, Octavian gets a bit carried away with his reign of terror and before you can say ‘At least One Million Years BC had Ray Harryhausen’s dinosaurs to soften the impact of the terrible historical accuracy’, Salina and the Britons are painting themselves blue and fixing scythes to their chariots, preparatory to a rebellion against the Romans…

There’s a persistent story that, at one point in The Viking Queen, a Roman soldier comes on wearing a wrist-watch, and that this is fairly indicative of the film’s grasp of historical fact. I, like a few others, have looked for this anachronistic chronometer and been unable to find it – so it may in fact be an apocryphal anachronistic chronometer. Nevertheless, there’s a sense in which it’s quite surprising how much of the general background of the Iceni revolt this film gets broadly correct. Character names and relationships have been changed, but the politics of the story and the progress of the uprising are clearly based on what actually happened (though we don’t get to see London razed to the ground).

However, when it comes to the particulars, the movie energetically gets things wrong with a consistency that’s awe-inspiring, if slightly painful. The Druids, not content with being uniformly badly played, are depicted as worshipping Greek gods. Half the Britons look like medieval serfs, while the rest appear to be cavemen – and while the Druids predict that Salina will ‘wear armour’, the outfit she eventually chooses to go into battle in resembles a fancy dress costume rejected by Jordan on the grounds of excessive tackiness. We have already heard that the king of the Iceni is named Priam – add to this the fact he has subjects named Fergus, Nigel and Osiris and you get an overwhelming sense of a scriptwriter with zero feel for this setting.

Having said that, this movie could just about work as a piece of fluffy, slightly naughty fun, if you were able to buy into the central romance. But you can’t. Carita is just one of a long line of thickly-accented buxom Nordic glamour-pusses imported by Hammer for this kind of role and she brings nothing to the movie but hair, legs, and cleavage. You would expect that a veteran performer like Don Murray would do better, but the fact he’s the only American in the movie is very intrusive, and the screenplay – which never really gives him much to do – increasingly sidelines him. Towards the end he mainly spends a lot of time staring around him in aghast horror, but this may just be a result of finally having read the script. (Murray’s next outing as a governor having to deal with a slave uprising would end less well for him.)

Not all is rotten in The Viking Queen‘s acting department, though, as this film features a number of actors who always seem to make a point of doing the best they can whatever the quality of the script. Most prominent is Andrew Keir, making the most of a rare role as a villain: he’s easily the most convincing character in the movie. Patrick Troughton does his usual sterling work as a British courtier – this was Troughton’s last film for a while as immediately after he went off to do some job or other at the BBC for three years. Niall McGinnis has a smaller role as one of Justinian’s assistants and makes the most of it.

After you’ve been watching The Viking Queen for a while, you become grateful for whatever crumbs you can find, because while the production values are adequate they’re certainly no more than that. The action sequences are hardly lavish, but at least the scenery is nice (County Wicklow in Ireland stands in for Norfolk). Time and again you get the sense of ambition being thwarted by a lack of resources (numbers of extras, leading actresses who can act, supporting artists of the right ethnicity – there’s a horribly obvious example of a woman in blackface (rather more than face, actually) amongst Octavian’s harem). But the problems nearly all start with the script. The Viking Queen would really like to be an epic, romantic tragedy, but its budget can’t run to epic and the romance doesn’t remotely convince. As a result, rather than a tragedy it just comes across as a piece of absurd camp – highly entertaining if approached in the right spirit, but utterly impossible to take seriously.

Read Full Post »