I’ve always had a special place in my heart for things prehistoric. Childhood fascination with dinosaurs aside, it’s more the primitive man pit against the raw elements type of scenario that intrigues me.
When I sit down and think about it, I sometimes find myself amazed that humanity as we know it survived at all. They often play on this theme well in a variety of works of fiction, and while I refer to these as fantasy, a bit of what we see depicted is grounded in anthropological fact. We’ll get to that as we cover each case-in-point.
So lets get to it: a few of my favorite pieces depicting events and characters that take place long, long ago, before primitive man developed writing and, in some cases, even before fire and speech.
First on the list is a novel – which I know was adapted into a 1986 film of the same name, and apparently some kind of series will air in 2015. Regardless, I more fondly remember the book. Jean M. Auel depicts the struggles of a certain titular Neanderthal clan, and things get interesting when they adopt a Cro-Magnon child. It’s a little Tarzan-esque, as the “normal” human grows up among rougher people than her own kind. We as readers can only further liken it to a Tarzan story in that Ayla, the child, while by no means weak, is beset with a number of challenges overcome with her unique set of problem-solving skills that set her apart from her Neanderthal clan.
The ability to count higher than four was a big deal.
As if looking completely different didn’t already make things hard enough.
This isn’t a particularly fun and kid-friendly story, but it gets deep, gritty, and explores the daily life of peoples who walked our world around 28,000 years ago. Jean M. Auel’s descriptions of the environment paint vibrant pictures in the mind of the reader as we explore a world that is all but lost to us in our modern, busy lives.
I loved this book as much for its attempt to dive into deeper history as much for its descriptions, and of course the story itself.
A lot more creative liberties were taken when making Quest for Fire.
It was also based on a book, written in 1911 (though it appeared in English for the first time in 1967), though this one I did not read, so we’re going to be talking about the 1981 film.
The first thing the viewer may notice about this movie is the lack of dialog. The opening begins with a short couple of lines meant to catch us up on recent events; the world is harsh, early man had yet to invent fire, and as such fire had to be stolen from nature. Those who possessed fire, possessed life.
Early one morning, after some character-establishing shots of various people in a clan of Neanderthals, we find people we’ve barely come to distinguish by face (let alone by name) beset by an aggressive tribe of Homo Erectus. They’re basically guys in hairy gorilla suits, who in comparison are noticeably more brutal and animalistic. Our Neanderthals manage to kill many of their attackers, but are forced to flee their cave-home and take to the woods, where wolves (first seen in the first few seconds of the movie) await with salivating jaws.
Some survivors make it to safety only to discover that they lost their fire, and thus the wiseman of the clan – probably pushing thirty – sends three young men off to go find fire.
This movie is awesome for a number of reasons. For one, the plot is simple, yet it expands to become quite the adventure, complete with mammoths, saber-toothed cats, and two more clans (bringing the total “kinds” of people seen up to four). We have our own Neanderthals from the beginning, depicted as your typical Fred Flintstone “cave man,” we have the ape-like Homo Erectus attackers, then another Neanderthal clan of people that all have red skin, red hair and a penchant for cannibalism, and finally a tribe of Cro-Magnons — early modern humans.
The scientific accuracy of this story is questioned, and there are a few of those “80’s” moments that kinda remind you it’s a movie (like with the mammoths). But the story, for the most part, is pretty straight-forward, and I can appreciate that because, like I said before, this movie has absolutely no dialog. Sure some characters speak, but not in any modern language and totally without subtitles.
This means that the movie told its story visually, which in my book is a successful use of the medium. Humor, sorrow, and drive are all conveyed through what we see the characters do. Not what we hear them say.
Besides, the film does a great job in showing us that the world is a harsh, cold, unforgiving place, and my thoughts are always drawn to how our ancestors perceived the world. Life sucked, and people made do with what they could and did not complain, simply because they lacked the capacity to feel ungrateful. Or, conversely, were so grateful to find whatever advantage they could that there was simply no time to think about anything else.
Which brings us to today’s last example.
10,000 BC is one of those movies that I know is bad, but I still like.
I won’t defend it’s utter lack of historical and archeological accuracy. It’s full of anachronisms, and critics generally gave it negative reviews. The ending kind of screws with things as well with a dose of deus ex machina. Not to mention the actors and actresses all look strangely … modern.
Probably something to do with everyone having perfectly straight, white teeth.
Pluses include the visuals, such as battle sequences with mammoths or giant terror birds, along with a saber-toothed cat shoehorned into the plot.
It’s a more modern movie which means, to any cynical viewer like me, that the story follows cookie-cutter tropes and story elements we’ve all seen far too many times before. The hero’s quest is not to gather fire or his clan, but to save his girl. The girl dies at the end, but not really. The giant prehistoric animals are cool and dangerous, but you never really fear for characters – not to mention they seem placed there just because it would be fun (rather than plausible. The animals existed at different times in different parts of the world). The bad guys are one-dimensional and easy to hate — though in fact it is the antagonists of this story I find most intriguing.
We have a pair of slave drivers who are depicted as ruthless and ambitious, but its their masters I find more interesting. The backstory lore of this film plays on an idea that is revealed to us in small portions from the beginning, and while the characters of the film do not fully realize the connotations of what they’re affecting, the audience does.
Basically it’s this. There was a land that sank into the “great sea,” echoing of the legend of Atlantis. Three survivors came to what starkly resembles Egypt, and with their influence they somehow rose to power among the more primitive peoples of they encountered. By the time the story of this movie rolls around, there’s only one “god” left, and his desires are unclear to the audience, though a number of pyramids are being built, utilizing the slavery system that ancient Egyptians are rather famous for implementing.
Or possibly a desert in South America…?
Draped in concealing silks and attended only by blind servants, the lone ‘god’ commands incredible fear over the locals, and we as the viewers never really get a good look at him. The idea of an Atlantean coming and starting an empire has my attention, and I would have liked to learn more about this backstory.
But the movie doesn’t go in that direction. Instead, we have – much like in Quest for Fire – the protagonist making his way home with a gift from a more advanced tribe. In this case, it is not the ability to make fire, but the gift of agriculture.
Which is cool, too, I suppose. It’s best enjoyed not as a historical movie, but as a simple fantasy in an earth-like past.