Possibly the earliest film to focus on the perils of life in the age ‘before a book was written’ was the 1912 short called The Cave Man, a one-reeler featuring Ralph Ince (who also co-directed with Charles L. Gaskill) and Edith Storey. Sadly no print of this film is known to exist at the time of writing, but the fact that the character list features such names as Eric and Chloe can only leave film historians scratching their heads in bemusement at exactly what kind of cave dwellers are involved.
The Cave Man, which was released in April 1912, was quickly followed by Man’s Genesis, co-written and directed by no less than D. W. Griffith, arguably the father of cinema, in July of the same year. Subtitled as ‘A Psychological Comedy Founded Upon the Darwinian Theory of the Evolution of Man,’ it’s difficult to be sure whether Griffith actually intended this film to be taken seriously simply because it looks so comical today, despite the apparent earnestness of the cast, which includes Robert Harron and Mae Marsh. For all its shortcomings, this short was clearly successful enough for Griffith to film a 33 minute sequel – Brute Force – in 1914. This sequel re-united Harron and Marsh as man and mate belonging to a tribe whose women are kidnapped by the tribe of Bruteforce (Wilfred Lucas), who use sticks and rocks as weapons on their raid. To get his own back, Weakhands invents the bow and arrow and successfully wins back his womenfolk.
In 1917, The Dinosaur and the Missing Link was released. Played strictly for laughs, the film featured animated puppets, and provided an early example of the work of Willis O’ Brien. The entire film can be viewed on the America’s Memory site.
Six years later, in 1923, the comic genius Buster Keaton completed the transition from shorts to features with Three Ages, a portmanteau film that ostensibly parodies Griffith’s Intolerance by telling stories from three different eras in history – one of them prehistoric times. Concerned that moviegoers would not accept him in a feature, Keaton actually spliced three shorts together so that, if they didn’t work as a feature, they could be released individually. As it happened, Keaton needn’t have worried as he created a comedy classic. In all three sequences, Keaton and Wallace Beery fight over the attentions of Margaret Leahy, an actress of questionable talent who won the role in a competition, and whose only film this was.
Cavemen films remained almost exclusively the domain of the comedy genre for the next seventeen years: an early Laurel and Hardy collaboration, Flying elephants (1928) sees Hal Roach still struggling to appreciate the boys’ strengths as a comedy duo; Willie Whopper, Ub Iwerks’ tall story-telling cartoon character appeared in Cave Man (1934). Five years later, Daffy Duck found himself the quarry of Casper the Cavemen (a Jack Benny parody) and his pet dinosaur in Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur (1939).
Cavemen movies finally came of age in 1940 with the release of Hal Roach’s box office smash, One Million B.C., the year’s highest grossing film in the States (excluding roll-over receipts for 1939’s Gone With the Wind). The film originally began as a project for D. W. Griffith, but he clashed with Roach over tits characters lack of depth so Roach and his son completed the film, and Griffith’s name was removed from the credits. The film gave 26-year-old Victor Mature his first leading role as Tumak, a member of the warlike Rock clan who woos and wins Loana (Carole Landis), the daughter of the leader of the peaceful Shell tribe. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards – Best Musical Score and Best Special Effects (which included a pig in a rubber dinosaur outfit) – and its footage was re-used in numerous films.
Strangely, the wave of cavemen films that might have been expected in the wake of the success of One Million B.C., mysteriously failed to materialise. In 1944, Bela Lugosi attempted to transplant an educated brain into the head of a prehistoric caveman he discovered on an Arctic expedition in the shoddy, ultra-cheap Banner/Monogram programmer Return of the Ape Man. Then, six years later, the even cheaper Prehistoric Women (1950), in which the land is ruled by frmales who use men merely for mating purposes, made Return of the Ape Man look like award-winning material. Things got no better when a fresh-faced Robert Vaughn appeared in Roger Corman’s exploitation saga Teenage Cave Man (1958), a film which the soon-to-be Man from UNCLE described as the worst he had ever made. Then, in 1960, friendly caveman Greg Martell helped a young boy do battle with two dinosaurs magically resurrected in the present day by a thunder storm in the sickly-sweet Dinosaurus!
By the 60s, the caveman film appeared to have become mired in a B-movie hell in which perfectly coiffured Neanderthals roamed wobbly sets and fought unconvincingly with rubber dinosaurs or fled from lizards with spikes glued to their backs. Then, in 1966, came a movie event that put the prehistoric film back on the movie map. No, not The Man Called Flintstone, a feature-length version of the popular cartoon TV series, but the appearance of the buxom Raquel Welch with her false eyelashes and fur bikini in One Million BC, a remake of Hal Roach’s 1940 blockbuster from the Hammer studio. Suddenly Cavemen – or at least their women – were sexy: surely this would herald a new dawn for the Caveman genre?
Sadly not. The only people inspired by the bronzed babes of One Million BC were the likes of bad filmmaker extraordinaire Ed Wood, who released the atrocious exploitation flick One Million AC/DC in 1969 with the tagline See Vala, the voluptuous cave babe! See Dino, the plastic-eating dinosaur! The Italians briefly toyed with the genre with such unfunny comedies as Quando le donne avevano la coda (When Women Had Tails) (1970), and Quando gli uomini armarono la clava e… con le donne fecero din-don (When Men Carried Clubs and Women Played Ding dong) (1971).
The emphasis shifted back towards comedy in 1978 with the French adult animated comedy Le chanon manquant (The Missing Link), which humorously followed the exploits of early man as he slowly learned and evolved. Three years later, in 1981, former Beatle Ringo Starr appeared in Caveman, a comedy that was arguably little funnier than those produced by the short-lived Spaghetti Cavemen films from the early 70s.
Things took a turn for the better after this with a couple of films that temporarily upped the status of Caveman films. Quest for Fire (1982) featured three cavemen on a, well, quest for fire, one of whom was Ron Perlman, an actor seemingly born for the Caveman film genre. Next came the release of Iceman in 1984, a relatively intelligent exploration of the scientific consequences of the discovery of a Neanderthal caveman in the Arctic by a Polar expedition. Tim Hutton, plays the anthropologist who would rather teach the thawed out caveman Neil Young tunes than conduct scientific experiments on him. The spirit of Raquel Welch returned to the genre when blonde and feisty Darryl Hannah donned (and occasionally shed) the fur for The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986), set in the brief overlap between Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal Man. The absence of dialogue and a weak plot resulted in the film barely breaking even in the US, and once more a possible boom in Cavemen movies was tragically missed.
The genre limped along into the 90s with Encino Man (1992), a pedestrian teen comedy in which a frozen caveman is thawed out by a couple of high school nerds and quickly becomes the most popular guy in school. In 1994 Universal teamed up with Hanna-Barbera to produce a live-action version of The Flintstones with John Goodman and Rick Moranis taking the parts of Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble. Although the two leads certainly looked the part, the film failed to capture the appeal of the original cartoon show from the 60s. A year 2000 sequel, The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas, merely confirmed the fact that its predecessor had been no-one’s finest hour.
Another hiatus drew to a close in 2002 with the release of Ice Age, a cartoon in which a sloth, a sabre-tooth tiger and a woolly mammoth strive to return a lost infant to his parents. The film proved to be refreshingly entertaining, becoming one of the biggest hits of the year, and inevitably gave rise to a number of sequels.