Monday, June 20, 2011
The World, The Flesh and The Devil
Released the same year (1959) as the grim apocalyptic movie On The Beach, Ranald MacDougall's The World, The Flesh and The Devil (WFD) is also grimly apocalyptic, but not so totally pessimistic. It is also far less remembered. With a cast of just three (Harry Belafonte, Inger Stevens and Mel Ferrer) the story is effectively about loneliness. WFD is sometimes classified as a sci-fi movie. There is no real science in the fiction, beyond references to radiation. Post-apocalyptic movies often were sci-fi, so that may be enough of a connection. WFD is also a social commentary about racism (in both directions).
Quick Plot Synopsis
Ralph Burton, a black coal miner, is checking out an unused tunnel for reports of flooding. He is trapped by a cave in. He can hear rescue crews digging, so he isn't worried even though it has been several days. When the digging stops, he frantically digs himself out. When he reaches the surface, he finds mine complex abandoned. Newspapers in the office tell of an approaching radioactive cloud and mass evacuation, "End of the World." The mining town is empty too. Ralph hot wires a car in showroom and plots his course for New York City. The bridges and tunnels into Manhattan are all clogged with empty cars. On Staten Island, he finds a small motor boat which he uses to cross the river. The city is completely empty. Trash and a few wrecked cars tell of the evacuation panic. Ralph finds a radio station building still running on its generator. He listens to recordings of the end times -- clouds of toxic sodium isotopes and reports of one city after another failing to respond. Ralph decides to make do as best he can. He gathers supplies and a generator to set up a home in an apartment building. He even collects some manikins to provide companionship. Yet, Ralph is not alone. A young woman named Sarah has watched him for weeks, unsure if he was insane or not. When Ralph throws one of his manikins over the balcony, she screams, thinking it was him committing suicide. Now Ralph knows he's not alone. The two begin a guarded friendship as the only two people left alive. Ralph rigs up a generator to Sarah's building (some distance away) Eventually, Sarah develops feelings for Ralph. He, however, remains aloof, unable to reconcile his status as black man in a white man's world, etc. Their uneasy relationship is further disturbed when Ben Thacker pilots his sloop into New York harbor. Ben had been sailing remote seas, so escaped the cloud. But, his deprivation left him very sick. Ralph acts as amateur doctor and nurses Ben back to health. Ralph becomes even more aloof, allowing Ben to woo Sarah. She, however, still has feelings for Ben. Angry at her rebuff, Ben decides the only way to really win over Sarah is to eliminate Ralph. He gets guns and tells Ralph he's going to hunt him down. The two go through an extended man-hunts-man duel in the empty city streets. Ralph sees the "Isaiah Wall" near the UN that quotes the bible verse about beating swords into plowshares. From that, he decides not to fight. Ralph confronts Ben without a gun. Ben cannot kill him, so turns to go. Sarah arrives. She takes Ralph by the hand, then calls to Ben too. The three of the walk, hand in hand, down the empty streets. "The Beginning" zooms in. The End.
The first half of WFD is classic post-apocalypic story telling. The scenes of a huge, once-teeming city totally abandoned, are stark and powerful. Like many other immediately-post-apocalypse stories (e.g. Five (1951), Target Earth ('54), End of the World ('55), etc.) MOST people are wiped out, but a tiny remnant survive to rebuild. Audiences could accept nuclear apocalypses, as long as someone survived. Perhaps everyone imagined that they would be among the survivors. That is what all those bomb shelters promised.
Impact on Sci-fi
Though less well-known, MacDougall's WFD had its artistic influence. Ralph's collecting of manikins for company -- talking to them as companions -- was played up in a more modern "last man" movie: I Am Legend, starring Will Smith. Matheson's novel, "I Am Legend", and its first movie iteration, Last Man on Earth ('64) didn't have this. The second movie iteration of Matheson's novel, Omega Man ('71), echoed the manikin scene just a bit when Heston talks to his bust of Caesar. Owing more to WFD was Heston's powered and fortified home. This looked very similar to Ralph's building -- a lit oasis amid the dark desolation.
Cold War Message -- Like many atomic angst films of the 50s and early 60s, WFD was a cautionary tale about the devastation lurking just around the corner.
The Title -- The three characters do not somehow fit the three nouns in the title. The title itself was applied to a silent film in 1914 (different story) and to several novels. It comes from the Anglican "Book of Common Prayer." The full quote is: "From all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil, spare us, good Lord." Rather than looking for congruence with the characters, The deceit of The World is that set of standards and biases of the pre-apocalyptic world that all three of them struggle with. The deceit of The Flesh is pretty clearly the carnal desire as typified by Ben's unchivalrous lust for Sarah. The deceit of The Devil is that notion that one should kill to get one's way. Ben succumbs to this. Ralph almost does. Apropos of the title's origins, it was a fairly famous Bible verse from Isaiah 2:4, "...they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." which breaks the Devil's spell on Ralph. This verse is carved on a curved wall near the UN building in New York.
Based On The Book -- The modern (nuclear) story by Ferdinand Reyher, was based on a 1901 novel by M. P. Shiel, entitled "The Purple Cloud." Shiel's novel is also a last-man-on-earth story, but the agent that wipes out everyone else is a mysterious purple cloud. Reyher updated that part for the atomic angst age. Shiel also had his main character act a bit daft from his isolation and stumble upon a young woman. Shiel's last-man rejected the last-woman, at first, but eventually they got together. Reyher kept this element too, though via different circumstances.
Racism Both Ways -- Reyher and MacDougall put forth a commentary on black-white racism, which was a pretty hot and sensitive topic in 1959. The Civil Rights Movement was gaining media attention. There were lynchings and killings over black men's impropriety (real or imagined) to white women. With that backdrop, having very-white Stevens expressing love for black Belefonte was pretty radical stuff. The close-up at the end, of her white hand clasping his black hand was the sort of thing that got men killed. Yet, the script cuts both ways. Sarah had her banal racism, as exemplified by her comment that she could live wherever she liked because she was "Free, White and 21." But racism isn't just for white folks. Ralph also holds onto his resentment, even though everyone who ever oppressed him was dead. He also holds onto his presumption that black men should not like white women. Ben isn't so much a racist as a ruthless lusting man. He doesn't want to kill Ralph because he's black, but because Sarah won't let go of her fondness for Ralph as long as he was alive.
Corpse-less Doom? -- Some viewers are disappointed (or miffed) that the streets are not littered with rotting corpses. Part of the reason for this was budget. In large part, however, it is a logical part of the story. Shiel's novel did describe boat loads (literally) of corpses, but his purple cloud was an unheralded killer. There was ample warning in WFD of the radioactive cloud. Newspapers and the radio recordings tell of mass evacuations. The bridges and tunnels were clogged with cars, all abandoned as people fled the cloud on foot. There weren't any bodies visible in the streets because everyone left. There could be a few, of those who stayed, but they could easily be indoors. WFD's empty city is much like the empty city in Target Earth was was evacuated.
Bottom line? WFD is well worth watching for its atomic angst flavor, but also just for the visuals and the drama. It is a well-done film. Some may balk at the tidy hand-in-hand ending, but viewers should just roll with how the movie shifts from simple last-man story to social allegory.