End of the World/La Fin Du Monde (1931)

La Fin Du Monde (1931)‘Please summon our mother to the asylum.’

Disgusted by the modern world, a famous astronomer retires to an observatory in the frozen wastes. He is forced to reconnect with society when he discovers a comet on a collision course for Earth. The news causes massive panic, and unscrupulous financiers seek to use the situation to their own advantage…

Abel Gance was a highly successful French filmmaker of the 1920s, whose modern reputation rests largely on silent epic ‘Napoleon’ (1927), a film so vast in scope that it required special projection equipment and a custom-made screen to show it. Nowadays, it’s a recognised classic, partly due to the director’s use of close ups and dolly shots; common film grammar now, of course, but almost unknown in the silent era. He even shot some scenes in colour and 3-D, although they were discarded later. Not surprisingly, the special screening arrangements prevented any commercial success on the continent and, on release in America, it was cut down considerably from its original running time of over 5 hours(!) and flopped. Hard. The upshot of all this was that, by the early 1930s, Gance no longer had the creative freedom he had enjoyed in his heyday, and that may go to explain this well-meaning but rather lifeless project.

This tale of the coming apocalypse focuses on the Novalik brothers; Martial (Victor Francen), a Nobel-prize winning stargazer and Jean (played by Gance himself) an aesthete and philosopher. Martial has achieved world renown but Jean prefers to live anonymously in poverty. He rejects the love of pretty blonde society gal Genevieve (Colette Darfeuil) because he knows that he is ‘born to suffer’ on behalf of mankind; something that provokes much staring off into the distance while looking vaguely constipated. Unfortunately, Darfeuil gets into the crosshairs of dastardly arms manufacturer Schomberg (Samson Fainsilber).

This is a curious, and rather dated story. On the plus side, Gance does not skimp on the concluding spectacle, and the mendacious behaviour of the authorities and big business ring all too true. Where the film fails is in the personal stories of its main protagonists. The self-sacrificing Jean is a ridiculously messianic figure; playing Jesus on the cross in a passion play, lying on his sick bed surrounded by white doves, and being stoned in the street when he tries to help a child. The fact that the director chose to cast himself in the role is an interesting choice, to say the least!

‘I say, Cecily’s garden parties are really wizard, what!’

Elsewhere, the other main characters are one note; Francen the dedicated scientist, Fainsilber the dedicated capitalist, but there is one notable exception: Darfeuil’s apparent heroine. Hers is a problematic role. At first, she is dedicated to Gance’s martyr-in-waiting, vowing to wait for him even after he rejects her. Shortly after that, though, she’s flirting with Fainsilber at ritzy parties, much to the joy of her ambitious father (Jean D’Yd).

After one such encounter, he forces himself on her, and her father advocates she marry him to save the family from being disgraced! Not surprisingly, she runs away to join Team Francen and help in their efforts to get the word out about the upcoming Armageddon and prepare a new world for whoever might survive. This decision is reinforced by a vision of Gance on the cross. However, she soon gets bored with all that pesky office work, and runs back to rapist Fainsilber instead! Then she betrays him to Francen as the comet approaches! Women, eh? Just can’t make up their minds!

What also won’t sit too well with a modern audience is the slow pacing and some of the performances, which are ridiculously melodramatic at times. Similarly, some of Gance’s filmmaking techniques, although highly innovative at the time, now appear a little forced and crude. The climactic scenes are also of their time; there’s lots of drinking as the final hours approach but not nearly as much fornication as you would expect. Still, it was 1931, l suppose.

A seriously dated spectacle, with undoubted historical value but offering little in the way of entertainment.

ldaho Transfer (1973)

Idaho Transfer (1973)‘Just have a beautiful time like all the other junk litter in the universe…’

A scientist working at a secret government facility in the desert has discovered a gateway 56 years into the future. Mankind seems to have vanished after some kind of ecological catastrophe, so he keeps his discovery a secret and plans to permanently relocate a group of young people there to restart the human race.

Unusual, low-budget science fiction from director Peter Fonda, who had made his name in the ground-breaking, counter-culture classic ‘Easy Rider’ (1969). These days, he’s more familiar as a jobbing actor, although associations with high profile duds like ‘Ghost Rider’ (2007) and John Carpenter’s ‘Escape From L.A.’ (1996) have done little for his career. He sat in the canvas chair as a filmmaker on only three occasions, the other two being on Westerns made at either end of the 1970s.

The story and script here are by Thomas Matthieson, who has no other film credits, and shows very little inclination to pander to the audience in terms of providing exposition. This is a nice change to the endless captions and voiceovers favoured today, but ultimately proves to be a little frustrating. We join the story with the set-up already established; scientist George Braden has recruited a group of more than a dozen teenagers, including his two daughters, to make trips into the future and examine its’ ecology. Arrival there occurs inside metal containers buried beneath the desert (a nice touch) and the flora and fauna seem to be normal. However, expeditions to local population centres (which we don’t see) have found them completely deserted with no sign of human life.

One of the Prof’s daughters, played by Kelly Bohanon, is the new girl on the block and this does allow for a few explanations. Only young people can travel into the future because an unspecified kidney problem will kill anyone older who tries it, and travellers have to strip down to their panties to go because any metal fittings will fuse with their bodies (obviously, no metal-free clothing was available!) The time travel SFX are very simple, but surprisingly effective with subjects ‘flickering’ out of existence. Things start to go seriously wrong when suspicious military types turn up to close down the project and the youngsters flee into the future to escape. Only to find themselves marooned there when the machines are turned off.

This is a premise with bags of potential, but the film begins drifting when our stranded explorers head for the closest city. Given the obviously tiny budget, it’s fair to say the audience aren’t really expecting them to get there. The group splits into three groups for no discernible reason, leaving us in the company of Bohannon and geeky Kevin Hearst. Whereas we might reasonably expect some kind of Adam and Eve business to follow, Hearst seems strangely reluctant, the more so when Bohannon is confirmed as the selfish, whining brat we always thought she was. There is a pleasing lack of the kind of mystical mumbo-jumbo that plagued cinema at the time, but our protagonists might be any normal, irritating teenage couple out for a hike in the great beyond. Hearst does find an abandoned train filled with hundreds of corpses in body bags, but the unpleasantness is kept strictly off-screen (see the ‘tiny budget’ reference earlier). So just what has happened to mankind and are we ever going to find out? Probably not if we’re relying on these two.

Most reviews of the film tend to concentrate on the cast. Almost without exception, they were amateurs that Fonda selected from kids he met in everyday life and very few managed any subsequent acting credits. To Fonda’s credit, he does manage to elicit fairly naturalistic performances, but, perhaps inevitably, none of them really manage to create a character that encourages emotional investment from an audience. The only face you’ll probably recognise is Keith Carradine, whose big screen appearances include Ridley Scott’s ‘The Duellists’ (1977), Walter Hill’s ‘Southern Comfort’ (1981) and ‘Cowboys and Aliens’ (2011) with Daniel Craig. He’s perhaps more recognisable from TV, where he’s played in everything from ‘Dexter’, ‘Fargo’, and ‘The Big Bang Theory’ to Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’ music video! Having said that, his appearances here are brief and inconsequential. Hearst moved onto the movie sound department, where he worked on ‘Home Alone’ (1990), ‘My Cousin Vinny’ (1992), ‘Beverly Hills Cop ll’ (1994) and ‘Stargate’ (1994), among others.

Idaho Transfer (1973)

🎵You’ve heard of the wonders our land does possess…
Its beautiful valleys and hills…
The majestic forests where nature abounds…
We love every nook and rill…🎶

The major problem here is a script that drags badly around the mid-point and leaves too many questions unanswered. There’s a big twist as well which should have been very telling indeed, but is rather poorly handled. Obviously, most people will focus on the left-field ending, which initially appears to be quite the head-scratcher. However, if we consider the selfish nature of Bohannon’s character, the underlying theme of man’s exploitation of the planet’s finite natural resources and all those body bags on the train, then we finally get an idea of what Fonda was shooting for.

The film also ends with the caption ‘Esto perpetua’ which roughly translates as ‘Let It Be Perpetual’. It’s the state motto of Idaho, but here seems to be more of a comment on mankind and our total inability to learn from our mistakes. This is quite effective when given some thought, but too much is left unexplained during the film for it to really hit home.

Unfortunately, a week after its initial release, the film’s distributor went to the wall and it was pulled from theatres. After that, it went unseen for 15 years until it surfaced during the 1980s home video boom. So it never really had the opportunity to find an audience, although it’s unlikely that it would have ever become anything more than a cult item.

Although flawed, it’s undeniably a project of more than a little interest, and it’s a shame Fonda had such a short career as a director. With a tighter, more developed script and a professional cast, this could have been quite something. Remake, anyone?

Nippon Chimbotsu/Japan Sinks!/Submersion of Japan (1973)

Nippon Chimbotsu (1973)‘From 12 noon, there will be a lunch meeting with executives from financial and industrial circles.’

Scientists investigate when a small island sinks in Japanese waters, using a hi-tech submersible which can reach depths previously uncharted. When the crew survey the bottom of the Japan Trench, they discover that the Earth is fracturing and realise that the islands of Japan are in grave danger…

Serious, straight-faced drama that gives us a nation in crisis, as a series of environmental disasters strike Japan, culminating in the destruction of its major islands. It all begins beneath the waves with worried scientist Keiju Kobayashi keen to check out what is happening on the ocean floor, and finding mysterious currents and land movements. Before long, wildfires and earthquakes are forcing the Prime Minister to call a national state of emergency, but Kobayashi is convinced that his findings mean that far worse is yet to come.

The Japanese got there first with this apocalyptic epic ‘disaster movie’ pre-dating the U.S. cycle of blockbusters, which began in earnest a year later with films like ‘Earthquake’ (1974) and ‘The Towering lnferno’ (1974). Yet, although this project could be broadly said to fit into that category, there are some fundamental differences in approach. Here, there is far more emphasis on the authorities trying to deal with these huge events, rather than its impact on individual characters (inevitably played by famous ‘guest stars’ in the American films). True, there is an effort to interest us in the love life of submarine captain Hiroshi Fujioka and his romance with rich girl Ayumi lshida (who’s under pressure to get married now she’s reached the advanced age of 27) but it feels perfunctory at best.

Instead, the film initially gives us Japan’s political leaders getting together around the big table to sort it all out, before the crisis brings in the United Nations and various international aid agencies. Luckily, top scientists are in attendance to explain everything to the politicos, via the medium of lectures, covering earthquakes, the formation of mountains, and the movement of currents within the Earth’s mantle. Sometimes these are accompanied by lengthy slide shows, which is obviously all very informative. Now, all this does serve to increase the credibility of the story’s main premise, but it does not make for the world’s most exciting viewing experience. Indeed, after the problem has been identified in the fairly engaging first half hour beneath the sea, the story seems to offer little but an endless series of meetings between faceless suits, broken up occasionally by the odd bout of variable SFX.

Nippon Chimbotsu (1973)

‘I’m sorry but we can’t discuss the sinking of Japan if it’s not on the official agenda.’

This was obviously a serious project, with every effort made at authenticity and it’s probably an accurate representation of what may happen if such events come to pass. Sadly, director Shiro Moratani chose to deliver a final cut of 2 hours and 23 minutes and, with the best will in the world, it’s the cinematic equivalent of watching paint dry. Yes, some of the action scenes are good, but they are brief and, without any emotional focus, they have little impact on the viewer.

Legendary cash-conscious producer Roger Corman bought the film for U.S. distribution, promptly cut most of the non-SFX footage, and inserted new scenes with Lorne Greene as Ambassador Warren Richards, providing much the same ‘on screen narrator’ function that Raymond Burr fulfilled in the American release of ‘Godzilla, King of the Monsters’ (1954) almost 20 years earlier. The producer’s new version ran only 82 minutes and was released as ‘Tidal Wave’. Now, much as would usually deplore such cultural vandalism, I can’t help but speculate that sitting through the Corman version might be considerably less painful that enduring the original!

A film of worthy intent, but tremendously, ass-achingly dull.

This Is Not A Test (1962)

This_Is_Not_A_Test_(1962)‘If you leave that crazy car in the middle of the road, it’s gonna get banged up!’ 

A deputy sheriff sets up on a roadblock on a lonely mountain highway, and stops everyone who tries to pass. The angry motorists take issue with his actions until he informs them that he’s under orders to do so because an imminent nuclear attack is on the way.

Low budget, small scale drama rooted in the nuclear paranoia of the era. lt’s a potentially interesting setup that focuses on the character interactions of a small group of ordinary folk wrestling with the probable consequences of mutually assured destruction. Unfortunately, technical and budgetary limitations mean that nearly the entire 72 minutes plays out on the roadside, or in the haulage truck they decide to use as an improvised bomb shelter, and so the finished product mostly closely resembles a filmed stage play.

With such limited resources, it’s down to the cast and the script and, unfortunately, neither delivers any real invention or insight. Everyone bickers and argues in fairly predictable ways, and obvious attempts to elicit audience engagement and sympathy come over as corny and too blatant. When the screenplay departs from the everyday, the dialogue becomes too mannered and hard to credit. The introduction of a juvenile killer seems pretty contrived but, without it, there would be no action at all. As it is, this plot development is a bit like our stranded heroes; it doesn’t go anywhere.

The performances are mostly acceptable, but nominal lead Seamon Glass is rather wooden as the Deputy, which is unfortunate as the role really needed an actor with some screen presence to lead the drama. His career mirrors a lot of the other cast members; a string of bits as bartenders and policemen on network TV in the 1970s, although he did have a minor role in ’Mudd’s Women’, an episode of the original series of ‘Star Trek.’

This Is Not A Test (1962)

You see? You see? Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!

Michael Green gained an ‘e’ at the end of his surname and became a far more familiar face on TV with featured roles on such hit shows such as ‘Quantum Leap’, the 1990s incarnation of ‘Mission: Impossible’ and ’Baywatch’. He also played supporting parts in many films such as ‘Lord of the Flies’ (1990) and ‘*batteries not included’ (1987). Elsewhere, this was old timer Thayer Roberts’ penultimate role in a career that had begun as a policeman in Charlie Chan programmer ‘The Chinese Ring’ (1947).

The real problem here is that the characters are little more than cyphers and their interactions are just too predictable. This was director Fredric Gadette’s only film and credit must be given for what were most probably great efforts to get his vision up on the screen, but it was not picked up for distribution or released to cinemas at the time.

There is some potential for a good, character based drama here, but the script has nothing new to offer, and the production is limited by its humble origins.

The Last War (Sekai Denso) (1961)

The Last War (1961)‘The Next War Will Be the Last War.’

Japanese diplomats attempt to arbitrate as the uneasy international situation between the Alliance and the Federation moves dangerously close to all-out nuclear conflict. Meanwhile, an accident at a missile base threatens to tip the planet into World War 3.

Very sincere and earnest Japanese film about the possible outbreak of nuclear war. The main focus of the drama is on a typical ‘nuclear’ family living in Tokyo. Father is a taxi driver who plays the stock market, mother is a housewife in poor health and their pretty daughter is in love with a dashing sailor. The youngsters are planning to get married, and try their best to ignore the countdown to Armageddon. The setup is almost identical to ‘Atomic War Bride’ (1960), a Yugoslavian film of the same era, but, in all probability, that’s more a reflection of the prevailing times than anything else.

Unsurprisingly, given that this is coming out of Japan less than 20 years after the twin holocausts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hearts are being worn boldly on sleeves here. We see nothing of the protagonists in the conflict, beyond a few soldiers and pilots, concentrating more on the interactions and everyday business of our typical Japanese family. These are inevitably simplistic, so there is little in the way of real drama or emotional impact until we reach the scene of what may be their final meal together. This is a very similar approach to that taken by Nevil Shute in his apocalyptic novel ‘On The Beach’, which was successfully filmed in 1959 with Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner, and this film does owe a debt to that production.

The Last War (1961)

Why did you wear yellow? They can’t see my name in the credits…

The SFX and model work on show here is rather better than those employed on the ’Kaiju’ movies of the time; perhaps because mushroom clouds and Armageddon were far more serious matters than attacks by giant intergalactic monsters with halitosis. However, audience engagement is not assisted by the musical soundtrack, which often verges on the sentimental and manipulative, an over-emphasis that perhaps resulted from the lack of telling action on screen.

A very heartfelt and laudable piece of work, which unfortunately fails to do justice to its serious subject due to the lack of human drama.