Friday, June 27, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: No Blade of Grass (1970)

The relatively obscure 1970 science fiction film No Blade of Grass is a cutthroat post-apocalyptic vision which forecasts films such as The Road Warrior (1981), and which deals meaningfully with the idea that our modern civilization is fragile because it is based on an easily compromised premise: the satisfaction of a full stomach. 

When there is no food, there is no society, and no civilized behavior.

In this adaptation of John Christopher’s 1965 novel The Death of Grass a British man, John Custance (Nigel Davenport) witnesses the end of that social contract occur as one-hundred million people die of starvation worldwide.  A famine is destroying grass and wheat.

And without wheat, livestock dies. 

And without livestock, humanity’s very future is jeopardized. 

With anarchy spreading rapidly and some states like China resorting to mass-murder -- essentially killing many to save a few -- Custance attempts to preserve his family (symbolizing the future…) at any cost. 

Yet John’s quest can’t really be termed successful.  His wife and young daughter are savagely raped on the road by other travelers, and he murders an innocent family much like his own for food stocks, which amounts to no more than a loaf of bread.  Eventually, John even makes war against his own biological brother to gain a foothold in this strange and savage new world.

This nearly forty-five year-old film presents a caustic, blistering look at human nature, and the ungracious way our species may countenance its end. But No Blade of Grass is also one of my all-time favorite science fiction films of the 1970s, and a cinematic work of art that Paul Simpson (The Rough Guide to Cult Movies) accurately termed “a tense and provocative” picture.

Writing in The Montreal Gazette, film critic Jacob Siskind called No Blade of Grass one of the most terrifying motion pictures he had ever seen, “uncomfortable real,” and “something that should not be missed.

Both of these reviews capture the tense, uneasy, disturbing nature of a film that more science fiction fans should acquaint themselves with.

An unidentified virus begins killing grass, white, rice and barley in Asia, and then rapidly spreads across the globe, causing a famine of vast proportions in the civilized world.

One family -- the Custances -- decides to abandon London when there is news that China has bombed its urban population in a last-ditch attempt to save “the Chinese nation.”  The Custances believe the English government could do the same thing.

John Custance (Davenport), his wife Ann (Jean Wallace) and their daughter Mary (Lynn Frederick) make a survival run through the English countryside for the distant farm of John’s brother.  The family is joined en route by a man named Pirrie (May) who is good with a gun but prone to instability and violence. 

On their way to hopeful sanctuary, the Custances face the total collapse of law and order in England, and fight rapists, motorcycle gangs, and other hazards.  Finally, when John meets up with his brother, he finds that even the bonds of family can’t overcome the fear and dread surrounding the famine and burgeoning apocalypse.

All along, No Blade of Grass forecasts just how bad things are going to get by flashing forward to -- in blood-red imagery -- upcoming violent confrontations.  Just when the family has overcome one life-or-death crisis, another one is signaled in shades of scarlet terror. 

Although I remain unconvinced, generally, of the efficacy of fast-forwards in a narrative structure, they are deployed well in No Blade of Grass.  The flash-cuts suggest the end of optimism and hope.  Future days will be no better than these days.  In fact, they may very well be worse. If the present seems bad, the movie promises, the future will be much, much worse.

Similarly, during moments of extreme violence -- such as a confrontation with a roving biker gang --director Cornel Wilde flips the imagery to its negative, so that the screen fills with blacks and grays.  Suddenly, those committing the violence, and even those defending themselves, resemble inhuman monsters.  The shades of gray not only de-humanize the characters at their most savage, they remind audiences that moral absolutes no longer exist in a world of famine.

Before No Blade of Grass is done, Custance and his family members have murdered soldiers, nations have bombed their populations to oblivion to keep a few handpicked survivors fed, and a brother has launched a war for resources against a biological brother. 

In tactless, brutal terms, the film depicts total, utter anarchy, and the collapse of decency.  We witness a live birth on camera (and you can see the baby’s head crowning…), and generally the film spares its audience no indignity, no terror, no hard truth. The scene involving the rape of Mrs. Custance and her daughter is especially difficult to watch.  The rapists hold the women down, rip off their under-clothes, commit their acts of brutality and the camera doesn’t flinch or cut-away.

Wilde’s point is plain. When anarchy arrives, no one will be spared. Not mothers. Not daughters.  Not families.  When civilization goes so will go modern medicine, electricity grocery stores, mass transit and every law but the law of the jungle.  The film suggests these taken-for-granted modern conveniences and constructs are all but fragile dominoes, falling one after the other after the other. 

“Everything’s different now, boys…we have to fight to survive,” one character states in the film, and indeed that’s true.  The “old law” evaporates and the law of the jungle reigns supreme.  Those who can’t adapt quickly to the New World Order die quickly instead.  

Accordingly, one of the most disturbing moments in the film finds Custance’s teenage daughter, Mary, leaving behind her former, civilized, and gentle boyfriend in favor of the sociopath-murderer, Pirrie.

Despite the fact that he killed his own wife in a fit of rage and is obviously unstable, Pirrie’s apparent physical “strength” and tough demeanor makes Mary feel safe.  She knows he will protect her. Ardent feminists will not appreciate this moment in the film, to be certain, but so many of today’s constructs including equality of the sexes simply would not survive all-out, universal anarchy.  Women like Mary, in the film’s blunt terminology, carry “a survival kit” between their legs.  Sex becomes one of the few tools they can use to assert power, or find protection. 

As the preceding description suggests, No Blade of Grass is caustic and sharply observed.  One early scene reveals an abandoned Rolls Royce scuttled on the side of the road, but a voice-over from an old TV commercial accompanies the imagery so that the moment suggests just how utterly meaningless the old conventions are in the New Order.  What role is there for luxury transportation when there is no food, anywhere?  No gasoline? No restaurants to drive to?

Another, equally brutal moment intercuts a report of children dying of starvation in the Third World with extreme close-up images of avaricious restaurant diners eating gourmet food in an upscale London restaurant.  The unmistakable point is forged in the sledge-hammer cutting, in the slamming contrast.

It is easy to observe other people’s children dying of famine and do nothing about it. Pass the salt…

The cause of the civilization-destroying virus in No Blade of Grass is, in true 1970s fashion, mankind himself.  A (dated) folk song opens the film and establishes how little mankind has done to “save the Earth.” 

This funereal composition is accompanied by a montage of images of real-life pollution.  We see documentary-like footage of spewing tail-pipes, traffic jams, smog hanging over cities, brown water, dead fish, crop dusters, nuclear reactors, factories spewing chemicals and other late 20th century horrors that somehow we manage to put out of our minds, and imagine can’t harm the planet. 

But according to No Blade of Grass there was a secret revolution: “One day the polluted Earth couldn’t take it anymore.”

And Mother Nature struck back.

Chilling and in-your-face, No Blade of Grass is one of the most unforgettable science fiction films of the 1970s. It is made more so by the fact that its protagonists -- whom we are meant to closely identify with -- are ultimately no better or nobler than anyone they encounter on the road. 

The Custances prize their survival above all else, and take steps to assure it that we, as civilized people, should abhor.  They become murderers with relative ease and speed.

 But who could say that you or I would choose differently given such global, dangerous anarchy?

That folk song in the film that I mentioned earlier features a lyric that goes “It’s the end of love.”  In No Blade of Grass, that’s an understatement. In this film, mankind confronts his mortality and the results aren’t pretty.  I hope if something like this disaster ever does happen, we can face the end with more dignity and grace and far less bloodshed.


  1. Anonymous9:49 AM

    Great review, John. I've always thought that Cornel Wilde was something of an underrated director. There is a stark, brutal power to his best work (BEACH RED, THE NAKED PREY, NO BLADE OF GRASS). Not a subtle film-maker, but a disturbing one.


  2. The Corperations have done a good job since the 90's of making violence and danger safe for the audience. Apart from the obvious problems this can bring on, this process completely prevents people from thinking too much and getting upset - when there are times when we should get upset , and question and get mad with rage. To this extent, some movies were always made with the same ends in mind - TO MAKE PEOPLE THINK. So you dear reader tell me, is it better to think about what your watching .....or not?

  3. Excellent review of a disturbing and prophetic story. Great performances from the cast. Its a shame the film is rarely seen today.


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