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Film Review: Caveman (1981)

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SYNOPSIS:

“In the Stone Age, the strong caveman Tonda is the leader of a hostile tribe and the outcast Atouk feels unrequited desire for Tonda’s mate Lana. One day, Atouk is walking with his best friend Lar and they meet the cavewoman Tala. They save her blind father Gog from a tar pit and Tala feels unrequited affection for Atouk. Soon the smart Atouk becomes the leader of the misfit tribe and disputes the leadership of the whole clan and Lana with Tonda but, in the end, the leader needs a worthwhile mate.” (courtesy IMDB)

REVIEW:

The opening titles leave little doubt as to when, where and how our story takes place: One Zillion B.C. October 9th (which also happens to be John Lennon‘s birthday). Caveman (1981) was one of several films dealing with prehistoric times released that year, including Quest For Fire (1981) and Mel Brook‘s History Of The World Part One (1981) which had its own comic caveman sequences. In retrospect it might be pertinent to note that the most popular film of this genre before 1981 is probably One Million B.C. (1940) starring Victor Mature. The extensive stock footage it generated was recycled over the decades by filmmakers who wanted to save money on costly special effects shots involving fighting dinosaurs (actually large lizards with plastic fins attached), and the rockslides and volcanoes can be spotted in several Westerns. The film was remade as One Million Years B.C. (1966) starring Raquel Welch under threat from Ray Harryhausen‘s glorious stop-motion monsters, a winning combination.

Although Caveman leans more toward a humorous vision of prehistoric humans, it was inevitably compared to these earlier films. When asked if One Million Years B.C. influenced his work on Caveman, producer Lawrence Turman responded: “Actually, the only similarity between the two is that One Million Years was a prehistoric film, and Caveman also happens to be a prehistoric film. The storylines of each are uniquely their own, and the genesis of the situations that are presented in Caveman, both humorous and serious, are individual creations of our own wit and imagination. For example, I was watching Johnny Carson one night, and I saw Buddy Hackett doing his routine and said gee, wouldn’t he be funny in a loincloth?” Turman had already produced some powerful and unusual films – The Graduate (1967), Pretty Poison (1968), The Drowning Pool (1975) – and would go on to co-produce The Thing (1982), Short Circuit (1986) and American History X (1998).

Caveman deals more with the interactions and social situations of a tribe of prehistoric cave-people than with the dangers of their everyday life. Ringo Starr stars as the clever young caveman Atouk. Unlike his massive, brutal tribesmen, Atouk is smaller but, out of necessity, more resourceful. Despite his greater intelligence, however, he cannot help but to lust after the beautiful prehistoric maiden Lana (Barbara Bach) who is, unfortunately, already spoken for as the tribal chief’s mate. Powerful Oakland Raiders footballer John Matuszak plays Tonda, the villainous caveman leader who banishes Atouk for his unabashed advances. Forced to live in the wilderness, Atouk encounters another homeless friend named Lar (Dennis Quaid) and a host of other misfits. They include a blind old man named Gog (Jack Gifford) and his witty intelligent daughter Tala (Shelley Long). Tala develops an instant attraction for the resourceful Atouk who leads the misfits.

Their co-operative society profits in the discoveries of fire, music and tools. Atouk still desires Lana and he leads the misfits in trying to kidnap Tonda’s mate. Their attempt fails and results in a series of conflicts between the misfits and the hostile brutes. When Atouk rescues Lana from a raging river and installs her as their queen, the hostile cavemen pillage their camp, destroying their food and taking their women hostage. This unfortunate turn of events results in the misfits becoming reluctant warriors and learn to make war against their enemies. The ensuing battle pits the brute strength of the hostiles against the inventiveness and cleverness of the misfits. Brains triumph over brawn, and Atouk learns the hard way that beauty is only skin deep. The special effects for Caveman were developed under the guidance of stop-motion masters Jim Danforth and David Allen. Danforth was involved with pre-production and production stages, developing the prehistoric dinosaurs and planning the stop-motion photography.

During principal photography in Mexico, he was involved in the shooting of scenes that would later have dinosaurs matted in. Danforth left the production after returning to the United States because he found himself doing more administrative work and less creative work. He was provided with complete production facilities and given total control, which resulted in Danforth becoming more of an administrator. Eventually he chose to leave the project altogether to join Ray Harryhausen in London to work on Clash Of The Titans (1981). Danforth was a major participant but, because he left the project about two-thirds of the way through, the Directors Guild Of America prohibited his contracted on-screen credit as co-director with Carl Gottlieb. Consequently, Danforth’s name does not appear on the film and, as a result of Danforth’s absence, David Allen (with more than seventy effects credits between 1960 and 1995) took over the helm of the special effects unit. Despite these problems, the result is some of the best dinosaurs to be seen on the big screen until the release of Jurassic Park (1993).

The dialogue is almost entirely in ‘Caveman Language’ (the only modern English spoken is by caveman Nook played by Evan Kim but no-one understands him). In order to help out viewers, some cinemas gave out cards or leaflets with about thirty ‘Caveman Words’ and an English translation for each word to listen out for in the movie.

Alunda = Love           Aiyee = Help
Bobo = Friend           Caca = Shit
Gluglu = Drown           Guwi = Revenge
Haraka = Fire           Kuda = Come
Macha = Monster           Nya = No
Ool = Food           Pooka = Pain
Ugh = Like           Ya = Yes
Zugzug = Sex

Combining live-action with stop-motion, realistic physical effects on location, makeup, costuming, gargantuan moveable animal appendages, a reliable cast and an above-average script, Caveman should appeal to most fans of fantasy and science fiction, and might even convert some of those hard-headed mainstream film critics. It’s a fun film for sure, and even the fearsome dinosaur encounters are aimed to amuse. It also offers some speculations and insights about our very ancient ancestors that are witty, and creates an empathy toward its characters. Now it’s time to politely ask you to join me next week when I’ll have the opportunity to expose the very tenderest parts of your body to another awkwardly-probing journey through those damnable dank dells of Horrorwoodland for…Horror News! Toodles!

Caveman (1981)

3 comments

  1. SteelScissorsInYourSkull

    Well done, Nigel. I’ve always been fond of ‘Caveman’ and I enjoyed reading the insightful trivia peppered throughout your review.

    It’s a cute, amusing movie and if your significant other’s primary language isn’t English it’s still an easy watch.

     
    • Some of the humour is a little dated but, as you say, ideal for anyone no matter which language they speak. Speaking of which, I recommend a comedy called Rat Race (2001), the Zucker Brothers take on the ‘treasure hunt’ genre with an amazing cast. It takes a little while to introduce the characters, and the ending is terrible, but in between is some really funny slapstick sequences that require little or no dialogue. I watched it with a group of Japanese non-English speakers, and it went down a treat!

       
      • SteelScissorsInYourSkull

        Rat Race is amusing; I watched it with my mom who requires her entertainment to be mild. It went over very well; I agree with you, it’s good for non-English speakers and those who want to be entertained but not challenged or too engaged. I realize that’s a back handed compliment of sorts but I mean it in a good way. Not everyone wants to watch ‘Inside’.

         

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