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  Clan of the Cave Bear, The One Million Years Before Haircare Products
Year: 1986
Director: Michael Chapman
Stars: Daryl Hannah, Pamela Reed, James Remar, Thomas G. Waites, John Doolittle, Curtis Armstrong, Martin Doyle, Tony Montanero, Mike Muscat, John Wardlow, Karen Austin, Barbara Duncan, Joey Cramer, Nicolle Eggert
Genre: Drama, Historical, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  4 (from 2 votes)
Review: Set in prehistoric times, near the moment Neanderthal men were superseded by their Cro-Magnon cousins, The Clan of the Cave Bear begins with an earthquake that leaves fair-haired, little Ayla an orphan. Kindly, one-eyed seer Creb (an unrecognisable James Remar) and his warm-hearted mate Iza (Pamela Reed) adopt the child into their Neanderthal tribe, although fellow nomads shun her as “one of the others.” Growing up, Ayla displays an uncanny knack for numbers and reading runes, and eventually blossoms into Daryl Hannah, whom the hairy, sloping-browed cavemen despise for being blonde and cute.

Her nemesis is the thuggish Broud (Thomas G. Waites), the chieftain’s son who later abuses his position to commit rape. When Ayla uses her forbidden rock-slinging skills to save an imperilled infant, Broud seizes this chance to expel her from the tribe. But Ayla stoically endures the harsh, lonely winter, gives birth to a son and returns in triumph. Yet with Broud on the warpath, will she ever find acceptance?

While more than a few fans cherished memories of Raquel Welch in her fur bikini in Hammer’s One Million Years B.C. (1966), cavemen movies were considered something of a camp embarrassment around Hollywood until the international success of Quest for Fire (1981), based on a novel by French science fiction author J.H. Rosny Aïne, briefly revived the genre. It’s likely that spurred producers to take an interest in Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear, a novel much praised for its adherence to anthropological accuracy and intelligent extrapolation on the evolution of language, art and mathematics.

This was meant to be a SERIOUS movie on a SERIOUS subject, but though producers took a bold step by hiring indie auteur John Sayles to pen the screenplay and restricting dialogue to hand gestures and subtitled Neanderthal-talk (although narration is provided by [TAR]Salome Jens), the end result isn’t too dissimilar from those old cave babe movies. In fact, shorn of its prehistoric trappings, what Clan of the Cave Bear most resembles is one of those made-for-TV movies aimed at housewives. Everything Ayla endures, be it discrimination, sexual abuse, single motherhood or searching fruitlessly for the right guy, smacks of some daytime snore-a-thon starring a former Charlie’s Angel or Country & Western diva.

Perhaps constrained by Auel’s narrative, the script has none of the sly wit John Sayles brought to Alligator (1980) or The Lady in Red (1979), although one critic writing at the time thought it a jokey reworking of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It’s hard to discern why, unless one thinks of Broud as a particularly objectionable Grumpy. With five producers on board, including the infamous duo of Peter Guber and John Peters, it is perhaps no surprise the film does not flow quite so smoothly. Ayla’s rape is edited to the point of incoherence and her supposedly significant encounter with a nice-but-dim cave stud goes nowhere. It is possible the print I was watching was heavily re-edited for TV, since several other reviews mention a scene where Ayla finally meets other blonde Cro-Magnons like herself, which is nowhere to be found here.

This was one of only four movies directed by cinematographer Michael Chapman, whose painterly eye graced classics from Jaws (1975) to Raging Bull (1980) and later Bridge to Terabithia (2007). Working with cameraman Jan De Bont - future director of Speed (1994) before his decline into ignominy - Chapman soaks in the majesty of the Canadian Rockies and conveys the hushed intimacy of clan gatherings by the fire. Also in the film’s favour are the sincere performances, with Remar and Reed the most affecting, and although Daryl Hannah carries the film ably enough, future Baywatch star Nicole Eggert is pretty good too as young Ayla. Alan Silvestri’s score includes tribal drum sounds, hooting and hollering, yet remains symptomatic of the 1980s when almost every soundtrack, even historical epics and period dramas, had to sound like Vangelis. A sequel was planned, but since this was a box-office flop, it never happened.

Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam

 

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