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!