Thursday, 25 July 2013

World Without End (1956)

World Without End is a movie that combines time travel and post-apocalyptic themes in a rather clichéd manner, but fortunately it does have other things going for it.

This 1956 US feature is clearly a very low-budget offering but in this case the paucity of the budget is not a great problem.

The first manned mission to Mars seems to be going well until suddenly contact is lost with the spacecraft. The spacecraft has been sucked into one of those mysterious time-space vortex thingies that science fiction movies would be lost without. Eventually the astronauts bring their ship down on the surface of a planet, but what planet? Their instruments had told them that they had reached a truly incredible speed so they could be just about anywhere.

It doesn’t take long for them to suspect that the planet is not Mars. In fact it looks a lot like Earth. Not surprisingly they soon find that it is Earth, but not the Earth they knew. There are no cities and no signs of civilisation. When they are attacked by strange human-like creatures they know that something is very wrong.

They are on Earth, but more than five centuries into their ow future. Civilisation has been devastated by one of those nuclear wars that were such a tedious feature of science fiction films from the 50s right up to the 70s.

They do eventually find civilisation. The survivors of the war took refuge underground and that’s where they have remained, even though radiation levels on the surface have now fallen to perfectly safe levels. The fact that they have refused to return to the surface is the first indication to our space travellers that perhaps all is not quite right with this civilisation. That first impression turns out to be all too accurate.

This underground city is dying. And it is dying from a lack of confidence. Or as the commander of the astronaut crew puts it more bluntly, from a lack of guts. They were so traumatised by the war that they have become overly inward-looking, excessively timid, excessively cautious and very pessimistic. They have also become so peace-loving that it threatens their very survival. They will not use weapons, even to defend themselves. Although they could easily overcome the feeble resistance of the sad pathetic mutants who now rule the planet’s surface they are afraid to do so.

They are ruled by a council of old men led by Timmek. Timmek is well-meaning but he’s as negative as the rest of them.

More fatally, this population has become so pessimistic and so enfeebled that they are no longer reproducing themselves. The women seem healthy and cheerful, but the men are sallow, craven and ineffectual. Their fear and their obsessive desire for peace at all costs has emasculated them. It’s no wonder the women of this subterranean city are fascinated by the 20th century astronauts - they’re the first real men they’ve seen in centuries.

The astronauts are grateful enough for having been given shelter but they have no intention of spending the rest of their lives cowering beneath the earth. If they can’t get back to the 20th century they would at least like to see the sunlight occasionally. They make the Council an offer - if they can be provided with weapons for self-defence they will help to rebuild a civilisation on the surface. Their offer is flatly rejected. Even using weapons for self-defence is forbidden.

There are some romantic complications, caused by the fact that the women of the 26th century are very attracted to the men of the 20th century. These romanic entanglements will combine with the jealousies of Mories, the most dogmatic of the Council members, to bring matters to a head with profound consequences for the future of humanity.

The acting is generally reasonable, with a pre-stardom Rod Taylor (as astronaut Herb Ellis) being perhaps the standout. Writer-director Edward Bernds was responsible for a number of highly entertaining 50s cult movies and he does a solid job. Having a sci-fi set on Earth obviates the need for elaborate special effects. Visually the movie looks quite good for a low-budget movie. It was shot in Technicolor and Cinemascope so clearly the budget wasn’t rock-bottom.

The movie makes its points quite effectively, those points being that civilisation is something you have to be prepared to fight to defend and that an excessive desire for peace can be as fatal as an excessive fondness for war. A culture composed entirely of Neville Chamberlains is unlikely to have much of a future. This theme is actually more relevant today than it was in 1956 given that our civilisation today is showing many of the same symptoms that threaten the survival of the movie’s underground civilisation, especially its deadly lack of self-confidence and optimism.

MGM released this movie on a Midnite Movies double-bill, paired with Satellite in the Sky. World Without End is presented in a superb anamorphic transfer.

World Without End is good 1950s sci-fi, combining ideas with entertainment (which is after all what sci-fi should be all about). Recommended.

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