FANTASIA OBSCURA: A Cautionary Tale Just in Time for Earth Day

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, you can have a message that gets lost just in the act of relaying it…

No Blade of Grass (1970)

(Dist.: MGM; Dir.: Cornel Wilde)

There are a number of ways one can celebrate Earth Day this year on April 22. Most folks may want to (re-)read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which is filled with observations concerning how humans must deal with the consequences of straining our planet’s biomes, such as:

The human race is challenged more than ever before to demonstrate our mastery, not over nature but of ourselves.

Or, if you’re feeling masochistic and must do penance for polluting the environment, you could watch this film:

Based on the 1956 book The Death of Grass by John Christopher (aka Sam Youd), the film opens with a sequence of stock footage showing factories, cars, and river spills that the US Environmental Protection Agency would start regulating away as Richard Nixon made the agency a cabinet-level position the year the film was released. Over the footage, the title song is warbled by Roger Whitaker, which sets the tone for what we’re going to watch for the next, long hour and a half.

No, it’s not pretty.

As a virus starts killing off plants in the Poaceae family, including large swaths of feed grains, food stocks on most continents disappear, and the old quote about counting your missed meals before the riots start comes to the fore. We follow British architect John Custance (Nigel Davenport), his Canadian-born wife Ann (Jean Wallace in her last role), and their daughter Mary (Lynne Frederick in her first role), as they head out of London before the worst of it comes about with government botanist and Mary’s boyfriend, Roger (John Hamill).

The plan is to get to a farm owned by John’s brother David (Patrick Holt) and wait out the forced famine until it all blows over, which, with all grass dying, sounds like it’s going to take longer for the food to return than Coronation Street has so far been on the air. So yeah, this plan may not have been that well thought out.

In terms of how viable the plan is, it’s quickly apparent that the Custance family just did not think this through, barely holding off waves of brigands ready to rob and rape at every turn. Things would have ended quickly were it not for the good fortune of inviting along ex-con Andy Pirrie (Anthony May) as muscle in a tight spot, although he kills and rids himself of his wife, Clara (Wendy Richard) so that he can make the moves on Mary as soon as he can, which gets really complicated as the trek goes on.

She chooses Andy by this point after having gone through some very heavy trauma beforehand, despite how he achieved his current relationship status. In fact, there’s a graphic double rape of Ann and Mary at the hands of robbers that happens on screen early on that just gets blown past as one of a number of outrageous incidences that Wilde flips through, mounting mayhem upon mayhem while the thin characters Wilde co-wrote in his screenplay under the pseudonym “Jefferson Pascal” exhibit the British stupid stiff upper lip they’re known for.

By the time we get to the set-piece battle between the Custance family and their followers versus the motorcycle thugs with horns on their helmets. And yes, it plays a silly as it sounds.

Wilde’s intent seems less about how the world ends than how badly we all revert to total savagery when we have a chance. To be fair, a character gives brief fleeting mention thrown into the film about how pollution was changing the climate and melting the ice caps, but it goes way too quickly for it to have much resonance, soon lost amidst acts of brutality.

With some of these acts in red-tinged “flash forwards” giving the audience a taste of what’s going to come about five minutes later that just spoils whatever tension was being built up, it becomes apparent that the film’s message about environmental disaster means less than its exploration of how violent we can be when we’re pushed.

Wilde’s heart was certainly in the right place, as evidenced in a talk he gave at the time at Portland State University, but the end result does no great service in rallying people to prevent environmental degradation. It also falls short as a depiction of a United Kingdom getting disunited, as Terry Nation’s series for BBC, Survivors, would cover much of the ground in the film a bit better (although it had the advantage of being able to pace itself as a TV series).

And when one compares the work Davenport and Frederick do in dealing with an environmental threat when they get reteamed by Saul Bass for Phase IV, the undeniable conclusion is that Wilde’s project, a package production he got MGM UK to underwrite, was just not going to serve as a meditation on ecological collapse.

The way the film was put together, there was no way anything could grow or thrive in that environment.

NEXT TIME: What better way to celebrate William Shakespeare’s 401st birthday than to go on a festive murder spree?

About James Ryan 101 Articles
James Ryan is still out there on the loose. He’s responsible for the novels Raging Gail and Red Jenny and the Pirates of Buffalo, as well as the popular history The Pirates of New York. He has also been spotted associating with the publications Pyramid Online, Dragon, The Urbanite, The Dream Zone, Rational Magic, and Rooftop Sessions. He has been spotted too often in the vicinity of Kinja. Should you meet him, proceed with caution. He is to be considered disarming and slightly dangerous…