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What would happen if most of the earth's population was wiped out in a nuclear war and only a handful of people remained? Would the survivors revert to savagery or rebuild the human race? This "what if" scenario has been the subject of numerous "after the bomb" movies from Arch Oboler's zero-budget melodrama Five (1951) to the romantic fatalism of Stanley Kramer's all-star disaster epic, On the Beach (1959), to the grim realism of Testament (1983) and the controversial made-for-TV drama, The Day After (1983). One of the more idiosyncratic and now mostly forgotten entries in this science fiction subgenre is The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1959), based on the prophetic 1902 novel The Purple Cloud by Matthews Phipps Shiel. The film opens with Ralph (Harry Belafonte), a black miner in Pennsylvania getting trapped in a cave-in and unable to communicate with his above ground co-workers. When he eventually digs himself out of the rubble and escapes the mine, he discovers he is totally alone - no trace of human life anywhere. A discarded newspaper with the headline "Millions Flee from Cities! End of the World" provides a partial clue so armed with a gun and some provisions, he journeys to New York City which to all appearances is completely deserted. In time, he learns that he is not alone but the two other survivors he meets - first, a woman (Inger Stevens) and then, a man (Mel Ferrer) - generate more problems than good will. In the end, racism and sexual competition drive the two men into a showdown over the woman.
1959 was a peak year for Harry Belafonte. Not only did he give a historic concert performance at Carnegie Hall, which yielded one of his greatest albums, "Belafonte at Carnegie Hall," but he also played leading roles in two films, Odds Against Tomorrow and The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, both of which were independent films financed by his own company, Harbel Productions. Unfortunately, as this was the pre-Civil Rights era, Belafonte was restricted in how his character interacted with white women on the screen. He had already complained publicly about his previous film, Island in the Sun (1957), in which his on-screen romance with Joan Fontaine was denied any kissing scenes. Even though he was a co-producer on The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, the problem persisted in the depiction of the chaste relationship between Belafonte and Inger Stevens and was a chief criticism of the film by the more liberal critics. "Not only do I agree," said Belafonte (in the Arnold Shaw biography, Belafonte),"but I said as much to Sol Siegel [co-producer] while we were making the film. And the protests of Inger Stevens and Mel Ferrer were even stronger than mine. But it didn't do any good. They had a wonderful basis for a film there, but it didn't happen." Obviously, Hollywood wasn't ready to test the waters with intimate scenes of an interracial romance. As it was, The World, the Flesh, and the Devil was boycotted by some theatres in the South and in one case a showing in Georgia was halted because of erupting racial tensions in the audience.
Yet, the irony of all this is that Belafonte's scenes with Inger Stevens in The World, the Flesh, and the Devil are more sexually charged because of their restricted physical interaction. The scene where Stevens orders Belafonte to cut her hair might as well be a metaphor for a first and awkward attempt at lovemaking. And their inability to connect always leads back to the big taboo with Stevens saying, "I know what you are if you're trying to remind me," and Belafonte shouting, "If you're squeamish about words, I'm colored..." Unfortunately, instead of addressing the bigger theme of nuclear annihilation and its aftermath the focus of the film becomes the dilemma facing Stevens - does she choose the handsome, honorable, completely self-sufficient Belafonte or Ferrer's cunning, egotistical male chauvinist? There's really no contest [SPOILER ALERT] but co-scenarist/director Ranald MacDougall gives us an open ending; the trio, hands linked, walk together toward an uncertain future as the "The Beginning" appears on the screen. Before we get to that point, however, there's plenty of risible dialogue to savor such as Ferrer's remark, "We have a problem. There's two of us and one of her," which prompts Stevens to say, "Why don't you flip a coin?" Or the inevitable scene where Ferrer threatens Stevens with rape, "I could force you. No one around to care if you scream. All the boy scouts out of town."
There's no denying that the sexual competition over Stevens gives the second half of The World, the Flesh, and the Devil a blunt, melodramatic fascination but it's the first half of the film which is genuinely haunting and memorable. Beautifully photographed in black and white Cinemascope by Harold J. Marzorati, the scenes of Belafonte wandering the streets of a deserted New York City, dwarfed by skyscrapers, convey a sense of overpowering isolation and loneliness. Belafonte is also at his best in solo scenes where he sets up his apartment in the city, figuring out a way to rig electrical lines and populating his pad with mannequins for company, one of whom he nicknames Snodgrass. Curiously enough, Snodgrass appears to function as a reminder of Ralph's racial oppression - "always smiling, nobody could be that happy" - and ends up in free fall from the balcony to the street below. Other images linger as well; Belafonte shadow boxing on a nighttime street and an amusing sequence where he performs a guitar ballad as he admires his electric train set.
While the box office potential of The World, the Flesh, and the Devil was decidedly modest, it did generate a number of positive reviews including this comment from The N.Y. Herald Tribune, "Enthralling...Unlike routine fantasies of this sort, it does not rest on imaginative images of destruction, although shots of a wind-blown empty city are awesome enough, but keeps to an essentially psychological exploration of the impact of loneliness, luxury for the asking, and the problem of survival." Almost all of the reviews agreed that the film's first half was the strongest with The New York Times stating that "the fancy begins to crumble and the weird spell begins to break when the screenplay calls for the arrival of another man." Time magazine, however, seemed to pinpoint the film's main weakness with this assessment: "A passionately sincere, pictorially brilliant, monumentally silly example of how people who are obsessed with the race question tend to see everything in Black and White...the audience is asked to believe that when most of humanity has been wiped out by a cloud of radioactive sodium, the three people who have managed to save their skins will spend most of their time worrying about the color of them." Yet, what's easy to forget now is the simple fact that race was a major issue for American moviegoers in 1959 and, sad to say, but racial fears and prejudices haven't changed that much since then. Interestingly enough, The World, the Flesh, and the Devil would later inspire an unofficial remake from New Zealand entitled The Quiet Earth (1985), a post-apocalyptic drama where three survivors (two men, one woman) of a malfunctioning science project learn to get along despite racial and personal differences.
Producers: George Englund, Sol C. Siegel, Harry Belafonte (uncredited)
Director: Ranald MacDougall
Screenplay: Ranald MacDougall, based on the novel The Purple Cloud by M.P. Shiel & the story "End of the World" by Ferdinand Reyher
Cinematography: Harold J. Marzorati
Editing: Harold F. Kress
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Art Direction: Paul Groesse, William A. Horning
Cast: Harry Belafonte (Ralph Burton), Inger Stevens (Sarah Crandall), Mel Ferrer (Benson Thacker).
by Jeff Stafford