Tuesday, 3 December 2013

No Blade of Grass (1970)
"By the beginning of the 1970s the destruction of the environment was close to the point of no return."
It's the early 1970s, the world is overcrowded ...
... overpolluted ...
... and a mysterious new disease is killing off the grass - including all the cereals - and causing worldwide food shortages.

This seldom seen, and largely forgotten, British film (which is currently only available on an imported US DVD) has most certainly got a message. Based on a 1956 novel by British author John Christopher it tells the story of John Custance and his wife Ann (played by Nigel Davenport and Jean Wallace) who, hearing the news from his friend Roger Burnham (John Hamill) - who is also the boyfriend of Custance's daughter Mary (Lynne Frederick in her first film role) that the crisis means London is to be sealed off.

Nigel Davenport
Lynne Fredericks and John Hamill

With 600 million already dead worldwide, fearing panic and the possible bombing of London by the government to save enough food for the rest of the country (as had already been attempted by the Chinese) they set out for the north where John brother David (Patrick Holt) has a secluded farm.

Patrick Holt and Nigel Davenport
On the way they team up with the rather dangerous Andrew Pirrie and his wife Clara (Anthony May and Wendy Richard) ...

Anthony May and Wendy Richard (whom he lovingly describes as having "a survival kit between her legs")
... encounter food riots ...

... a rampaging biker gang called 'The Huns' ...

... army roadblocks ...

... hungry looters ...

... and rapists ...

Jean Wallace

Lynne Fredericks
... before having their cars stolen and having to walk to their destination ...

... only to receive a surprise reception when David is reluctant to take them in:

Patrick Holt and Nigel Davenport
When I read the book a number of years ago I was struck by how quickly they all became brutalised by their experiences as they try to escape London and reach safety. That brutality comes across well in the film, with John Custance - a fundamentally good man - rapidly accepting that violence has swiftly become the only way to keep his family alive.

Nigel Davenport

Jean Wallace
I had no problems accepting this rapid change in their behaviour although where the book made this more convincing was that John and Roger are both recent veterans of World War 2 and simply appear to revert to wartime morality and allow their survival instincts to take over. The characters in the film don't have this to fall back on, despite John being revealed as a veteran of the Korean War. Similarly, in the book Pirrie is an older man whose savage behaviour is shocking to the reader. In the film he is an ex-criminal, a man with a violent past, whose descent into violence is less of a surprise to viewers.

That said, the early 1970s setting - and the issues of pollution, over-industrialisation and overcrowding - makes the spread of the disease more easily justified than in the book.

So, as a viewer who loves dystopian cinema, and is a great fan of the book, what was my opinion of the film?

That's where things start to go wrong:

Directed and produced by Cornel Wilde, who was better known as an actor, the film is a rather messy affair.  Whilst some critics consider it to look cheap, I would disagree - it looks perfectly good (it was 1970 after all) but it is simply that the script, acting and direction don't do justice to the strong source material. Wilde includes clumsy flashbacks and even clumsier flashforwards, which are a little confusing at first; the title song (performed by Roger Whittaker) is dreadful and would have been better suited to a really cheap western; the appearance of the biker gangs (even when they are committing rape) is accompanied by a groovy score, heavy on swirling organ that was probably considered 'hip' but now seems ridiculous. Indeed, it detracts from the power of the rape scene.

On a positive point, the scenes of a polluted world are effective and underpin the message. Radio broadcasts detailing the flight of the French government and Belgian royals to the USA and the arrival of the British government in Canada give a sense of abandonment that consolidates the understanding that the characters have been left to their own devices.

The views of dead animals, of people traipsing across a barren landscape in search of sanctuary, of the weak being abandoned, all ring true. Above all else, the large patches of dry, brown grass make the scenario believable. As entertainment it may suffer, but as an attack on pollution, consumerism - well, the whole modern world - and a portrayal of man as a savage, it works.

It's bleak, nasty and violent - just like any world would be where the people have run out of food and have been left in a state of anarchy and chaos.

In many ways, it is a precursor to BBC TV's Survivors which followed a few years later and also examined how decent people coped with the struggle to survive in a brutal new world. On a side point Patrick Holt also appeared in Survivors, as London's last surviving doctor, in the episodes 'The Lights of London'.

Who else appears?

Christopher Neame in his first film appearance. Neame (who later appeared on TV in Colditz and Secret Army) later played 'Johnny Alucard' in Dracula AD1972 and was considered by Hammer Films as a possible replacement for Christopher Lee.

Veteran actor George Coulouris

So, if you like dystopian films, it certainly worth watching. For more general entertainment, be prepared for its faults. And I would most certainly recommend the book (under the original title 'The Death of Grass').
And there's one particular person I'd like to recommend the book to: Roland Emmerich. As the director of Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, this would be the ideal subject for him. OK, there's no scope for a crowd pleasing finale, but he's the man who could do the story justice.
So Roland, if you're reading ....


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