Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The 27th Day (1957)

The 27th Day, a relatively low-budget film from an independent production company but released by Columbia, makes use of some of the more popular clichés of 1950s science fiction movies but it at least has the virtue of combining them in unusual and original ways.

Five people from various parts of the globe, apparently chosen at random, are kidnapped by aliens. The alien leader is the sort of alien leader you expect in such a movie - he lectures us about the violent ways of humans and our determination to destroy ourselves with the H-bomb. The usual dreary lecturing that we always get from wise aliens. And of course he tells us that his own planet is dying and that his people need a new planet. A planet just like the Earth. But of course the aliens are far more moral than we are and would never destroy any intelligent life form.

Then he throws a curve ball. He tells the five people that each of them will be given a weapon. A super-weapon in the form of three small capsules, capable of causing devastation on a scale that makes the H-bomb look like a child’s fireworks. If in 27 days these five people have not destroyed the Earth then the aliens will depart peacefully. The aliens are relying on our well-known violence and wickedness and our determination to destroy ourselves, etc etc. Then the aliens throw in an act of treachery that makes it obvious that they’re actually far less moral than we are. They take over the airwaves to tell the people of Earth what they have done, assuming that the resultant panic will achieve their object of manipulating us into destroying ourselves.

Of the five chosen people one is a Chinese peasant girl, one is a German physicist, one is a newspaper reporter from LA and one is a young Englishwoman from Cornwall. The fifth person is (and this is the clincher) a young soldier from an unnamed country behind the Iron Curtain, a country that is clearly the Soviet Union.

The five people react in different ways. One commits suicide. One ends up in a hospital in the US but refuses to give any information on the device the aliens gave him. The newspaper reporter from LA, Jonathan Clark (Gene Barry), and the girl from Cornwall, Eve Wingate (Valerie French), get together and hide out in an abandoned racetrack. The young Russian soldier in meanwhile relentlessly interrogated (and tortured) by the Soviet military in an effort to get him the reveal the secret of the device so they can use the weapon before the evil imperialistic capitalist American pigs can use it.

As you might expect, and as the alien anticipated, there is widespread panic and a frantic search is soon underway across the world for the five unfortunate chosen people.

The situation soon becomes more complicated as doubts are raised as to the real intentions of the aliens and the real purpose of the capsules. A number of moral quandaries have to be faced and the world finds itself in a race against time in more ways than one. Jonathan Clark’s belief that the wisest course of action is to hide out faces a difficult challenge. He knows he bears a formidable responsibility, but is running away the appropriate way to deal with such a responsibility?

Gene Barry was a rather underrated actor and gives a nicely understated performance as the LA reporter. He plays Clark as a man who is as far removed as can be imagined from the hardbitten cynical newspaper reporter stereotype. Clark is a rather quietly spoken thoughtful man who is all too aware of the heavy weight of responsibility he carries. Barry however doesn’t make the mistake of making him overly earnest. He’s a likable sort of guy who just happens to understand the seriousness of his position.

The other actors are capable enough by B-movie standards.

The fact that this movie dares to take an anti-communist line and to show communists behaving the way they really did behave is of course sufficient reason for it to be reviled and ridiculed by most modern reviewers to whom knee-jerk anti-Americanism has become as natural as breathing. This is a rather sad commentary on the world of today. While the movie’s treatment of the ethical dilemmas involved and the way these dilemmas are resolved might not be entirely satisfactory it does at least try to grapple with such problems in a way that few modern movies would dare to.

It is of course interesting to compare this movie’s depiction of advanced alien civilisations with other movies of its era such as the absurdly overrated The Day the Earth Stood Still. Looking to aliens to solve humanity’s problems is a temptation, but a dangerous one. Like most movies that deal with such issues it raises issues that the film-makers may or may not have ben entirely aware of, issues of freedom and responsibility and human dignity.

The 27th Day has been released by Sony in their made-on-demand DVD series of Columbia titles. The DVD offers a very good anamorphic transfer without any extras.

The 27th Day is by no means a great movie but don’t be put off by some of the negative online reviews. It is worth a look.

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