Saturday, June 16, 2012

In short: No Blade Of Grass (1970)

Humanity's finally done it. The Earth's natural resources have been wasted and poisoned, and now a new disease is destroying all grass-type plant life like rice and wheat, promising food shortages in apocalyptic dimensions.

While China is gassing its own population centres to reduce its population to a survivable number, the UK hasn't quite been reached by the catastrophe yet, but it's only a question of time until it does.

Architect John Custance (Nigel Davenport) plans to take his wife Ann (Jean Wallace), his teenage daughter Mary (Lynne Frederick), and their youngest child David (Patrick Holt) to his brother's farm far away in the countryside, for he's cultivating plants that aren't (yet) touched by the disease there. Plus, the farm's naturally situated so it can be easily defended once the expected anarchy breaks out.

Warned by Mary's boyfriend Roger (John Hamill), who works in some scientific capacity for the government, that a state of emergency will be declared shortly, the Custance's and Roger begin to make their way towards safer pastures. The situation deteriorates quickly, though, and soon enough, the group kills and steals its way to survival, not so much slowly losing its civilized veneer but throwing it away with great enthusiasm.

Cornel Wilde's No Blade of Grass (based on a novel by John Christopher whom you may know for his - also post-apocalyptic - YA book series The Tripods) is an early, desperately bleak example of the post-apocalypse movie that not only predates most of this particular genre (at least on screen), but is also much grimmer than many of its successors.

Seldom have I seen a film this willing to make no particular moral difference between the way its protagonists try to achieve survival, and those the groups they encounter do. In No Blade of Grass's world, barbarity seems to be humanity's natural state that it only too happily falls back into again once civilization gets into trouble. However, it's clear that Wilde, unlike a representative of the survivalist bend of post-apocalyptic fiction would be, may be deeply pessimist about human nature, but isn't perverse enough to celebrate this state of affairs. So there's an - often blunt, sometimes quiet - sense of desperation running through the film I found particularly moving.

On the directorial side, No Blade Of Grass (at least in its newly restored full-length version) is a bit of a schizophrenic case. Half of its emotional punch is based on laconic, semi-documentarian shots of people wandering through the empty English countryside, polluted nature, and action sequences that are suspenseful yet devoid of action hero behaviour. This mood is regularly broken up by strange stylistic flourishes like flashbacks and flashforwards, negative shots and freeze frames (most of this stylistic excess is completely missing from the film's shorter versions, making that version more easily digestible, and weaker) that can seem awkward and blunt, yet also help emphasise that the film isn't meant as a man's adventure movie. Wilde doesn't want his audience to be excited by the action, so he's undermining the normal build-up of suspense for this sort of movie. It's a rather bizarre way to go about it, but it works.


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