When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970), shot on location in the Canary Islands, is the most notable of Hammer’s attempts to recreate the global success of One Million Years B.C. (1966). It didn’t have Raquel Welch, and it didn’t have Ray Harryhausen, but it’s as near as dammit. Unlike the semi-prehistoric adventure (and camp classic) Slave Girls (1967) and the later Creatures the World Forgot (1971), this film actually featured stop-motion dinosaurs (as well as a few live reptiles, because what’s a cheesy dinosaur movie without some lizards dressed up as dinos?). The time and effort is appreciated, not just because this was a period when the increasingly strapped Hammer didn’t spend a lot of time on production, but also because the person behind the special effects is Jim Danforth (working with Roger Dicken and Dave Allen), who would go on to work on Harryhausen’s Clash of the Titans (1981). (Danforth also sent up films like these by designing the dinosaurs for the notorious 1981 Ringo Starr/Barbara Bach comedy Caveman.) Because Hammer had a habit of promoting its latest bombshell stars, former Playboy Playmate Victoria Vetri (Rosemary’s Baby) was given the starring role, her band-aid of a bikini barely restraining her chief commercial assets. The cast also includes Imogen Hassall, a model and actress whose career and life would take a tragic turn in the years to come, and Robin Hawdon (Zeta One) as the male lead. Hammer veteran Val Guest (The Quatermass Xperiment, The Abominable Snowman) wrote and directed, from a treatment by none other than Crash and High-Rise author J.G. Ballard (credited as “J.B. Ballard”).
It’s not like the story is all that more advanced than Michael Carreras and Don Chaffey’s 1966 original. Here, hair color once again plays a prominent role, as the film opens with three blonde women being sacrificed in tribute to the sun on account of their sun-colored hair. Sanna (Vetri) escapes to the sea, where she’s rescued by a raft piloted by the rugged Tara (Hawdon). She is eventually driven out of Tara’s tribe by the jealous Ayak (Hassall) and by anxiety over the newly-forming Moon, a smoldering eye in the sky which the prehistoric people read as an ill omen. She wanders the prehistoric landscape, pursued by Tara as well as her former tribe, encountering dinosaurs, pythons, and carnivorous plants. I’ve seen this movie several times, and yet all I ever remember about it is Vetri’s falling asleep in a broken dinosaur egg, waking up to find the mother looming over her, treating her like its young. That, and how she makes a pet of one of the mother’s babies, which follows her around like a dog. What is particularly strange about this sequence, which is more kid-friendly than anything found in One Million Years B.C., is that it’s soon followed by graphic nudity, filmed for the international market and cut from the G-rated American print. One cavegirl gets her top ripped off. Then Vetri disrobes for Tara, before making love to him and then skinny dipping. When this film first appeared on DVD years ago as a Best Buy exclusive, it contained the international print but retained the G label on the packaging in error (or vice versa – it contained the international version in error). This is the version I acquired, and I just about spat out my drink when the cavegirl lost her top. Mind you, this is almost three-quarters of the way through the film, and everything up until now has been the sort of mild cheesecake we’ve all come to expect. With the nude scenes quickly piled together and then done, the standard proceedings resume. Something like this could only happen in the rather confused period of British cinema that was the late 60’s and early 70’s, when censorship was loosening and British box office dwindling. (It says something that Guest’s next films would be the sex comedies Au Pair Girls and Confessions of a Window Cleaner.)
Warner Archive’s new Blu-Ray uses the international version, sexploitation element intact, though they’re wise enough to put a warning on the back label. Not that kids are going to want to watch a 1970 dinosaur movie anyway. Camp value is high with this one, which somehow makes One Million Years B.C. look like an exercise in sophistication and restraint. (I dared not activate the disc’s subtitle option, given how irritatingly frequent the made-up caveman language actually is. “Neekro! Akeeta!”) When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth would be pretty disposable fantasy fare were it not for the special effects, which were nominated for a 1972 Academy Award (losing to Bedknobs and Broomsticks). Danforth’s models look fantastic, and hold up well next to Harryhausen’s by demonstrating a realistic smoothness in motion as well as being nicely, sometimes very cleverly integrated into the live action. There can never be enough stop motion dinosaurs in films like these (or, I guess, in general), and it’s nice to see a variety of creatures on display. These include a Plesiosaur, which Tara’s tribe has tied down before it breaks into a rampage, squashing cavemen with its fin; a Chasmosaur which charges out of a cave to attack with its horns; the “Mother Dinosaur” and her baby; a flying Rhamphorhynchus; and a giant killer crab (shades of Mysterious Island). All of these moments are genuinely fun, though the caveman drama is never less than tedious. The final image of the film, when a tsunami has sent the survivors’ raft washing up on a cliff overlooking the prehistoric world, has an irresistible pulp appeal, like something from an Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation. If only the rest of the film could maintain such striking imagery alongside Danforth’s wonderful dinosaurs!