Monday, October 2, 2023

Cornel Wilde's No Blade of Grass

Nigel Davenport as John Custance.
Actor Cornel Wilde directed eight films, beginning with 1955's Storm Fear. His best picture is The Naked Prey (1965), in which he also stars as a safari guide being hunted down by African tribesmen. It's a lean, gripping adventure that showcased Wilde's promising future as a first-rate filmmaker. Unfortunately, Wilde never realized that potential as a director, as evidenced by his bizarre 1970 science fiction opus No Blade of Blade.

The film opens with a five-minute montage showing man's pollution of the environment, accompanied by the melancholy title song performed by Roger Whittaker. The story then picks up with the London-based Custance family, which has been warned to evacuate the city by their friend Roger Burnham. In flashback, we learn that a grass disease, created by pollution, has caused worldwide famine. Food has been rationed. Martial law has been declared in large cities. There are rumors of government-directed mass killings in some countries.

John Custance (Nigel Davenport) plans to take his wife, daughter, and Roger to his brother's rural farm in the north. They barely make it out of London, though, as rioters and looters attack their cars. They stop at a hardware store to buy guns and ammunition, but the elderly store owner refuses to sell to them without a firearms license. An argument ensues and a store employee named Pirrie kills the old man. John allows Pirrie and his wife to join their caravan. It's the first of many questionable decisions made for the sake of survival.

As the travelers make their way north, they encounter violent gangs, desperate families, and soldiers who have turned on their superiors. It's a bleak look at humanity. When the Custances are ambushed and robbed of their supplies, a shocked Ann Custance asks: "What kind of people are you?" The reply: "The same kind of people you are, ma'am." In a handful of scenes like this, director Wilde drives his points home effectively. 

Lynne Frederick and Anthony May.
Unfortunately, his heavy-handed approach dilutes the overall effectiveness with flash forwards, too many pollution montages, and an overreliance on news broadcasts to substantiate the events (a technique George Romero used effectively in Night of the Living Dead). The treatment of the Custances' teenage daughter, Mary (Lynne Frederick), is also disturbing. In the film's opening scenes, she is apparently in a nonsexual relationship with Roger, who must be twice her age. She and her mother are later raped by the biker gang, in a scene that is unnecessarily explicit. Even worse, the trauma surrounding that event is never addressed in the film, almost as if it never happened. Finally, after the borderline psycho Pirrie "disposes" of his wife, he expresses his interest in Mary. She agrees to go with him because she feels safe--a decision that her parents accept all too quickly.

Jean Wallace, aka Mrs. Wilde.
The standouts in the cast are Nigel Davenport as John Custance and Anthony May as Pirrie (the most interesting character). This was the last film made by Jean Wallace, who was Wilde's spouse at the time. It marked the film debut of Lynne Frederick, who married Peter Sellers at age 22 (she was the last of his four wives).

Adapted from John Christopher's 1956 novel The Death of Grass, No Blade of Grass was hard to see for many years. You can now view it for free on the Rumble channel Silver Age Science Fiction Classics 1965-90 by clicking here

For an interesting comparison, you may want to seek out Ray Milland's Panic in Year Zero (1962), a similar--but more effective--examination on the potential end of civilization through the eyes of one family.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, this sounds wild (no pun intended). Interesting (and sad and scary) that the idea of something like this happening today no longer seems so far out of the realm of possibility. I've never seen this film -- and I'm not sure I want to! -- but I greatly enjoyed reading about it, Rick.