There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.
Sometimes, though, being first to market doesn’t give you much beyond a few kudos…
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Director: Arch Oboler
Anyone else remember the Xerox Alto? It’s worth bringing up, especially in this case; but first, some other history…
On August 9, 1945, Nagasaki became the last city hit with an atomic weapon during wartime (so far). It horrified the Japanese towards surrender, ending World War II, and haunted much of the rest of the world for years afterward.
The big surprise, in retrospect, was that it took six years between the last act of atomic warfare and the first film to deal with such actions:
Our film opens with stills of major world sites (London, Moscow, Paris, the Taj Mahal, New York, and San Francisco) being enveloped by clouds while the sounds of air raid sirens and panicked crowds interlace through Henry Russell’s score. We ultimately get to aerial shots of a lone woman (Susan Douglas Rubes) wandering through a desolate, ruined town. We learn as she loses her mind through posted newspapers that a nuclear war has taken place and that scientists are worried about a new bomb that puts most of its destructive efforts into causing fallout, leaving structures behind but skeletal remains in its place.
Which, no, is not entirely accurate, but could you really see Harry Cohn at Columbia signing off on a film that depicted devastation that came close to the disaster depicted years later in The Road? And hey, with the neutron bomb actually becoming a thing in a few years, not that far of a stretch, maybe…?
Delirious and suffering the onset of PTSD, the woman finds her way to a lone house, where we find Michael (William Phipps). Michael identifies himself as the proud holder of an English degree who survived the poisoning of New York and found his way to the house.
The woman, coming out of shock, calls herself Roseanne, and notes that the property was in her family. She goes on to say, when Michael tries to have his way with her, that she was married and is currently pregnant.
This two-soon-to-be-threesome is expanded when they are found by Charles (Charles Lampkin in his first professional role) and Mr. Barnstaple (Earl Lee), who survived together after the radiation came through. Everyone gets along pretty well up to the time Barnstaple passes away, at which point in comes Eric (James Anderson), who was atop Mount Everest when it all blew over and worked his way to America alone with grand plans and ideas that threaten the group.
In terms of planning, the film does a lot with what looks to have been minimal resources. Oboler, better known for his work in radio, carries the sparse aesthetic of this medium into films. In many ways, his hand-held close-ups of faces and tracking overhead shots suggest a film from the Italian Neorealism school as opposed to an indie-US venture. The fact that Oboler had at his disposal for his film setting his own property, Eagle Feather, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, gave the film a style that no post-apoc film since could ever hope to achieve through any sort of VFX.
In terms of the cast rotating in and out of the film, modern viewers may be struck by the prominence that’s given to Rubes’ Roseanne and Charles’ Charles, two characters that stand out just by being given more animus in the plot than most women and African-Americans had gotten in most every post-nuclear war film to follow.
Viewers of post-bomb films from the Fifties onward may be surprised to see these two actually get fleshed out with considerable screen time (including Charles reciting a poem by James Weldon Johnson as Roseanne gives birth) becoming more than just background as other characters take the fore.
And we did mention that one of the characters discusses his English degree, right? And how many of them do we see in post-apoc films, ever…?
Which brings us back to the Xerox Alto noted above: Like the earliest graphic interface computer, this film was far ahead of its time with features that later models would not consider for years. It’s a more thoughtful piece in the genre that actually gives time and dimension to characters that would not see as much development later on.
The fact that it would be eight years between Five and The World, the Flesh and the Devil, probably the closest film in the post-apoc sub-genre to the original, with lots of entries during the time that went in a different (and arguably lesser) direction, demonstrates just how much of a vanguard the first film was.
Much the same way the Alto would carry on only as an inspiration for the Macintosh and Windows, so too would Five end up a subtle foundation on which other films would build. Not every, and maybe not enough, but without it we might not be able to discuss atomic annihilation the same way we can now.
NEXT TIME: Going to sea with the world against you, and coming out of it with a TV series…