Long before The Road Warrior redefined the after-the-collapse-of-civilization film genre with nihilistic cartoon mayhem perpetrated by leather-clad latter-day barbarians (not that there’s anything wrong with that), these movies offered intriguing premises about how survivors of societal suicide would make their way in the days after the end of days.
Things to Come (1936)
H. G. Wells wrote the source material (the novel The Shape of Things to Come) and the screenplay for this ambitious parable about the downfall and resurrection of civilization. The bookending portions — the first act, in which several characters ponderously debate whether worldwide conflict will break out, and the final moments, in which several characters ponderously debate whether their utopian society will prevail — are wearisome. But this film is a must-see for its fascinating seminal depiction of a postapocalyptic future that must have inspired George Miller, director of the Road Warrior trilogy, and by extension his myriad imitators.
In the extended middle sequence, a montage documents a seemingly endless world war that breaks out in 1940 and ends a quarter century later only because humanity has been decimated and exhausted and bombed back to the Dark Ages. Then we are reintroduced to Everytown (standing in for London), taken over by an opportunistic survivor (celebrated English actor Sir Ralph Richardson) whose remedy for a terrifyingly contagious “wandering sickness” is bullets.
But the pompous warlord’s reign is cut short by the appearance of an airborne emissary of a fledgling utopian technocracy based in Basra, Iraq (near the cradle of civilization, see?), who dismissively disregards the Boss’s swaggering threats of violence with the report that his organization, Wings over the World, will envelop such petty tyrannies and form a peaceful world government. (Wells — need it be said? — was a socialist.) This sometimes-plodding but prescient and imaginative film is a must-see for genre fans.
On the Beach (1959)
Australians await the fallout from a worldwide nuclear war in this adaptation of Nevil Shute’s novel of the same name. Gregory Peck stars as a US Navy submarine commander who, knowing that the northern hemisphere has been irradiated, offers his vessel to the Australian navy. When a cryptic telegraphic signal is received from America’s West Coast, however, he sets out on an expedition, hopeful that the message indicates that people have survived nuclear radiation.
The Australian government, meanwhile, distributes suicide pills, and various people respond in their own way to the seeming inevitability of impending death. Scientist Julian Osborne (Fred Astaire), for example, organizes — and wins — a hazardous car race.
Although director Stanley Kramer, to Shute’s dismay, made some Hollywood changes to the script (for example, Peck’s navy officer and his friend, played by Ava Gardner, have an unrequited love in the novel, but the movie suggests otherwise), the film was well received, and Kramer won the British equivalent of an Academy Award. The film is devoid of action scenes yet compelling; its realistically bleak portrayal of all-too-human responses to the likelihood of nuclear annihilation gives it a stark potency that is lacking in less plausible scenarios.
The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1959)
This odd, intimate tale of the tensions between the three survivors of a nuclear holocaust is remarkable for shoehorning the issue of racial prejudice into the mix. Black singer-actor Harry Belafonte stars as Ralph, a man who survives a nuclear war by virtue of having been trapped in a mine for several days. (It’s explained that the radioactive fallout is conveniently short lived.) After setting up residence in a depopulated New York City, he finds a white fellow survivor (played by Inger Stevens), but their friendship is complicated by the legacy of racial segregation.
Ralph broadcasts their location in hopes of attracting other people to join them, but in illustration of the adage that you should be careful what you ask for, the arrival of another man, Ben (Mel Ferrer) — who is white — sets up a tense triangle when the newcomer is attracted to Sarah, who loves Ralph, who believes he should concede her to Ben but is loath to retreat into isolation.
Eventually, the two men stalk each other with guns, but the tale, an allegory that champions racial harmony, ends on a hopeful (though provocative) note.
The Day of the Triffids (*)
*Note: I had hoped to maintain the vintage theme for this list, but the original, Hollywoodized feature-film version, released in 1962, is a mediocre movie. This description applies to the 1980s British television miniseries, which is faithful to the source material. (The 2009 TV remake is superfluous.)
The most overtly science-fictiony film in this list is also, in some ways, the most finely attuned to human nature. In John Wyndham’s eponymous novel, scientists discover a fascinating new plant species: the triffid, a towering carnivorous plant that, astonishingly, is ambulatory — and predatory. By careful staking and pruning, its mobility and its often-fatal sting are neutralized, and it is cultivated commercially for a useful oil and personally as a curiosity.
Some years later, a spectacular meteor shower renders all who witness the spectacle — the overwhelming majority of the world’s population — blind. Uh-oh.
The miniseries opens effectively as the catastrophic aftermath unfolds before the working eyes of protagonist Bill Masen, who avoids the fate of most because he was bandaged while recovering from successful eye surgery. Despite the story’s implausible trigger for the apocalypse, it posits a realistic outcome to the crisis: A few remaining sighted people in London organize an exodus to the country with a select group of blind folks in tow. Their efforts, however, are stymied by a rival group bent on using a communistic collectivist approach to the problem of saving the teeming masses of sightless, and virtually helpless, citizens.
(To its credit, the novel articulates the point that blind people are not inherently feeble, but sudden mass blindness, without enough sighted people to help the victims adjust to their new disability, is the catastrophic factor. The added menace of mobile carnivorous vegetation doesn’t make things any easier.)
Later, a military junta tries to impose a similar regime that would reduce the lot of homesteading survivors to an egalitarian state of deprivation. Call this film “Animal Farm” Meets “Attack of the Giant Venus Flytraps” — with more of an emphasis on the former.
Panic in Year Zero! (1962)
This low-budget exploitation film, produced by drive-in-movie titans Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson, is significant in spite of itself. While on a camping trip, a Father Knows Best family witnesses the leveling of LA by an atomic bomb, and the patriarch (played by aristocratic actor Ray Milland, slumming in a poststardom slump) adopts ruthless measures to ensure his family’s survival.
Though the film (directed by Milland as well) was intended as a big-screen backdrop for necking teenagers at the drive-in, it quite realistically posits the harrowing moral compromises decent people must make when they are faced with a choice of committing depredations or suffering death. On the other hand, it costars Frankie Avalon as Milland’s teenage son, so don’t expect too much. The production values are dodgy and the performances uneven. Panic in Year Zero!, though, is the first film I know of to deal with the consequences of nuclear war on the family unit, and the first that realistically explores postwar survival options.