Friday, August 22, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: The World, The Flesh, and The Devil (1959)

Directed by Ranald MacDougall, The World, the Flesh and The Devil (1959) commences with the end of the world itself. 

An African-American miner named Ralph Burton (Harry Belafonte), survives the widespread effects of "atomic poison" in the atmosphere because he is trapped in a cave-in beneath the Earth's surface when the war occurs. After Ralph discovers a path to the surface, he learns from newspaper headlines that nuclear war has wiped out almost all animal life on the planet.  He is alone. 

The early portions of The World, The Flesh and The Devil remain staggeringly beautiful, not to mention eerie, as the solitary Ralph makes his way to New York City, avoiding bridges and tunnels crowded with abandoned cars.

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. 

In particular, they create this overwhelming feeling of a hustling-and-bustling modern world transformed instantaneously into a relic; one of eternal silence and isolation. 

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.

Despite such impressive and affecting end-of-the-world vistas, however, The World, The Flesh and The Devil remains most famous for its controversial narrative, which in very blunt fashion revolves around racism and even, to a surprising degree, monogamy.

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.

In short order, the three human survivors of The World, The Flesh and The Devil must make a choice about what kind of new world they hope to dwell in. 

Specifically, the plot revolves around a black man, Ralph, a white woman named Sarah (Inger Stevens), and a white man named Ben (Mel Ferrer). And they all keep circling around one inevitable, inescapable conclusion.  If the "old" and traditional ways are to be respected and followed, Sarah can only be with one man; and she can never be with a black man.  Even if she prefers Ralph to Ben.  

In the end, the white man, Ben, is even willing to launch what he callously terms "World War IV" to re-establish the rules of yesteryear; threatening to murder Ralph if he doesn't flee town and leave Ben to his would-be bride. 

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.

This visual conclusion is wholly suggestive, as many critics have noted, of a new world order that eschews violence, war, and racism and encourages...polygamy. 

That's something you don't see everyday in the cinema of the 1950s, post-apocalyptic or not, and The World, The Flesh and The Devil is truly like few post-apocalyptic films you've ever seen. There's no overt, walking "outside" menace (zombies, mutants, giant scorpions etc.) for the characters to battle against.

Rather, they must each confront their own belief systems and relationships.

Do you know what it means to be sick in your heart from loneliness?

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.

Desperate for company, he brings two department store mannequins back to his apartment in the city, and promptly names them Snodgrass and Betsy. 

Both mannequins are white and Ralph quickly develops a kind of love-hate relationship with Snodgrass (the male mannequin) over his (imaginary) treatment of Betsy.  After one especially contentious conversation Ralph has had enough of Snodgrass, and actually throws the mannequin over the ledge in his apartment.  The mannequin crashes to the street below and is destroyed. 

It is neither difficult, nor inappropriate to read the sequence with the mannequins as one that deliberately foreshadows Ralph's experience with Sarah and Ben.  He literally "kills" Snodgrass in defense of Betsy's honor, and later almost succumbs to Ben's war-to-the-death over "possession" of Sarah. 

But in some way, Ralph manages to make a different choice in that real-life, climactic scenario; impelled in part, perhaps, by his reading of an inspirational quote in United Nations Plaza. Ralph throws down his rifle and refuses to kill  Ben -- the real life Snodgrass -- lest he repeat the mistakes of the world, and, finally, Sarah brings the two men together.

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.

And that hatred is a result -- without mincing words -- of the racism of the culture.

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.

Interestingly then, Ralph -- a victim of the old social construct --- remains trapped in that construct to a much more significant degree than Sarah does. She is occasionally insensitive about matters of race, at one point noting arrogantly that she is "free, white and 21." But Sarah also admonishes Ralph to be "bold" when cutting her hair, a line that clearly holds a double meaning for her. What Sarah is saying is that she wants and desires Ralph to make the first move.

When Ralph reminds Sarah that he is "colored," Sarah's encouraging response is "You're a fine, decent man and that's all I need to know." Although Sarah often appears weak and frail in the early portions of the film, she is actually stronger than Ralph in one critical sense. She is ready to lay down the past (and old traditions) to live happily in the present with the man she loves.This is something that Ralph, for the longest time can't seem to do.

Really, Ralph is caught in a terrible bind. The way he deals with the death of the world at large is trying to re-build it.  We witness him making a radio station operational, and restoring power to various apartment buildings with a portable generator. Ralph also collects books and paintings in his apartment, so that the beauty of the old world is not lost. 

In other words, Ralph keeps attempting to deny the new world order and restore the old one. But this is strangely unproductive in a personal sense. For if Ralph restores the old world -- the world he lived in before the bombs fell -- than he must also restore the old, racist ways and ultimately lose Sarah to Ben.

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. 

Ben rather blatantly represents the old world social constructs in that he immediately resorts to violence and killing; the very things that turned our planet to a cemetery. Unlike Ralph, Ben does not take his anger out on inanimate though symbolic objects of his hatred like the mannequins, but upon Ralph himself.  He takes up a rifle and nearly kills Ralph.

If Ralph represents "the world;" man's indomitable drive to bring civilization back from the precipice and wilderness, and Sarah -- with her longing for Ralph and human intimacy -- represents "the flesh," then certainly, in some fashion, Ben is definitively "The Devil" of the film's title.  He sees only what he wants: -- Sarah -- and his obstacles to possessing her, namely Ralph. 

And Ben is willing to wage bloody war when the world has seen enough of war for five billion lifetimes. 

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...

As progressive as The World, The Flesh and The Devil remains in terms of dealing with matters of racial equality, it is perhaps even more so in terms of sex roles. 

The action in the film resolves not when the well-armed white man says it should; not even when another man, Ralph, refuses to kill Ben (having acted out his murderous urges on Snodgrass). Rather, the action resolves in the film when Sarah, a woman, steps up and asserts her choice.

Her choice is -- shockingly -- that she will not settle for either/or, for either Ralph or Ben. 

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.

One should not make the mistake of thinking that because The World, The Flesh and The Devil was produced in the late 1950s it avoids matters of sex. At one point, a frustrated (with Ralph) Sarah begs Ben to make love to her, for instance. 

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. 

I want to clear about this: the film's not like that at all. It's a movie about three charismatic and interesting people who survive the end of the world, and then have to find their way to a new order, a new peace, and a new sense of individual happiness. 

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.

1 comment:

  1. This is a really fascinating film on so many levels. Cold War, racism, inequality, very introspective during the absolute height of the Cold War and THAT was a rarity.This film was actually a subject in my college poli-sci class.

    I think that considering that Inger Stevens and Belafonte were actually dating in real life during the production of this film brings a realistic touch to the performances.


The Cult-TV Faces of: Prison