ROGER WHITAKER’S ALMANAC
The fact that sci-fi apocalypse movie No Blade of Grass (1970) begins with a Roger Whitaker song may seem like a misstep right at the start – seriously, how did they expect that not to date the film? – but that’s only the first in a long line. The movie is flawed, sure: inescapably, massively flawed. But, in its favour, it’s sincere, intense, often ahead of the curve, and quite unique.
Nigel Davenport plays a retired soldier called John Custance, who takes his family out of London as civilisation breaks down. A plague is wiping out all the world’s cereal crops (apparently NOT the grass, which is rich and verdant in most background shots) and as food supplies run out, anarchy threatens.
For me, a key mistake was the central character’s name, which may be “Custance” but sounds like “Custards”. A searing action drama starring the Custards family seems rather strange. Every time young psychopath Pirrie (Anthony May – very good) addresses Davenport as “Mr Custards” there’s a peculiar mismatch between the doom-laden seriousness of the situation and the whimsical absurdity of the name.
Also along on this trip are:
- Davenport’s wife, Jean Wallace, real-life wife of the director, Hollywood star Cornell Wilde. It’s a shame to see the incredibly alluring star of The Big Combo used so inappropriately, her looks somewhat faded, her body crammed into an unflattering turquoise jumpsuit (and could there ever such a thing as a flattering one?), the mere presence of her American accent somehow damaging the film. And the rape scene doesn’t aid matters much. “Graphic” would be the wrong word for it, given modern advances in ultra-violence, but “leering” and “poorly conceived” would not be far from the mark. The terribly enthusiastic music makes it pretty clear that this is a carnival attraction rather than an indictment of man’s inhumanity to woman.
- Lynn Frederick as the daughter, Mary, a teenager who’s somehow going out with a research scientist. Frederick is very beautiful and does well enough in an underwritten role. But when the script has her tell her wet beau that she’s had enough of her virginity and wants him to deflower her, and he nobly declines, we know a savage sexual assault looms in her near future. It’s that kind of film. At least Mary gets to deliver some surprises, ditching her beau for the sleazy psycho Pirrie as some kind of reaction to her traumatic rape.
- John Hamill as Roger Burnhill, the scientist who tips off his girlfriend’s family that the end is nigh, is a deeply boring character. The filmmakers have no idea how to bring a nice young fellow to life, one suspects because they don’t really believe in such characters. The nutters and creeps that populate the film are far more compelling.
- Pirrie, the psychopathic sidekick, is picked up in a gun shop where he helps out by murdering the recalcitrant shopkeeper (George Coulouris, the unfortunate proprietor, also turns up in psychedelic sci-fi The Final Programme, and is hereby given he title Mr. Apocalypse. Another thing – Coulouris was the only actor in Citizen Kane who aged like his character, so I always get a surprise when I see him in a 70s role). Pirrie is pretty good value as a character, shifty and horrible, but prone to touching bouts of loyalty and decency. Just occasionally. However, given his unreliable nature, I’m at a loss to understand why Mr. Custards didn’t put a bullet between his ears the moment he had a chance.
- Accompanying Pirrie, until she annoys him, is his girlfriend Clara, played by Wendy Richard (Clara? Are you sure?) One can’t blame the filmmakers if W.R.’s subsequent career has caused her appearance here to be slightly distracting, invoking as it does whole other universes of sitcom and soap, which nothing in common with the po-faced mayhem that is this movie’s stock-in-trade.
- Oh, and there are a couple of little boys, who are little help.
- As the story progresses, Mr Custards picks up a ragtag army of pilgrims, mostly stock northerners. Running time dictates that they be only minimally characterised, but several of them seem like more promising protagonists…
WAR, FAMINE, DEATH, AND THE OTHER ONE
There are some very fine reviews of this film on the IMDb, most of them from sci-fi readers who know the book by John Christopher. The most telling point raised is that Cornel Wilde’s decision as co-writer and director to make the film about ecological responsibility just doesn’t make sense in narrative terms. While the theme was fresh then and is still highly relevant now, it doesn’t connect to the events onscreen, since there’s no evidence that the grass plague was in any way caused by the activities of mankind. The musical montages where Wilde shows the effects of large-scale industrial pollution are powerful and upsetting, but they just sit there in the film, unattached to any of the surrounding events.
A grotesque scene early on highlights the problem. While the protagonists sit in a restaurant discussing the impending crisis, distressing footage of African famine plays on a television, ignored by all and sundry. Mountains of food are piled high in the foreground, as if the broadcast was being viewed by meat products. It’s (excuse the pun) ham-fisted, but I suppose it makes a point, although using real footage of human misery is a course of action that always needs careful consideration. Meanwhile, some background characters discuss the grass plague, and one old lady opines that it’s caused by the Chinese using “human shit” as fertiliser. Her husband then announces that he regrets he hasn’t packed her off to China to serve that purpose. This grotesque, unfunny dialogue (humour is elsewhere entirely absent), apparently intended as a throwaway, is instead accorded a big medium shot by Wilde, and feels overstressed, inappropriate and unhelpful. Worryingly, there’s evidence that the filmmakers intend us to take the Chinese faeces theory seriously.
What the book is really about, and what the film is striving to be about, despite its makers’ interference, is the fragility of law and order and the mutability of human behaviour. Pillars of the community become ruthless murderers when the social structure ceases to function. It’s a compelling, frightening theme, and when the film pursues it rigorously, things are much more effective.
What of the flash-forwards? Wilde’s main obvious “technique”, presumably a response to the nouvelle vague and the time-fracturing of films like Last Year at Marienbad (1961), this is probably where the film’s crudity is most in evidence. Not content with jumping ahead to show the carnage to come (in brief, tantalising glimpses that act as movie trailers for the film you’re watching, and which more or less come right out and admit that you’re probably looking forward to seeing a lot of violence and death), Wilde also has these brief sequences treated with a flashing red light effect, both to remind us how awful all this violence is, and to make sure we understand that this footage is in a different tense from the surrounding action.
The desire to be experimental and yet the terror of having the audience not understand something results in a rather heavy-handed, patronising approach to experimental technique.
THE MASSED BIKERS OF THE APOCALYPSE
A lot of these violent flash-forwards have to do with the roving biker gang, a plot element that’s come in for plenty of criticism. Dressed in traditional black leather but with horns on their helmets, these guys seem motivated not so much by an urge for survival but by a desire to fulfil the role of movie baddies, attacking the heroic, heavily armed travellers even when it is far from advantageous to do so.
(Oh no! An old lady has dropped her pots and pans and is running into the battlefield to retrieve them! Will she die? She will.)
What’s uncertain is if these wheeled droogs were a social menace before the grassy doom started, or if they’ve only just strapped on their antlers as a response to the impending Armageddon? I don’t know why that should matter, but it does – something to do with our need to understand the kind of world the story is taking place in.
I do think that horns on hats should make a comeback – building sites would be hugely enlivened by these bloodthirsty appendages. Instead of wolf-whistling at passing girls, the nation’s hard-hatted labourers could butt heads in a mating ritual designed to impress the female. Oh Brave New World!
THIS IS THE END
Arriving at their destination – a heavily fortified farm where Custance’s brother has promised him a safe home – our midlands Diaspora are refused entrance, and a new action sequence is plotted. Brother against brother.
While the hero’s moral dilemma here is interesting, and his choices surprising, it still doesn’t feel like the apocalyptic resolution promised. Things have not reached the appalling state of the news footage from Africa, nor have we seen the cannibalism that’s been reported from China. As Friedrich Durrenmatt wrote, “A story is not over until it has reached its worst possible outcome.” The story of the Custards still has some way to go.
“This film is not a documentary. But it could be,” intones Mr. Wilde solemnly on the soundtrack, evoking a certain amount of derision. But still, respect is due – the man saw a serious subject and tried to address it in a very full-on way. His failure is honourable, and far from total. For all its bludgeoning insensitivity, thick-eared dialogue and crude dramaturgy, No Blade of Grass is compelling in its horrors, its sincerity and even its touching clumsiness.
David Cairns Shadowplay film blog