The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1959) ***˝
The 1950’s having been one of the peak periods of the Cold War, it is only to be expected that that decade would produce more than its fair share of post-apocalypse movies. Indeed, only the 80’s saw the world end more often on the silver screen, and it seems likely to me that the only reason the later decade wins out on volume is that the Italians unaccountably missed the boat the first time out. And probably because the Cold War was still a relatively new phenomenon at the time (although, come to think of it, the absence of the Italians may have had something to do with this, too), the post-apocalypse films of the 50’s and early 60’s were, for the most part, much more serious than their descendants. 1959’s The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (apparently unrelated to any of the other 3.5 zillion movies by that title) is among the most serious of them all, and is also one of the sturdier films of its type. A guardedly optimistic rumination on the human capacity for violent stupidity— ethnically motivated violent stupidity in particular— it gets a bit heavy-handed from time to time, and exhibits a few curious intellectual blind spots, but on the whole, it is fairly courageous, very well made, and nearly as thought-provoking as its creators so obviously wanted it to be.
Ralph Burton (Harry Belafonte), a light-skinned and generally stereotype-defying black man who works as a coal miner somewhere in the Midwest, is performing some kind of preliminary structural examination of an old tunnel which his bosses are presumably thinking of reopening when a cave-in traps him in the disused section of the mine. He sustains only minor injuries, but there seems to be little chance of him tunneling out on his own, and he has no food nor any water except that which drizzles steadily in through the shaft’s ceiling. (One assumes it was all the leaking water that led the company to close down this tunnel in the first place.) Burton lucks out at least a little, though, in that he finds an abandoned operations center with a partially functional telephone. The receiver is no good, but the transmitter works, allowing him to inform the people upstairs of his plight; they in turn can pass simple messages to Burton by banging on the water pipes in code. A short while after Burton makes contact, he begins hearing the sounds of digging from the far end of the cave-in, but five days later, at which point it sounds as though the rescue excavation is nearly complete, those sounds suddenly and mysteriously stop. There’s no more coded banging on the pipes, either, and a little while later, the lights in the mine cut off. In a panic over his seeming abandonment, Burton takes up a pickaxe and begins digging himself, hoping that his rescuers really did get as close as they sounded before inexplicably aborting the mission. When at last he cuts through the fallen rubble and makes his way back to the surface (probably a day or two after setting to work), he finds that the whole mine is empty of people despite the fact that it’s the middle of what ought to be a workday. Eventually, Burton makes his way to the foreman’s office, where he learns the terrifying answers to all his questions. There, on the boss’s desk, is a newspaper announcing that some unidentified nation had unleashed a vast cloud of radioactive sodium dust into the atmosphere as the first strike in a war against one of its enemies. The cloud got out of control, as chemical weapons so often do, and within days the lethal fallout had spread all over the world, destroying every living creature in its path. Indeed, were it not for the very short half-life of the specific isotope used by the world’s inadvertent destroyers, Burton would soon be punching the big clock, too. As it is, his weeklong imprisonment in the mine has paradoxically saved his life.
A trip into town corroborates the story from the newspaper— there’s simply no one around but Burton. Then an idea comes to him. He helps himself to a monstrous Chrysler convertible and hits the road for New York City, apparently on the theory that a population center of that magnitude can’t help but harbor some other survivors. What greets Burton at the city limits is a solid mass of abandoned cars choking all the bridges and tunnels leading into Manhattan, and an eerie silence hovering over what had up until recently been the honkingest, shoutingest, fuck-you-ingest city in the Western hemisphere. And once he makes it across into town by commandeering a small motorboat, the Big Apple proves to be just as deserted as it looked and sounded from the New Jersey shore.
Faced with this remarkably complete dashing of his hopes, Burton does about the only thing he can do under the circumstances, and sets about finding some sort of modus vivendi with a future of total and apparently permanent solitude. Step number one, of course, is to find a place to live, and to get as many of the modern conveniences as possible working there again. Burton selects a third-floor apartment in what had been a swank part of town, and rigs up the electricity serving the block on which the building is located to the most powerful gas generator he can find. He gets himself a shortwave radio on which he can periodically broadcast signals to whatever outside world may still exist to receive them, and snags a couple of department store mannequins (which he dubs “Betsy” and “Snodgrass”) to keep him company around the apartment. Finally, he begins transferring all the books he can carry from the library down the street (where the roof is leaking disastrously) to the floor below his flat, thereby preserving at least some small part of the learning and literature of his age for whatever descendants might arrive in the years to come. It may be less of a life than Burton had hoped for before, but it sure beats sitting around idle until the loneliness drives him bugshit, or starving to death at the bottom of a collapsed mineshaft.
We all know Burton can’t really be alone in New York City, though, and I doubt there’s even one of us who’ll be surprised to see that the second inhabitant of the former largest city in North America is a woman. Her name is Sarah Crandall (Inger Stevens), and in a turn of events that might have made for real trouble had the end of the world not come along to underscore the essential foolishness of such cultural obsessions, she happens to be white. Actually, Burton seems rather determined to carry the old baggage with him into the post-apocalyptic future, but Sarah has the good sense not to cooperate with him. Almost in spite of Ralph’s efforts, the two of them become friends, but before Sarah can wear down his defenses sufficiently for them to graduate to being lovers, a complication arises— or rather, two complications arise. First, Ralph makes contact with another shortwave broadcaster in Paris; while this may seem on the surface like unmitigated good news, neither Ralph nor Sarah sees it in such black-and-white terms after a moment’s reflection. Burton has finally begun, almost without realizing it, to live according to Sarah’s implicit belief that the end of the world has reset the social balance so as to eliminate all the bigoted idiocy that had disadvantaged him throughout his former life. But if he and Sarah should manage to make practical contact with other survivors, there’s no guarantee that those others will see things the same way. Then a few days later, the matter moves decisively out of the realm of theory and into the real world, for Sarah spots a ragged-out old boat chugging its way up the harbor. Its pilot is a man named Benson Thacker (Mel Ferrer, of Screamers and The Tempter), who introduces himself as “the total population of the southern hemisphere.” Thacker is fighting a deadly fever just now, but in the event that he should survive, Burton and Crandall will surely have to come to grips not only with whatever opinions he might hold on the subject of race relations, but with the ramifications of his arrival upon the slowly developing romance between Ralph and Sarah. In the end, it looks like the butt-end of humanity is all too eager to charge off down the same paths that led to destruction for the rest of the species, but if there’s one thing Homo sapiens has demonstrated a talent for, it’s changing its mind at the last possible second.
To me, one of the most conspicuous features of the apocalyptic movies made in the 50’s is how limited their creators appear to have been in their social imaginations. In this case, I’m not talking about how much trouble the two men (but, interestingly, not Sarah Crandall) have in getting past their unconscious racial hangups, since the folly of racism is a large part of the point in The World, the Flesh, and the Devil. No, what I find distracting here is the blinkers on the story’s love-triangle aspect. As in Roger Corman’s slightly later (and vastly dumber) The Last Woman on Earth, the sexual rivalry between Ralph and Benson steadily builds without apparent reference to Sarah herself, until it reaches potentially lethal levels. To its credit, The World, the Flesh, and the Devil is much savvier than most other films on its model in the way it handles the escalating hostilities, but like nearly all of them, it misses what seems to me to be the most obvious point about the whole situation. To wit: Sarah Crandall’s position as the only woman in town (if not in the entire world) makes her the seller in the ultimate seller’s market. She is the only possible supplier of the thing the two men in her life want most, and she can attach whatever terms and conditions she wants to the deal. Given that her main objective seems to be peaceful and amicable coexistence with both Ralph and Ben, polyandry is the obvious and indeed the only workable approach to the problem, and yet it seems never to occur to Sarah for even a moment! What this really means, of course, is that it probably didn’t occur to writer/director Ranald MacDougall, either.
It is in its treatment of the subject of race that The World, the Flesh, and the Devil most obviously shows its true colors as a product of the 50’s, however. Simply put, the movie quite plainly hedges its bets in favor of winning audience acceptance for its black hero by downplaying his blackness nearly to the point of invisibility— as a matter of fact, I was nearly half an hour into the film before it dawned on me that Ralph Burton wasn’t a white guy! Harry Belafonte’s facial features are far from typically Negroid, his speech exhibits not a trace of black dialect (at least in its current form), and his skin tone is light enough that it looks well within the range of Caucasian complexion variation when seen on monochrome film. High-minded though his aims may be, it would appear that MacDougall was afraid the crowd would turn on him if his protagonist was too black for their comfort. But on the flipside, the lower sensitivity levels of his era allowed MacDougall to deal openly with a subject that he might have found too touchy to treat with such forthrightness today. A major element of the movie’s story is the way Burton’s troubles with Sarah and Ben stem as much from his own expectations of being looked down on and dismissed as they do from his companions’ actual reactions to him. Ralph is so certain that a white woman like Sarah will be incapable of seeing him as an equal that he lets slip one opportunity after another to cement the bond which they both want to form between them, in effect giving the more self-assured (and more frankly selfish) Ben his opening to come between them. It would certainly be going too far to say that Burton brings it on himself when the rivalry between him and Thacker gets out of hand, but neither does he take any action to stave off the coming catastrophe, and the passivity born of his inability to fully convince himself that the world really is different now does play a part in setting that catastrophe in motion. A willfully obtuse left-winger (and it sadly seems that most lefties today are willfully obtuse on the subject of race) might characterize this plot thread as blaming the victim, but that’s not what’s happening here at all. Rather, it is a sign that MacDougall recognizes one of bigotry’s most pernicious psychological effects— tell a man that he’s inferior often enough, and a part of him is apt to start believing it. But again in true 50’s style, The World, the Flesh, and the Devil also suggests that with a little work and a bit of cooperation, such damage needn’t be permanent even in the face of ultimate disaster.