Surviving the End of the World
The end of the world is the stuff of fiction. In the post–World War II ’50s and ’60s, the film and TV industry was obsessed with apocalyptic scenarios, and I was more than an avid connoisseur. We are now living through a chillingly surreal reality that would be better on the screen than in the street. I nonetheless still yearn to watch the following:
The World of the Flesh and the Devil (1959) In the melodramatically titled The World of the Flesh and the Devil, a mine inspector, Ralph Burton (Harry Belafonte), becomes trapped in a caved-in mine in Pennsylvania. After a few harrowing days underground he digs his way out and finds a deserted world—nada! All the bodies are gone but everything else remains. While Burton was confined, a cataclysmic nightmarish event had taken place. Discarded newspaper headlines explain it as “UN Retaliates for Use of Atomic Poison,” and “Millions Flee From Cities! End of the World.” An unknown rogue nation had used radioactive sodium isotopes as a weapon, producing a lethal dust cloud that spread around the world, obliterating all or most humanity.
In search of other survivors, Burton travels to New York City, only to find it empty of people. Rather than accept this fate, Burton goes to work restoring power to a luxury building where he commandeers an apartment. As his extended loneliness becomes intolerable, he encounters a second survivor, the sexy blonde named Sarah Crandall (Inger Stevens). The two become friends, but Burton grows distant when it becomes clear that Sarah is developing stronger feelings for him. Being a black man, Burton is a tortured prisoner of the taboos against racial mixing of the no-longer-existent racist American society.
Eventually, a third survivor, Benson Thacker (Mel Ferrer) arrives by boat, has amorous sights on Crandall, and sees Burton as a rival. Burton has conflicting emotions yet gives Thacker every opportunity to win Crandall’s affections, but cannot quite bring himself to leave the city. And who could blame him. The empty city is as eerily beautiful as Ms. Stevens, best known for her starring roll on the TV series “The Farmers Daughter.”
“The Twilight Zone: Time Enough At Last” (1959) The perfectly named nebbish, Henry Bemis (Burgess Meredith), a henpecked, farsighted bank teller and avid bookworm, reads books while presumably serving his customers. He is so engrossed in one novel that he regales an increasingly annoyed customer with information about its characters, and accidentally shortchanges her. Bemis’ angry boss, and later his wife, continually chide him for wasting far too much time reading. Yet he is oblivious to them; all he really wants is to be left alone with his books. So he spends all his lunch breaks in the bank’s vault, where he cannot be disturbed.
While inside the vault one day, Bemis glances at a newspaper headline that says “H-Bomb Capable of Total Destruction;” a second later a huge tremor violently shakes the vault knocking Bemis unconscious. After coming to he puts on his thick eyeglasses and emerges from the vault to find the bank demolished and everyone in it dead. Leaving the bank, he sees that the entire city has been destroyed. Guess what happened?
Bemis is the sole survivor of an atomic blast. Briefly upset by his predicament, he nonetheless finds enough canned food to last him a lifetime but inevitably succumbs to despair. As he prepares to commit suicide using a revolver he has found, Bemis notices the ruins of the public library, where he finds that the all books are still intact; all the books he could ever hope for are his for the reading, and (as he gazes upon a huge fallen face of a clock) he realizes that he has all the time in the world to read them without interruption. Owing to a twist of fate, during his euphoria his glasses break. He’ll never be able to read them for his remaining lifetime. Typical “Twilight Zone” irony.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) In The Day the Earth Caught Fire Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) had been a journalist with the London Daily Express, but since a nasty divorce threw his life into disarray, he has been drinking too much and his work has suffered. His editor has begun giving him lousy assignments.
The Soviet Union and the United States accidentally detonate simultaneous nuclear bomb tests, and strange meteorological events (global warming) begin to affect the globe. Stenning is sent to the London Met Police Office to obtain temperature data, and while there he discovers that the weapons tests have had a massive impact on Earth. It becomes clear that the planet’s temperature has been altered by 11 degrees, damaging the climate zones and changing the pole and the equator. The increasing heat has caused water to evaporate and mists to cover Britain. Later, it is also revealed that the orbit of the Earth has been disrupted and it is spiraling toward the Sun. Ooops!
The government imposes a state of emergency and starts rationing water and supplies. People start evacuating cities. Scientists conclude that the only way to bring Earth back into a safe orbit is to detonate a series of nuclear bombs in Western Siberia. The bombs are detonated, and 30 seconds later the shockwave causes tremors. The film ends without resolution. (Incidentally, this was the first time I ever saw the Nuclear Disarmament—or “ND”—sign.) It was only fiction, of course, or was it? Is it?
About Steven Heller
Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →