So, I lost a coin toss with myself a few days ago and ended up watching a pretty dark film from the lower end of the bucket list. Reasons, I guess. I also guess I should put a trigger warning here, as this one’s something else.
Grim meets garish (plus tax where applicable) in Cornel Wilde’s 1970 apocalyptic survival shocker No Blade of Grass, which is very likely not a film you want to see if you’re holed up in quarantine for a spell. Then again, it’s a film that’s brutal to watch under any circumstances, with its kind of timely by today’s calendar plot and Wilde’s decision to linger on some scenes that are a bit too exploitative and counteract whatever strong ecological message he was trying to send.
Then again, the source material wasn’t exactly a pleasant story either. Still, Wilde (who co-wrote, directed, and produced the film) gets his powerful message across from the opening moments, using a sledgehammer of assorted mostly stock imagery of polluted water, air and land, plus what seems to be clips of a dying emaciated child to let you know business is meant in all that intensity of the opening moments. I think there was a nuclear explosion in there somewhere as well, but I might have been busy trying to find my jaw, which was under the sofa when it fell off and rolled under it. I need to vacuum more, it seems, as my chin was a bit dusty when I located it. Uh, so mind-blowing and downbeat opening, plus a reach for a finger pistol depressing tune (sung by Roger Whittaker!) as a main title? Check.
(Thanks, The Film Archives!)
Anyway, set a year after a pollution-caused virus that affects all types of grass including wheat, rice and maize envelops the planet, an eye patch wearing London-based ex-military man, John Custance (Nigel Davenport) decides to leave the city with his family and his daughter’s scientist boyfriend after he gets wind of things about to go even more downhill. This is a film where 300 million people are killed in the broadcasting of a sentence, talk of cannibalism elsewhere slides coolly into a conversation and yes, violent riots break out frequently.
With intent to leave and head to his brother’s farm in Westmoreland, John and his group get a few cars together and get on the road, but they need firearms, which sets up the introduction of the rather amoral Pirrie (Andrew May). He shoots his shop owner boss dead after he refuses to sell a permit-less John what he wants. Thant’s one way to settle a problem, right? John enlists Pirrie’s aid for what’s to come, as his unrepentant killing skills will come in handy and John thinks that scientist isn’t cut out for the violent life. Pirrie brings along his rather unhappy wife, Clara, who it seems may have been unfaithful in the past.
The armed men see that British soldiers are cracking down on travelers and shoot a few trying to stop them from crossing a checkpoint. In a sort of bizarre karmic revenge, John later gets knocked out by a few thugs who snatch his wife and daughter away and rape them. Wilde drags this scene out too long with multiple cuts and it’s interesting that Jean Wallace (Wilde’s real-life wife) get to stay dressed during the ordeal, but Lynne Frederick’s character, Mary (or a body double) gets her top half exposed briefly a few times. The men rush in and shoot one of the attackers, John’s wife gets another after getting a borrowed gun, and there goes number two. The third rapist escapes, but the way luck goes in this film (all bad), you kind of know he’ll be back later.
Everyone’s cars and most of their belongings are stolen by well-armed men after this, so they all have to slowly and painfully hoof it the rest of the way. Soon after, John shoots a farmer and his wife trying to defend their home and the small group takes over the property. Shortly afterward, Pirrie shoots his wife because she cozies up to John, who rejects her advances, but not before the soon to be ex-wife sneaks in a kiss Pirrie spies. Despite this, Mary later dumps her scientist boyfriend for Pirrie after he pulls a gun on John and says he wants to be with her. She seemed to decide this after the assault, by the way. This scene made me wonder if the director felt this was how some deal with a crisis on top of another crisis. My head was hurting, but I kept watching. “It’s not a documentary, after all!”, I thought.
John and his group come across a larger group and John tells them he’s headed somewhere safe, then shoots the group leader (yikes!) after he tries to defend his leadership position. He’s now in charge of a walking caravan of human problems, some of which reveal a few pesky old tensions. as the human wagon-less train makes their way along the side of a road, a huge motorcycle-riding group rolls past, and guess who’s riding one of the bikes? Yep. Some ex-military man John is, sticking to the roadside in plain view of all passing, yeesh.
All of a sudden it’s an old cowboy movie as the biker gang chases and takes on the group in a firefight, which is truly a sight to behold of implausibility. John’s group obliterates the bikers, but they lose a few of their own in the process. After that hell, there’s more attrition in the group and a startling actual birth scene plays out with tragic results. Let me record scratch that birth scene here: Apparently Wilde paid an agreeable couple quite well to film a live birth and gave them the footage he shot as a keepsake, which I imagine would have made for a therapy-inducing moment if the kid ever saw that footage later in life. Anyway, the real birth went well – the one in the film, not so well at all.
You’d figure Wilde was going for a bleak finale and having achieved that (and how!), he’d call it a day. But, nope. There’s still John’s brother to meet and that ends not surprisingly, not well for a few people. While the acting here is fine and stiff-upper lippy with some characters, Wilde’s direction is some scenes is a bit jarring. Let’s say he succeeds at disorienting the viewer with flash-forward bits that ruin a few plot points and that he may have seen both Panic in Year Zero and Easy Rider as influences of a sort. The firearms violence is tame by today’s standards, but it’s still hard to imagine a 1970 audience seeing it and nor being shocked a few times. It’s not exactly a Sass Bedig effects flick, but the overall tone gets the job done.
Between the ecology in peril by theme presented and the exploitation elements, the film comes off as a bit disjointed. It feels as if Wilde was trying to make a cautionary tale while trying to cater to some more extreme viewer tastes popping up at the time. All I really know is my bucket list got one film shorter, but feels a few pounds lighter and I’ll leave it at that. Amusingly enough, with all the gunplay here, I started thinking of Kurtwood Smith from Robocop showing up to settle things once and for all. Eh, I took one for the team so you don’t have to, but we do live in a “free” country, so proceed as you will.