Directed by Ranald MacDougall, The World, the Flesh and The Devil (1959) commences with the end of the world itself.
Once in Manhattan, Ralph calls out for help -- for any sign of life -- and editor Harold Kress cuts to a visually-dramatic montage of empty city streets near the Empire State Building.
These scenes, lensed in the early mornings and in extreme long shot are completely convincing and discomforting.
Dwarfed by the ubiquitous 20th century urban architecture of the Big Apple -- and with no other people around -- Ralph truly seems vulnerable; a man trapped in a very large cage. Around him are all the sights of the old world; all the shapes and forms, but nothing else. It's like Hell on Earth, after a fashion, being able to see and touch everything that you loved...except for the very people who made life special.
As much as Ralph stands beneath the shadows of a vast, dead, technological metropolis, it's clear he also lives under the shadow of a dead and corrosive world view. One that dictated he was less valuable than white people because of the color of his skin.
The film ultimately walks back from such a violent precipice in a way that is surprisingly hopeful and also -- let's not be coy about it -- revolutionary.
The World, The Flesh and The Devil's notorious valedictory shot consists of a black man, white woman and white man holding hands together -- a threesome -- as they walk off into the sunset to the superimposed words "The Beginning."
Rather, they must each confront their own belief systems and relationships.
The inaugural portions of The World, The Flesh and The Devil deal explicitly with Ralph's sense of utter loneliness when he believes he is the last man alive on Earth.
But the important thing to consider here is that Ralph is able, at least in some way, to release his built-up sense of hatred and oppression on the inanimate Snodgrass, not on the living, breathing Ben.
Ralph is acutely conscious of matters of race, and keeps bringing race up to Sarah even as they become friends. After her first, hostile words -- "don't touch me," the couple nonetheless builds a bond of real friendship, but Ralph always, very carefully monitors his "place" in relationship to her. On Sarah's birthday, for instance, Ralph fixes a fancy dinner for her at a chic restaurant...but then notes that the help doesn't dine with the patrons. You can see that this comment breaks her heart.
Ralph can't rebuild the old world and make a new world with Sarah. He has to choose one or the other.
The least developed character in the film is likely Mel Ferrer's Ben, who arrives in the late second act, just when Sarah and Ralph are finally growing close.
Again, consider the audacity of such a characterization in 1959 America for just a moment.
Ben -- a symbol for the prevailing social order -- is portrayed not as a great hope, but as sinister; as the Devil culpable for the state-of-the-world itself. Again, this is an idea that very much escapes most post-apocalyptic films. In Damnation Alley (1977), for instance, we are asked to root for the very men (Peppard and Jan Michael Vincent) who unquestioningly "pushed the button" in a nuclear exchange.
Sooner or later, someone will ask me what I want...
Rather, she will take both of them.
Sarah takes both men's hands and marches them out of their self-established war zone, into what a title card reveals is "the beginning."
She positions herself as peace-maker and power player in the triumvirate, a latter-day Lysistrata, forcing those who would fight and kill to bend to her will. Certainly, it takes her a while to get to this point; of being treated like the property of either man. But eventually Sarah realizes her power over both men, and uses that power to unite all factions. This is the Biblical creation story re-told, but in this case, Eve has two Adams.
And Belafonte and Stevens share a potent sexual chemistry throughout the film. The scene in which Sarah implores Ralph to be "bold" while cutting her hair isn't just about a hair cut. It's about intimacy, about sexuality, about physical contact.
And in such a clear-cut situation --- when only a few humans remain on Earth -- it plays as completely natural and right. That's (one) point of the film: that the old social construct -- which forbade love between blacks and whites -- was the unnatural order. It's just a shame it takes the death of nine-tenths of the Earth's population for that fact to become obvious, right?
The danger when interpreting a film as intriguing The World, The Flesh and the Devil is that by excavating these unique aspects of theme and narrative, I end up making the film sound like some dull polemic on race relations, politics and women's rights.
What remains so beautiful about the film today is that despite the end-of-the-world scenario, the movie never forsakes the hope that people -- and the systems people make -- can change for the better.
That hope is the necessary prerequisite, perhaps, for human civilization to continue in the face of disaster, apocalypse, or even just bad days. I can't imagine this film being re-made in the same fashion today. Today, we would demand that Ralph kill Ben, and walk off into the sunset with Sarah alone. No mercy, no forgiveness, simply violence and reward for violence. The World, The Flesh and the Devil goes out of its way to avoid so simplistic and banal a resolution of the drama.
As The World, The Flesh and the Devil moves into its third and final act, natural life slowly begins to return to New York City. Flowers once more bloom again as the atomic poison dissipates. It's in this environment of re-birth that "the Beginning" commences for Ralph, Sarah and Ben, and for the human race.
It's a beautiful and hopeful grace note -- the return of nature -- to go alongside the latest development in human nature, including an end to racial prejudice. Today, we might dismiss a film like this as recklessly optimistic or idealistic, but The World, The Flesh and the Devil's genetic equation is unique and admirable.
It's a movie about mankind finally flexing the better angels in his nature, after for so long vigorously exercising his worst.