Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Countdown to Armageddon: Teenage Cave Man (1958)

With the most influential post-apocalyptic film covered, it is time to move on to the most Gamma World-esque piece of cinematography. Those of you who have never seen the 1958 version of Teenage Cave Man are undoubtedly scratching your heads in confusion, while those who have witnessed the film are nodding sagely. What’s a caveman movie doing here? There are spoilers ahead in the strictest of senses, but since the Big Reveal is actually the promotional blurb on the back of the video jacket, I’m guessing that it wasn’t intended to be a secret of Rosebud proportions. That being said, if you’re the type of person who can’t stand knowing anything about a movie before you watch it (and you intend to watch this film), stop reading now.

To begin, here is the synopsis of Teenage Cave Man:

Robert Vaughn plays the Symbol Maker’s son, who lives with his Stone Age clan in Bronson Caves and wonders why they’re living in a barren wasteland when, just over the river, is a green land filled with stock footage of dinosaurs. Unfortunately, the Word prohibits the clan from going there (because, despite what you’ve heard, the Word is the Law and not The Bird) for that is where the God that Gives Death with its Touch lives. Vaughn, being a teenager, isn’t satisfied with old man logic and decides to take a trip across the river with his friends. There, they encounter my favorite dinosaur battle (an alligator with a dorsal fins glued to its back takes on a water monitor amidst a scale model landscape) before one of the teenagers dies in an oatmeal quicksand pit. This doesn’t sit too well with the elders once Vaughn gets back and he’s shunned until he finishes the rites of manhood. Once a man of the tribe, he remains determined to get the tribe out of the Bat Cave and into the lush land of stock footage dinosaurs. He figures that if he kills the God that Gives Death with its Touch, the tribe will have nothing to taboo about. So, after inventing the bow and arrow, young Bob heads back across the river to take on the God. Of course, the rest of the tribe figures that’ll piss of the local deity and they head after Vaughn to stop his hot-headed plot. A misunderstanding of "Three’s Company" proportions occurs when Vaughn, the God, and the tribe all meet up on the other side of the river, ending with the God dead on the ground and a whole lot of confused caveman. As it turns out, the God that Gives Death with its Touch is actually a spaceman—the last survivor left from before the world was destroyed by a nuclear holocaust. The radiation prolonged his life and turned the local wildlife into dinosaurs. Man returned to the caves and forgot his ancestry. All that remains of civilization is a book that the spaceman formerly known as the God that Gives Death with its Touch carried around. DUN DUN DUNNNNNN!

Granted, Teenage Cave Man is not a great movie by any stretch. A product of Roger Corman “The Employer,” a man whose autobiography is entitled How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood And Never Lost a Dime, Teenage Cave Man was shot on a typical shoestring Corman budget (the bear that attacks the hunters looks suspiciously like a bathroom rug strapped to Beach Dickerson—who plays four roles in the film and dies three times). Originally called Prehistoric World, the film was renamed by the studio, allowing Corman to claim—truthfully—that he never made a movie called Teenage Cave Man. Robert Vaughn was quoted as calling it the worst movie ever made. But that’s when the movie is weighed against concerns like “quality,” “good acting,” and “plot.” If we limited ourselves to those categories, the post-apocalyptic genre would be a slim one.

Luckily, I’m looking at it as a Gamma World referee and I say the movie is the closest a film gets to what I consider to be the standard theme of the game: The grossly uninformed and ill-equipped take on things they don’t understand and hope for the best.

This default reading of the Gamma World setting is due to the sample adventure introduction from the 1st edition of the game. For those of you unlucky enough to have never read it, I’ve reproduced it below:

You are the inhabitants of a small village of about 200 that is situated just inside the border of the great forest. You have grown up listening to the legends of the Ancients and of the Shadow Years, but since those years were long before your time, you consider them just that—legends. You are much more concerned with hunting for meat to supplement the meager living you scratch out of the soil, and with avoiding the dangerous creatures which prowl the area. It is now the time of the year, however, for your coming-of-age and for the “Trials,” in which you will be judged by the village leaders and elders as worthy (or unworthy) of membership in the adult society of the village. Part of the “Trials” involves venturing forth into the wild lands just outside and proving yourself to be proficient hunters and fighters.

The sachem, the chief elder and leader of the village, possesses a device of Ancient technology (incomprehensible to you, other than its effects) that can kill at a great distance. You have seen this device used against a villager who attempted to steal it for his own. The sachem touched the device in some strange manner and a brilliant beam of light was projected, striking the villager and searing a small hole through his chest. He died almost instantly and the sachem warned the villagers about attempting any similar theft in the future.

There is an old tale, however, that the sachem returned from his own “Trials” with that very device. It is by means of the power which this device gives him that he was able to elevate himself to his present position. It is said that the sachem had come back from his “Trials” from the west—a taboo area. It is said that only the gods can walk in the taboo area and live. The only thing the sachem ever said about his “Trials” is that the strange device had come from one of the houses of the Ancient Gods.

This year’s “Trials” are to be different. The sachem has decreed that any who desire to be an elder or to sit on the Council of Leaders must go to the taboo lands in the west. To prove you have done so, you must bring back a stone from one of the houses of the Ancient Goods.

Therefore, at dawn you leave with your allowed weapons, a bow and six arrows, your knife, and food and water for one week. You have little choice; if you desire to rule, you must go west into unknown danger. But the thought occurs to you, it would be nice to have a device like the sachem’s…
I can’t even begin to count how many times I read that intro as a kid. Whatever the count was, its depiction settled down into my bones and became the scenario against which all Gamma World campaigns shall be measured. That Omar (the fictional referee in the chapter) is one hard ass. “Here’s you starting equipment: a bow, six arrows, a knife, and a week’s worth of rations. Now get out there and go kill a Death Machine or something.” That is how every Gamma World game should begin. None of this beginning in higher level Tech centers like later versions allow. You’re a goddamn cave man!

I suspect but cannot prove that Jim Ward and Gary Jaquet might have been familiar with Teenage Cave Man when designing the game or when Ward was writing Metamorphosis Alpha, although the possible connection there pales in comparison to Aldiss’ Non Stop influence (published coincidently in the same year as Teenage Cave Man). Nevertheless, even if it wasn’t an influence, it should be one on any referee setting out to run a classic scenario game of Gamma World.

From the point of view of a referee, there’s not much to directly steal from the movie for use in the campaign. There’s a couple of good names (the Forbidden River, the Burning Plains, and of course the God that Gives Death with its Touch) but the referee should really look at it as a template for starting off a campaign. The Rite of Passage scenario appears in at least two commercially produced modules (Famine at Fargo and "Part VI Rite of Passage" from the 2nd edition Gamma World Adventure Booklet). There’s no reason to not use the same to launch one’s own campaign. It’s just too good of an kick off.

If you feel you can’t survive a straight viewing of Teenage Cave Man, track down a copy of Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode 315 and watch Joel and ‘bots take it on. Oh, and if anyone can point out to me where the original appearance of the alligator vs. water monitor battle was, I’d appreciate it because my Google Fu has failed me so far.

Next time on Radioactive Theatre: the only post-apocalyptic sports drama ever.


BigFella said...

If you're looking for literary influences to this kind of story, theres a short story from 1937 titled By The Waters of Babylon .

I remember reading it in High School as part of an english class, I think.

I personally prefer a little more leather slapping, telepathic moose riding Hiero's Journey type stuff to the Teenage Caveman approach, but that's just me.

anarchist said...

I don't know if you've seen the site before, but if not you might find it useful.

Chris K said...

Ooh, I was wondering if you were going to cover The Blood of Heroes. I've occasionally watched amateur jugging tournaments with padded weapons since 1995 or so, but never bothered to watch the movie until earlier this month. I was surprised by how good it was - I'd even go so far as to say that it's aged relatively well. (Although I did fast-forward through several minutes of walking.)

Will Mistretta said...

The wife and I have this one on video.

No showing ever passes without many instances of us breaking into song to the tune of a certain famous Who song with the refrain "Teenage Wasteland." :)