Thursday, December 16, 2010

Day the World Ended (1955)

I promise. This post has absolutely nothing to do with the previous one. I'm not poking fun. Not being deliberately ironic. It just happened like this.

On his way to becoming Hollywood’s king of low-budget movies, in 1955 a young Roger Corman produced and directed Day the World Ended. It was one of his earliest films. Dozens more would follow in the years to come. But in his 1998 memoir, Corman remarks that it was this movie that established him as a director in the science fiction genre (p. 31).

The film’s opening title card announces, What you are about to see may never happen. . . . but to this anxious age in which we live, it presents a fearsome warning. . . . Our Story begins with . . . . THE END!

Next we see an example of that now-familiar stock footage of an atomic explosion, and we hear the narrator, Chet Huntley. His voice has been modified to sound tinny with a bit of reverb, a convention that signals to the viewer that these words come from the Bible. (The same thing turns up in the Jule Miller evangelistic film strips). The narration interprets the nuclear holocaust with words taken from 2 Peter 3:10 according to the King James Version: . . . and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. (Note: This passage is often cited as biblical proof that Christian eschatology expects the fiery destruction of the created order. Few people are aware that this verse includes a notoriously difficult textual problem. In fact, the KJV rendering quoted above is not an accurate English translation of the autograph of Second Peter. In all likelihood, the original document said that the earth and everything in it would be “revealed” or “found,” not “burned up.” For a discussion of the questions raised by the various extant Greek manuscripts, see Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. 2d ed. [Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994], 636-37).

As survivors of World War III emerge through the smoke, the narrator tells us, “Man has done his best to destroy himself. But there is a force more powerful than man. And in his infinite wisdom, he has spared a few.” Those few soon begin showing up at the home of Jim Maddison (Paul Birch). Maddison and his daughter, Louise (Lori Nelson, pictured below) are safe, at least for the time being. Their house is in a valley protected by high winds, and by hills all around that contain lead-ore. Jim, a veteran of the U.S Navy, had long suspected that the worst would eventually happen. Ten years before it did, he carefully chose where he would live and stocked everything he would need in order for his family to survive. The lovely Louise has a fiancĂ©, but we soon discover that he is among the victims.

The survivors who take refuge at the Maddison’s include a small-time crook Tony Lamont (Touch Conners, before he became Mike Conners of Mannix fame) and his girlfriend, an aging stripper named Ruby (Adele Jergens). A geologist named Rick (Richard Denning), who carries on his shoulders a man named Radek (Paul Dubov), follows them. Nearly dead, it seems, Radek has a bad case of radiation poisoning. Finally, a crusty old gold prospector, Pete (Raymond Hatton) shows up with his burro, Diablo, in tow. Thrown together by circumstance, the group spends the next several weeks waiting for the radiation to dissipate. Everyone stays inside for the most part, except for Radek who often wanders out at night and whose high roentgen count leads Jim and Rick to wonder why he’s still alive.

Eventually, they discover that Radek is some sort of partial mutant who kills and eats contaminated game during his nighttime ventures. As Rick describes things, Radek has survived because he’s the victim of “an entirely-new set of laws that we know nothing about.” But soon, Radek the hunter becomes prey. Stalking the valley is a full-blown mutant, actually Paul Blaisdell wearing one of the cheapest, most-pathetic monster suits in cinematic history. Soon after this monster with the huge head, bird beak, three eyes, and a 34-inch waist kills Radek, some of the other characters begin to kill off themselves or each other. Having grown impatient, Pete climbs out of the valley and onto the radioactive ridge. Tony, with his sights now set on Louise, stabs the jealous Ruby and throws her body off a cliff.

But Tony isn’t the only one interested in Louise. With the monster psychically calling to her, she wanders into the woods. When Rick discovers that she’s not in the house, he goes looking and finds her in a pond just out of the reach of the mutant, which seems to be afraid of the water. When Rick fires his rifle at the mutant, he discovers that it’s bullet proof, and he is also forced to take refuge in the pond. Just then, it begins to rain for the first time since the war. Immediately the monster begins to cringe, and it quickly dies. Louise tells Rick that, for some strange reason, she feels sorry for the mutant. And since it “spoke” only to her, viewers are left wondering if the monster was in fact Louise’s fiancĂ©! (Usually, the man turning into a monster is something that happens after the wedding, right?). At any rate, as Rick and Louise return to the house, Tony plans to kill Rick so that he can have the girl for himself. At the last moment though, Jim, lying on the couch with a fatal case of radiation poisoning, pulls a hidden pistol and kills Tony. Afterwards, Rick, Louise, and Jim try to make sense of everything that’s recently happened. Jim says of the monster, That thing was created to live in a poisoned world. The rain came, and it was pure. Louise: Man created it, but God destroyed it. He brought the rain and the fresh air. Moments later, Jim dies, leaving only Rick and Louise. The final scene shows the couple healthy and smiling as they hike out of the valley arm-in-arm.

Of all the nuclear-war films that have been made, it would be hard to find one that is more explicitly religious than Day the World Ended. As my synopsis indicates, while the story acknowledges that humans are responsible for the event that brings them to near extinction, it also firmly places this event under the sovereign power of the God of the Christian Bible. Likewise, the end clearly asserts that humanity’s ability to survive and even flourish in a newly-cleansed world is also the result of the providential care of this God. To underscore all of this, midway through, the movie includes a Bible reading. In the previous scene, Jim and Rick wander through the woods. The men are perplexed by Radek’s strange behavior and by the question of what the fallout might have done to the environment. Jim asks his new friend, “What can we do, Rick?” An earlier scene revealed that Rick’s brother, who was instantly killed in the nuclear attack, was planning to become a minister. Rick replies to Jim’s question, My brother believed that the Bible gave strength and revealed a plan for everything. Jim responds, Then I hope I find it before I lose my mind. Back at his home, Jim holds a Bible and reads to the group:

. . . for I am with thee to save thee and to deliver thee, saith the Lord. And I will deliver thee out of the hand of the wicked, and I will redeem thee out of the hand of the terrible (Jeremiah 15:20b-21).

This raises a number of unanswered questions. Why has Jim made his way to the end of Jeremiah 15? Who does he assume that “the wicked” and “the terrible” might be? What sorts of applications is the viewer expected make? My last question leads back to Lou Rusoff, the author of the screenplay. But it’s really not that complicated. According to the story, Jim just happens to have found and read a passage that promises him—or at least his descendants through Louise—eventual rescue from radioactive monsters and nuclear fallout, not to mention Tony. Yes, it is a greeting-card understanding of the Bible. It’s also a very popular approach in Christian history and American culture.

In these ways, then, Day the World Ended assumes the existence and benevolent care of the God of the Christian Bible. Consequently, in this movie although humanity is responsible for World War III and the near extinction of life on Earth, the providence of God ensures that there are survivors. It also provides for a natural cleansing of the planet so that survivors then have the prospect of repopulating the world.

Some Sources:

Corman, Roger. How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998.

Kaufman, Gordon D. “Nuclear Eschatology and the Study of Religion,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 51 (March 1983): 3-14.

Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. 2d ed., Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994.


Wade Tannehill said...

Catching up on my blog reading during this busy season. I thought I was the only one who ever watched B movies from the 50s and 60s, which is something I love to do. I guess this all goes along with your Cold War studies you've been doing. Did you actualy see this movie? I wonder if an apocalyptic movie today would have the biblical overtones, although I hear that the Book of Eli may. I haven't seen it yet, but it sounds interesting.

I haven't come across the textual variant of which you spoke. I guess because I've never fully exegeted 2 Peter. I hate it when I learn stuff that could get me into trouble. :-)

As far as B movies, we have a Roku box for Netflix streming video. In addition to Netflix there are channels that have a lot of those B variety sci-fi offerings. I recently watched "Teenagers from Outer Space." Of course I'm an Ed Wood fan (of the sci-fi stuff) and enjoyed the movie in which Johnny Depp portrayed him. But I do wonder if Bela Lugosi really dropped the F bomb as often as he did in that movie. Well, getting off the subject. Great post! I'll have to watch the film.

Frank Bellizzi said...


Yes, I watched DTWE about three times. It was aired on either AMC or TCM and I recorded it. Like a lot of low-budget films, it's sort of like a visual radio play and gets old very quickly. Still, at first anyway, it's a bit like watching the proverbial train wreck.

About the passage in 2 Peter 3:10, Bruce Metzger says he suspects that none of the extant manuscripts represents the original wording.(!) The reading that has things "revealed" rather than "burned up" is his choice. But even at that, he gives it a "D."