When I first considered reviewing Carl Gottlieb’s (co-screenwriter of JAWS) Caveman, I immediately thought of it in terms of comparisons to Eddie Cline and Buster Keaton’s Three Ages with the latter’s Stone Age segment. I also assumed that the 1923 film was the earliest cinematic depiction of cavemen in comedic fashion (however, cavemen have been beating up dinosaurs in an adventurous vein on screen going, to my knowledge, as far back as 1912 in Man’s Genesis). To absolutely no one’s surprise, I was wrong, and (to the best information my five minutes of research could cull) the earliest funny caveman movie was Charlie Chaplin’s 1914 short His Prehistoric Past (although it is feasible to disqualify it from this particular discussion, because it’s a short film [the same could be argued about the Keaton film, since that one is three short films cut together, but I digress], and because it’s not a straight up caveman film [I’ll let you spoil the particulars on this hundred-and-one year old film for yourself]). Still, both of those films and Caveman (and the vast majority of prehistoric films) deal with a man standing up to a strong, evil tribal leader/rival in order to win the hand of the woman he loves (whether or not he realizes who that is). To my mind, the reason this plot is so pervasive is because it is simple and primal. It deals with the will to survive/dominate one’s world, and what could play to that better than killing giant beasts and taking the person you desire sexually? Naturally, unlike something such as Don Chaffey’s One Million Years B.C. (which, of course, gave us arguably the world’s most famous fur bikini), Gottlieb’s film has to frustrate our protagonist Atouk (the unlikely, but brilliantly cast when you think about it, Ringo Starr) in comedic ways, even when his life is threatened. But the basic themes are present, and they work well (as they work well in most of the subgenre just for being what they are).
Atouk is the runt of a clan ruled by Tonda (the late John Matuszak), and he desires Tonda’s voluptuous woman Lana (Starr’s real life spouse Barbara Bach, who proves here that even cavewomen knew how to crimp hair). However, after being kicked out of the clan on a trumped up gross incompetence accusation, Atouk and friend Lar (Dennis Quaid), meet up with Tala (Shelley Long) and her blind friend, the elderly Gog (Jack Gilford, who, unsurprisingly threatens to steal the entire movie at times). But while Tala has eyes for Atouk, Atouk still pines for Lana and hatches schemes to take her away from Tonda.
Caveman is one of those movies that exemplifies just exactly how far a PG rating could be stretched back in the early Eighties. There is cleavage and fur-clad bums thither and yon. There is toilet humor galore, including, but not limited to, an explosive fart gag, a fart in the face gag, and (most famously) a scene where characters literally dig through a pile of dinosaur shit. Atouk gets goosed and molested by a sentient plant. A dinosaur gets its genitals stimulated. Perhaps most startling, our hero basically Rufies his desired and tries to get in her loins while she’s passed out. Yet, this is handled so innocently, so desperately on the part of Atouk/Starr that it doesn’t play as offensively as it could have in another context. Atouk genuinely has feelings for Lana (however wrongheaded they may be), and he has a sense of wide-eyed reverence for her (he offers her fruit he has squirreled away, while the rest of the tribe has failed to “bring home the Bronto”). That I saw this at such an early age amazes me (well, not really; this would have attracted me just from the Chris Walas designed Abominable Snowman [played by Richard Moll] and David Allen’s stop motion dinosaurs [an obsession I’ve had since 1933’s King Kong and set in stone by The Valley of Gwangi, a film my uncle claims was made for kids who like to pull the wings off of flies, though I only half agree with that statement]). That I understood all of it, including the “naughty” bits, is impressive and indicative of just how much can be conveyed through an extremely limited vocabulary (I still like saying “zug zug” from time to time), and pantomime/gestures (a filmic vocabulary created and refined in the silent era by luminaries such as those named in the first paragraph).
The film’s primary theme concerns itself with misfits and the coalition/power built around what many consider to be the dregs of society (yet another in the long, long list of things that I would argue harkens back to Tod Browning’s superlative Freaks). As previously stated, Atouk is a runt. Lar, who is good-looking and in relatively good health, is kicked out of the clan for hurting his leg (a wounded hunter-gatherer is a useless hunter-gatherer). Gog is sightless and old. Later on, Atouk will meet up with a black man, an Asian man (who, of course, is the only one who can speak fluent English), a little man, a gay couple, and various other throwaways. Outside of those more clearly defined in their outsider status, the majority of the others in this makeshift tribe are closer in resemblance to Atouk. They are slight of build, odd, shorter than normal, essentially square pegs. Just as Atouk is the opposite of Tonda (weak versus strong, short versus tall, Ringo versus handsome, et cetera), Tala is the opposite of Lana. She is blonde, skinny, small-chested, and quite intelligent (Lana may be intelligent as well, but her unwavering obeisance to Tonda marks her as a sheep, not a shepherd, so to speak). In cinematic terms, this signifies Tala as “good” and the natural choice to be Atouk’s mate (in a Betty versus Veronica sort of way). Atouk just needs to have his eyes opened, because even though he accepts these oddballs who have coalesced around him, his desire lies with the popular opinion of what a man should be and should want in a woman (be they cave or otherwise, and rather ironic considering Starr and Bach’s relationship off screen, but this is the movies where there is little difference between what’s “right” and what choices its traditional, underdog protagonist will make). Atouk doesn’t want to be a misfit (hey, who does?), yet this is the exact thing he must embrace in order to triumph in his prehistoric world.
Caveman was released in America on DVD and Blu-ray via Olive Films, and it’s presented at 1.85:1 ratio. The color palette of the film was never something that popped off the screen, but its hues look nice here, and the picture quality is as pristine as it can get. The mono soundtrack is in English only (not that this movie would need much in the way of dubbing or subtitles), and it’s satisfying with every grunt and gaseous expulsion coming through loud and clear, but especially Lalo Schifrin’s jaunty score, which is so catchy, it will resound in your head for days (nay, years) after hearing it. The disc includes a trailer for the film.
MVT: I love the film’s light, slightly naughty tone. You can slip into this film like a comfy pair of old slippers and just enjoy it like a pot of macaroni and cheese.
Make or Break: The Make for me is the Ice Age scene. Anyone who has read my reviews knows of my adoration for hirsute monsters, and the Snowman is a great costume. Plus, the slapstick chase across the ice just works in spades, like something out of a Three Stooges short. Sold!