This post is part of the Keep Watching the Skies! Science Fiction Movies of the 1950s Blogathon, hosted by Louis at The Cinematic Frontier. Read the rest of the posts in this event HERE!
SPOILERS: It’s rather difficult to discuss this film without revealing its ending, so there will be some major spoilers.
As the Cold War intensified throughout the 1950s, it’s no surprise that anxiety over a possible nuclear war was reflected in various Hollywood films. Some overtly explored the issue (i.e. Fail-Safe and On the Beach) and others put it in the subtext (i.e. Them! and Invasion of the Body Snatchers).
The World, the Flesh and the Devil, written and directed by Ranald MacDougall, is now a mostly forgotten entry in the 1950s wave of sci-fi films, and yet in some ways it is remarkable—and, sadly, in some ways still relevant.
Ralph Burton (Harry Belafonte) is inspecting a mine tunnel when a cave-in occurs. Waiting patiently several days for rescue, he eventually becomes aware that no one is coming for him. Managing to dig his way out, he emerges into a vastly changed world. All human beings seem to have disappeared. He finds newspapers that tell of an “atomic cloud” that has been released from an unknown source and is killing off populations all over the world.
Desperate to seek out other people, Ralph drives to New York City. He finds it full of abandoned cars—but still no people. Wandering the streets, he shoots off a gun and begs anyone who can hear him to come out. He climbs a church tower and rings the bell. Still no one answers.
As time passes he creates a home for himself, setting up a generator so he can have lights in the building he chooses as his home. He finds two mannequins in a store window and keeps them in his apartment so he can feel as though he has company. One day, frustrated by his overwhelming loneliness, he hurls one of the mannequins out the window. He hears a woman in the street scream.
She is Sarah Crandall (Inger Stevens), a young woman who managed to survive in a decompression chamber. She had been following Ralph for weeks, afraid to make contact with him, but also desperate to stay close to the one other survivor. Over time, Ralph and Sarah become friends, as they help each other deal with the new reality of their world.
It’s not long before the question of their status as their relationship comes up. Ralph is resistant because he and Sarah are different races. Even though the world and all its social constructs have disappeared, both Ralph and Sarah have a hard time accepting they are gone.
Ralph sets up a radio so he can try to contact other possible survivors. They find out there are others, but probably too far away to join them. One day, they see a boat on the river headed for New York City. In it is Ben Thacker (Mel Ferrer), a man who has spent six months looking for more survivors. On the verge of death, Ben is saved by Ralph, even though Ralph is keenly aware that his presence is a threat to him because of Sarah.
It’s not long before the awkward situation turns dangerous. Sarah resents being treated as a prize between the two men and refuses to make a choice. Finally, Ben insists to Ralph that they must fight for her. Chasing each other in the empty streets with rifles, Ralph finds himself outside the United Nations. Seeing the monument dedicated to Ralph Bunche with a quote from the Book of Isaiah that urges the end of violence, Ralph refuses to fight on. Ben, holding a rifle on Ralph, also can’t commit the final deed.
Sarah finds the men and takes both in hand. The three walk up the street together. Instead of “The End” the movie finishes with the title “The Beginning.”
It’s easy to characterize this ending as a cop-out, and I have in the past. But on deeper reflection, I find it rather revolutionary. The beginning of what? The beginning of a journey where the three of them search for more survivors? Or just another attempt to table the decision?
Those are the simple answers. But perhaps it’s something quite different. It could be the beginning of a new era where old social constructs—like monogamy and race—no longer matter.
In fact, the film is pretty explicit (especially for its time) in the way it deals with the issues of racial and sexual politics. In a scene that still resonates, Ralph berates Sarah for some casual racism (she uses the term “free, white and 21”). He talks honestly and bitterly of how he was viewed by the world as a Black man before the world ended and how she would never have recognized him as a good man back then. And yet at the same time, he can’t seem to come to terms with how it no longer matters now the society that created these views is gone.
Sarah is keenly aware of her situation because she is a woman. She becomes angry when Ralph tells her he wants Ben to have her. When Ben tells her he could force her, she agrees that’s true—and that it would make her choice between the two men much easier.
It’s Sarah—who is initially allotted the power of choice, which is revoked when the men decide to fight for her—who decides not to choose at all, and not to succumb to the ways of the old world. In this way, she is given more agency than women usually have in this type of story.
What’s also interesting about the movie is how Ralph tries to bring back the lost world as much as he can through technology. (It makes me wonder if the film was an influence on Stephen King’s The Stand, which also contemplates whether reverting back to a high tech society is wise, since that’s what destroyed the world in the first place.) He also tries to save books and art from damage. It’s Ralph who attempts to retain “civilization” and Ben who tries to bring it back to its most basic “survival of the fittest” level.
There are a few problems with the movie—for instance, where are all the dead bodies? (Sacrificed because the movie’s budget wasn’t large enough, apparently.) Even so, the first half hour of Ralph traveling alone in a world utterly empty of people is chilling and beautifully shot. Once Ralph meets Sarah, the movie becomes very dialogue-heavy and some of it sounds a tad trite to my ear. But when it concentrates on the ideas the story is exploring, ideas that were rarely treated so directly in classic movies, the dialogue is very much on point.
I suppose it’s not that surprising that given its radical themes for the time, i.e. interracial love and possible polyandry, the film tanked at the box office. It hasn’t been “rediscovered” by critics since then. But it’s still a very worthy–and singular–example of the post-apocalyptic genre from the 1950s.