"Five" is the first film to follow the stories of survivors of a global nuclear holocaust. There was a movie in the mid-30s called "Things to Come" that dealt with a post-global war devistation of civilization, but it wasn't nuclear. There were lots of survivors in Things to Come. I'll review that movie in a bit. "Five" deals with the modern (1951) world immediately after a global nuclear exchange kills off almost everyone on earth. The movie posters seem to be trying to play up the lurid one-woman-four-men angle, but it's not like that.
Quick Plot Summary
Five people survive death by radiation from a global nuclear holocaust. Two in a bank vault, one in an X-ray room of a hospital, one on top of Mt. Everest, and the last one in an elevator. They all converge on a remote California cliff-side house. Four men and a pregnant woman eek out a meager existence. Tensions arise over what to do for future plans. A sort of who-will-get-the-girl rivalry arises between Michael (elevator guy) and Eric (the mountain climber). The old bank clerk dies of lingering radiation sickness. The mountain-climber kills the black guy. The mountain climber eventually develops radiation sickness too. That leaves the last man and last woman to start anew, like Adam and Eve.
Why is this movie fun?
Five is actually a pretty deep movie for one written, produced and directed by the same guy, in this case, Arch Oboler. (compare with The Flying Saucer) That's not usually a formula for success. Five is probably the first of the post-apocalyptic sci-fi sub-genre. With so few characters, they do tend to fit into archetypes, each embodying something about humanity. There's an interesting dynamic played out between them. The scene where Eric and Rosanne visit the city -- skeletons in cars and busses -- while automated sirens continue to wail warnings to a city long since dead, comes across very strongly. Knowing how many other movies will come later that try to pick up the story "the day after," it's fun to see the first one.
Cold War Angle?
Nothing is made of the Russians or the war, other than that it happened. The culture's overpowering fear of nuclear destruction, nonetheless, is the foundation of the movie. Instead of being set in the fearful "before" time, this movie looked at the "after."
Each of the five characters stand as representatives of some aspect of humanity.
Rosanne embodies Status Quo Hope that things will get back to normal. Always looking back. Michael embodies Pragmatism. He's always focused forward, defiantly refusing to look back. Mr. Barnstaple seems to represent the old ways -- jobs, capital, investments, etc. Charles is hope too, but not about survival of the old world. He's like Michael in focusing on the future. As an oppressed black man in late 40s America, his hope is tinged with freedom from the old world. Eric is the serpent in the garden of Eden. He represents the dark side of humanity. Egotistical, lazy, lustful, greedy and willing to kill.
Rosanne goes to the city with Eric, hoping to find her husband, or at least other survivors. Her hopes are dashed. She finds her husband's skeleton and no one else alive. Eric discovers that he has radiation sickness sores (his doom) and runs away whining in an almost childish response to his mortality. Abandoned by Eric, Rosanne eventually makes her way back to the cliff-top house and Michael. Along the way, her baby dies. This struck me as odd at first, since the baby seemed the usual "new-life" motif. But on second thought, the baby (from her dead husband, Steven) represented the last vestige of the Old World. Once that last scrap of the old was gone, Rosanne was ready to stop looking back at the old, and face the new. The movie ends with her walking up to Michael who is re-tilling the corn field. She carries a shovel too, and says, "I'm ready to help you now." (helicopter lift up and zoom out)
Like many of the post-apocalypse genre, there is a hope of mankind rising phoenix-like from the ashes. Civilization was destroyed, but not man himself. "On the Beach" (1959) was a bold departure from this formula. There, everyone died and stayed dead. In "Five," mankind's pragmatic nature triumphs, but only after letting go of hope for saving the old world, and shedding the sinful old man (as typified by Eric).
Like several other 50s sci-fi films, there is a strong dose of religious point of view. The film opens with nuclear blasts, clouded skies and quote from Psalm 103:16. "The deadly wind passeth over it, And it is gone: And the place thereof Shall know it no more..." (note: the word "deadly" was added for the film. It's not in the Bible). The Charles character quotes a black poet who wrote a paraphrase of the creation account in Genesis. The end of the movie puts up a quote from the Book of Revelation (ch.21) about the coming of the New Heaven and New Earth. Amid all the human struggle in Five was a spiritual undercurrent.
While any mention of God seems to really rankle some sci-fi fans, the Christian cosmology makes an interesting background to the action in "Five." Man's self-destruction isn't seen as a Great Oops, but as expected. The modern world didn't make a wrong turn, so much as it knowingly drove off a cliff. The survival of a remnant is also, then, seen as prophesyed. The remnant of mankind didn't WILL itself to survive, but was ALLOWED to live. The more religiously minded 50s audiences would have gotten this. The more godless minded of today miss it completely.
Five is a pretty obscure little film. It wasn't easy to roust up a copy. But, if you're a fan of the post-apocalypse genre, this is like finding a lost great grandfather's trunk up in the attic.