People can have a weird understanding of history. We tend to think the modern world began when we were born and everything before that, whether it’s five years or 50 or 500, all gets jumbled together under the banner of “the past.” One of the best things about visual media is that it’s always made in the moment and presented to viewers whole, like a little snapshot of maybe not the way things actually were but of how people thought things were at the time. When you read a book, it’s always filtered through what the reader is thinking at the time. But when you watch a movie or a TV show from the past, it’s presenting you with a look and a sound and a feel that is separate and independent of the fashion, mood, or zeitgeist of the moment. It’s why they remake movies and restage plays but no one ever writes another version of “Gone with the Wind.”
This edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown will take a look at two films in the same genre with the same main character and the same basic ambition which illustrate how much the world can change in only 12 years. It’s “The Quatermass Xperiment” (1955) vs. “Five Million Years to Earth” (1967) in an examination of how not only can the role of hero change but so can the very concept of heroism.
The producers suddenly understood why you should never let Jerry Lee Lewis invite his cousin to a recording session.
“The Quatermass Xperiment” is a big screen version of a BBC television program that, due to the need for American funding and American audiences, unfortunately stars an American as the main character of Professor Bernard Quatermass (Brian Donlevy). It’s not unfortunate because Brian Donlevy does a poor job. Quite the contrary. Donlevy gives an arresting and surprisingly magnetic performance. It’s unfortunate because the original “The Quatermass Experiment” is one of the landmarks of science fiction television but just two of the original six episodes were preserved, which means the only contemporaneous version of the story that remains has this unaccented Yankee strutting through it. Imagine if all the old newsreels of Babe Ruth had been destroyed and the only image of the Bambino we had was a recording of some Vaudeville Brit doing an impersonation of him.
Anyway, “The Quatermass Xperiment” concerns a British spaceship crashing back to Earth with its crew of three astronauts. Professor Quatermass, designer of the ship and head of the British Rocket Group, rushes to the scene to find two of the astronauts seemingly vanished and a third (Richard Wordsworth) locked in some sort of a trance. As Quatermass tries to figure out what happened, the astronaut’s wife sneaks him out of the hospital. That turns out to be an enormous mistake, since he’s been infected with an alien presence that sucks the life out humans and leaves them desiccated husks. It becomes a race against time as Quatermass and an intrepid police inspector (Jack Warner) have to find the possessed astronaut before the alien within him is able to reproduce itself a million times over.
Steve wasn't sure if his doctor was joking when he handed him this new suppository.
Coming in at a crisp 82 minutes long and probably made with a lower budget than that “My Pillow” commercial we can’t get away from on TV today, “The Quatermass Xperiment” is a great example of how good sci-fi storytelling could be in the time before the genre was overrun with special effects, both of the cheap and wildly expensive variety. There’s no wasted time or effort anywhere in the production and it’s propelled by a few clearly defined ideas and strongly defined characters. In 1955, the film was given an “X” rating by British film authorities, hence “Xperiment.” That had nothing to do with pornography but because the movie was legitimately considered too horrific then for general viewing. I think there are episodes now of “My Little Pony” more horrific than this motion picture, which says something pretty sad about the state of popular culture, but “The Quatermass Xperiment” is still watchable thanks to its trio of lead actors.
As the doomed astronaut, Richard Wordsworth is enthralling while barely having a line of dialog. The human torment and alien compulsion he projects with little more than a rubber sleeve to help him is unforgettable. Jack Warner is spot on as the normal man plunged into the abnormal unknown, giving the audience a perfect counterpart on screen. Donlevy’s portrayal of Professor Quatermass is amazing because he’s such a ginormous dick. Quatermass is arrogant, commanding, controlling, obsessive and humanity’s only hope for salvation. He’s not at all likeable and the film closes with a striking implication that Quatermass’ unrelenting thirst for knowledge and exploration might be more dangerous than any extraterrestrial beast. Yet you can’t take your eyes off him and the movie is unambiguous about Quatermass’ intellect and determination being vital to Mankind’s survival.
"Good day. I'm Professor Bernard Quatermass and I thank you for joining me on this exciting discovery of alien life buried far below the streets..."
And he does it all without punching anyone in the face. The film has a refreshingly grownup concept of its “hero” as a leader who tells other people what to do, as opposed to strapping on a jetpack and a ray gun and doing everything himself. Combined with an old world understanding that being a hero and being a good person can be mutually exclusive, “The Quatermass Xperiment” still feels vibrant all these decades later. By the early 21st century, the concept of the anti-hero has been worn thin and stomped into the ground but this 1955 motion picture presents us with a traditional, heroic, symbol of authority who is nevertheless a thoroughgoing bastard because the very qualities that make him great preclude him from being a nice guy.
"You fool! What do you think you are doing? I'm Professor Bernard Quatermass!"
By 1967, a lot changes. “Five Million Years to Earth” was called “Quatermass and the Pit” in Great Britain and was again an adaptation of a television show. This time around, Professor Quatermass (Andrew Keir) gets accidentally wrapped up in the discovery of a Martian spaceship uncovered during a subway excavation in London. With a surprising amount of assistance from archeologist Matthew Roney (James Donald), Quatermass has to uncover the secret of the alien vessel and its connection to rumors and reports of ghosts and demons going back centuries in the same area. What the man of science uncovers is not only a threat to the entire world but could change humanity’s conception of itself.
"Have you looked in the mirror, beardo? Who would ever cast you as the hero and me as the disposable supporting character?"
The biggest difference between the two films isn’t the use of color in 1967. It’s that Professor Quatermass goes from being the ultimate authority bossing everyone around in 1955 to a largely ineffectual intellectual 12 years later hemmed in by imperious military officers and ignorant politicians. In “Xperiment,” if Quatermass told you to do something, you did it and the only sass he ever got back was from another authority figure, the police inspector. In “Five Million Years to Earth,” Quatermass can barely boss around Roney’s female assistant (Barbara Shelley.) The 1967 movie is so committed to making Quatermass an outsider with no true power over anyone that he practically becomes a bystander in the story. If you don’t know anything about it going in, you’ll start the film thinking Roney is actually Quatermass and then be more than a little disappointed when the genuine article shows up. Donlevy’s Quatermass was The Man with The Plan and you needed to go along or get out of his way. Andrew Keir’s version of the character comes off more like a middle-aged English professor who had one too many cups of coffee and got off at the wrong bus stop.
"Dear heavens, you're right! You do look more heroically manly than me in every way!"
It’s a remarkable shift in perspective. The 1955 film may have embraced the suggestion the people in charge of things are huge jerks but was still firmly convinced the jerks were actually in charge and knew what they were doing. The 1967 film happily accepts that the world is run by idiots who would kill us all if not for the intervention of a non-threatening expert who is about as prickly as a porcupine that’s been massaged with a belt sander. Different actors will give different interpretations of the same part but these two Quatermasses are like entirely different people playing entirely different roles in the story and I think it’s almost certainly attributable to a shift in cultural standards on the acceptability of authority figures as heroes and a devotion to good guy scientists as being moral exemplars.
"Five Million Years to Earth” also suffers from a static location and a turgid plot that has Quatermass spending a lot of time doing very little. The ending has a completely different vibe than its predecessor’s as well. “The Quatermass Xperiment” concluded with a little trepidation but still an absolute conviction that Mankind will keep going into the future no matter the risk. The 1967 film finishes with Quatermass and Roney’s assistant exhausted among the ruins of London and sense more of futility than triumph as the credits roll.
"That's all right, old chap. We all lose our heads from time to time."
In addition, the paradox of special effects makes an appearance in these films. As the technical wizardry of cinema improves, it creates an odd situation where every new advance in special effects instantly begins to age at an alarming rate while cruder, more basic techniques look better and better. The effects of “Five Million Years to Earth” are vastly more intricate and polished than “The Quatermass Xperiment,” but they look like crap when measured against the wonders we now see in theaters. Yet because the spaceship sets and alien mutations they could come up with in 1955 were so limited, director Val Guest and the rest of the filmmakers never relied on them for much of anything. The frozen anguish on Richard Wordsworth’s face is given far more attention than his awfully distended appendage and the result is you’re not distracted by the primitive nature of the effects.
This Throwdown has to go to “The Quatermass Xperiment,” even though it may be more pastoral than terrifying to modern eyes. The clichéd chase and beat-the-clock elements of the plot prove they’re clichés because they always work so well. “Five Million Years to Earth” simply flounders around too much before pulling its conclusion out of Quatermass’ behind. They both are still useful, however, as signposts off where the world was in the 1950s and where it ended up in the 1960s.
Seriously, this shot looks better than ANYTHING in "Five Million Years to Earth."
The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)
Written by Richard H. Landau and Val Guest.
Directed by Val Guest.
Starring Brian Donlevy, Jack Warner, Margia Dean, Thora Hird, Gordon Jackson, David King-Wood, Harold Lang, Lionel Jeffries, Sam Kydd, Richard Wordsworth, Jane Aird, Margaret Anderson, and Jane Asher.
Five Million Years to Earth (1967)
Written by Nigel Kneale.
Directed by Roy Ward Baker.
Starring James Donald, Andrew Keir, Barbara Shelley, Julian Glover, Duncan Lamont, Bryan Marshall, Peter Copley, Edwin Richfield, Grant Taylor, Maurice Good, Robert Morris, Sheila Steafel, Hugh Futcher, and Thomas Heathcote.
By the way, am I the only one who used to think it was "Bernard Quartermass?" Why the hell did I always see that extra "r" in there?