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Hunter Gatherers in the Movies In Focus by Richard Crouse IN FOCUS June 12, 2009

600full-one-million-years-b.c.-screenshotQ: What do Charlie Chaplin, Rachel Welch and Brendan Fraser have in common?

A: They’ve all played cavemen (or should that be cavepeople?) on film.

Like Heinz products, movie Neanderthals come in many varieties. This weekend’s Year One sees odd couple Michael Cera and Jack Black as the latest big screen hunter-gatherers, but they aren’t the first. Not by a long shot. Ever since film was first threaded through cameras the prehistoric world and its inhabitants have been a popular topic.

Silent film comedians started the furry pelt fashion trend. In His Prehistoric Past Charlie Chaplin falls asleep on a park bench and dreams he is a caveman dressed in skins and a brown derby hat. It’s a simple story that amused audiences in 1914 but can’t be considered essential viewing today, even for Chaplin fans.

Flying Elephants, a silent Laurel and Hardy comedy about prehistoric courtship, gets its name from a sequence showing three animated airborne pachyderms (drawn by Walter ‘Woody Woodpecker’ Lantz.)

More elaborate, and much funnier, is Three Ages, the Buster Keaton funny which sees him as a suitor in three historic eras beginning with the Stone Age. In one memorable scene Keaton bare backs a brontosaurus, introducing the Alley Oop movie fiction of cavemen and dinosaurs existing together.

The most famous caveman-dinosaur movie has to be One Million Years BC. According to science the last dinosaurs became extinct roughly 65 million years BC, and homo sapiens didn’t exist until about 200,000 years BC, but it wasn’t the history aspect of the film that drew in the teenage boys. They lined up to see the cool special effects and Rachel Welch, who, in her skimpy fur bikini had a special effect on many in the audience.

Another popular troglodyte sub genre is the Unfrozen Caveman Movie. Eegah! The Name Written in Blood is a cheesy but charming b-movie starring the 7’2” Richard Kiel (better known as Jaws from Live and Let Die) as a love sick Neanderthal in love with a modern woman. More popular but less charming is Encino Man, a 1992 comedy about two geeky teenagers from Encino, California who discover a caveman (Brendan Fraser) preserved in a giant ice cube. Even less enticing was the TV sequel, 1996’s Encino Woman.

Caveman movies may not always be cinematic masterpieces—Robert Vaughn called Teenage Caveman, his 1958 flick, the “worst movie ever made”—but have remained a popular genre with audiences and filmmakers alike.

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