The Clan of the Cave Bear Review

Anthony Nield has reviewed Optimum’s lacklustre Region 2 release of The Clan of the Cave Bear, a rightfully forgotten ethnographic affair starring Daryl Hannah.

The Clan of the Cave Bear are the last of a dying breed. Continual earthquakes and journeying from settlement to settlement has taken its toll on these Neanderthals and soon they’re to be replaced by the next evolutionary stage, the Cro-Magnon man. Indeed, they unknowingly adopt one during one such journey, though her different physical appearance and ability to count beyond five means that she is never fully accepted.

Made in 1985, The Clan of the Cave Bear sits awkwardly between Quest for Fire (1981) and Missing Link (1989). The former received the plaudits, Best Make-Up Oscar and has its “special languages” created by Anthony Burgess, whilst the latter took more a documentary approach. The Clan of the Cave Bear does, however, share the refusal of both to give its characters the opportunity to speak English (a la One Million Years B.C.), which means that John Sayles’ presence as screenwriter is a slightly surprising one. Known for his sharp dialogue (The Brother From Another Planet) and, latterly, clever constructs (Lone Star, Limbo), this particular venture allows him neither. Maybe this was the point – a kind of self-imposed challenge – but a more important credit is that of director Michael Chapman’s.

A famed cinematographer, most notably on Scorsese’s Raging Bull, it is Chapman’s concentration on the visual that is the controlling factor of The Clan of the Cave Bear. Yet the sense of the epic which his provides (it’s hardly surprising that Chapman – and director of photography Jan De Bont – couldn’t resist huge helicopter shots of these empty pre-historical landscapes) is at odds with the personal story at the film’s heart, as is Alan Silvestre’s twinkling synth score, one better suited to fantasy than the ethnography here. Moreover, this personal story is at odds with the rest of the film as, strangely for Sayles, it has all the dynamics of a typical TV movie. As a child our protagonist loses her mother, is then reluctantly adopted and grows up to be raped, all events which conspire to give her a sense of female empowerment and, as such, an optimistic conclusion.

The lack of dialogue prevents such twists and turns from being rendered in an overly melodramatic light (there’s little shouting and even less tears), but sentimentality is never too far away. The big dramatic scenes always occur by romantic firelight, whilst the entire affair is imbued with the kind of cod-mysticism that only happens with cinematic lost civilisations. Moreover, it’s difficult to feel for the central character’s plight and sense of isolation when she’s played by the tall, blonde, blue-eyed Daryl Hannah.

The Disc

Matching the disappointment of the film itself, The Clan of the Cave Bears’s DVD release is a lacklustre affair. Devoid of extras the film has also been rendered in pan-and-scan form. The colours remain reasonably rich, but such a situation also leaves them rather smudgy and never truly impresses. The soundtrack fares better, providing the original stereo with little difficulty, though it never stands out as anything remarkable. Note that there are intermittent subtitles to accompany the various grunts and that these are burnt into the print.

Anthony Nield

Updated: May 07, 2005

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