I just caught the 2007 sci-fi thriller, I Am Legend, in which Will Smith is the last man left in New York City, and possibly the world. Seems like apocalyptic movies have been with us forever. Roger Corman made his share — I worked on several, including The Terror Within. Roger’s end-of-the-world flicks usually featured monsters of a more or less preposterous sort.
But A-list filmmakers have also tried their hand at movies about civilization reaching the end of its road. Often, particularly in the late Fifties, their films reflected the widespread public anxiety about the threat of nuclear war. In that era families dug bomb-shelters and we schoolchildren practiced drop-drills, hiding under our desks to shield ourselves from nuclear attack. The year 1959 saw the release of two very serious movies about the aftermath of nuclear war. In both of them there’s not a monster in sight. Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach, based on Nevil Shute’s novel, is set in a town in Australia. The rest of the world’s popular has been wiped out in a senseless series of tit-for-tat bombings, and the locals (augmented by the crew of an American submarine) are waiting for the deadly cloud of radiation that’s sure to finish them off. As the tension mounts, some find love, some succumb to despair, some try to ease their psychic pain with daredevil bravado. (Fred Astaire, of all people, plays the film’s most interesting character, a nuclear scientist who turns to race-car driving as an escape from his sense of personal guilt.)
Also in 1959, Harry Belafonte starred in The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, a film that gives an interracial twist to the idea of nuclear holocaust. The only survivor seems to be Belafonte, a miner who was deep underground at the time of the blast. We see him, like Will Smith in I Am Legend, wandering through an eerily empty Manhattan, until he happens upon a beautiful blonde (Inger Stevens). Though her first words are “Don’t touch me,” it’s not long before love comes calling. Curiously, she seems far more able than he is to look past their color difference. Yes, she uses phrases like “I’m free, white, and twenty-one,” but she’s quickly charmed by his humor and good manners, to the point where the audience can imagine them as Adam and Eve repopulating the world. But when she reaches out to him, he recoils, saying, “If you’re squeamish about words, I’m colored, and if you face the facts I’m a Negro. And if you’re a polite Southerner I’m a Neegra, and I’m a nigger if you’re not.” Still, the realization that they may be the last two people on earth helps them move ever closer together. It’s then that the arrival of a tough-minded white man, played by Mel Ferrer, complicates their relationship further, leading to the film’s ambiguous but hopeful ending.
It’s no surprise that Belafonte would choose a film project confronting the most emotionally-charged issues of the day. He was – and still is – a man of deeply-held convictions. When hugely popular as a singer, he was also an activist, risking his life as well as his career to take a stand for civil rights and other causes. Today, at 84, he’s still speaking out for what he believes. In October I took my mother, once his number-one fan, to hear him speak on behalf of his acclaimed new memoir, My Song. Occupy L.A. was going full-steam at the time, and Belafonte gave a hearty shout-out to the protesters who want, in their own way, to save civilization as we know it.
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