The End (and everything after)

Last week I talked a bit about apocalyptic disaster movies that, generally speaking, build up to and then pull back from destroying the entire world, leaving humanity decimated in the final frames but huggy and hopeful.  After catching up with THE ROAD (2009), John Hillcoat’s film adaptation of the acclaimed novel by Cormac McCarthy, I’m going to angle the discussion to movies that do not build up to the end or near-end of the world but rather use that grim conceit as a starting point for stories about families attempting to keep it together when everything around them has fallen apart.

Post-apocalyptic movies are really just trumped up westerns.  George Miller’s THE ROAD WARRIOR (aka MAD MAX 2, 1982) could not have been conceived if George Stevens had never made SHANE (1953) from the western novel by Jack Schaefer.  As frontier tales about the winning of the west and the Manifest Destiny-ordained repurposing of territory previously inhabited by savages are the prevailing origin myth of North America, then post-apocalyptic tales serve as our anti-myth, as worst case scenarios about the ultimate fate of our land and ourselves, of an unending night in which there is no light from above to guide us.  Rather than seeing railways link the coasts and tall buildings break up the expanse of big sky, post-apoc movies show our modes of transportation failing us – our highways clogged, our railways switched off – and our great capital cities (or homely rural hamlets) tumble and flake away.  (Mind you, if you’re Native American, then westerns are end-of-the-world movies.)  In THE ROAD, Viggo Mortensen plays a single father (wife Charlize Theron having gone native in the middle of a nuclear winter and presumed dead) who must protect his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) from both the collateral dangers of a poisoned earth and the hayseeds who have turned cannibal after ten years without easy access to fast food.  With their reliance on knives, bows and arrows and general mercilessness, these “bad guys” (as the protagonists surely think of them, as they cling to their promise to remain “the good guys”) have become in their desperation the savage aboriginals of frontier tales, fearsome and ravening.  The difference now is that our protagonists cannot hope to win back the land from these beast-men, for the land isn’t worth reclaiming.  The best that can be hoped for, in the time after the end of everything, is to put this human devastation behind us and keep moving in the hope that something better lies just beyond the vanishing point.

A forebear of THE ROAD is PANIC IN YEAR ZERO! (1962), directed by and starring Ray Milland as a Los Angeles businessman whose family fishing and camping expedition is curtailed by atomic blast near Los Angeles.  There were other end of the world films before this, going back to DELUGE (1933) and including the doomy likes of Arch Oboler’s FIVE (1951) and Roger Corman’s DAY THE WORLD ENDED (1955); those Cold War relics, however, are not centered on a single family but among a KEY LARGO (1948) style clutch of strangers thrown together in common cause to bicker, hook up, fist fight and otherwise do everything contraindicative of survival.  PANIC IN YEAR ZERO! is the first movie I can think of in which a Head of Household must do the mental calculus required to keep his family alive and well during apocalyptic times.  After almost fifty years, the kitsch factor is high for this American International Pictures release and Les Baxter’s jazzy score doesn’t help discourage the giggles of younger viewers but kudos to Milland for etching a character who makes hard choices, among them the decision to break his own code of ethics in order to get his family to sanctuary.  The movies best bits are the close-ups of Milland’s face as his salaryman figures out the consequences of this global event before his wife or children have a chance to.  His admixture of fear and loneliness is what stays with me long after the film has faded to its unlikely but not unwelcome happy ending.

It’s ambiguous, open ending remains one of the enduring talking points of Alfred Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS (1963).  An elaboration of a short story by Daphne DuMaurier, this horror classic from the King of Suspense manages to be a proto-animal revenge movie (on the order of FROGS, GRIZZLY, DAY OF THE ANIMALS, THE PACK, DEADLY EYES and THE BREED), a siege scenario (a la ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 and the aptly named Canadian SIEGE, aka SELF DEFENSE) and an end-of-the-world flick that inspired NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968).  The protagonists here are an ad hoc “found” family: an elderly woman (Jessica Tandy), her adult son (Rod Taylor), her considerably younger daughter (Veronica Cartwright) and the women in the son’s life, both local (Suzanne Pleshette) and out of town (Tippi Hedren).  Much is done here to protect the children, to shield them from strange and horrific occurrences, but ultimately the truth can be withheld no longer.  Friends die, windows shatter, the power goes out and throughout the terrible cawing of the birds.  The devastation is restricted to a coastal California town (though Hitch imagined a proper ending with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge encrusted with avian invaders) but the stakes couldn’t be higher.  Maybe it’s the parent in me but I find something deeply touching about the realization of the adult protagonists that they cannot ensure the protection of their children, whose innocence is as much a precious commodity in the face of Armageddon as gasoline or clean drinking water, however much a product it was of the old world’s false sense of security.

Another post-apoc film worthy of your time was also the brainchild of a Hollywood leading man turned director, although Cornel Wilde stays out of the picture (apart from contributing some opening narration) of NO BLADE OF GRASS (1970).  Wilde had come upon John Christopher’s source novel in a London bookshop during the editing of his 1966 film THE NAKED PREY.  (How prescient, really, as Cornel Wilde spends all of that historic adventure tale running through the African veldt in a loincloth ahead of a squad of angry tribesmen, anticipating Charlton Heston’s predicament in the 1968 post-apoc classic PLANET OF THE APES.)  An agricultural pestilence (born of pollution) does the scutwork of devastation in NO BLADE OF GRASS, leaving cities and landmarks intact but destroying grass and grains and in the bargain mankind’s ability to feed himself.  As in THE ROAD, the plague drives the protagonists out of the city into the country, with Nigel Davenport packing up his nuclear family and attempting to reach his survivalist brother’s well-stocked farm in Northern England.  Complications arise in the form of extra passengers (the party swells into the double digits, reaching about fifty by the end of the film), bandit/rapists and a decidedly more than cool reception when the survivors reach their destination.  While the ending isn’t entirely downbeat, the victory of the refugees (or one in particular) is Pyrrhic at best.  Again, some dated choices (fab 70s fashions, motorcycle marauders with Viking horns stuck onto their helmets, Roger Whitaker’s plaintive title song) make NO BLADE OF GRASS an easy target for titters.  It takes a certain level of maturity to appreciate what the tale got right forty years ago and what is still right about the film, which remains sadly MIA on DVD though it runs from time to time on TCM.

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Now if you’re thinking “Why don’t women ever get to lead the dregs of humanity to the slim chance of renewal,” I’m two steps ahead of you and point you to Jan Schmidt’s Czech language THE END OF AUGUST AT THE HOTEL OZONE (1967).  Scripted by Pavel Jurácek, the film follows a group of young girls, the first generation of a long-ago apocalyptic event, who have been raised in the wilderness and on the move by an elderly woman (Jane Goodall lookalike Beta Ponicanová) who hopes to encourage a glimmer of humanity in her charges.  Sadly, the girls’ inchoate cruelty points to the inevitability that destroying humanity is no way to preserve it and the young women let their mentor down again and again.  A solemn, stark film in which terrible things happen even though no one raises their voices very much, THE END OF AUGUST AT THE HOTEL OZONE sounds in its more contemplative passages (“In the last three years I have lost track of where we are, and where we are going. Places have no name.”) a lot like THE ROAD (“I think it’s October, but I can’t be sure. I haven’t kept a calendar in years.”)  A moment or two of animal cruelty will make THE END OF AUGUST... a tough row to hoe for the sensitive, and yet the film is rich in understated yet devastating moments, as when the Old Woman uses the growth rings of a tree stump to show the girls how long ago civilization came grinding to a halt.

In MEMOIRS OF A SURVIVOR (1981), based on the 1974 novel by Doris Lessing, Julie Christie plays a middle aged woman living through the aftermath of a vaguely defined global catastrophe.  The depiction of privation and atavism is obviously meant to reflect life in Great Britain during World War II as much as it to look ahead (as George Orwell’s 1984 had as much to do with 1948 as the then near future) to the end of times.  This post-apoc film breaks with tradition by grounding its drama more or less in one place, in focusing on those who would rather hunker down and sit out the horror than take to the road.  In the film, as in the novel, the narrator is compelled to take in and care for an unrelated charge, a teenage girl, who complicates her meager existence exponentially by involving herself with a local gang of youths who have organized into a force to be reckoned with… driving the narrator to embrace fantasy as an escape from the inevitability of her sad fate.  The end of book and film, which supplants the grim with the fanciful, has puzzled and/or beguiled some readers/viewers, while others were annoyed that this wrap-up cheated the obvious outcome.  I suppose it’s down to a matter of taste but I think we can all agree that one never knows what choice he or she will make until all but the most desperate of options has been taken off the table.

In Michael Haneke’s TIME OF THE WOLF (2003), an affluent French family hit upon the bright idea of sitting out a spate of global unrest in their rural cabin.  Worse for them, their pied-a-terre has been appropriated by other, less affluent but more viciously proactive refugees, who kill the woman’s husband outright and turn Anne (Isabelle Huppert) and her children out in the cold.  Begging shelter or at least some food from former neighbors, Anne is rebuffed and turned away at every door.  We watch as this proud and not unresourceful woman grows dirtier and more desperate, decamping finally with her kids at an old railway station where a tattered subset of humanity is trying to restore some measure of order to the reigning chaos.  TIME OF THE WOLF has received a lot less critical praise than Haneke’s other, more overtly cynical works – FUNNY GAMES (1997), THE PIANO TEACHER (2001), CACHE (2005) – but it remains one of his most disarmingly humane films, yet at the same time showing critic Manohla Dargis to be “one of the most harrowing and plausible visions of apocalypse since George A. Romero’s 1968 zombie shocker, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

In Javier Gutiérrez’s BEFORE THE FALL (TRES DIAS, 2008), news reaches the Spanish provinces a bit late that the world will end in a couple of days.  There’s nowhere to run, although some do.  Others take their own lives in anticipation of the end of days, while the protagonists – a splintered family led by a widowed grandmother (Maria Cordero) – retreat to a remote family farmhouse.  As if the end of life as we know it isn’t bad enough, a B plot has the family taking arms against a serial killer (Eduard Fernandez) who has been released from prison and who is hellbent on revenging himself on any and all of them.  When the grandmother wanders out into the woods at night, to be found dead the next morning, care of the children is left in the diffident hands of black sheep son (Victor Clavijo), a manual laborer and petty criminal with little regard for anyone but himself.  About as far from a feel-good movie as you can get, BEFORE THE FALL is nonetheless frequently touching in its depiction of strangers, related only by bloodline, who must accommodate, protect and comfort one another in the short time remaining.  Unlike the other films here, this world does end, with no equivocation or wiggle room, and no hope beyond the reasonable expectation that everything that happened before the fall was worthwhile.

An atypical end of the world movie is the Blue Sky Studios/20th Century Fox confection ICE AGE (2002).  A computer animated, comedic riff on THE THREE GODFATHERS/3 GODFATHERS (1930/1939), this film is set during the Paleolithic Age, as a glacial event drives humans and the more intelligent animals south in search of warmer climes.  The film’s protagonists, a woolly mammoth (voiced by Ray Romano), a saber-tooth tiger (Dennis Leary) and a sloth (John Leguiziamo) believe the mass exodus to be foolish but wind up following the herd in order to return a human child to his father after his mother has been killed by predators.  Light-hearted despite the requisite violence and the chatter among the supporting characters about eating children, ICE AGE is expectedly heartwarming and unexpectedly grim in the fate it implies for its three heroes once they have accomplished their good deed.  Turning north, away from the human exodus, the characters banter as they make their way extinctionward.  In a humorous coda, the film flashes ahead to the present day as a minor character is thawed out, emerging from the ice as the only survivor of what once passed for life on earth.  While this realization will go over the heads of children, teenagers and adults schooled in pre-history may find the epilogue disturbing, as they would for any film whose protagonists perish before the end credit crawl.

Watching THE ROAD brought me back a quarter century to a film that was the product of very nervous times, if such like-minded this-is-the-way-the-world-ends movies as THE DAY AFTER (1983), THREADS (1984), THE QUIET EARTH (1985) and MIRACLE MILE (1988) are any indication.  At this juncture, I should make a point to distinguish these end-of-the-world movies from the glut of copycat films that followed the success of THE ROAD WARRIOR, among them 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS, WARRIORS OF THE WASTELAND, WARLORDS OF THE 21ST CENTURY/BATTLETRUCK (all 1982), 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK, ENDGAME, WARRIOR OF THE LOST WORLD, STRYKER, LE DERNIER COMBAT/THE LAST BATTLE (all 1983), THE BLOOD OF HEROES (1984), DEFCON 4, MAD MAX: BEYOND THUNDERDOME (both 1985) and STEEL DAWN (1987), to name only a few of the sum total of titles.  These movies are good escapist fun and great for teaching us how to turn our old lacrosse equipment into post-apoc haute couture but their abject silliness, their insistence on seeing the bright side of Götterdämmerung, keeps them out of this particular discussion.

The movie I choose to end with here is Lynn Littman’s TESTAMENT (1983).  Based on a story by Carol Amen, the screenplay by John Sacret Young attends the plight of a typical American family in the fallout of thermonuclear war.  When the sky lights up and the TV goes out, mother Carol (Jane Alexander) pulls her children close and prays for the return of husband Tom (William Devane).  As the first long night yields to a eerily ordinary dawn (albeit with flecks of black in the milk at breakfast time), Carol must accept the reality that Tom is never coming home and that she and her children will live out the rest of their lives not in years but in months.  Jane Alexander’s understated performance anchors the film but its ability to haunt lies in minor details: a child’s pageant that continues in the face uncertainty with a production of The Pied Piper of Hamlin, a grieving neighbor (Kevin Costner) borrowing a cabinet drawer in which to bury his infant child, Carol rocking her youngest during the last night of his young life and later numbly sewing up her first born in a funeral shroud made from a bed sheet. As in THE ROAD, the quietly harrowing TESTAMENT ends on a note of qualified hope, although the “maybe… just maybe” of the newer film is here more of a “maybe… just maybe… but probably not.”   But maybe.

Such is the quality of hope after the end of the world and perhaps this is the true value of post-apoc movies.  They offer us a reconsideration of hope on an atomic level, free from liberty/desire/compulsion to acquire, appropriate, corral, dam, stake a claim, plant a flag and all that grabby stuff that has long been hard-wired to Americanism.  The glimmer of hope that halos the bowed, balding heads of the survivors in TESTAMENT reflects hope redefined.  The hope of Not Yet.  The hope of one more day.  No, it isn’t much, but in a postapocalyptic world survivors can’t be choosers.

22 Responses The End (and everything after)
Posted By medusamorlock : July 2, 2010 12:32 pm

Of course this is one of my favorite movie genres…can’t wait to watch “The Road” which I didn’t catch in the theater.

Since I was a little kid I’ve been obsessed with “Panic in Year Zero” — especially since I grew up in So. Cal and it was L.A. that got blown up — and many of the other films mentioned here. Also some new titles I need to check out.

Lovely and thought-provoking post, RHS!

Posted By medusamorlock : July 2, 2010 12:32 pm

Of course this is one of my favorite movie genres…can’t wait to watch “The Road” which I didn’t catch in the theater.

Since I was a little kid I’ve been obsessed with “Panic in Year Zero” — especially since I grew up in So. Cal and it was L.A. that got blown up — and many of the other films mentioned here. Also some new titles I need to check out.

Lovely and thought-provoking post, RHS!

Posted By Akira Fitton : July 2, 2010 12:51 pm

Great article. I just want to add that LQ Jones and Harlan Ellison’s BOY AND HIS DOG preceded the look and feel of ROAD WARRIOR and its ilk by seven years. You make an excellent point about many of these films being nothing more than westerns.

Posted By Akira Fitton : July 2, 2010 12:51 pm

Great article. I just want to add that LQ Jones and Harlan Ellison’s BOY AND HIS DOG preceded the look and feel of ROAD WARRIOR and its ilk by seven years. You make an excellent point about many of these films being nothing more than westerns.

Posted By Heidi : July 2, 2010 1:31 pm

Interesting topic. I have not seen The Road, but have seen a few of the ones listed. I had been hoping for a movie version of the S.M. Sterling’s Change novels. No disease, bomb dropping, just one day all mechanical things stop working. The first book, Dies the Fire is prime material for a movie, but I haven’t heard anything about the possibility of a movie.

Posted By Heidi : July 2, 2010 1:31 pm

Interesting topic. I have not seen The Road, but have seen a few of the ones listed. I had been hoping for a movie version of the S.M. Sterling’s Change novels. No disease, bomb dropping, just one day all mechanical things stop working. The first book, Dies the Fire is prime material for a movie, but I haven’t heard anything about the possibility of a movie.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : July 2, 2010 3:38 pm

You’ve got me really curious about THE END OF AUGUST AT THE HOTEL OZONE now. I’ll have to try and track that down.

And I’m glad you mentioned MEMOIRS OF A SURVIVOR. I haven’t seen that movie since the ’80s but I was haunted by it for days when I originally watched it. Now I want to revisit it.

I enjoyed aspects of THE ROAD a lot (although I’m not sure “enjoy” is the right word) and Viggo Mortensen was terrific in it. Proving once again that he’s one of the best actors working today.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : July 2, 2010 3:38 pm

You’ve got me really curious about THE END OF AUGUST AT THE HOTEL OZONE now. I’ll have to try and track that down.

And I’m glad you mentioned MEMOIRS OF A SURVIVOR. I haven’t seen that movie since the ’80s but I was haunted by it for days when I originally watched it. Now I want to revisit it.

I enjoyed aspects of THE ROAD a lot (although I’m not sure “enjoy” is the right word) and Viggo Mortensen was terrific in it. Proving once again that he’s one of the best actors working today.

Posted By Chris Fitzpatrick : July 3, 2010 4:35 am

Testament is to this day one of the most powerful films I have ever seen. I was a child in the 80′s, born in 1978. I cannot swim but can tread water and have never been afraid of drowning. I have a fear of nuclear holocaust thanks to Ronald Reagan and films like this that were made as a response to escalation w the Soviet Union and whatnot. I remember how there were no commercials after the attack during The Day After. But it also made me love this genre and watching something like Warriors of the Wasteland w Fred Williamson and the big lipped blond hair Italian kid makes me feel a little better after watching Jane Alexander and crying through a powerful piece of film which i would recommend to anyone who has never seen it.

Posted By Chris Fitzpatrick : July 3, 2010 4:35 am

Testament is to this day one of the most powerful films I have ever seen. I was a child in the 80′s, born in 1978. I cannot swim but can tread water and have never been afraid of drowning. I have a fear of nuclear holocaust thanks to Ronald Reagan and films like this that were made as a response to escalation w the Soviet Union and whatnot. I remember how there were no commercials after the attack during The Day After. But it also made me love this genre and watching something like Warriors of the Wasteland w Fred Williamson and the big lipped blond hair Italian kid makes me feel a little better after watching Jane Alexander and crying through a powerful piece of film which i would recommend to anyone who has never seen it.

Posted By Chris Fitzpatrick : July 3, 2010 4:38 am

Sorry about the rambling in my post it is 4 in the morning and all. My apologies.

Posted By Chris Fitzpatrick : July 3, 2010 4:38 am

Sorry about the rambling in my post it is 4 in the morning and all. My apologies.

Posted By Wyatt Wingfoot : July 3, 2010 6:58 pm

Contemporaneous to A BOY AND HIS DOG is Robert Clouse’s THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR with Yul Brynner as the post apocalyptic hero who gets to battle William Smith for the sake of post humanity.

Posted By Wyatt Wingfoot : July 3, 2010 6:58 pm

Contemporaneous to A BOY AND HIS DOG is Robert Clouse’s THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR with Yul Brynner as the post apocalyptic hero who gets to battle William Smith for the sake of post humanity.

Posted By LaRue Foster : July 5, 2010 10:08 pm

I’d love to see TCM devote an evening a week to some of the movies described. While we’re struggling today with global warming, oil spill disasters and other worldwide insults to our environment, we need both the reminder and the message of these films to give us a good kick in the collective posterior (okay, I wanted to be more graphic, but this is a “G” rated blog).

Funny, no one mentioned “When Worlds Collide,” based on the book by Philip Wylie, which truly does describe the end of planet Earth but also the rescue of a remnant of mankind. It’s dated but shows man at his best and worst.

Another of Wylie’s books that has both apocalypse and hope is “The Disappearance,” where without warning, all the men on earth appear to have vanished to the women and vice versa. It’s particularly interesting in that it was written well before the tug of war between the sexes starting in the 1960s. Cleverly, Wylie never gives an explanation for cause of the disappearance of each sex from the other and their eventual reappearance but only on the lessons each sex learns about the need for each other to build a new world. Far more hopeful than “Brave New World,” which has been cinematized but not too effectively.

Posted By LaRue Foster : July 5, 2010 10:08 pm

I’d love to see TCM devote an evening a week to some of the movies described. While we’re struggling today with global warming, oil spill disasters and other worldwide insults to our environment, we need both the reminder and the message of these films to give us a good kick in the collective posterior (okay, I wanted to be more graphic, but this is a “G” rated blog).

Funny, no one mentioned “When Worlds Collide,” based on the book by Philip Wylie, which truly does describe the end of planet Earth but also the rescue of a remnant of mankind. It’s dated but shows man at his best and worst.

Another of Wylie’s books that has both apocalypse and hope is “The Disappearance,” where without warning, all the men on earth appear to have vanished to the women and vice versa. It’s particularly interesting in that it was written well before the tug of war between the sexes starting in the 1960s. Cleverly, Wylie never gives an explanation for cause of the disappearance of each sex from the other and their eventual reappearance but only on the lessons each sex learns about the need for each other to build a new world. Far more hopeful than “Brave New World,” which has been cinematized but not too effectively.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : July 7, 2010 11:21 am

I’ve been thinking about When Worlds Collide a lot lately – certainly the arks in 2012 reminded me of the ships in that sci-fi classic but for some reason I just never worked a mention of it into these recent posts. Maybe a reviewing is in order!

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : July 7, 2010 11:21 am

I’ve been thinking about When Worlds Collide a lot lately – certainly the arks in 2012 reminded me of the ships in that sci-fi classic but for some reason I just never worked a mention of it into these recent posts. Maybe a reviewing is in order!

Posted By Bryce Wilson : July 7, 2010 4:17 pm

Nice article but can I ask why Book Of Eli didn’t make the cut?

That film ranks as the most pleasant surprise I’ve had in the theater this year (and brother could I use a few more of them). Its nothing ground breaking, but its a real genre film that believes in what its doing, has a truly unique look courtesy of The Hughes, a real eye and ear for distinctive detail (shaking hands) and Gary Oldman in full “EVVEERRRRYYYYOOOONNNEEEE” mode.

Posted By Bryce Wilson : July 7, 2010 4:17 pm

Nice article but can I ask why Book Of Eli didn’t make the cut?

That film ranks as the most pleasant surprise I’ve had in the theater this year (and brother could I use a few more of them). Its nothing ground breaking, but its a real genre film that believes in what its doing, has a truly unique look courtesy of The Hughes, a real eye and ear for distinctive detail (shaking hands) and Gary Oldman in full “EVVEERRRRYYYYOOOONNNEEEE” mode.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : July 10, 2010 2:42 am

Bryce, the simple answer is that I haven’t seen The Book of Eli yet. But I was focusing on post-apoc movies that dealt with protecting children… does it make the grade in that regard?

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : July 10, 2010 2:42 am

Bryce, the simple answer is that I haven’t seen The Book of Eli yet. But I was focusing on post-apoc movies that dealt with protecting children… does it make the grade in that regard?

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