Monday, September 28, 2015

World Without End (Allied Artists, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago the third film on the triple bill at the Vintage Sci-Fi screening in Golden Hill turned out to be unexpectedly interesting: World Without End, a 1956 production by Allied Artists, nèe Monogram, directed and written by Edward Bernds, who began as the sound recorder for the 1930’s shorts featuring the Three Stooges. Eventually he rose through the ranks to start directing the Stooges as well — his first film as director, the 1945 radio spoof Micro-Phonies, is considered by Leonard Maltin to be the Stooges’ best short — and by the 1950’s he had become a feature-film director, oddly concentrating on science fiction. Some of his sci-fi movies, including the 1958 howler Queen of Outer Space starring Zsa Zsa Gabor, are pretty silly, but this one is quite good even though the first 15 minutes or so are pretty slow going. Like the other two movies on the Vintage Sci-Fi bill, La Jetée and Beyond the Time Barrier, World Without End is about a post-apocalyptic future in which humanity has experienced a self-inflicted catastrophe (a nuclear war) that has essentially destroyed most of civilization and left the world in shambles. A crew of four astronauts on a mission to Mars — John Borden (the rather wooden Hugh Marlowe, inflicted on Bernds by his producer after the actors he really wanted, Sterling Hayden and Frank Lovejoy, were too expensive); Dr. Eldon Galbraithe (Nelson Leigh); Herbert Ellis (Rod Taylor); and Henry “Hank” Jaffe (Christopher Dark) — loop around the Red Planet and get to look at it from their spaceship but aren’t allowed to land there. They’re put out about this but that turns out to be the least of their worries: like the lone test pilot in Beyond the Time Barrier, their loop accidentally puts them through a gap in the space-time continuum so they end up landing not on Mars, but on Earth; and not in 1956, but in the 25th century. Humanity has split into two races, the Mutates (which Bernds thought sounded cooler than “mutants,” the accepted term now) who live on the surface, look monstrous (as monstrous as an Allied Artists production budget could make them, anyway) and have reverted to a barbarous existence — they’re led by a leader named Naga (I inevitably joked they were going to kill him and turn his skin into Nagahyde) who got power by killing the previous leader and will rule until someone else kills him — and the other ones, the more “civilized” but also more effete group who’ve hid out underground.

Led by Timmek (Everett Glass), the underground race is governed by a council of five; Timmek is nominally the chair but the real power belongs to Moires (Booth Colman), who insists on taking the astronauts’ guns away because he doesn’t want to see any recurrence of the sort of violence that left the world in this pickle in the first place. Of course Timmek has a daughter, Garnet (Nancy Gates), who immediately falls for John Borden — as does her maid Deena (Lisa Montell), a former dweller on the surface who was left to die because that’s what the Mutates do to anyone who’s actually born good-looking (which couldn’t help but remind me of Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints driving out the young, hot teenage boys from their community for fear the young, hot teenage girls will fall for them and not want to become the “plural wives” of the old and middle-aged horndogs running the place) and was rescued by the undergrounders. As one “Trivia” poster noted at great length — and as was obvious to me while watching the movie — World Without End is an elaborate allegory of the Cold War from a Right-wing perspective: the Mutates are the Communists and the undergrounders are the effete weaklings of the Free World too scared of violence to stand up to them and fight them like men. They need the astronauts from 20th century Earth to stand up and teach them to fight. At one point Gordon says that the women of the underground society seem to have the guts; it’s only the men who have turned terminally weak from their long lives underground hiding from the enemies instead of going to the surface and facing them head-on. Moires steals the astronauts’ guns from the place he’s hidden them and knocks Deena over the head with one, then tries to frame Gordon for the crime — but Deena comes to, tells Garnet and Timmek what really happened, and the astronauts head for the surface with Deena in tow because she’s the only one around who speaks the Mutates’ language. Once there, they use a crudely-made rocket launcher (fabricated for them by the undergrounders’ workmen once Timmek has been convinced by Moires’ treachery that the astronauts are right and the time has come for armed resistance) to flush out the Mutates in general and Naga in particular, and Gordon challenges Naga to one-on-one combat with only a knife and a tomahawk, the closest he has to the crude weapons of the Mutates. Of course Gordon wins, kills Naga, claims that as Naga’s killer he has the right to rule the Mutates, and sets them to work building settlements on the earth’s surface so they and the undergrounders can reunite the human race as the surface-dwellers we were meant to be.

What was interesting about that ending is not only that the unwitting time travelers did not get to return to their own time, as they did (more or less) in the other two films on the bill, but that it anticipates THX 1138, Logan’s Run and Divergent in this intriguing sub-genre of science fiction in which a race of humans is living underground because they’ve been told the surface is too dangerously radioactive or otherwise hostile to human life — which may have been true at one time but isn’t by the time the story takes place because enough of the radioactivity has dissipated the surface is habitable again, but the people running the underground society either don’t realize that themselves or keep that realization a secret from their people. The proprietor of the Vintage Sci-Fi screenings showed World Without End from a 4:3 print on a VHS tape and announced his frustration that immediately after he’d announced the screening, he learned that the film was coming out on DVD in a letterboxed version — which would really help; the people who prepared the 4:3 version didn’t even bother to pan-and-scan it. Instead they just showed whatever was dead center in the middle of the original CinemaScope image, which means there are an awful lot of shots with half-people at either end of the screen. While there are a lot of other movies I want to see before going through World Without End again, the announcement that a DVD is available is awfully tempting — especially since the DVD probably also has considerably more vibrant color than the faded version on VHS we were watching — and even though the politics of this movie aren’t mine, the fact that it has political and social commentary makes it unusual for a 1950’s sci-fi movie, while the listing of Sam Peckinpah as uncredited dialogue director ties it in to the major films Peckinpah made later, which also offered the “moral” that humans cannot be fully alive and protect what is near and dear to them without being able and willing to resort to intense amounts of violence.