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Clan of the Cave Bear – film review

August 14, 2015


A prehistoric ode to female empowerment.

Directed by Michael Chapman. Screenplay by John Sayles, based on the novel by Jean M. Auel. Starring: Daryl Hannah, Pamela Reed and James Remar. Year of release: 1986. Running time: 98 minutes.

A spirited young Cro-Magnon woman Iiving in prehistoric times, adopted as a child     by a clan of less evolved Neanderthals, begins to recognize her superior intellect; leading to her embracing her own empowerment and self-determination.

Clan of the Cave Bear is a big screen adaptation of the first in a popular series of speculative fiction novels known collectively as the Earth’s Children series. The original novel reportedly spent an impressive fifty-two weeks on the NY Times best seller list and sold more than five million copies world-wide in the five years since it had been published in 1980 (and with all this buzz surrounding the source material, it’s somewhat mystifying as to why the movie only made back a fraction of its thirteen million dollar budget – especially as the film itself is actually quite good).     The novel also spawned five additional literary installments; the last of which was published in 2011 and a proposed television series adaptation of the entire six book saga is set to be aired sometime in 2015. At the time of the movie’s release there were only the first three novels in existence; including the subsequent sequels The Valley of the Horses and The Mammoth Hunters, which, I guess, would most likely have been made into movies if the first film had been successful.

I had been aware of the existence of this film since back in the day when there was extensive coverage in magazines such as SF Movieland, but I don’t remember Clan ever having a theatrical release in Australia (or a VHS release for that matter). So when I saw this battered DVD copy in a second-hand store the other day (for four bucks no less) – I immediately snapped it up.

First of all, this movie is visually spectacular. The mountainous rocky vistas of North West Canada make for a breathtakingly beautiful backdrop (the autumnal colors of this remote and unspoilt wooded wilderness strikingly captured by master lensman Jan De Bont). While the various interior cave settings designed by Tony Masters (Dune, 2001: A Space Odyssey) add greatly to the overall sense of authenticity.     The convincing three hour prosthetic makeups by Oscar winners Michael Westmore and Michèle Burke (Quest for Fire, Iceman) render the remainder of the Neanderthal cast – including genre fave James Remar – virtually unrecognizable.

Although he has helmed several features (including the Tom Cruise vehicle All The Right Moves) director Michael Chapman is better known as a cinematographer, having shot pictures for Martin Scorsese including Taxi Driver and Raging Bull,       as well as Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I read recently           that Chapman considers Clan a mistake – which may have more to do with its disappointing box office – than the film itself. For, despite this being only his second time out of the gate calling the shots, Chapman displays a deft hand at staging exciting action sequences (the Musk Ox hunt and the Grizzly Bear pit fight) – as well as eliciting a credible juvenile performance from Emma Floria as the young Ayla.

As the story is told entirely from Ayla’s point of view; once the character reaches adulthood (at the closing of Act I) – Daryl Hannah appears in virtually every scene; making this very much a starring vehicle for her. Best known for her roles in Blade Runner and Splash, Hannah is perhaps one of the most recognizable and yet underrated female performers of the 80s – her statuesque beauty and perceived naïvety making her perfectly suited for the role of Ayla. And she does extremely     well in carrying pretty much the entire movie.

clan of the cave bear poster

Since the depiction of Neanderthal tribal life in Clan is clearly patriarchal in nature (as it most likely was) – it isn’t surprising that parallels can be drawn with male-dominated societies down through the ages; particularly in reference to the general distrust of intelligent females; even in the modern era. And this is most likely why the book struck such a chord with young women growing up in the 80s – for the character of Ayla is very much the personification of female empowerment. Just as an aside, while the books were undoubtedly popular with teenaged girls, I would be wary in allowing anyone younger seeing the film, as a couple of confronting sex scenes (bordering on rapey – although not necessarily graphic) do figure prominently.

Dialogue is minimal; consisting of invented words and sign language with subtitles. And while Salome Jens’ voice over narration may at first seem superfluous, it does add a great deal to the understanding of this speculative culture. The dialogue in John Sayles’ screenplay was originally written in English and then translated into a spoken language created by Lou Fant especially for the film (consisting of around 200 individual words) which the cast then had the task of learning prior to filming. Taking the realism inherent in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Quest for Fire as inspiration (a prehistoric adventure released four years earlier which also employed a created language), the filmmakers never intended to use subtitles – let alone spoken English and, like Annaud’s film, their original intent was to allow the actors to use their facial expressions and body language to convey information. However, at the eleventh hour, Warners grew nervous and had the filmmakers incorporate subtitles (which, in all honesty, don’t at all come across as a shameless add on and are integrated remarkably well considering – unobtrusive even). Adding to the versimilitude, the cast of twenty comprising the clan spent an intensive six week period preparing for their roles: learning such skills as butchering oxen for food, fashioning stone axes and making fires without the use of matches. They also spent days hanging out in actual caves in full costume in order to get a handle on what living as a Neanderthal might have been like 35,000 years ago.

Tonally, the movie Clan most resembles is Enemy Mine – especially in terms of its mythical symplicity. If Enemy Mine can be viewed as a parable on race relations, then Clan is definitely a parable on female self-determination. Indeed, Clan could be considered quite earnest in its approach (displaying even less humor than Enemy Mine) – but this doesn’t detract at all from the overall enjoyment of the piece.

Well worth a look.

3.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.


From → film reviews

  1. I remember really enjoying this book (not so much the other ones though), but I had no idea a movie was made! Great write-up, I’m going to seek this one out!

    • gregory moss permalink

      Thanks Anna! I haven’t read the book myself – but I’d be interested to hear how it stacks up. 🙂

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