Pop Culture

Land before time: 11 great prehistoric flicks

On March 8, moviegoers will jump back in time to an age of mammoths, saber-tooth cats and Stone Age humans fighting for survival in “10,000 BC,” the latest movie from director Roland Emmerich.

It probably won’t be a paragon of scientific accuracy, judging by Emmerich’s previous track record on “Independence Day,” “The Day After Tomorrow” and “Godzilla.” But Hollywood has a history of mining prehistory for entertainment value over archaeological exactness — or, as legendary animator Ray Harryhausen once put it, “professors probably don’t go to the cinema anyway.”

To extend your travels through the ancient world, here are some earlier high points of Hollywood’s trips back to the ages of cavemen and dinosaurs.

“Gertie The Dinosaur” (1914)
Dinosaurs and prehistoric life have inspired filmmakers since the very earliest days of the form, including this still-charming work by Winsor McCay, a simple animated short in which the title sauropod performs various tricks for our amusement, including dancing on command and drinking a whole lake in one gulp. Sure, it’s not much by today’s standards, but think of it as the prehistory of prehistory. (Watch it here.)

“The Lost World” (1925)
Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic novel about a South American plateau where dinosaurs never died out has been filmed many times, but the earliest and most influential was this silent version featuring effects work by Willis O’Brien, who would go on to create an even more enduring classic in “King Kong.” O’Brien’s creations are the real stars of the movie, but future Oscar winner Wallace Beery (for 1932's “The Champ”) is also wonderful as the violently irascible Professor Challenger, the pompous head of the expedition to the plateau. (Watch it here.)

“Fantasia” (1940)
Walt Disney’s most ambitious movie includes a bravura segment, topped only by the unforgettable “Night On Bald Mountain” and “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequences, in which the evolution of life on Earth is gorgeously animated and set to the music of Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite Of Spring.”

“One Million Years B.C.” (1966)
Throw your notions of historical accuracy out the window for this prehistoric adventure movie, which follows the travails of the Rock and Shell tribes in a world populated by killer dinosaurs (which actually died out 65 million years earlier) and a giant tarantula (which, of course, never existed). The real entertainment value here is provided by Ray Harryhausen’s classic stop-motion monster animation (including a climactic ceratosaur/triceratops fight), and of course the movie’s most well-remembered attraction, the sight of Raquel Welch in a fur bikini. Maybe historical accuracy’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

“2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) The brief first segment of Stanley Kubrick’s sprawling science-fiction epic, “The Dawn Of Man” tells the story of a small group of pre-human apes eking out a marginal existence on the African savannah. Life is difficult and brutal, and any moment could bring death from ravenous leopards or rival tribes. But one morning a mysterious black obelisk appears, bringing strange new ideas that will forever change the fate of the apes — and all their future descendants, namely us.

“Land of the Lost” (1974-76)Sid and Marty Krofft are fondly remembered by those who grew up in the 1970s for their cheesy, brightly colored and bizarrely psychedelic kids’ shows like “H.R. Pufnstuf” and “Lidsville.” But their most successful show, “Land of the Lost,” stayed away from the deliberate campiness in favor of a serious and surprisingly complex sci-fi storyline involving the Marshall family’s exile in a strange alternate dimension where dinosaurs roam.

“The Land That Time Forgot” (1975)
Like “Lost World,” this movie was also based on a classic Victorian sci-fi novel, though Edgar Rice Burroughs was definitely the era’s version of Dan Brown — action-packed and fun, but not exactly high art. The movie version moves the time period forward to 1916, but captures the spirit of the book very well, as a group of mistrustful Germans and British on a World War I U-boat stumble on a lost Antarctic island populated by reptilian relics of a lost age.

“Quest For Fire” (1981)
Learning to control fire was one of the key successes in humanity’s rise up the evolutionary ladder, and French director Jean-Jacques Annaud’s compelling and nearly dialogue-free story depicts a time when our mastery over fire was not yet complete. Three Cro-Magnon cavemen (including a perfectly cast Ron Perlman) must go in search of life-giving flame after their tribe’s fire is extinguished during a fight. Along the way, they meet a more advanced tribe, including a fetching cavewoman played by Rae Dawn Chong, who teach them not only how to make fire, but various other advances including, er, the missionary position. Annaud’s movie was ambitious if not always successful in sticking closely to then-current anthropology, with zoologist and author Desmond Morris providing a gestural language for the actors to use.

“The Clan Of The Cave Bear” (1986)
Based on the novel by Jean M. Auel, this Stone Age drama stars Daryl Hannah as Ayla, a blond Cro-Magnon orphaned as a girl and raised by a small tribe of Neanderthals in ancient France. She struggles not only to survive, but to earn the respect of her adopted clan, which views her with suspicion and fear. Though well-meaning, director Michael Chapman’s shallow, slow-moving movie is ultimately a pale, derivative shadow of “2001” and “Quest For Fire,” though fans of the book shouldn’t miss it.

“Jurassic Park” (1993)
If there’s one movie on this list you already know, it’s certainly this one. But Steven Spielberg’s action-adventure about genetically reconstituted dinosaurs and the havoc they cause on a doomed theme-park island deserves praise for basing its giant lizards’ behavior on actual science, though it makes a few elisions in the name of better storytelling. It also deserves praise for the sequence where the tyrannosaur breaks through the fence and attacks the helpless cars, which is just plain awesome moviemaking.

“Walking With Cavemen” (2003)
The advent of computer animation has revolutionized the level of realism available to animators, and the BBC has capitalized on this with the ongoing “Walking With…” series, a set of smart, informative and amazingly lifelike documentaries that brings dozens of species back from extinction, from 8-foot sea scorpions to 100-ton brachiosaurs to the ape-descended creatures who would eventually become humans. “Walking With Cavemen” covers four branches of our hairy ancestry, from the monkeylike Australopithecus to the great Ice Age mammoth hunters.

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