Let's face it: We whine a lot.
We whine when our alarm clocks fritz out. We whine when we have dental appointments. We whine when our favorite coffee stand runs out of hazelnut espresso. What we don't whine about is how poorly the mammoth hunts have been going lately.
In truth, D'Leh doesn't whine about that either—even though the woolly mammoths aren't coming around as much anymore. That's bad news, because D'Leh and his people, the Yagahl, rely on these beasts for pretty much everything. They eat 'em. They wear their hides. They build huts out of their bones. They make mammoth-related jewelry. One might say the Yagahl are in a mammoth rut.
D'Leh has other problems, too. For one thing, his pappy deserted the tribe several years before—a shameful no-no in the Yagahl's tight little community. For another, he's quite fond of a pretty, adopted interloper named Evolet. But Evolet, with her blue eyes, straight teeth and nice mop of dreadlocks, is the Yagahl's "it" girl who's likely to be the main squeeze for the tribe's best mammoth hunter. And that, everyone assumes, won't be D'Leh.
Things seem to take a fortunate, perhaps preordained, turn when a huge mammoth stumbles into D'Leh's spear and promptly dies, giving D'Leh newfound status as a burly, he-man hunter and the right to "take" the girl of his choosing. But D'Leh is too honest to let an accident propel him to so much tribal power. With a heavy heart (and a little encouragement) he rejects all his mammoth-hunting rights and resigns himself to continuing Yagahl obscurity—much to Evolet's dismay.
That very evening, "four-legged demons" (riders on horseback) raid the Yagahl's encampment, kidnapping Evolet and several other unfortunate souls. D'Leh watches as his one true love—along with several of his friends—are carted off into the snowy wilds. If ever there was a time to whine, it'd be now, right?
D'Leh decides instead to pursue them. And neither cold nor heat nor saber-toothed tigers nor man-eating ostriches nor a lack of the invention of hazelnut espresso will stop him from completing his all-important quest.
D'Leh may be a bit of a fifth wheel in the Yagahl, but he treats his tribemates with respect, and Evolet with care and gentleness. He adheres unwaveringly to the moral ethos of the tribe: When Evolet suggests the two of them run off together, D'Leh smacks down the idea. "And abandon my people, like my father?" he says. And, as we've already discussed, he refuses to let an accident of fate give him tribal perks. Granted, he gets a little prodding from Tic'Tic, a wise elder and friend, who tells him, "It's not the way to claim the white spear with a lie."
But D'Leh's character is only truly revealed when Yagahl life is turned upside down. During the course of his epic trek to save Evolet, he a) rescues the girl from the embrace of one of her lecherous captors; b) leads a pack of horrific, man-eating birds away from Evolet and other captives; c) drags a wounded cohort through a burning, waterless desert on a makeshift stretcher; d) saves a saber-toothed tiger from a watery death; and, of course, e) becomes an inspiring leader of men. He's the kind of honest, forthright guy who might make a pretty good president if a) he showered more and b) presidential duties involved dealing with man-eating birds and saber-toothed tigers. (And some would say that they do.)
But really, all the Yagahl adhere to the same general code of honor. As D'Leh points out, the Yagahl are able to take down the mightiest of animals (that'd be the mammoth) because they "hunt together as one." And, indeed, all of D'Leh's compatriots are all about teamwork. [Spoiler Warning] One of D'Leh's onetime rivals makes the ultimate sacrifice at the end of the film. The Yagahl's resident shamanist leader (referenced as "Old Mother") makes a similar sacrifice.
Two things are worth commenting on at the outset: First, if one takes the film's title literally, 10,000 BC takes place a good 10,000 years before, well, Christ, and several thousand years before even Abraham was walking around. So the film doesn't deal much with Judeo-Christian themes. Second, though the film takes place in prehistoric times, complete with prehistoric animals, the subject of evolution is not dealt with.
That said, spiritualism runs amok.
"There are legends and prophesies along with all the visceral elements," says Cliff Curtis, who plays Tic'Tic. "There are predatory terror birds and saber-toothed tigers, and, of course, the mammoths, but the story also has a spiritual undertone to it, and I think that is the glue that holds it together."
The Yagahl appear to adhere to some form of ancestor worship, and there are several allusions to "fathers" leading them. The fathers also zap Old Mother with visions of the future. When D'Leh and Evolet were just children, she prophesied that Evolet and her beau (who winds up being, of course, D'Leh) would lead the Yagahl to a new life "where the Yagahl will know hunger no more" and foresaw the raid of the "four-legged demons."
D'Leh turns out to be a player in other prophecies too. One tribe he encounters believes that a man who talks to a "speartooth" will lead them in war against their oppressors. Fortunately for D'Leh, he just happened to save a saber-toothed tiger the night before he stumbles across the tribe. And it just so happens that the same tiger wanders into camp just as the tribe is about to poke D'Leh full of spear holes. The tribe gives the tiger a wide berth, but D'Leh—already on the ground—says, "You do remember me, don't you?"
Evolet's kidnappers and the tribe's oppressors are one and the same—an advanced, pyramid-building race which has its own prophecy. These people believe their civilization will crumble if someone comes to town bearing the mark of a certain constellation of stars. As it happens, Evolet was whipped with a cat-o'-nine-tails sort of thing on the way to the city, and the scars on her hands match the pattern of the constellation.
These pyramid-builders—really not nice people at all—worship a living "god," actually a tall, very old mortal whose face is always shielded from his people by films of silk and such. We're told that, originally, there were three "gods," and he's the only one who's left. An entire priesthood has been built around this untouchable, unseeable fellow, and whatever this "god" says, goes. When he feels as though his slaves are slacking off in their pyramid building, he orders one of them to be sacrificed—and one is immediately tossed off a pyramid ledge. He's regarded with fearful awe, and D'Leh is told to not expect help from his slaves because, "Men cannot bring down gods."
[Spoiler Warning] Old Mother psychically goes on the quest with D'Leh. And she apparently gives her last breath of life to Evolet, when the younger woman is fatally struck by an arrow. D'Leh, the man of action that he is, winds up killing the city's ruler with a spear. "He is not a god!" he shouts, and the revolution commences.
Also, Evolet is sometimes called a "witch," though she does not cast any spells.
Evolet is clearly an object of desire among her captors. One makes moves on her as if he'd like to rape her. (D'Leh rescues her.) The slave-trading leader eventually buys her "freedom," he tells her, though that freedom clearly amounts to trading a life hauling stones for a life as his sex kitten. That said, their "relationship" never comes close to being consummated.
An exaggerated imitation smooch performed by a captive tribesman is pretty much as far as things go when it comes to talking about D'Leh and Evolet's love life. As for "native" dress codes, everyone's relatively well-covered. Some men walk around bare-chested and women sometimes saunter about bare-shouldered.
There is carnage and peril aplenty in 10,000 BC From the early-movie mammoth hunt to the climactic war in the desert, action takes center stage.
Spears are the weapons of mass destruction here, with warriors using them to dispatch mammoths, men and man-eating birds with equal aplomb. We see one 10-foot tall bird get stabbed in the mouth. We see an impaled mammoth. One or two men are skewered, and we see the spear go in one side and out the other.
But there were evidently other ways than that to die in 10,000 BC, and none were particularly pleasant. Arrows were one. And audiences see warriors smack their opponents with hammers. Huge, ostrich-like creatures kill and eat men, mealtime often hidden by a convenient veil of grass. Mammoths fling their trunks and stomp their feet with abandon, occasionally smiting or squishing folks who get in their way. For his part, D'Leh nearly gets smothered by a collapsed mammoth, which would seem to me to be a particularly ignoble and smelly way to die. Several Yagahl are dragged through the tundra by a mammoth, and they're sometimes thrown clear and tumble into rocks. People are hurled off pyramids. One guard has his neck broken.
A man falls crotch-first onto a tree branch. D'Leh cauterizes a compatriot's wound by way of a burning branch. Slaves are regularly smacked around, most often by nasty whips. Evolet is scarred when the slave driver whips her hands mercilessly. (We rarely see the blows fall.) One captive is nearly strangled to death by one of his overlords. The god-king threatens to literally pull another slave apart.
Of note: For all the wanton death and violence, there is remarkably little literal bloodshed. Characters are stabbed and impaled with some regularity, and the body count is high enough to make Rambo wish he'd lived 12,000 years earlier. But the gore-factor is relatively light.
Crude or Profane Language
None. The English language had not, apparently, evolved enough by 10,000 BC to include f-words, s-words or other bits of offensive banter. And yes, almost everybody seems to have spoken English back then.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Cigarettes and whiskey were still millennia in the offing, too. Everyone, including the vision-prone Old Mother, is stone-cold sober throughout.
Other Negative Elements
When a warrior crawls through a herd of mammoths, we hear much noise emanating from the huge creatures—some of which may or may not be the sounds your average 13-year-old would recognize as flatulence. D'Leh and Tic'Tic take food from an apparently deserted village—only the village turns out not to be so deserted.
10,000 BC is, if I may say so, ahead of its time when it comes to morality. There are problems. Violence is ubiquitous. And the film emphasizes pre-Abrahamic spirituality. But while the Yagahl may not credit their sense of morality to the Christian God, they do adhere to forms of what we now know to be godly morality with clarity and unwavering vigor. And it's that sense of morality—honor, loyalty, teamwork—that forms the bedrock of their hardscrabble society.
Let's not make too much of this, though. 10,000 BC is, at its heart, an action-adventure popcorn flick about, um, people who hadn't invented popcorn yet. It might be good for a diversion but it'll never do as fodder for long, espresso-house discussions. That said, it does suggest that civilization is only possible through a shared sense of ethical, moral behavior. And in our whiny, postmodern society, circa 2,000 A.D., that's not a bad lesson to learn.