Cast & Crew
Prof. Nils Hellstrom, a scientist who has been derided by his colleagues for his opinions on the ecological state of the earth and the evolution of its various species, relates an etymological history of insects. Hellstrom explains that insects were the first creatures on earth and are the only creatures which constantly adapt to new environments, suggesting that their very simplicity is what makes them both vulnerable and strong. Scenes of various societies of insects, including several species of ants, termites, locusts, caterpillars and bees, are shown in their natural environment as they are born, work, seek nourishment for themselves and their young and procreate. Ants, like many creatures, spend their entire lives working to preserve their colonies, with each ant having its own specific and rigidly adhered to task. Some insects, such as termites and ants, willingly sacrifice themselves to protect their colony and their queens from danger. Hellstrom calls the mounds in which termites dwell similar to primitive computers because they are compartmentalized and powered by energy from the mound's queens, who may live as long as fifty years. To illustrate that humans are often disgusted by or afraid of termites, Hellstrom experiments by using a hidden camera show people's reactions when they encounter large bugs in grocery stores and restaurants. Hellstrom postulates that the human revulsion for insects springs from the fact that insect-related diseases, particularly from such diseases as malaria and plague, are the greatest single cause of death in human history. Hellstrom states that insects can cause even greater harm by destroying man's food source by eating as much as one hundred times their weight. Discussing the initial effectiveness of pesticides such as DDT with a farmer, Hellstrom relates that insects are the most adaptable creatures on earth and that insects that survive pesticides such as DDT not only become immune to them but pass on their immunity to future generations. In a drive-in theater, Hellstrom watches scenes from the film If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium and discusses reproduction which, in insects, is relayed through scents, or pheromones, which are an aspect of insect communication. In his backyard, Hellstrom illustrates that, while water can kill insects, if only one pair of insects survive, they easily can maintain the entire species whereas, if only one male and one female human were to survive on earth it would take millions of years for the species to evolve. In a desert, surrounded by partially destroyed buildings, Hellstrom ponders what mistakes the mighty dinosaurs made that caused them to vanish while insects survived, then proffers that no one knows what species will be the last to survive, saying that the true winner is the last to finish the race.
J. M. Boufle
Charles L. Campbell
Charles Hogue Ph.d.
Lawrence E. Neiman
David L. Wolper
The Hellstrom Chronicle - THE HELLSTROM CHRONICLE - Fact or Fiction? The Oscar®-Winning 1971 Documentary on DVD
The Hellstrom Chronicle has top-level docu credentials. It was put together under the aegis of The Wolper Company, a prime maker of quality documentary programming in the 1960s. Several key personnel, including credited producer-director Walon Green, had years of experience in the David L. Wolper organization. The movie uses excellent footage of insect life, much of it filmed in macro- close-up; after forty years of advances in nature cinematography the footage remains impressive. In 1971 it was a revelation on the big screen. Also adding to the film's positive impression is an excellent audio track. Top musical talent Lalo Schifrin composed the engaging score, which varies between ominous tones to back "Hellstrom's" dire predictions and lively tunes to accompany the more positive nature footage. The creative sound effects may not always be authentic, but they're consistently engaging.
Nature films have advanced by leaps and bounds since the days of Walt Disney's "True Life" attractions, which are so unscientific that they're rarely screened these days. Disney's cameramen caught beautiful images of animals in the desert or in the frozen north, but they also faked much footage. The voiceover scripts stress anthropomorphic qualities to make the animals more attractive to children. We're told that the widely believed myth that lemmings commit mass suicide by jumping off cliffs was actually an invention for a Disney True Life nature film.
The Hellstrom Chronicle is far more irresponsible. Nils Hellstrom introduces himself as a scientist-prophet drummed out of academia for his "heretical" beliefs. Thus the impression is given that scientific institutions are complacent and cannot be trusted. Hellstrom tells us right off the top that mankind is doomed, alludes to an insect threat and touches tangentially on the subject of radioactivity. For a moment we think we're listening to an incoherent re-cap of an argument from the science fiction thriller Them! Hellstrom then refers to his vague assertions as "evidence", and we're off down the slippery slope to the realm of the pseudo-documentary.
The film sports excellent film coverage of all kinds of insects doing what bugs do: being born, molting, eating and procreating. We're treated to gruesome macro- views of these creatures catching, crushing and devouring one another -- those incredible fangs, pincers and hinged mouthpieces are fascinating to see in action. We see beautiful time-lapse shots of eggs developing into larvae and caterpillars metamorphosing into butterflies. Excellent coverage chronicles the workings of beehives, termite nests and various kinds of ants, including African "driver ants" that devour everything in their path. The Hellstrom Chronicle contains 90 minutes of breathtakingly interesting, diverse nature film.
The script appears cobbled together to keep the viewer in a state of perpetual unease. Hellstrom's one thesis is that man is destroying his environment, and that insects will inherit the earth by virtue of their adaptability. The invertebrates can adjust to almost anything, just as they develop immunities to DDT. But he doesn't get very deep into that or any other issue. Hellstrom instead dances around the question, raising tendentious questions and offering more unproven assertions. Ordinary insect behavior is characterized as a conspiracy of evil. Bugs are scorned for having no souls. His credibility factor is on a par with that of the fictional character Lawrence Woolsey, the monster-movie huckster from the hilarious comedy Matinee: his every statement is overdramatized and unsubstantiated. Hellstrom mentions evolution at one point but also refers poetically to the world being created in seven days, and asks if man or the insect will be the final recipient of God's grace.
Some of writer David Seltzer's narration sounds like Cold War anti-communist propaganda adapted to fit random nature footage. A montage of flying scenes is presented as if insect flight were a sinister battle strategy. Swarming insects are labeled a disease plague. Insect-eating plants are working a "revenge". Loaded words proliferate: "treachery", "instinct of greed". I didn't know that greed was an instinct. The script reaches for whatever clichés seem to fit. Termites are criticized as robotic and socialist while bees are considered benign because they pollinate plants. Science and nature are unemotional and therefore horrible.
We see clips from Them! and The Naked Jungle simply to illustrate how most people find insects "icky". These are followed by faked candid camera shots in which people pretend to be shocked by seeing insects on their food or clothing. Romantic scenes from the Wolper film If It's Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium are part of a spurious comparison of insect and human reproduction: bugs copulate in mid-air and humans go to the drive-in. Nils Hellstrom delivers his morbid pronouncements as if he's secretly happy that we're all going to be devoured by six-legged creepy crawlies.
In The Hellstrom Chronicle's silliest episode, scenes of a Black Widow spider eating its mate are accompanied by Motown fuzz guitar licks and a narration characterizing the female spider as a temptress, a sex bomb. The most unscientific passage claims that insect reproduction is so rapid that the bugs could eat all the crops in the world as well as all the plant life, killing off whole species and making man extinct. Anyone familiar with nature's checks and balances knows that this is nonsense. The show ends with dramatic footage of the horde of army ants eating lizards and insects, animals likely thrown to their doom for the sake of a good shot. Hellstrom offers a few non-sequiturs about dinosaurs and extinction. One creature consumed by the ants is a large scorpion, which immediately reminds us of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. Producer-director Walon Green was a writer on that picture, a connection that adds to the general atmosphere of cynicism.
David L. Wolper was a creative and prolific producer, and The Hellstrom Chronicle would appear to have been the result of an edict to make profitable use of a mountain of unexploited nature footage. In that case the film is a real over-achiever, for it won the 1972 Oscar for Best Documentary. Unbelievably, writer David Seltzer earned a Writers Guild of America nomination for his screenplay. A notable exercise in hype and hysteria, Hellstrom is really a precursor to a glut of popular pseudo-documentaries. A film adaptation of Erich Von Daniken's book Erinnerungen and die Zunkunft became a runaway hit in the United States under the title Chariots of the Gods. Despite various debunkings, most notably by TV's science series Nova, the film's assertions that alien visitations founded or influenced ancient cultures is now widely believed. A company called Sunn Classic Pictures hit pay dirt by switching from Bible movies and Grizzly Adams shows to Hangar 18, one of the first films to exploit the flying saucer / Roswell / Area 51 myths. Today, of course, outright distortions of science and history so permeate TV, the Internet and other media that a credulous public now exists for whatever hokum is being hawked. The Hellstrom Chronicle is part of that unhappy legacy.
Olive Films offers this show on both DVD and Blu-ray. Their DVD of The Hellstrom Chronicle is a fine encoding of film material that almost looks too good to have originally been 16mm, the standard camera format for docu and nature work back in 1971. Although the film credits list a number of cameramen, the variety and quality of film is so varied that it is more likely that the footage was sourced from other productions and stock libraries licensed by Wolper. The editing is expert and all the technical details are polished. Although screened in 1971 in grainy widescreen, matting the picture off to 1:66 or 1:85, the disc's full frame presentation is the best way to present the show. The images are sharp and obviously composed for the squarish screen shape.
The Hellstrom Chronicle is a great resource for fine insect footage. But beware the dishonest script and the fake "real scientist" in this bogus documentary.
For more information about The Hellstrom Chronicle, visit Olive Films.
by Glenn Erickson
The Hellstrom Chronicle - THE HELLSTROM CHRONICLE - Fact or Fiction? The Oscar®-Winning 1971 Documentary on DVD
The working title of the film was Project X. The opening credits include a written acknowledgment of eight institutions "for their assistance in the production of this film: U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and University of California at Los Angeles, Griffith Observatory, California Institute of Technology, Lorquin Entomological Society, Entomological Society of America, Anti-Locust Research Center, London, National Museum, Kenya." Although there is an onscreen copyright statement that reads "Copyright 1971 Wolper Pictures, Ltd.," the picture was not registered for copyright until October 3, 1985, at which time it was given the registration number PA-276-942.
Most of the film's production credits are at the end of the film and include the following written statement: "Nils Hellstrom, M.S., Ph.D., is a fictional character who was portrayed by Lawrence Pressman. His statements relating to the impermanence of the human species have been synthesized from contemporary opinions. All statements about the insect world are factual and have been reviewed by Roy Snelling and Charles Hogue, Ph.D. of the Entomology Department, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History." The fictional Hellstrom is also mentioned in the opening credits. After a title card reading "A David L. Wolper production" the following title card reads: "In Association with Nils Hellstrom M.S., Ph.D."
The end credits include two title cards of acknowledgments, thanking persons "who assisted in the making of this motion picture: Mel Stuart, Linda Strawn, Phil Leakey, John and Lenita Moore, Jim Dannaldson, Jim Robertson, Lloyd Martin, Conlon Carter, M. C. Ruben and Gerald Calderon." Clips from the films The Naked Jungle (1954), Them! (1954) and the Wolper production If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (1969, see entries below) are shown within The Hellstrom Chronicle to illustrate various points.
Although The Hellstrom Chronicle is a documentary, the film contains numerous brief segments in which the fictional scientist Hellstrom is seen on camera describing his life and work and commenting on the action presented and its effects on the earth. Presented as a maverick who often has been derided by superiors and colleagues for his views, Hellstrom offers his opinions and philosophies on insects as they relate to the evolution history of the earth. Between his on camera sequences, Pressman, a Broadway actor who made his feature film debut in Making It (see below), which was released shortly before The Hellstrom Chronicle, provided voice-over narration of the insect segments throughout the film, always speaking in character.
An ad in Variety on December 10, 1969 stated that the film was "now filming around the world," and the onscreen acknowledgements noted that some of the entomological sequences were shot in Kenya. The dramatized Hellstrom segments were shot at various locations in Southern California, including MacArthur Park, Hollywood Blvd. and the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. According to documents in the David L. Wolper Collection at the USC Cinema-Television Library, the sequence in which Hellstrom appears in a desert among ruins of buildings was shot on April 24, 1971 in Rhyolite, NV, a well-known Western ghost town. As The Hellstrom Chronicle was shown at the Cannes Film Festival on May 27, 1971, it is likely that the Rhyolite sequence was the final sequence filmed.
According to a Variety article on June 30, 1971, the film cost $850,000 to produce. The article continued that director Walon Green was a thirty-five-year-old filmmaker who had formerly worked on a television nature series for National Geographic, and that noted NBC News anchor Chet Huntley was so impressed with the film after a print was sent to him by Cinema 5, Ltd. president Don Rugoff that he flew to Los Angeles to appear in its theatrical and television trailers. A Daily Variety news item in March 1972 stated that Los Angeles butcher Marvin Weinstein was suing Wolper Productions for $250,000, charging that "fraud and deceit" were used to convince him to appear in the hidden camera sequence that was edited to make him appear unconcerned for the health of his customers. In the sequence, a butcher does not react when a customer grimaces after seeing a large bug on a piece of meat. The disposition of the suit has not been determined.
The Hellstrom Chronicle garnered outstanding reviews, with most critics lauding the film for making a potentially uninteresting subject exciting. Although many critics praised the film's dramatic blend of science, bold close-up and stop-action photography with dire ecological prognostications, others lambasted Hellstrom's characterization, which purposely included bleak dialogue, delivered in a deadpan manner by Pressman. New Yorker critic Penelope Gilliatt expressed the contention of some critics that Hellstrom's pompous nature made him tantamount to a "religious-minded ass."
The film won an Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary, in addition to being awarded the 1971 Grand Prix de Technique at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was one of five official U.S. entries. The picture also won the Grand Technical Prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival in July 1971, the Moscow Film Festival Special Organizing Committee Award and the Robert Flaherty Award for Special Achievement by the British Society of Film and Television Arts in February 1972.
Winner of the Robert Flaherty Award for Special Achievement by the British Society of Film and Television Arts in February 1972.
Winner of the 1971 Grand Prix de Technique at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was one of five official U.S. entries.
Winner of the Grand Technical Prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival in July 1971.
Winner of the Moscow Film Festival Special Organizing Committee Award.
Released in United States 1971
Released in United States 1990
Released in United States 1990 (Shown at AFI/Los Angeles International Film Festival (Tribute) April 19 - May 3, 1990.)
Released in United States 1971