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Posts Tagged ‘Raquel Welch’

Richard Fleischer’s Fantastic Voyage (1966) starts off looking like a conventional thriller of its era: a plane makes a night-time landing, someone in a hat that screams ‘spy’ observes a distinguished-looking older gentleman getting off, pausing to shake the hand of Stephen Boyd as he does so, a motorcade zooms away, enemy agents attack it, and so on, and so on. Only with the onset of the opening credits does one get a sense that this movie is going to be a little further out there: the camera zooms in on the egg-like dome of the older gentleman, now receiving medical attention, teletype rattles across the screen, there are radiophonic pinging and boinging noises. It’s still very sixties, but in a rather different mode.

Soon enough we are back in the plot, with Boyd being picked up by some spooks and delivered to a secret underground base. Keeping the underground base a secret is no small feat (literally) as it is a whopper, as secret bases go. Most people working there travel around on little buggies rather than walking about: that’s how big it is. This is particularly ironic as it turns out it is the secret base of the Department for Shrinking Things (they have another name in the script, but it basically means the same thing). Too bad the Department for Shrinking Things couldn’t shrink their own HQ a bit.

Well, it turns out the chief problem with the Department for Shrinking Things’ shrink-ray is that it only works for an hour before things revert, potentially messily, to their original size: one of those conveniently precise drawbacks one so often finds in pulp SF. The secret of extending the miniaturisation period has been discovered by the older gentleman, but a blood clot in his brain threatens to kill him before he can share his breakthrough with the west.

All this proves to essentially be maguffinery, designed to get us to the high concept for this particular movie:  to remove the clot and save the patient’s life, a small submarine is going to be made considerably smaller and injected into the man’s bloodstream, this allowing a brilliant brain surgeon to carry out an operation as an inside job, so to speak. The brain surgeon is Arthur Kennedy, his winsome young assistant is Raquel Welch (in her movie debut), commanding the mission is Donald Pleasence, and Stephen Boyd will also be going along to keep an eye on things (there are some suspicions that there could be a traitor on the team).

And off they all go: the shrink ray even works on Raquel Welch’s hair, although it remains proportionately about three times bigger than one would expect for a woman her height and build. This is one of those SF movies aimed at a general audience for whom, it seems to be assumed, the simple fact of something science-fictional going on will be endlessly fascinating. So the actual shrinking sequence lasts about ten minutes, for no very obvious reason.

Then, before you can say ‘whoosh’, they are underway, cruising through the bloodstream. Needless to say, things do not go according to plan: one so rarely comes across Hollywood movies where a fistula is crucial to the plot, but this is one of them. Given the batty nature of the story, it hardly seems fair to single any particular moments out as being especially contrived, even though they seem it: they have to travel through the heart, which has to be briefly stopped while they do so; there’s a stop-off in the lungs to refill the air tanks; a detour through the lymphatic system results in the sub being covered in loft insulation. Raquel Welch is attacked by antibodies which cover her in plasticky crystals – she is nearly trampled in the rush as the rest of the crew surges forward to peel the stuff from her wet-suited person. And so on, and so on. In the end the traitor is revealed; his identity should come as no great surprise, given the presence of Pleasence, who sometimes seems to have a genuine problem not being icily sinister in any of his roles.

There was a popular misconception floating around, for a number of years at least, that Isaac Asimov was somehow involved in scripting Fantastic Voyage. Apparently the limit of his involvement was writing the tie-in novelisation, in which he duly did his best to fix some of the problems with scientific accuracy and various other plot holes. There are, as you can probably imagine, many of these, the main one being that come the end of the film, no-one has bothered to extract the submarine from within the patient – which means it should revert to normal size somewhere inside his head, with presumably messy results. Apparently there was a line supposedly explaining this which didn’t make it into the final edit – the operation turns out to be successful, in that the defector survives, but he suffers minor brain damage from having a wrecked submarine in his skull and forgets the bit of information everyone was after to begin with.

The finished movie isn’t big on this kind of irony, or indeed humour of any sort. It takes itself very seriously, and I imagine the makers would say that this is the only approach to be taken with this kind of outlandish story – you can’t run the risk of appearing to send yourself up. Well, there is something to be said for dour naturalism, but it is not the easiest of bedfellows when put next to the visual component of this film: naturalistic is hardly the word for this.

There’s a difference between presentational and representational storytelling: the representational kind apparently ignores the audience and strives for absolute realistic naturalism. Presentational storytelling acknowledges the presence of the audience (and, implicitly, its own existence as a piece of fiction), either explicitly or implicitly. Musical theatre and pantomime are usually presentational; so, arguably, is a lot of genre fiction, simply because it adheres to genre conventions. The script and performance style of Fantastic Voyage are both working hard to be representational and naturalistic (or as close as they can manage in a genre movie). The visuals and special effects, however, are something else again – the garish, surreal visions of the interior of the human body may have won an Oscar fifty years ago, but they just seem trippy today. The consequence is that the film feels camp more than anything else – not intentionally camp, but nevertheless camp.

In the end, it’s a watchable kind of camp, and it does help you overlook all the various plot holes in the story. Most of the performances are not especially memorable (Pleasence is the predictable exception), and Raquel Welch is about as ornamental as you would expect, although she does seem to be working hard to find places to act. Fantastic Voyage passes the time agreeably enough, but whatever reputation it has derives more from its memorable visuals and the strength of its concept than any real distinction in the rest of the film.

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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.

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