Tuesday, 13 September 2016
No Blade of Grass (Cornel Wilde, 1970)
(written in 2009 and published in 2012 in Offbeat: British Cinema’s Curiosities, Obscurities and Forgotten Gems)
As the opening credits roll over bleached, cracked earth, an apocalyptic orange sun and sketches of fleeing figures that recall prehistoric rock-paintings (albeit with a gun), to the tune of a doleful guitar, Roger Whittaker sings words that – if you weren’t already aware of John Christopher’s flintily unsentimental 1957 source novel – give a fair idea that things are going to end badly, for everyone: No blade of grass grows and birds sing no more / No joy or laughter where waves washed the shore / Gone all the answers, lost all we have won / Gone is the hope that life will go on.
’By the beginning of the seventies,’ says director Cornel Wilde, also on narrator duty, in words that chime closely with the sharpened concerns our own age, ’man had brought the destruction of his environment close to the point of no return. Of course there was a great deal of rhetoric about saving the earth, but in reality, very little was done.’ To press home the point, stock footage of car dumps, belching chimneys, sulphurous skies, exhaust fumes, clogged roads, and brown smog blanketing a city lead us into the film, and then – to press home the point a little harder – there’s more footage of smoke-belching chimneys, sewage-spouting pipes, poisonous river spume, open-cast mining, oil spills and dead fish. And then a nuclear explosion to cap it all off. No blade of grass here and no blue above / No you and me, it’s the end of love, sings Roger.
‘And then, one day, the polluted earth could take no more,’ says Wilde, as the blue planet seen from space is smeared with orange clouds. Welcome to Earth, circa 1970, where London is no longer any place to be, a fact to which architect John Custance is alerted by a middle of the night phone call from her daughter’s boyfriend Roger, telling him that, as they have been expecting for some while, the situation has suddenly turned critical and the government is sealing off the cities. As they grab their suitcases and ready themselves for a hasty exit, the film winds back a year to the news breaking on television of a desperate famine in China and south-east Asia caused by an epidemic of grass disease, derived, according to the ‘emergency committee of world ecology’, from cumulative residues of pollutants and pesticides in both soil and atmosphere. As joints of ham are carved on a buffet table and diners feed their faces, images of famine appear on the screen. More worrying reports then come through, of cannibalism and, in China, nerve-gas bombings of major population areas. Well at least that couldn’t happen here. Could it?
With the themes of eco-disaster and over-consumption now well and truly established, the film then – barring a few intermittent fill frames of more dead fish – drops them for a by-the-numbers treatment of the well-worn theme of a band of disparate survivors travelling through a decimated, dangerous country of unofficial checkpoints and intermittent crackly wireless news, mixing action scenes with disconsolate wandering across bare moors as the party head to the safe haven of Blind Gill, a Yorkshire farm owned by John’s brother. Nigel Davenport plays the eyepatch-sporting leader of the group, the archetypal decent man forced to adjust his behaviour to the needs of the time, while Jean Wallace, as the director’s wife, takes the role of Mrs Custance. Their party is boosted by Pirrie, handy with a rifle, and his pouty, petulant wife (a black-haired and well-upholstered Wendy Richard), who has an eye for anything in trousers. Her attempted seduction of Custance leads Pirrie to debate throwing her out of the group. ’She's got a survival kit between her legs,’ he says, but then he shoots her anyway so she doesn’t get the chance to use it.
Although Wilde attempts to jazz up proceedings with flash-forwards that signal (in tinted blinking red) the dangers they will face along the way, including a rape and an attack by horned-helmeted bikers, the leaden script, which veers between shock one-liners and flaccid sentimentality (‘a year ago I wouldn’t have believed it could happen to us’), means the film loses its way on the journey. At one point, Burnell Whibley’s music signals, somewhat unexpectedly, that we are in a western, following a group of pioneers on the trail, but by the time we get to watching a biker’s nightmare as a motorbike hits a rock and explodes in slow-motion, the plot, and any focus on ecological issues, has long taken a back seat to set-pieces and not-so-fancy effects. It doesn’t help that some time before a coup has been announced on the car radio by a spokesperson who seems to be none other than Peter Sellers in the guise of Fred Kite: ’This is the, er, citizen’s emergency committee in London,’ he says, ‘we've taken charge of the BBC’. Let’s just say that the film’s ambition outstrips the talent and judgement available for its realisation.
It does capture some of the matter-of-fact, casual brutality of Christopher’s novel in which killing has become a necessary part of survival, and a scene that plays out in negative in which men seem to kill a squealing dog for food with rocks and a spade is genuinely unsettling. (’No living creature was killed or mistreated in the making of this film’, assures a disclaimer.) In the end though it can’t justify its grandiloquent final claim that ’this motion picture is not a documentary ... but it could be’.
As evidenced by Penguin's 2009 ‘Modern Classics’ edition of the original novel, with an introduction by Robert Macfarlane (who notes that Wilde’s film is so ’arrestingly bad that Christopher himself has never been able to watch more than a few minutes of it’), the story itself still carries a powerful charge and relevance over half a century after its creation. It still awaits a film adaptation that does it justice.