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Friday, April 20, 2012

Battle Beneath The Earth

For Digression Week, we go back to 1968 and what might make a good double feature companion to Beneath the Planet of the Apes. MGM's British arm created Cold War potboiler with Marines battling a private Chinese army who tunneled under the Pacific with lasers (!) so they can plant nukes our key defense sites. Battle Beneath The Earth (BBE) was released in the UK in 1967 and in America in 1968. It stars Kerwin Mathews, famous as the swashbuckling Sinbad in Columbia's 7th Voyage of Sinbad ('58).

Quick Plot Synopsis
Arnold is institutionalized because he hears digging underground. His sister seeks the help of Navy Commander Shaw. A string of coincidental cave-ins suggest that Arnold might have been right. With advanced listening devices, and the entire country being quiet for a hour or so, the Navy figure out the network of tunnels. Exploring one of them, off a coal mine, reveals a chamber full of atomic bombs and some chinese workers. Shaw and his men kill all the workers and disarm all but two of the bombs. Rogue Chinese general Lu is displeased that his plan to subdue America has been set back. He orders more bombs. Meanwhile, the Navy have reverse-engineered Lu's laser boring technology. A team, including the shapely Tila Yung as the geologist, descend a Hawaiian volcano shaft to intercept the bomb train. They find the tunnel, but Arnold is ambushed and captured by Lu's men. He is brainwashed into betraying the whole squad into getting captured. Shaw, Tila and others escape. Arnold sacrifices himself to distract the search parties. Shaw, Tila and Sgt. Mulberry ambush the train's guards, steal their uniforms, then hijack the bomb train. Lu and his men give chase, but a few grenades collapse the tunnel behind the train. While Lu's men dig away the debris, Shaw rigs up one of the bombs to blow up in 10 minutes. He, Tila and Mulberry run away. When Lu's men break through, they hear the bomb will explode and run away. Lu, alone, cannot disarm it, so sits down to be blown up. Shaw, Tila and Mulberry make it to the surface in time to watch the Bikini Atoll test explosion. As Shaw puts a tend hand on Tila's shoulder, they watch the mushroom cloud morph into a golden sunset. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
BBE is like a cross between the Batman TV series, a low-budget James Bond, and The Navy vs. the Night Monsters ('66). The premise, the action, the sets, the props -- it's all so comicbook that it can't help but be fun.

Cold War Angle Here, it's not the commies, but an independent General who gets control of nukes. Cold War weapons stockpiles become the tools of a rogue tyrant-wannabe. His master plan was to disable both sides (East and West), then become master of the re-building world.

Tunnel-phobia -- Writer "L.Z. Hargreaves" (pen name for the producer, Charles F. Vetter) chose a topic familiar to British culture -- fear of invasion by tunnels. The British worried about being invaded by tunnels from France since Napoleon's day. During the British "Invasion Scare" literary period (1870-1918), when the British weren't worrying about ship-borne invaders, they were worrying about them tunneling under the channel. Novels like "England in Danger" and "The Battle for the Channel Tunnel" fed those fears. There's even a story in Adelaide's "The Mail", March 30, 1946, about fears that the Nazis were digging a tunnel into England in 1941. The text describes scientists in old drainage tunnels, listening with headphones for any sound of enemy digging. Just like in BBE!

Evil Underground -- The trope of bad guys underground has its history in sci-fi as well. In Invaders From Mars ('53), the martians dug extensive tunnels and used them to abduct humans. The giant mutant ants in Them! ('54) were fought by the army in tunnels. In '63, The Slime People dug tunnels and invaded.

Crazy Casting -- One of BBE's quirky charms is the weird casting choices. Martin Benson ( a tall square-jawed British actor) plays General Chan Lu. Peter Elliot plays his evil scientist sidekick. Both have their eyes vaguely made up to look oriental. Both talk with a hint of a Charlie Chan accent. Very few actual asians play the chinese. Since the story is supposed to be taking place on America's west coast, the several other British actors speak with thick "American" accents, which they don't always keep. Arnold is the most notable.

Seriously? -- Several little things in BBE can leave the viewer asking the screen, "Seriously?" The squad of regular Marines which Shaw leads, each just happens to know how to disarm a Mark 3 atomic bomb. Wow. They're well trained. Tila, the trained geologist, didn't know that molten rock would burn her up. What? Add to that, that Tila doesn't wear underwear beneath her jumpsuit? Huh? But the poster did promise viewers some deep cleavage. And, the best of all, Shaw, Tila and Mulberry are able to outrun the blast of an atom bomb with just a 10 minute head start. At a good full run, that would put them about two miles away. That sounds safe enough.

Just Plane Crazy -- For fans of Cold War era jets, there is a brief air show fly-over (the usual stock footage effect to suggest military readiness). In the flyover, you'll see in the first row, a B-66 Destroyer, a B-52 Stratofortress and a B-47 Stratojet. They are followed by an F-86 Sabre , a B-57 Canbera, and a F-101 Voodoo. Quite the sampler platter of planes! (If one cares about such things)

Bottom line? BBE is "lite", absurd entertainment, not thoughtful science fiction. Watch it as a movie version of a Batman episode, or a Get Smart episode with no jokes. If you do, it can be fun. BBE is a thoroughly B-grade film, so a fine double feature companion for Beneath the Planet of the Apes ('70). BBE also has a hunky hero, a doe-eyed babe, enemies living in tunnels, and a nuke underground which is blown up in the end.


Maurice Mitchell said...

With a title like that I'm not surprised it didn't hold up.
- Maurice Mitchell
The Geek Twins | Film Sketchr
@thegeektwins | @mauricem1972

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