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Thursday, May 10, 2012

No Blade of Grass

Apocalyptic movies were still much in style in the early 70s. Nuclear armageddon had to share time with other causes, though. Bio-geddon was a popular second. An obscure member of this group was No Blade of Grass (NBG). Based on the 1956 novel by John Christopher, the screenplay was co-written by, then produced and directed by Cornel Wilde. Nigel Davenport (who we had just seen in The Life of Mr. Soames) stars as the hero father trying to save his family amid the collapse of civilization.

Quick Plot Synopsis
People in a London pub carry on their consumption while the television, barely noticed, tells the backstory. A virus emerged in China which kills off plants in the grass family -- such as rice. Failure of the harvest caused massive famine and riots. The Chinese were rumored to have bombed their own cities to reduce the population. The virus has spread to wheat, oats, barley, etc. (all grasses) and to other areas. Roger, a government worker, tells John Custance (Davenport) that the government is taking the virus seriously and has some severe plans. That night, Roger calls John, telling him to get his family out of London immediately, as the city will be closed in the morning. He packs his wife, Ann, and teen daughter Mary into the car. They and Roger get out just in time. Their goal is John's brother's farm in the north. They get their young son, David, from his boarding school. En route, they pass through rioting mobs. They try to buy some guns but don't have the proper papers. They get the guns anyhow, and joined by Pirrie and his wife Clara. Rapists ambush John's car, raping his wife and Mary. All but one rapist are shot -- one by Ann herself. Another band steal their cars so they have to proceed on foot. Along the way, Pirrie's wife plays the flirty tart with John. Pirrie shoots Clara in jealous rage. Suddenly single, Pirrie takes a shine to Mary. Much tension, resolved by Mary accepting his attentions. (Despite his recent track record.) Their group merges with another, larger group, as John tells them of the wonderful valley of his brother. After much trudging though bleak Yorkshire hills dotted with dead animals, the group is best by a biker gang. The well-armed group takes cover amid boulders and holds off the circling bikers and even thwarting a biker charge. Once they get to the valley, John's brother won't let the group in. There's not enough food to support them all. He offers to let John and family sneak in, but John declines. Instead, he rallies his group to attack his brother's wall. John and Pirrie pick off several sentries in the pre-dawn light. Pirrie shoots the brother, but dies of a gunshot. The rest of the men storm the wall with ladders and take it. The men defending the valley surrender. John brings his group in and is the new leader. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Apocalyptic movies aren't "fun" per se, but they have become common enough to invite some compare-and-contrast exercises which can be fun. NBG shares features with many other films. More on those in the Notes section below.

Cultural Connection
Environmentalism was just starting to be a hot-button issue. It would grow to rival Radiation as the bugaboo of choice in the post-Cold-War world. For example: Toho Studios used Godzilla as a metaphor for nuclear war in 1954. In 1971 Toho would bring us Heorah: The Smog Monster. Pollution would assume many of the same magical qualities that radiation did in the 50s. It could create, transform things, and even think -- in villainous ways, of course. Watch for the magical new moister as the 70s progress. Much later, we'll see The Day the Earth Stood Still remade, but with mankind's sin being pollution instead of nuclear arms.

By The Book -- The movie version of NBG follows the novel fairly well, with some of the usual necessary deviations when going from print to screen. The most significant deviation, however, was the heavy-handed insertion of pollution as the ultimate case of doom. In the novel, the Chung-Li virus arises in China with no described cause. There is little, if any, preaching about pollution. The virus became the global scourge through bureaucratic bungling.

Themes Familiar -- NBG has a lot in common with the 1962 film Panic in the Year Zero ('62), which also features a strong father trying to preserve his family amidst the collapse of civilization after an apocalyptic event. PYZ also has a conflicted (soft) mother, a gun shop scene, a rape scene, and ends with the family making it to safety. Then too, you have the Valley of Safety in Day the World Ended ('55), which also featured a strong father, a lovely daughter, a tough guy and a floozy. The flight to safety is also reminiscent of Wilde's own 1966 film, The Naked Prey, in which a lone European is pursued through the African savannah by natives until he reaches his own Valley of Safety -- a colonial fort.  Of course, both NBG and PYZ harken to Moses leading the Israelites from Egypt (the bad place with famine and death) to the Promised Land, while encountering hostiles along the way (The biker gang as Amalekites, etc.) and even the crossing a river and fighting the original inhabitants (Canaanites) to posses the Promised Land.

Tedious Eco-Brimstone -- Wilde inserted FAR too many ecology harangues. Smoke stacks belching smoke, industrial runoff, dead fish, oil-soaked birds, and dead animals, etc. They weren't salient to the plot, but just there to browbeat the audience with how nasty pollution is. Shame on you all! The shaggy street corner "prophets" of the new Mother Earth cult would be every bit as strident, preaching eco-hell for our enviro-sins. Juxtaposing images of starving Africans with close-ups of Brits chewing big mouthfuls was such flagrant "liberal" nagging that it bordered on comical. Comedy was probably not Wilde's intention.

Early Global Warming -- An interesting tidbit, almost tossed in offhand, is the whole (current) global warming topic -- but 35 years before Al Gore took it mainstream. Young David says (as voiceover) "The earth is getting warmer because all the pollution is keeping the heat in and the polar ice caps will melt. Everybody will be drowned." This was more of a deluvian doom, (ala Noah) than is currently in vogue, but NBG had Global Warming back in 1970!

Flash-Forward Flaw? -- Many viewers have been put off by Wilde's use of flash forwards, feeling that they ruin the surprise or break the viewer's sense of experiencing the story alongside the characters. Awkward as they are, Wilde had a reason for them. For instance, early on, Mary is coyly telling Roger that she doesn't think she needs her virginity anymore. She says he should make her "a woman." Wilde then inserts a flash-forward clip of the rape scene. She would lose her virginity alright, but not at all the way she presumed. Wilde inserted many other flash forwards, using them as an exo-narrative commentary, undermining the characters' presumptions. The terrible new world was not going to work the way they imagined.

Bottom line? NBG has its flaws, but is still an intriguing look at the collapse of civilization due to global famine. Some of the film's flaws may stem from the usual pitfalls when the same man writes, produces and directs. The author's original premise remains thought-provoking. NBG is obscure, but worth the effort for fans of post-apocalypse movies.


CavedogRob said...

This movie is hard to find. Thanks for reminding me I have to check it out. Nice review!

Maurice Mitchell said...

Nice review of a forgotten classic. FYI, I decided to share this in our weekly link list. Check it out!
- Maurice Mitchell
The Geek Twins
@thegeektwins | @mauricem1972