World, the Flesh and the Devil, The

Tagged: Film

Film (1959). HarbelProductions/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Directed by Ranald MacDougall, starring Harry Belafonte, Mel Ferrer, Inger Stevens. Screenplay by Ferdinand Reyher and MacDougall, nominally based on The Purple Cloud (1901) by M P Shiel. 95 minutes. Black and white.

Ralph Burton (Belafonte), an African-American mine inspector, is trapped Underground by a cave-in. He can hear rescuers attempting to reach him, but apparently they give up. He digs himself out, to find a deserted Post-Holocaust world, seemingly wiped clear of all humans through the use of a radioactive dust (> Weapons) with a 100% fatality rate. Burton makes his way to New York, where as the Last Man alive he establishes a self-sufficient Keep to live out his days, but then discovers Sarah Crandall (Stevens), who has somehow survived. He resists her attentions because of his colour. A boat arrives with an additional survivor, Benson Thacker (Ferrer). An antagonistic triangle soon develops. Thacker, concluding that Crandall will not give herself to him as long as Burton is alive, tells Burton he will kill him next time they meet. A duel of to the death is imminent. But at the last moment, Burton sees a Biblical inscription carved in stone in the United Nations park dedicated to Ralph Bunche (1903-1971), the first African-American to win the Nobel Prize for Peace. The inscription (from the Book of Isaiah) prohibits violence. Burton throws down his weapon, ready to face death. But Thacker cannot kill him in cold blood. Crandall ends the crisis by taking each of them by the hand. They walk into the future.

As in Arch Oboler's Five (1951), this wordy three-character film is stronger on dialogue than action; the script is more sophisticated than the undemanding simplicity of the plot would suggest. None of the actors seems entirely comfortable in their roles, though there are evocative moments, for instance Burton's entry past vast traffic jams of abandoned cars into a deserted Manhattan, and in the final hunt through its depopulated streets. The presence of Belafonte, then at the peak of his career, guarantees that the story will not betray the fragile but clearly articulated argument against racism conveyed by his role throughout (> Race in SF), and in particular by the ending. For sf readers, it may seem common sense that the last three humans alive will come together to preserve Homo sapiens; but in the world of 1959 Cinema the last sequence – which invoked both miscegenation and polyandry – was relatively daring. The film tanked in America. Any connection between The World and Shiel's The Purple Cloud, a vast and overreaching novel that feasts on its protagonist's maniacal and highly racist misogyny, is remote. [JC/JB]

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