Saturday, May 19, 2018

Five Million Years to Earth, a.k.a. Quatermass and the Pit (Hammer, 20th Century-Fox, 1967)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Mars movie screening ( consisted of two films of quite different levels of artistic interest and quality. The first was a 1967 production from Hammer Films called … well, in its native Britain it was called Quatermass and the Pit, but in the U.S. it was retitled Five Million Years to Earth. The reason for the title change was it was actually based on the third of four British TV miniseries written by Nigel Kneale and based on the character of Professor Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Keir), an annoying know-it-all who specializes in investigating whatsis’s and whatnots from outer space. The series began with The Quatermass Experiment in 1955 and that got turned into a film — as did its immediate sequel — with U.S. actor Brian Donlevy as Quatermass. Though Kneale had to wait nine years for this set of TV scripts to be turned into a movie (the first two Quatermass serials had been filmed within a year or two after the TV versions), he said it was the first film he’d actually liked because he though Andrew Keir a far better Quatermass than Donlevy, whom he described as an old U.S. character actor who was a hopeless alcoholic by the time the Quatermass films were made. (Incidentally I’d always assumed the name was pronounced like the word “quarter” with the first “r” removed, but the people in the movie pronounce the first two syllables to rhyme with “crater” — to my mind a much less attractive sound.) I must admit to a certain prejudice against this movie because of the circumstances under which I first saw it — it was double-billed with another Hammer production, a pretty standard sword-and-sandals film called The Viking Queen (which I liked better then but probably wouldn’t now), and my mom, my brother and I walked in on Five Million Years to Earth in the middle, tried to make heads or tails of what was going on, and ultimately tried the old trick of staying long enough through the next showing at least to see what we’d missed — and this is decidedly not a film that works seen out of sequence. 

In sequence, it seems a mixed bag, a surprising attempt given Hammer’s usual orientation (which was to take the old Universal monster movies and up both the sex and the gore) to do a Val Lewton-style chiller in which, at least until the end, the menace is unseen. The plot is about a group of workers at the Hobbs Lane subway station in London who are digging tunnels for an extension of the line until they uncover what look like human remains — only they’re not human: they’re ape-men who inhabited the planet five million years previously and they have much larger skulls than any known hominids, living or fossil, which presumably means they had bigger brains. The subway workers keep digging until they find a solid object that at first they believe — and the authorities concur — is a leftover bomb from World War II. But eventually they realize that it’s actually a spaceship and the ape-men were either the inhabitants of the ship from another planet or the aliens jump-started evolution and we’re the result. This is classed as a Mars movie because that’s supposedly where the aliens came from originally — the theory being that they could transport themselves between the planets but lacked the technology to make it here from another solar system — and while much of it is just people arguing either at the site of the excavation or in offices (Quatermass’s particular bane is British army colonel Breen, played by Julian Glover, who insists on treating the site as a bomb threat even when it’s apparent to virtually everyone else in the movie that it’s more than that), there are some quite good effects in which the evil energy lurking around the site makes the walls shake, blows crockery off shelves (in one scene a bartender serves Quatermass a whiskey in a coffee cup and apologizes, saying that the whatsit has broken all his good glasses) and in general menaces the surrounding population while itself remaining invisible. 

Unfortunately, though Kneale wrote the script himself and Roy Ward Baker (whose presence puts everyone in this cast one degree of separation from Marilyn Monroe; her first top-billed movie, 1952’s Don’t Bother to Knock, was directed by Baker) directed (quite effectively, given how much of this film takes place in tightly enclosed spaces), the “suits” at Hammer couldn’t resist a full-bore visible monster in the final reel, something which looks like a piece of cotton candy floating in mid-air and which is annihilated by one of the film’s leads, anthropologist Dr. Matthew Roney (James Donald, top-billed), when he smashes a construction crane into it, though apparently at the cost of his own life. Five Million Years to Earth is a difficult film to evaluate because it’s obviously trying so hard to be subtle, to be different, to be something beyond Hammer’s normal fare at the time — but at the same time it’s awfully dull through much of the running time and the human conflicts are pretty stock for this sort of drama (science vs. duty, and also the sexual conflicts involved since there’s one token woman in the dramatis personae, Barbara Judd, played by Barbara Shelley, though she comes off pretty much as just “one of the boys” instead of a possible romantic or sexual crush object). It’s a movie that still doesn’t work for me even though I liked it a lot better than I had the first time around!