Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) poster

Clan of the Cave Bear (1986)


USA. 1986.


Director – Michael Chapman, Screenplay – John Sayles, Based on the Novel by Jean M. Auel, Producers – Jerry Isenberg & Stan Rogow, Photography – Jan de Bont, Music – Alan Silvestri, Makeup – Jack Bricker, Michele Burke, Steve Johnson & Michael Westmore, Production Design – Anthony Masters. Production Company – Jozak-Decade/Jonesfilm/The Guber-Peters Co/Sidney Kimmel/Producers Sales Organisation.


Daryl Hannah (Ayla), James Remar (Creb), Pamela Reed (Iza), Thomas G. Waites (Broud)


35,000 years ago. A young blonde child of the new emerging Cro-Magnon people is adopted by a Neanderthal tribe after being found abandoned when her mother is killed by an earthquake. She is named Ayla. Growing up among the Neanderthals, Ayla is disadvantaged by not having the tribe’s racial memories and makes frequent mistakes in tribal custom that create a difficult life for her. However, she has greater intelligence than any of the Neanderthals and uses it to challenge traditional prerogatives in the world of men, including learning the use of weapons that are forbidden to women.

Clan of the Cave Bear is based on the first in the best-selling series of books by Jean M. Auel. Clan of the Cave Bear (1981) was the first of Auel’s books and she has since published five others – The Valley of the Horses (1982), The Mammoth Hunters (1985), The Plains of Passage (1990), The Shelters of Stone (2002) and The Land of Painted Caves (2011). The Earth’s Children series, as they are collectively known, essentially tell stories of prehistoric feminism, wherein Auel’s protagonist Ayla improbably ends up discovering and witnessing much of early civilisation.

This film version of Clan of the Cave Bear was adapted by John Sayles, who was then only a writer for hire and not the acclaimed independent filmmaker that he is today with the likes of Matewan (1987), Passion Fish (1992), The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), Lone Star (1996), Men With Guns (1997), Limbo (1999), Sunshine State (2002), Case de los Babys (2003), Silver City (2004), Honeydripper (2007) and Amigo (2010). Sayles had adapted both Clan of the Cave Bear and Jean M. Auel’s immediate sequel, The Valley of the Horses, in an ambitious plan to originally film both together, although Valley would never emerge due to the poor box-office reception that Clan of the Cave Bear received.

Darryl Hannah as Ayla in Clan of the Cave Bear (1986)
Darryl Hannah as Ayla

The director assigned to the project was Michael Chapman, then a successful cinematographer on the likes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and most of Martin Scorsese’s films including Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980) (for which he was nominated for an Academy Award). Chapman had made his directorial debut with the Tom Cruise teenage drama All the Right Moves (1983). He later returned to primal wilderness films with The Viking Sagas (1995), although that was not a success either. These are the only three films that Chapman has directed, apart from the tv movie Annihilator (1986) about killer androids, and he has since returned to cinematography.

Never having found sufficient interest to read the books, one is not in a position to comment on the adaptation, but the fact that Ms Auel saw fit to sue the filmmakers over the final product should be apposite comment. Certainly, fans of the books have been vocal in their disapproval. The film is not a particularly good one. Michael Chapman tries earnestly and shoots some often impressive imagery – and the Yukon locations look magnificent.

Yet for all that, the film is unconvincing. First of all, it is encumbered by having to tell a complex story while relying only on narration, subtitled dialogue and sign language to relay the narrative. The point of prehistoric films such as these hinges on being able to believe that one is seeing cave-people running about on screen and casting a recognisable face like Daryl Hannah is not an act that particularly engenders any suspension of disbelief – all that one sees is a Hollywood actress in furs.

Clan of the Cave Bear (1986)
Prehistoric life

Some of the anthropology is dubious – the real issue in the primitive dentistry session should be whether Neanderthal people would actually have any teeth that have not rotted away to knock out in the first place. When you have some countries in the 20th Century where a life expectancy is still only the mid-forties, the issue of elder respect is surely whether any of them would live long enough to reach old age. The script toys with some interesting ideas about ancestral memory and Jungian symbolism but John Sayles never develops them in a tenable way.

The Lifetime Network attempted to make tv series based on the book with Clan of the Cave Bear (2015) starring Millie Brady as Ayla but this failed to go anywhere beyond a pilot film.

Trailer here

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