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Friday, October 24, 2008

The 27th Day

This barely-known Columbia picture is a surprising gem among obscure 50s sci-fi. The cast is mostly, with a few notable exceptions, made up of actors outside of the usual B-sci-fi Hollywood stable. The story line is unmistakably driven by the Cold War ethos of the day. Yet, despite it's evident slim budget, The 27th Day strives for a much more intellectual tone. In fact, the story has parallels with that early 50s cerebral classic, The Day The Earth Stood Still ('51). This B-level effort has faded into an undeserved obscurity, perhaps for lack of following the expected (by 1957) formula for typical sci-fi.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Five specific people are taken off the earth to a flying saucer. Eve Wingate, a woman from Cornwall England: Jonathan Clark, an American journalist: Ivan Godofski, a Russian soldier: Professor Bechner, a German scientist: Su Tan, a Chinese widow. They are told by "The Alien" that the aliens' sun will nova in a month. They want the earth as a new home but cannot directly harm anyone. He gives each a clear plastic box containing three capsules. Each capsule can eliminate all humans within a 3000 mile circle, but harm nothing else. The capsules will become inert after 27 days. The aliens expect the humans to wipe themselves out, clearing the planet for them.
Su Tan commits suicide as soon as they return to earth. Her capsules turn to dust. Eve throws her capsules into the sea. Bechner is hit by a car and hospitalized. His capsules are studied by the American government. Eve joins Jon in Los Angeles and both go into hiding because the alien broadcasts the tale and their names to everyone. The Soviets torture Ivan into disclosing the secret of his box. They demand that the Americans pull all forces out of Europe and Asia or they'll use their capsules. They plan to do this anyway. The Americans test a capsule in an uninhabited Pacific region. The capsules work as described. On the 27th day, the Soviet General is about to use the first capsule on America, but Ivan attacks him, causing the capsules to drop to the street. Professor Bechner notices inscriptions on the capsules and recalls the alien's words, "a matter of life AND death." He concludes that the capsules can be used "for life" too. He puts the pin in the opposite end and calls out coordinates. The Russian General dies on the street before reaching the capsules. Used this way, only "bad" people die. Earth is saved. The people of earth invite the homeless aliens to live in earth's uninhabited regions. They accept. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Despite it's low budget and minimal effects, it's a decent thriller with some pretty weighty examinations of human nature. It's a good look at Cold War thinking.

Cold War Angle
This movie is all about the Cold War -- the threat of massive instantaneous death and human nature's predilection to use that power. It definitely paints elements within the Soviet military as the true problem -- a view eagerly accepted by 50s American audiences.

Deus ex Machina -- Many 50s sci-fi films cast aliens in the role of surrogate supernatural power who comes from "outside" to pronounce judgement, warn us or solve earth's problems. Klaatu from The Day the Earth Stood Still was a clear example. The unnamed "alien" in 27th Day serves a similar role of forcing earth's Cold War into a resolution -- either destruction or peace.

Nuclear Millennium -- There is a hopeful tone in 27th Day. By forcing mankind to deal with total elimination of the human race, the Alien brings about a "new millennium" suggestive of that when Christ returns after Armageddon and begins his thousand year reign. Only the "good" people enter into this new age, the evil and rebellious die in that last great battle.

Star Watch -- Gene Barry stars as Jonathan Clark. He starred in War of the Worlds ('53). Paul Birch plays a minor role as an Admiral. He starred as the father in Day the World Ended ('55). Arnold Moss plays the Alien. Fans of the first Star Trek TV series would recognize him as Anton Karidian / Kodos from the "Conscience of the King" episode. Paul Frees plays a TV anchor man. He's one of those distinctive narrator voices in many 50s sci-fi movies.

Wise Women -- Where women usually get short shrift in 50s movies, they are portrayed as the noble and wise ones here. Su Tan gives her life (suicide) in order to neutralize her capsules. Eve throws hers into the sea. This is exactly what Professor Bechner says. "If we were a stable, mature people, this would be nothing. We would have promptly tossed the capsules into the nearest sewer." "Or ocean," adds Jon.

Villain Vision -- Communist states are painted as the clear villain. The Soviet General becomes the American personification of Cold War Russia. "I am prepared to destroy all human life on the north american continent..." Later, he declares, "Democracies are appeasers. If the Americans cannot be provoked into a war, they must be bombed into it." Note that the glimpse we're given of Communist China is a brutal one. Soldiers are burning a village and shoot Su-Tan's husband.

Ivan the Good -- As a counterpoint to the belligerent Soviet General, Private Godofski is regular person, son of a loving mother. At first, Ivan withholds the secret of the capsules, knowing how his commanders would use them. He endures torture to keep the secret, but succumbs to appeals of safety for his mother, etc. Ivan also rushes the General, interrupting the annihilation. Ivan is the writer giving us the other side of the coin. Not all Russians are bad -- they just have some evil leaders.

Bottom line? 27th Day is hard to find, but worth the search. It is entertaining as a study in human nature and Cold War thinking.


Anonymous said...

A terrific little film, well worth the effort to find it.

Unknown said...

Wow !!!
Amazing blog !!!
Keep up the good job !!!
WHat years those !!!

Unknown said...

Howdy Buckeroos,

This is one of my favorite science fiction/dramas.

The plot line is excellent. It plays on human foibles.

The acting is superb.

Gene Barry and Valerie French have great chemistry.

Let's face it, Valerie French is lovely, as she was in "The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake".

If you want special effects, don't blink or you will miss them.

Load up your dvd player and have a good time.


thingmaker said...

I really think that this movie pisses away pretty much all the goodwill it accrues through interesting ideas, decent treatment of women etc by that final business of having the capsules able to eliminate "- every person in the world known to be a confirmed enemy of human freedom."
I mean... Damn. This movie reached the level of "Red Planet Mars" in one fifteen second spiral at that point.