(6/10) In a nutshell: Producer George Pal returns with his second sci-fi epic in 1951, still worried about nuclear war. A crack team of scientists and entrepreneurs are mocked by the world as they prepare for doomsday as an approaching rogue sun threatens to turn the world into dust. A modern retelling of Noah’s Ark by way of rocketship, this early Hollywood space travel film stumbles on an illogical and stilted script, weak characterisations and a failure to bring the movie to a satisfying philosophical or moral conclusion. Heavy on religious imagery, but since the source novel is a retelling of a biblical story, this can be excused. A fun apocalyptic adventure, but don’t expect much depth.
When Worlds Collide. Directed by Rupolph Maté. Written Sydney Boehm. Based on a novel by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer. Starring: Richard Derr, Barbara Rush, Peter Hansen, John Hoyt. Produced by George Pal for Paramount Pictures. Tomatometer: 77 %. IMDb score: 6.7
1951 was a special year for science fiction: it produced three of the major classics of the fifties’ sci-fi films. The Thing from Another World came out in May, The Day the Earth Stood Still (review)was released in September and When Worlds Collide got its premiere in November. The first two dealt with aliens, one hostile, the other benign. But producer George Pal wouldn’t touch that subject until 1953. Instead he continued where he left off in 1950 with the first American moon landing film. In When Worlds Collide he takes us to a different planet. And if you think the title is a witty metaphor for two different world views or social classes colliding in the movie, you should’t expect such subtlety from the Michael Bay of the fifties. No, when George Pal says two worlds are going to collide, he is being literal.
The plot is as follows: Astrologer Dr. Bronson (Hayden Rorke) in South Africa discovers that a sun (Bellus) and an accompanying planet (Zyra) are moving with tremendous speed toward Earth. The first will brush by and cause devastating natural disasters. The second will more or less crash with our planet, causing complete annihilation. He enlists pilot David Randall (Richard Derr) to fly his photos of the two astral bodies to a Dr. Cole Hendron (Larry Keating) in the US – without telling him of the impending doom. There, he encounters Dr. Hendron’s beautiful daughter Joyce (Barbara Rush), also a scientist, and girlfriend of a Dr. Tony Drake (Peter Hansen). She accidentally blurts out something of the end of the world, which gets Randall intrigued, and he wrangles his way into the little group of scientists that start to plan for the future, namely the building of an interplanetary Noah’s Ark, that will jump from Earth to Zyra just before Bellus crashes into Earth.
The American scientist is laughed out of the UN council meeting when stating his and Bronson’s claims, but his venture is financially backed by the sinister, wheelchair-bound business man Sidney Stanton (John Hoyt). The team of scientists and the good pilot gather their utensils and move out to a secluded base, along with a few hundred of America’s top young scientists and engineers, all white and all looking like fashion models, who are neatly divided into groups of boys and girls. The rocket ship they are building will only hold 40 people, along with a number of domestic animals, like goats, chickens and horses. Along goes some food and medicine, and presumably other necessities that we aren’t shown, as well as the combined important books of mankind, all copied onto microfilm at the hangar – the holy bible first of all, of course.
This means that all the hundreds of scientists working in the hangar will take part of a lottery to choose the 20 men and 20 women who can come along – minus, for some reason Dr. Hendron, his daughter and his boyfriend, and the bush pilot, and the business man who finances it all. Oh, yes, and then there’s also the little boy they pick up along the way. Oh and yes, a stray dog. Yes, seriously. This lottery, of course, causes some stir at the final hour, when the ones left out try and seize the rocket with guns. I’ll leave it at that as to not give too much away. Anyway, it probably isn’t too much of a give-away to mention that a group of people actually do make it to Zyra, it is the story of Noah and the Ark. And whaddayouknow, the living conditions turn out to be perfect for humans. This is revealed with an angel choir and church bells.
Interspersed with this is a very awkwardly written romantic triangle between Joyce Hendron, Tony Drake and David Randall, much doomsday babble and very little actual science, and it is perhaps better that way. George Pal seems to have learned the lesson from his previous film Destination Moon (1950, review), that was completely techno-babbled to death. Now we get fiction instead of science. And in many ways, it is better that way. Things actually happen in this film, and it definately pulls you along for a wonderful ride. Ever since Daniel Defoe dropped Robinson Crusoe in our lap in 1719, we have been fascinated with stories of survival, watching a small group of people work relentlessly and use all their ingenuity to pool up resources and make plans for a harsh future ahead. One of the best examples is Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, released in 1874, where five people create a little colony on a desert island – with what little they have to work with and what flotsam and jetsam they can find. The book gives detailed accounts of how they work out the problems of food, lodging and protection, and has detailed accounts of how their stores and gardens are stacking up. Likewise, the scenes of preparation before the leap into the unknown are some of the most gratifying to watch in this film, the same way outdoorsy people always love planning and packing for long hiking trips.
The book is based on noted author and sometimes government spokesperson on matters regarding science Philip Wylie’s book When Worlds Collide, co-written with Edwin Balmer in 1933. The film rights were originally bought by Paramount that same year, intended as a project for legendary epic director Cecil B. DeMille (executive producer on this film), but nothing came of it, and the thing then sat for over 15 years, until the great sci-fi boom of 1950. When George Pal stunned Americans with his Technicolor space adventure Destination Moon, Paramount saw their chance and hired him as producer, and put Polish-born director and cinematographer Rudolph Maté in the director’s chair.
The basic plot of the novel is intact, down to the names of the protagonists. Like the book, the film is intended as a modern-day retelling of the biblical story of Noah and the Ark. Never subtle, Pal doesn’t count on the audience getting the drift, but opens the film with a biblical quote: ”And God looked upon the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth. And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the Earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth…” However, Pal gets even more biblical, reducing the number of the people that can travel in the ”Ark” from 100 to 40. Actually, in the book, the team was able to build a second, bigger, spaceship that could carry all the 1 000 people that worked on the project – except that would have destroyed the religious notion of ”the chosen people”, that plays out the film’s ending scene – with another biblical quote, accompanied by the above mentioned angel choir and church bells: ”And the first day on the new world had begun …”
Other major changes are the fact that in the book it is actually two rogue planets heading towards Earth, named Bronson Alpha and Bronson Beta. Bellus and Zyra are definitely more sci-fi names, and Bellus happens to be derived from the Latin word Bellum, or ”war”. Rogue planets are definitely more scientifically plausible to collide with Earth than a rogue sun with an accompanying planet, so one wonders why the change was made. One reason may be that the technical advisers saw as ridiculous the idea that a rogue planet could actually take the Earth’s place in a nice, stable orbit, and screenwriter Sidney Boehm may have thought that it required too much explaining to the audience. A planet revolving around another sun may have seemed easier to understand. Further, a furiously burning sun may also have seemed a better analogy for nuclear war, which quite clearly was the analogy both the book and the film were trying to promote.
One thing that both Wylie and Pal had in common was their fierce hatred of Communism, and it is interesting that so little of it is present in the film. The book has later been lambasted for its racism toward Asians, and non-Caucasians in general. This was, however, very much in line with the general discourse of the day in the thirties, and would get no better in the forties, and Wylie was in no way the worst offender in this regard. Boehm and Pal have thankfully deleted all blatantly racist remarks, but this does not excuse that fact that not a single non-Caucasian person is seen in the film, and that all the survivors chosen for the trip to Zyra – indeed all who work with the preparations – are white and as all-American as you can get.
Philip Wylie was considered something of a feminist in his prime years and wrote Ms. Hendron as an intellectual and capable scientist, without taking away from her emotional side, as was often the case especially in movies (see my review of Rocketshop X-M, released in 1950). But unfortunately he wasn’t able to free himself from the prevailing (male) view of women as something to be conquered and then possessed. This is relevant, since an unproportional part of the book is taken up by the clumsily written romantic triangle between the two men and the one woman, just as awkward as it is in the film. Read today, 80 years later, Wylie’s noble attempt at feminism seems downright reactionary. In later years, critics have re-evaluated Wylie’s work and found what they see as misogyny, rather than feminism, in his books. Unfortunately the pattern remains in the film, although it is not as blatant and cringeworthy as in Rocketship X-M. And in this film Pal has at least included a woman, as opposed to in Destination Moon.
When Worlds Collide partly continued the nationalist fervour of the naturalised American citizen George Pal (born in then Austria-Hungary, current Czech republic), although it isn’t as blatant as in his previous film. But the movie’s religious theme foreshadowed things to come, although it isn’t as bothering in this film, as the source novel was written as a modern retelling of a biblical story. It was in films that used source material without religious themes that it got jarring, for example when Pal chose to create a pious religious ending for The War of the Worlds (1953, review), based on H.G. Wells’ book, a book that was highly critical of organised religion. But even in When Worlds Collide Pal and Maté sometimes splash on the religious syrup with such a broad hand that it becomes unintentionally funny.
More than anything, former puppet animator George Pal was a special effects man, and the film is more than anything else an effects film, a visual adventure. It was filmed in rich Technicolor, which gives it its tell-tale fifties fairy-tale look with explosions of colour and, well, explosions. Lots of them. The visuals kick in about a third through the film, when a new team of recruits arrive at the rocket base, and their bus drives past a half-finished rocket and its long, peculiar take-off ramp, in what looks like a miniature-matte painting-live action composite shot. We later get some really cool composites with the hug rocket in the background, holding up fairly well even today, even though the rocketship looks a bit ”miniaturey”.
In the last third of the film Bellus passes Earth and we are treated with what is probably the most memorable sequence of the movie, showing a multitude of natural disasters wreaking havoc on the planet. The miniature and maquette team have had a field day creating buildings on fire, earthquakes, landslides and flooding. Farmhouses and forests are swept away, dams break, earth crumbles, and we even get a shot of a full-scale flooding of New York. Many of the shots do bear that unmistakable miniature look, but they are made in such a scale, that for an audience not used to seeing this kind of thing on the screen, they might even have passed as real. Interspersed with the miniature work, the filmmakers have added a few not very convincing still shots and matte paintings, as well as all the Technicolor shots they could find of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, burning buildings, glacier ice breaking, and so forth. The sequence is several minutes long and is some very impressive film making. The effects team were rightly awarded with an Oscar for best visual effects.
A bit less convincing are some of the effects of the disruption the earthquakes cause at the rocket base, partly due to bad scaling of fire and smoke – probably the most difficult elements to get right on film without doing it full-scale for real, even today. A crumbling miniature crane looks a lot like a miniature crane. There’s also some funny physics. At one point the workers pick up a bunch of steel beams to use them to reinforce the rocket ramps – in one shot we see two guys picking up one of these three, four meters long beams and skip away with it past the screen. I grew up next to a steel factory, and I know what those beams weigh. And let me tell you: I don’t care if you’re Arnold Schwarzenegger, two guys don’t even budge a beam like that.
I have written earlier about Destination Moon as being the first serious American big-budget sci-fi film. This must be understood against the background of the shoddy low-budget science fiction films of the forties, often made on budgets of under 100 000 dollars, sometimes under 10 000. Destination Moon still cost only 600 000 dollars to make in 1950, compared to the historical epic Quo Vadis in 1951, that cost, 6,2 million dollars, the equivalent of 56 millions today (project-adjusted inflation). Compared to this the budget of When Worlds Collide, a little over 900 000 dollars (6,7 millions today), was a rather modestly priced film, although produced by major studio Paramount. George Pal had envisioned the film as an even bigger special effects extravaganza, but the money he had available didn’t allow for that. For example, in the book the protagonists watch the moon being destroyed by the passing planet, a scene omitted in the film. The destruction of Earth also happens off-screen.
The biggest faux pas of the movie is, of course, the crude matte painting in the very last scene showing the new world of Zyra. It seems odd that Pal would have settled for such an amateurish matte to end the film with, and of course that wasn’t his intention. Pal had originally wanted to create the landscape as a miniature, but time and money ran out. On board he had astronomical expert and painter Chesley Bonestell, who had created the breath-taking lunar landscapes of Destination Moon, but he was on board only as ”technical consultant”, and painted a rough sketch of the landscape of Zyra, intended as a blueprint either for a miniature or for matte painter Jan Domela (Dr. Cyclops [1940, review], The War of the Worlds , Conquest of Space [1955, review]) to work on. But Domela never had time to paint the huge landscape, so Pal was stuck with Bonestell’s sketch.
Lead art director on the film was Hal Pereira, a legend nominated for 23 Oscars, for films including The Ten Commandments (1956), Vertigo (1958), Visit to a Small Planet (1960) and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). He won his only Oscar in 1955 with The Rose Tattoo. Pereira also worked on Pal’s other two sci-fi epics, The War of the Worlds and Conquest of Space, as well as on The Colossus of New York (1958), The Space Children (1958), I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958), The Nutty Professor (1963), Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), The President’s Analyst (1967) and Project X (1968). Set decorator Sam Comer won 4 Oscars and was nominated for 22 more. His team mate Ross Dowd was nominated for 2 Oscars. Costume designer Edith Head won a whopping 8 Oscars, and also worked with Pal on The War of the Worlds, alongside most of the design and effects team. One wonders, though, how she got the idea that the anorak would be the standard uniform for space exploration.
Hal Pereira was best known for his realistic urban landscapes, but also for his adaptability within a multitude of genres. His best remembered piece of design for When Worlds Collide is probably the interior of the rocketship, memorable but scientifically laughable. First of all the interior is huge – resembling a cathedral, more than anything else. Here the religious theme is present once again. Not only is the passenger compartment big enough to house a double-decker bus, also has an arced ceiling, almost like a dome. The seats are arranged in neat rows with an aisle between then, much like church benches, and the pilots, unusually, don’t have a cockpit, but sit some way away from the passengers on an elevated platform, like priests by a church altar, leading their flock. The dashboard seems to consist almost entirely of some huge buttons and a fuel gauge that says ”full”, ”half” and ”empty”.
The composition of the cargo and passengers of the rocketship is a bit questionable. 20 males and 20 females would have been a bit difficult to build a new civilisation on, because of the risk of inbreeding. That the researchers decided to take along fully grown animals, including very heavy species like horses, seems illogical. No children, except for the on stray boy and his stray dog are taken along. The team could probably have increased the number of human passengers tenfold by taking a limited amount of adult humans and animals and a larger number of children and immature animals. And once again: did anyone think to consider racial diversity on the new planet? To the film’s credit, though, there is some talk about rocketships being prepared in other countries. Wylie and Balmer wrote a follow-up, After Worlds Collide, which details life on Bronson Beta (Zyra in the movie), after the two Arks have landed, with over 1 000 people in all. It is horribly pro-American and anti-Russian, and anti-Asian, but that is beside the point. Pal planned to film that book as well, but it fell through after the flop Conquest of Space almost killed off his career.
The actual space journey is hardly depicted at all. Indeed, there is very little seen of either space or even the sky, considering that the film revolves around the concept of death from above. This was probably budgetary limitation. As mentioned above, though, the special effects we do get to see were spectacular for their day. The special effects team was led by Gordon Jennings, special effects legend who on two Oscars and was nominated for seven more. He also worked on two benchmark films of early Hollywood sci-fi, The Island of Lost Souls (1932, review) and Dr. Cyclops (1940).
The man responsible for filming the iconic disaster scenes, as well as for the sometimes seamless rear projection photography and composite photography was visual effects wizard Farciot Eduart, regarded along with people like John P. Fulton as one of the most influencial special effects gurus of early sound cinema. Eduart won two Oscars, including one for this movie, and a number of technical Academy awards. He was also responsible for the stunning front projections in the 1940 film Dr. Cyclops and worked on The War of the Worlds, Conquest of Space, The Colossus of New York, The Space Children, Robinson Crusoe on Mars and Village of the Giants. Eduart received an honorary Oscar for his work with visual effects in 1939.
Another key reason for the film’s brilliant visuals is director Rudolph Maté. Maté is best known as one of the foremost cinematographers in Europe in the twenties and early thirties, where he worked on films like The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and the avant-garde cult classic Vampyr (1932), both directed by Danish experimentalist Carl Theodor Dreyer, as well as Fritz Lang’s Liliom and René Clair’s The Last Billionaire (both 1934). In Hollywood he filmed movies like the mythical epic Dante’s Inferno (1935), Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940), Zoltan Korda’s war film Sahara (1943) and Charles Vidor’s film noir Gilda (1946). He started his career as a director with film noirs in 1947, and in 1950 released what is perhaps his best film, D.O.A, about a dying man, victim of radiation pois … sorry, luminous poisoning, trying to catch his killer. He directed 31 films and had a special love for historical battle dramas – best known is perhaps The 300 Spartans (1962), that inspired Frank Miller to create his graphic novel (that’s geek talk for comic book) 300, which in turn inspired Zach Snyder to make a film that would have made Tom of Finland ejaculate in his pants.
Richard Derr as the hero of the movie gives what is also the most memorable and sympathetic performance of the film, even though he retorts to a lot of hand-wringing and fist-clenching in lieu of other means of showing frustration and doubt. But he does a pretty good job of portraying Randall’s arc from money-loving adventurer to responsible man of the hour. One of the film’s central points pivots on him refusing to take a freebie ticket to Zyra as he feels he hasn’t got enough to contribute to the new colony (whereas the stray dog apparently has). This was one of Derr’s very few leading man roles, as he was mostly cast as second lead, and later in his career did more character work, often as authoritarian figures. He appeared on four episodes of the mystery series Lights Out (1949-1952, review) and in the sci-fi anthology series Tales of Tomorrow (1951-1953, review) and The Outer Limits (1964). He played two different small characters in the original Star Trek series (1966-1969), and appeared in the films Terror is a Man (1959) and the Clint Eastwood-directed Firefox (1982).
”Decorative” is a word that has been used about leading lady Barbara Rush, and although the term may be a bit demeaning, the truth is that she is a bit bland as the designated love interest of the movie, which probably has more to do with the script than anything else. The film gets off to a good start with a couple of nice scenes in which Randall is pretending to be in the know when Ms. Hendron starts blurting out secrets about the end of the world, and then later starts lighting his cigarettes with hundred dollar bills at a club after learning the truth. Derr and Rush have a few nice scenes and a good chemistry going between them here, but unfortunately the film becomes rather stiff when the story really gets going.
Rush isn’t at all bad though, and the paleness of the character can’t be blamed on her. Although she already had a few female leads under her belt by 1953, she was awarded with a Golden Globe as ”best newcomer” for her work in Jack Arnold’s It Came From Outer Space (review). In 1954 she got her first break in a bona fide A movie, but despite starring in some serious A dramas, she was naver able to cement her place as a movie star, and more or less gave up film acting for TV in the late fifties. Her best remembered role is probably as Martha Russell in Peyton Place (1968-1969). She guest starred in both the original The Outer Limits series, as well as the remake in an episode in 1998. She played a visiting villain, the militant feminist Nora Clavicle, in two episodes of the Batman series in 1968 and appeared in The Bionic Woman in 1976 and Knight Rider in 1983.
Peter Hansen as the other man in the film is likewise bland, but quite a sympathetic character. This was Hansen’s only major film role, as he turned to TV quickly after When Worlds Collide. He is best known for the recurring role of lawyer Lee Baldwin in the long-running soap opera General Hospital, a role which he played almost continuously, with a few years’ absence here and there, from 1965 to 2004. He appeard in a number of sci-fi anthologies in the fifties and sixties.
Much has been made of the fact that John Hoyt appears in the movie, as the wheel-chaired businessman Sidney Stanton who finances the rocketship program. His name didn’t immediately ring any bells for me, as I don’t much watch western series, where he seems to have been a staple over the years. He appeared in the sci-fi films Attack of the Puppet People (1958), X (1963), The Time Travellers (1964), Panic in the City (1968) and the soft-porn comedy Flesh Gordon (1974). He also appeared in a number of sci-fi series, and was almost part of the main cast of Star Trek, as he appeared in the first pilot for the series, which was turned down by NBC. He also appeared in an episode of the original Battlestar Galactica series in 1979. Hoyt was part of the cast of the controversial movie The Conqueror, with John Wayne, of all people, playing Gengis Khan. The movie was filmed downwind from a nuclear test site, and many of the actors and crew started getting cancer in the sixties, which started something of a controversy. 91 of the about 220 people on set contracted cancer over the years to come, including Wayne and Hoyt. However, this is pretty much the average risk of Americans contracting cancer. John Wayne also smoked six packs of cigarrettes a day and died of lung cancer. Hoyt was a heavy smoker as well, and died of lung cancer in 1991, 86 years old.
Hayden Rorke appeared in the 1953 film Project Moon Base (review), and Stephen Chase, who plays one of the scientists on the base, appeared as Dr. Hallen in the sci-fi cult classic The Blob, starring Steve McQueen, in 1958. The original Superman from the 1948 serial (review). Kirk Alyn, appears as one of the builders and engineers who lose out in the lottery and start rioting at the end. Alyn is the one who brings out the guns. Extra Stuart Whitman also turned up as an extra in The Day the Earth Stood Still, and slowly started working himself up in his career to an Oscar nomination for The Mark in 1961. He played the lead in the hilarious giant bunny movie Night of the Lepus in 1972, as well as in the sci-fi film Deadly Reactor (1989), and appeared in Omega Cop in 1990. He is probably best known to a certain generation as Superman’s adoptive father Jonathan Kent in the TV series Superboy (1988-1992).
Leith Stevens, who also scored Destination Moon, returns with a bombastic, if forgettable, score. Makeup artist Wally Westmore would return on a number of sci-fi occurances.
Final verdict: Not as stiff and wooden as Destination Moon, but on the other hand not quite as inventive and ground-breaking either. The middle part is very talky in nondescript rooms and has something of a B movie feel about it. The film is filled with logical errors, such as why the group sets out on an aid run to people who are affected by the passing of Zyra, as they will soon be wiped out by Bellus anyway – especially as the team is lagging behind in the rocket construction schedule. Is it just so they can get the kid and the dog in the film? The science is hokey and the characters rather flat. The love triangle is contrived and plays out in a very weird way. The film tries to add a feminist note, but fails, and the casual racism by omission gets thumbs down. However, it is one of the first apocalypse movies of Hollywood, and its strengths lie in the superb visuals and the special effects. It is a fun science fiction spectacle that pulls the viewer along on an exciting race against time, and the final scenes actually do have you at the end of your seat.
As with George Pal’s entire live action film career, the film suffers from a half-baked script and bland characters. So much emotional wrangling is invested in the love triangle, that it leaves very little time for the characters to get emotionally invested in the actual end of the world, which feels more like a philosophical metaphor than anything else, which it was, of course. But metaphors on film seldom work unless we are invested in the characters that are involved in this metaphor. The direction is visually impressive, but never really spectacular or inventive. The brilliant cinematographer Rudolph Maté is, unfortunately, a mediocre director. Six stars out of ten, a fun popcorn movie on that hazy line between A and B movies.
When Worlds Collide. Directed by Rupolph Maté. Written Sydney Boehm. Based on a novel by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer. Starring: Richard Derr, Barbara Rush, Peter Hansen, John Hoyt, Larry Keating, Rachel Ames, Stephen Chase, Frank Cady, Hayden Rorke, Sandro Giglio, Kirk Alyn, Kasey Rogers, Stuart Whitman. Music: Leith Stevens. Cinematography: W. Howard Greene, John F. Seitz. Editing: Arthur P. Schmidt. Art direction: Hal Pereira, Albert Nozaki. Set decoration: Sam Comer, Ross Dowd, Costume design: Edith Head. Makeup supervisor: Wally Westmore. Sound: Gene Merritt, Walter Oberst. Special effects: Gordon Jennings, Harry Barndollar. Visual effects: Farciot Edouart (process photography), Jan Domela (matte artist). Technical advisor: Chesley Bonestell. Produced by George Pal for Paramount Pictures.