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Friday, August 29, 2008

The Mole People

This is one of Universal's lesser known 50s sci-fi films. Mole People doesn't fit the usual sci-fi formula. Electronics, radiation or rockets don't factor in. Instead, features archeology as the science. It is a variation on Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. It stars B-movie stalwart John Agar as the lead scientist and Hugh Beaumont (who would be the dad on Leave it to Beaver) as his sidekick. In many ways, Mole People is a typical B-movie, but is still entertaining and even a little thought provoking.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Archeologists working near the Himalayas find a cuneiform tablet that tells of a lost sumerian civilization. They organize a mountain climbing expedition to look for more artifacts. Well above the snow line, they find the ruins of a sumerian temple. One of their party falls down a deep hole. The rescue party find the man dead. A cave-in traps them underground. They follow caves to find a huge cavern, lit by luminous rocks. In it is a similar sumerian temple and small city. While they sleep, mole men capture them. Human guards take them from. The king (of their albino world) orders the strangers executed. They fight the feeble guards and flee back into the caves. Bentley's (Agar) flashlight hurts the guards' eyes. They flee. Mole men get the third scientist, who was claustrophobic. The king rescinds his decree, considers the men semi-divine since they have the "fire of Ishtar". He gives Bentley a servant girl who has normal pigmented skin. As guests, they're toured around. They see that the albinos use the mole men as slaves (abusively) to harvest the mushrooms -- the only food in the underworld. The high priest knows the men are mere mortals and wants their flashlight. When Bentley successfully breaks up a punishment (albinos whipping mole men), his flashlight goes dead. However, a mole man seems touched by the rescue. The mole men revolt, meaning there is less food. To balance the population to the food supply, the high priest orders three women sacrificed to "The Fire of Ishtar". This is a blindingly bright chamber which kills them. Bentley and Bellamin are drugged, then thrown into the chamber too. Servant girl runs for help to the mole men. They rise up and storm the palace. The priest wields the dead flashlight to no avail and is killed. Bentley and Bellamin are rescued, but no need. The Fire of Ishtar is a sunbeam. Joined by the servant girl, they all climb the tall shaft to the surface. All seems like a happy ending until an earthquake hits. A stone column rolls onto Adad, killing her. The quake also fills in the shaft. The two worlds are separate again. The end.

Why is this movie fun?
With so much focus on outer space, an inner space story is refreshing. Sure, it still has all of the usual B-film shortcomings, but the second half moves along pretty well.

Cold War Angle
While full of social commentary, Mole People has little connection to the Cold War. Only the underworld priest's oppression and control of 'the truth' might stretch to suggest communist despotism. This, however, is a bit of a stretch.

Notes
The Face of Science -- Dr. Frank C. Baxter, who gives a longish introduction to the movie, really was a university professor (of English). He had become a bit of a screen celebrity with a "Shakespeare on TV" series on CBS in 1953. He had become an archetype for educational television -- sage but affable, expert but engaging. His intro to Mole People lends the movie an air of credibility (just a bit)

Is it Sci-fi? -- The genre can get pigeon-holed. It must feature a rocket, a saucer, some aliens or techno-gizmo in order to be 'real' sci-fi. That's too narrow of a definition. Science includes chemistry, featured in Man in the White Suit ('51), physics in Magnetic Monster ('53) and biology, as in the many franken-copies. We'll even see geology play a role in Monolith Monsters ('57). In this movie, it's archeology which is the catalyst. Besides, Dr. Baxter says in the intro that the movie is science fiction. If the creators thought so, who are we to argue?

Touchy Allegory -- In the mid-50s, the civil rights issue was just starting to heat up for mainstream America. The underworlders' brutal oppression of the mole men amounts to a careful allegory for the oppression of black Americans. Note how the mole men are not mere beasts. They respond with gratitude at being rescued from the beating. They respond in kind to save Bentley and Bellamin.

Let My People Go -- In keeping with the previous note, notice the similarity between the scene of the underworlder guards whipping the mole men in their little pits, and the iconic scene in The Ten Commandments (playing earlier in 1956) where the egyptians are whipping the hebrews in the mud pits. This parallel further sympathizes the mole men. This scene also connects to the Civil Rights Movement, recalling the black culture's fondness for the song about Moses with the line "Let my people go..."

NOT After our women -- Despite the poster, the mole men show no interest in human women. The one brief scene with a mole man dragging Adad into his pit, is her escaping the guards and seeking out the mole men for help.

Bad Men -- A less obvious social commentary comes in the underworlders' attitude towards their women. There is the usual job status. The women are servant girls and dancers. But also notice that when the population needed thinning, the men sent three women to their deaths in the Fires of Ishtar. A subtle indictment of the chauvinist world?

Bottom line? Mole People is pretty "lite" on the science part of science-fiction, but is fairly engaging as an encounter with an "alien" civilization. The social commentaries are good for pondering on. It's still a B-movie, so cinematic expectations shouldn't get too high, but it's still worth watching.

1 comment:

John Drake said...

Howdy Film Fans,


In the grand scheme of things, this is a fairly obscure film.

First, let’s get past the holes in the plot – it is entertainment, not a documentary.

The story line is good, hollow earth/lost civilization.

The acting is sound, especially Nestor Paiva when his character loses it.

The sacrifice scene of the “maidens” is pretty heavy for its time.

Basically fun to watch.


See you at the movies, if I start snoring please wake me up,

John