Billed as Allied Artists’ first CinemaScope & Technicolor sci-fi extravaganza, World Without End (1956) was the minor studio’s attempt to boost its profile, and to some extent, it worked, because the picture is larded with talent that tried awfully hard to transcend writer-director Edward Bernds’ boneheaded script.
The basic premise of a manned Martian exploration ship being walloped forward in time to a post-apocalyptic Earth isn’t awful; it’s actually the kind of vintage sci-fi that inspired many B-films as well as TV movies and TV series during the sixties and seventies.
That sub-genre of doomed humanity parables gradually moved away from the God-saturated George Pal epics (Conquest of Space) to themed dramas about tolerance (The Time Machine) and conserving and respecting Earth’s natural gifts (Silent Running). Bernds’ drama is illustrative of these transitional elements where tales of interstellar Edens and quotes from scripture were watered down in favour of genre tropes emphasizing space travel, man struggling against the elements (Robinson Crusoe on Mars being a classic), and simple conflicts of jealousy, primal rage, and basic sub-sub plots of men trying to get lucky with hot alien women.
WWE could, in fact, be remade as a great sci-fi epic because even with its clichéd core story of a jealous council weasel speaking ill of the strange human visitors, there are some intriguing opportunities upon which writers can expand, such as the colonization of Mars, time travel, and two societies (the primal surface dwellers, the cerebral yet genetically weakened tunnel dwellers) in need of merging.
The reason WWE is a good bad movie starts with Bernds’ moronic dialogue and ludicrously conceptualized scenes meant to put characters in danger, if not get them from point A to point B and fill up the running time.
No sooner does the quartet of explorers land on the new Earth do they encounter a giant spider (actually, two), which could’ve been avoided if the group’s only married man hadn’t called out ‘Hey guys, come and take a look at this: a cave!!!’
The group’s first encounter with “the mutates” – cavemen with glued-on Cyclops eyes and melted face goo – is a dramatized with the mutates thrusting many spears that ridiculously land around their targets like giant pick-up sticks; and the quartet uses old six-shooters they keep latched onto a ‘standard issue’ tool belt that includes a pick ax, flashlight, and a bottomless can of water.
Once the quartet find refuge in the tunnels of the underground city, they meet a modest town council (about 3 members), the leader’s hot daughter Garnet (Nancy Gates), the Iago-ish Mories (Booth Colman), and normal-looking, mutate-servant Deena (athletic Lisa Montell, sporting an awesomely taut midriff), who becomes pivotal in exposing Morie’s eeevil plan to have the quartet expunged from their city.
The romances are fairly predictable: Hank (Christopher Dark), the lone married man and homesick father, never gets involved with a hottie, and even at the end he’s happy handling the mutates kiddies instead of getting some mini-skirted angel to keep him happy; the group’s stud Herb (Rod Taylor, trying hard to improve is wavering, horrible English accent) is chased by servant Deena who cuddles and hugs him incessantly for the film’s last half hour; older egghead Dr. Eldon Galbraithe (Master Enunciator Nelson Leigh) rediscovers his mojo when all those hotties seem to really like him; and leader/fellow egghead John Borden (Hugh Marlowe), who eventually gets to boff Garnet under a moonlit sky (a sly move that drives Morie just plain nuts, and makes his rage seethe).
Neither the bad dialogue nor the predictable conflicts are what make this film a cinema fromage treasure; it’s watching actor Rod Taylor struggle really, really hard to invest great gravitas to his character by making sure every reaction and line reading is real.
When he’s wrestling the giant spider, he’s convinced the stuffed toy is real; when he’s standing around bare-chested for the film’s lone beefcake moment, he fidgets with a comb because his vanity is real; and when a normal mutate is found speared in the back, Taylor’s outrage is so real, you know the blood in his body is bubbling up to his brain.
Taylor isn’t struggling with the banal material; he’s living it, and to really get into the cheese of the film one has to avoid being distracted by the bevy of character actors and ingénues playing their roles with beautifully enunciated tones, and just watch Rod Taylor, because he owns the movie. It is possible he was prepping himself in The Method prior to appearing in Giant with James Dean that same year, but when Taylor pats a colleague on the shoulder for brotherly support, or launches the one weapon the cerebral survivors can manufacture properly – a bazooka - he’s in the moment, and won’t snap out until the shooting day has wrapped.
That’s just an amazing thing to observe, and it makes WWE brilliantly fun, although the second greatest element is actually a lengthy scene where Deena/Montell sputters gibberish as she translates between English and Mutatespeeke when her cyclops leader wants to battle egghead John Borden in some hand-to-hand combat for World Domination.
All that drama is deepened by Leith Stevens’ score, which admittedly sounds a lot like Destination Moon [M] (1950), but still treats every scene and conflict like Shakespeare, and makes up for Bernds’ disinterest in moving the CinemaScope camera beyond a rare pan. One senses Bernds wasn’t afraid of the wide CinemaScope ratio but just plain lazy, because everyone else tried very hard to give the film some compositional and colourful verve.
Cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) makes sure the frame contents are balanced, and his lighting (rather harsh in the tight bedroom sets, but fine everywhere else) brings out the thick pastel colours inherent to fifties décor, but without the garishness. Even the rocks that dominate the mutates landscape have subtle shades of colour: a few outcroppings have pink striations, and one shot has the humans standing in front of a boulder that’s been faintly shaded with a light dusting of pastel green. Bleak imagery was definitely verboten on the WWE set.
WWE’s original poster campaign was fabulous, and infers great adventure and long female legs that may not be to scale or in the actual movie (including the Vargas babes), but WWE is a classic deserving rediscovery (and a remake), and Warner Home Video’s transfer is taken from a clean print with decent mono sound that only gets fluttery during the end credit crawl. The film was original paired with Satellite in the Sky (1956), but it’s also available in TCM’s Classic Films Collection: Sci-Fi Adventures, featuring WWE, Them! (1954), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), and Satellite in the Sky.
Hugh Marlowe’s other genre outings include The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), whereas Rod Taylor fared way better, because within a year’s time he appeared in George Stevens’ Giant (1956), Edward Dmytryk’s Raintree County (1957), George Pal’s The Time Machine (1960), Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1962), and George Seaton’s 36 Hours (1965). Not bad for Herb the ladykiller.
Edward Bernds would follow up WWE with his other sci-fi epic, the visually static but pastel coloured Queen of Outer Space (1958), making use of the same spaceship model, time travel footage, spaceship interiors, giant killer spider puppet, tunnel sets, and interior décor… because he was cheap. His other genre forays include Space Master X-7 (1958), Return of the Fly (1959), and Valley of the Dragons (1961).
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan