Tuesday, October 27, 2009

31 Days of Halloween: We are the Martians in "Quatermass and the Pit"

Nigel Kneale introduced intrepid Professor Bernard Quatermass to British TV audiences in the 1950s with three immensely popular sci fi limited-run series. Hammer Films acquired the movie rights and produced big-screen adaptations of The Quatermass Experiment in 1955 and Quatermass II two years later. Believing an American lead was essential for statewide success, Hammer cast Brian Donlevy as Quatermass. It was a bad decision—Donlevy’s miscasting mars two otherwise intriguing science fiction films. Fortunately, Hammer corrected that mistake when it adapted Quatermass and the Pit in 1967 and cast Scottish actor Andrew Keir as the professor. But Keir isn’t the only thing that distinguishes the third film in the series; simply put, Quatermass and the Pit is one of the finest of all science fiction films, melding an incredibly original premise with a strong cast and effective setting.

Kneale’s screenplay has construction workers uncovering the ancient skulls of “ape men” while working in a deserted underground subway station in the Hobbs End area of London. Dr. Mathew Roney (James Donald) dates the ape men’s remains as five million years old, making them the earliest known ancestors of humans. Roney’s work comes to a sharp halt, though, when his excavations unearth a large metallic-like object in the rock. Is it a bomb? A spacecraft? And what does it have to do with stories of former Hobbs End residents claiming to have heard odd noises and experienced visions of “hideous dwarfs”?

To divulge more of the plot wouldn’t be fair to first-time viewers. I will say that, having watched Quatermass and the Pit again recently, I found myself marveling at the ingenuity of Kneale’s premise. To not give away too much, he finds a way to explain magic through the use of science…and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The cast is top-notch and Keir is easily the big screen’s best Quatermass (though John Mills is very good in The Quatermass Conclusion, a truncated version of the final TV series). Keir gets excellent support, though, from James Donald, Barbara Shelley, and Julian Glover (as an Army officer who must rationalize what his mind cannot grasp). It’s refreshing to see Shelley’s scientist avoid the usual sci fi female stereotype (i.e., not have an active role in the plot). Indeed, it is Shelley’s character that gets the best—and most quotable—line in the film.

Rarely shown today, Quatermass and the Pit (also known as Five Million Years to Earth) may have few fans, but they are staunch ones. If you count yourself among them, please leave a comment. And, for the record, Kneale picked the name Quatermass by opening the London phone book and randomly placing his finger on a page!

7 comments:

  1. Rick, I know this film as Five Million Miles to Earth. I like this film very much .

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  2. Thanks, Rick! This is a splendid film and one of Hammer's best. I agree that Keir is a great improvement on Donlevy. In fact, I love QUATERMASS II (aka ENEMY FROM SPACE), and if Keir had starred in it, maybe you'd be writing about that film, too! I'm also a fan of Barbara Shelley. She was one of Hammer's finest stars, and QUATERMASS AND THE PIT is one to recommend for Shelley aficionados. My favorite scene in said film is one focusing on Shelley, but I can't specify where it is, or I might give something away. A superb write-up!

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  3. "Quatermass and the Pit" is an excellent work of science fiction. The setting is especially intriguing. As you pointed out, Rick, Brian Donlevy was as awful as Quatermass as Andrew Keir was good. I am also a fan of "The Quatermass Conclusion," especially because of John Mills. It makes a compelling statement about the danger of cults. This is an exemplary entry for the 31 Days of Halloween. Bravo, Rick!

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  4. I saw this movie and remember it as FIVE MILLION MILES TO EARTH. I saw it with my little brother. I like this film, Rick. You wrote a great review and like Sark said, none of us who have seen this movie can say much without giving away the plot. I am a big fan of Barbara Shelley too. I just TVOed THE VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED with Barbara and George Sanders this afternoon. So I will get to her tomorrow. Well written review for a great movie, Rick.

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  5. Rick, This sounds like it is a really good movie. Wonderful review.

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  6. This film is an excellent depiction of the battle between scientists versus the military. And its not simply a battle between the British military, but a battle between all scientists, and all militaries. Col. Breen or should I say Julian Glover does an excellent job of showing us the narrow thinking of the military. His unwillingness to accept something that simply doesn't exist in his small world results in his death.

    James Donald does an admirable job of putting up with ignorance of the military. I have a VHS copy of the film here at home, and think it's more than fair to say this is a film that simply doesn't age. Sure the clothes look out of date. But this film is as fresh as the day it was released.

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  7. I am really disappointed that this movie is rarely shown because I have never seen it, nor any of the others. As you may remember from my recent blog, Nigel Kneale is the wonderful writer who did The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas. He is a very literate and fascinating author. I wish I could see the Quatermass movies.

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