(6/10) In a nutshell: Arch Oboler’s independent 1951 film is the first American film to deal with nuclear annihilation, the first real post-apocalyptic film, the first empty world film and the first serious science fiction feature film with a major black character. Heavy on biblical reference and weighed down with pompous monologues and slow pacing, the film nonetheless has startling moments of cinematic brilliance and bold editorial and cinematic flourishes. A gritty, bleak vision of the future driven by a humane core, good ensemble acting and glimpses of lyrical beauty.
Five (1951). Written and directed by Arch Oboler. Starring: William Phipps, Susan Douglas Rubes, James Anderson, Charles Lampkin, Earl Lee. Produced by Arch Oboler for Arch Oboler Productions. IMDb score: 6.5
If 1950 marked the beginning of the golden age of Hollywood science fiction with the space flight films Rocketship X-M (review) and Destination Moon (review), 1951 was a year of many firsts. The Man from Planet X (review) was the first feature film to introduce the goldfish bowl alien with his ray gun, and The Thing from Another World (review) gave us the first bona fide alien monster. Later in the year the first benign feature film alien arrived in Washington in his UFO (the first actual alien flying saucer on film) in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, review), and the first trip to the hollow center of the Earth commenced on October in Unknown World (review). But in April, about the same time as The Man from Planet X was revealed, Columbia Pictures released the first film depicting the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust in the independently produced Five, something of a great white whale for movie fans for a long time, since in wasn’t made available for home viewing until 2011.
The film follows five survivors of a nuclear war that has wiped out most of the human race, but left all infrastructure and structures intact. This wasn’t the first movie to toy with the idea of the apocalypse or the empty world concept. The Danish moral story The End of the World (1916, review) depicts a cataclysm of meteoric hailstorms, floodings, hurricanes and earthquakes, ending on a shot of two survivors, the modern Adam and Eve, on a desolate shore by a Christian church. The American comedy The Last Man on Earth (1924, review) mucks around with the idea of a world where a virus has killed off all males in America, save one man. The bombastic French End of the World (1931, review) ends with another meteor shower, but didn’t show life after the fact. The British H.G. Wells epic Things to Come (1936, review) depicts WWIII and a sort of proto-Mad Max society built on the ruins of war. The Czech film Krakatit (1949, review) shows glimpses of the annihilation of all major cities on Earth by a nuclear-like explosive. That same year also saw Dick Barton Strikes Back (review), which doesn’t so much show an empty world, as much as an empty city where all people have been killed by a secret weapon. Rocketship X-M showed the aftermath of nuclear war on Mars, where a once civilised society has been literally nuked back to the stoneage. Later in 1951 the world would end in a collision by a rogue sun in When Worlds Collide (review). That film ends with a group of survivors escaping the biblical apocalypse on a modern Noah’s Ark to another planet. But Five is unique in the way it begins after the apocalypse and focuses only on the five survivors trying to get to terms with their new lives, their losses and the tensions within their little family of five.
The film opens with a succession of mushroom clouds interspersed with images of internationally famous buildings. We are then treated with a dramatic shot of a young woman filmed from behind, with clothes torn, staggering zombie-like past a derelict car in the countryside. We see her vacant, teary-eyed stare as she stumbles through the forest and comes upon a small town, deserted. A church bell starts to ring and she starts pounding on doors, crying and shouting for help. ”I’m alive, I’m alive!” she screams into the nothingness, finally realising the bell only moves in the wind. At long last she climbs a hill to a small, modern cottage where, to her astonishment, a fire is crackling in the fireplace. Enter a young bearded man with a hunting rifle, and she passes out.
Now we have met our female and male leads, Susan Douglas Rubes as Roseanne, a housewife from Los Angeles, and William Phipps, as Michael, a guide working at Empire State Building in New York. This we get to know as Roseanne slowly awakens from her near-catatonic state, and the exposition is laid out by Michael, who is constantly giving speeches to the skies. It turns out Roseanne was safe from the nuclear radiation in an x-ray room, and Michael was in the elevator at Empire State Building as the bomb fell. Michael is something of a determinist philosopher, and feels that the apocalypse was just retribution for mankind’s folly, and is happy to carve out his own land of plenty and solitude at the cabin, with his new Eve at his side.
It turns out that his new Eve isn’t immedately satisfied with her new role, as she is pregnant with her first child and wants to go to the city to find out if her husband has survived, or if there are indeed any other survivors. Things are driven to a point when Michael forces himself on Roseanne, but backs off as he learns she is pregnant, and then sulks. Turns out the cottage belongs to her friend, and he seems it as fit that she would live there, and out of respect begins work on a second house for himself further down the slope.
Enter survivors three and four, a Mr. Barnstaple (Earl Lee), and elderly bank clerk, and Charles (Charles Lampkin), and African-American doorman at that same bank. They are drawn by the smoke of the cottage and arrive by car. Both were accidentally locked in the bank vault at the time of the apocalypse and have been driving around looking for survivors since. Or at least Charles has been looking, since old, sickly Barnstaple is in complete denial and tells himself he is on holiday. They take upp residence in the cottage, and it turns out Barnstaple suffers from radioactive poisoning. Charles falls in beside Michael in tilling the earth and building the new house, while Rosanne cares for Barnstaple and hopes to get the chance to visit the city, while they all ponder over what they have done with their lives, hopes and dreams, realising only too late that they have been existing, rather than living.
At one point Mr. Barnstaple insists on going down to the beach, as he has always loved the sea. The four take a day trip, only to discover the fifth survivor floating in the shallows. They save the unconscious man, who turns out to be Eric (James Anderson), a European adventurer who was stuck on Mount Everest when the apocalypse took place, and has since roamed Asia and Europe looking for survivors, finally flying a plane to America, running out of fuel just off the coast. While they are talking to Eric, Mr. Barnstaple peacefully dies by the ocean he loves. Soon after Roseanne’s baby is born.
Eric becomes the wedge that drives the happy colony apart. After first playing along with the family life, Eric becomes impatient with Michael’s and Charles’ resignation to farm life. Instead he takes the car and starts looting nearby houses for clothes and supplies, including a revolver, which comes into use later in the film. His handsome European charms and his fancy gifts to Roseanne doesn’t endear him to Michael, and it also turns out that he is a racist, as he attacks Charles and says the two cannot live in the same place. Soon, however, Roseanne warms up to Michael and temporarily seems to accept their new life. But when Eric proposes a trip to New York, she immediately agrees, to the dismay of Michael. Later he is caught stealing supplies by a suspicious Charles, implying that he is not intending to return. Eric stabs Charles to his death before he has a chance of warning Roseanne and Michael.
In New York Eric and Roseanne discover the streets of the city deserted, with the exception of ghastly skeletons lying around in streets, cars and apartments. Accompanied by wailing sirens, Roseanne finds her husband dead, and when returning to the car, she is confronted by Eric who informs her that he is about to kidnap her and go on looking for other survivors. But during a struggle, his sleeve is torn open, revealing radiation boils, and he staggers away in horror and despair.
As the car is out of fuel, Roseanne returns by foot to the cottage, but on the way her child dies. She is taken back to the cabin by Michael who has been looking for her. After they bury the baby, Michael determinately continues to cultivate the soil. Roseanne solemnly picks up a shovel with tears in her eyes and joins him – they toil away, creating a new world – there’s even an end title from Revelations, proclaiming: ”And I saw a new heaven And a new earth … And there shall be no more death … No more sorrow … No more tears … Behold! I make all things new”. Curtain.
Five was an independent low-budget effort written, produced and directed by Arch Oboler, who had made himself a name in radio, especially with his late night horror program Lights Out, which was brought to TV in the late forties (review). Prior to Five he had directed three films, including the semi-sci-fi film Strange Holiday (1945), starring Claude Rains, regarding a man who returns home from a camping trip to find that the country has been taken over by a fascist government. Oboler was known for injecting political and social issues in his radio shows, almost as an educational tool. His fear of an all-annihilation nuclear war can be clearly seen in some of his work, especially in the TV edition of Lights Out, as well as some of the biblical parallels that dominate Five.
With a budget of only 75 000 dollars (550 000 in 2015), Oboler snatched up five unknown actors and used a group of recent film school graduates as crew, shipping them all out to his own Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home outside Malibu. It is this (”majestic”, as it’s called by Chad Plambeck in 3B Theater) cabin that acts as the centrepiece of the movie, and about 80 percent of the film is shot in or around it (although the film depicts it as rather smaller than it was in real life). Filmed in black-and-white, as most low-budget efforts at the time, the lack of resources is most visible in the scenes depicting the post-apocalyptic Los Angeles. The town of Glendale was used as a substitute L.A, and we only really see one single street, littered with little other evidence of a nuclear disaster than abandoned cars and the skeletons. Otherwise the low budget isn’t really problematic, thanks to the movie’s remote setting and the character-driven plot.
The film was not an immediate hit with either critics or audience when it first arrived, and contemporary writers described it as slow-moving, naive and pretentious. And despite the fact that the film has since had something of a revaluation, the critique rings true today. The movie is slow-moving and pretentious, although I probably wouldn’t call it naive, as it is a rather cynical look on humanity. More than anything, the movie is bleak, ponderous and extremely talky, even preachy, as most of the characters at some point or other stare at the sky, delivering monologues. Perhaps the cheesiest moment is when the camera pans over the hills, skies and valleys, while Charles recites the poem The Creation by African-American poet and activist James Weldon Johnson. Although it is poignant that this is probably the first time a mainstream audience got to hear African-American poetry on film, the scene, with its biblical gravitas, is hopelessly pretentious. As if we were a bit slow to get the message, Oboler also throws in subtle clues in the form of a dilapidated sign on the wall of the church in the beginning, holding the remains of what looks to have read ”Repent ye sinners”. If the mushroom clouds weren’t enough to drive home the idea, the early images of Roseanne in the abandoned town show newspaper headlines reading ”World organization collapse imminent”, and ”World annihilation feared by scientist”, and the article describes how radioactive poisoning of the atmosphere would kill all animal life. Under it is a rather odd headline reading ”110 000 Chinese living in trees”.
Counteracting the heavy biblical pathos of the film is the gritty, raw and down-beat dialogue. The slow, highly contrasted images are almost Rosselinian, contrasting wide panoramas with intimate, personal close-ups. If Oboler’s other films are anything to go by, the cinematic experimentalism and occasional stark beauty is more thanks to cinematographers Sid Lubow and Louis Clyde Stoumen, also credited ad ”cinematographic consultant”. According to interviews with actors and crew, radio pioneer Oboler would often shoot scenes with his eyes shut, and had temper fits when his actors didn’t deliver the lines to his satisfaction, but completely ignoring the visuals. Oboler, who worked as an independent, produced, wrote, directed and even acted as art director on the film, was known as a larger-than-life persona with a huge ego, who saw himself as something of an Orson Welles. Oddly enough, none of the two cinematographers wound up known for their cinematography. Sid Lubow primarily worked as a sound editor in TV, for which he was nominated for an Emmy, and Stoumen won two Oscars for his work as a documentary director. Oboler went on to direct a handful of films, including the sci-fi movies The Twonky (1953, review), about a living TV set, and The Bubble (1966). His adventure film Bwana Devil was the first 3D film in colour, and started the first 3D craze in American cinemas.
The sincerity of the script and the strained atmosphere on set help the actors give rather naturalistic performances, with a few exceptions. William Phipps is nondescript, but believable as the philosophical, determined everyman given to bouts of rage. Phipps had a small number of bit-parts under his belt, including the voice role as Prince Charming in Disney’s Cinderella (1950). He would go on to act in a number of sci-fi films in the early fifties; he had small roles in The War of the Worlds (1953, review), Cat-Women of the Moon (1953, review), Invaders from Mars (1953, review)and Oboler’s The Twonky (1953, review), and then found steady work as guest star in a number of TV shows up until the year 2000. Phipps narrated the TV version of Dune (1984). As of 2016, William Phipps, born 1922, has the distinction of being the oldest living actor to be primarily associated with science fiction, according to this list, and when writing this, he is the 22nd oldest movie star alive.
Perhaps the most striking performance is given by Austrian-born Susan Douglas Rubes, playing the simultaneously bewildered and aloof Roseanne, making a very interesting character of what could have been quite flat. One is never quite sure where one has Roseanne, as she seems at the same time helpless and calculating, intelligent and somewhat mentally challenged. Her performance is intense and spell-binding, although she has a tendency towards overacting in emotional scenes. Broadway actress Rubes is quoted as having been difficult on set and didn’t get along with co-star Phipps. Outside of her theatre career she mostly appeared on TV, best remembered for playing Kathy in the long-running series The Guiding Light between 1952 and 1962. She continued her successful theatre career in Canada, where she worked with youth theatre and founded the Young People’s Theatre in Toronto, was at one time head on the CBC radio drama unit, became president of the Family Channel, and served on a number of cultural councils and boards. She passed away in 2013.
Best known of the five actors is James Anderson, playing the haughty, racist Eric with the same dry arrogance and low, grating voice that made him a staple as sinister guns for hire in a number of western films and series in the fifties and sixties. There is an enigma and a tension about the character of Eric, that brings some much needed energy to the movie. On the other hand, he does seem more like a movie star caught up in a sincere art film, and thus feels a bit out of place in the film. American reviewers like to call his accent ”vaguely Teutonic”, but there is nothing Germanic in the way that Anderson delivers the lines. Rather, he sounds more like one of those Italian voice actors that dubbed supporting parts in Italian exploitation films meant for the US market from the sixties to the eighties.
The fault for this probably lies with the actor himself, as it is clear that Eric is supposed to represent the Nazi paradigm of the superior race (of course he could have been riffing off Mussolini instead). Eric believes that the reason he and the others are alive is not due to mere chance, but because they are immune to radiation, and he strongly feels that Charles has no place among the new masters of the world that survived the holocaust. The horror he faces in the end when he finds out he is affected by the radiation is just as much the horror of realisation that he is flawed, as the realisation that he is going to die. Anderson also appeared in Donovan’s Brain (1953) and I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958). He is best known, however, for his role as Bob Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). His last film was Little Big Man (1970).
Although it went largely unnoticed at the time because of the limited success of the film, Charles Lampkin’s role was a small milestone for African-American actors. Charles in the film is more or less portrayed as an equal member of the small colony, and is given significant screen-time and intelligent dialogue. The only time he is not treated as equal is when attacked by the racist Eric. This was three years before Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge starred together in Carmen Jones, a film that gave Dandridge an Oscar nomination, six years before Dandridge and Michael Rennie caused an uproar by almost kissing in Island in the Sun, eight years before Belafonte played the last man on Earth in The World, the Flesh and the Devil, and 12 years before Sydney Poitier won an Oscar for best actor in Lilies in the Field. That a black actor would receive an equal part in a film inhabited by white actors without playing a valet, nanny, housekeeper or slave was almost unprecedented in mainstream film (a few exceptions existed).
One might argue that the character of Charles was only in the film to raise the question of racism, but I personally feel that is better than taking the route of When Worlds Collide, which doesn’t feature a single black character. Unfortunately Charles is also victim of the long-lasting trope that the black character dies before the end of the film. There are some problems concerning the character, looking at it from a racial point of view, such as the fact that he is portrayed as an asexual character and never seen as either a sexual threat or a presumptive love interest for Roseanne, and that there’s a slight echo of the stereotypical ”noble negro” in the presentation of the character. It is played with such naturalism and dignity by Lampkin, though, that it is difficult to see other racial issues with the film other than those that were dictated by movie industry at the time. And Oboler had such problems with the film, that if he had included an interracial romantic angle he probably never would have gotten it into cinemas.
Charles Lampkin was a pioneer in Spoken Word in the thirties, an actor, composer, musician and scholar. In later years he became a teacher and professor, teaching both acting and music, with emphasis on black musical heritage, as well as African-American poetry. It was Lampkin himself who convinced Oboler to include an excerpt of Weldon’s poem The Creation in the film. He acted in over 100 films or TV series, mostly in TV. His only other sci-fi film was Ron Howard’s feelgood drama Cocoon (1984), but he appeared in a number of sci-fi TV series, such as The Wild Wild West (1968), The Incredible Hulk (1978) and Street Hawk (1985). Five was his first foray into film or TV.
Despite Earl Lee’s respectable age, Five was his first feature film and he appeared in 24 other films or TV series in his career, none of them especially well known. Lee does the role of the dying, confused old man capably, but his performance is in no way especially memorable.
Most of the extremely small technical and artistic crew only have a handful or a dozen film credits to their names, often in other capacities than those they had on Five. Considering this, it is amazing that the team was able to create such an artistically accomplished and technically sound movie. It is the crowning achievement of Arch Oboler’s movie career, and the praise for this should probably primarily go to cinematographer Stoumen’s sure-footed, documentary style, Emmy-winning editor Ed Spiegel and montage specialist and visual effects creator John Hoffman. The symbolic dissolve and montage sequences are worthy of a Hitchcock film, and the nightmarish scene of Roseanne searching for her husband Steven in the dead Los Angeles, with its blaring civil defense sirens, the Soviet-style rapid editing and the fearless use of mobile cameras is absolutely sublime. There is a fearlessness and experimentalism to the film making it seem more like an experimental art film than anything intended for a mainstream audience. There are rapid zooms, shaky handheld cameras, camera spins and focus readjustments that would make an editorial supervisor tear his hair out. But somehow it all comes together. The sound of the movie is wonderfully put together, which is no surprise, considering Oboler’s pioneering work in radio. This film was special for being the first film where magnetic tapes were used to record dialogue and ambient sound on set, making the sound recording equipment considerably lighter and more mobile than before.
Working outside the studio system and the unions, Oboler, had considerable trouble getting the film on the market, and finally licensed it to Poverty Row studio Columbia to settle the disputes. The bleak, cynical and preachy movie didn’t go down well with critics and the film performed weaker than expected when it opened, despite the fact that it was the first movie that got advertisement on TV. It was, however, quickly repackaged with new marketing material by Columbia, and enjoyed a minor success as a late-night movie later in 1951. It was then loved by film viewers in the sixties and seventies, when it was often run TV, but after that it sort of fell off the grid, and it wasn’t until 2011 that it was released for home viewing.
The music is dramatic to the point of absurdity, and sometimes the heavy string sweeps make you feel as if you have eaten a bit too many sugary sweets. The heavy use of biblical images and metaphors easily becomes obtrusive. Exactly what Oboler is trying to say remains a bit unclear, though. The final scene is an utterly tragic one, if one looks at the circumstances. The sympathetic Charles has died, Roseanne’s baby has died, Roseanne and Michael are finally the last two people on Earth, and even their crops are ruined. But still, the triumphant score and the biblical message of a new beginning seem adamant to end the whole business on a positive note. Eden reborn after the scourge of humanity has been wiped away? The enduring human spirit, ever toiling for a better world in the face of utter defeat?
Would the film only be made up of these melodramatic moments, it would be painful to watch. However, it isn’t. In between these moments, Oboler adds beautiful lyricism and even humour. As Richard Schieb of Moria points out, there are scenes that stay with the viewer for their wonderful humanity: ”where Charles Lampkin dances without music on the terrace because the pregnant Susan Douglas cannot stand up to join him; a scene where the characters nostalgically reminisce over the sounds and smells that they miss; where Susan Douglas [sic] finally kisses William Phipps but then in the midst of embrace mistakenly calls him ‘Stephen'[sic]”. And I would add the death scene at the beach, among a few others.
The aspect of the film that seems most dated today is the scientific one. It is possible that Oboler has taken artistic liberties with the science for the sake of creating a compelling story, but on the other hand, very little was known by the public about how nuclear bombs and radiation actually work. Even the US authorities were only just trying to find out how the damn thing they had built actually worked, and what little they knew was generally suppressed. And this improper science also leads to some logical fallacies.
First of all, the notion that a nuclear war would instantaneously kill all humans on Earth, without causing much damage whatsoever to structures and infrastructure is absurd. The atom bomb is first and foremost a hugely destructive bomb, and the problems with radiation and fallout really only became clear after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Radiation doesn’t kill instantly, so that a whole hospital would be wiped out in a second just from radiation – leaving a single patient in a lead-lined room unharmed is preposterous. Deaths from initial radiation is extremely rare, and most people affected by it would be killed by the explosion itself. Still, the film shows no sign of any actual explosions, neither do anyone talk about such. If we are talking about fallout, the number and power of the nuclear bombs would have had to be massively massive to create a fallout which in a number of days would have killed off all human (and animal) life on Earth. A nuclear war of this magnitude would not only affect animal but also plant life and soil, and would in all probability trigger a nuclear winter. There simply wouldn’t be any chance for the survivors to till their earth, because it would either be radioactive or decaying because of lack of sunlight and/or contaminated water. And when Michael goes hunting: what exactly does he hunt if all animals are dead?
The crazy science of the film is slightly jarring at times, but doesn’t affect the viewing experience, since it is so clearly meant as a metaphor. But it is one of the many flaws of the movie that prevents it from becoming a timeless classic, the biggest ones being the uneven and often ponderous pace of the film, the monologue-laden script and the biblical preaching. But the positive aspects of the film, listed in the long article above, outweigh its problems.
The film has been cited as a major influence on George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and its bleak vision of nuclear holocaust influenced movies like The World, the Flesh and the Devil and On the Beach (1959), among others, not least Roger Corman’s The Day the World Ended (1955, review), which could even be called a rip-off.
If you are having trouble finding the film, it may be because in 2011 some dumbass marketing genius went and renamed it 5ive when it was released on DVD.
Five (1951). Written and directed by Arch Oboler. Starring: William Phipps, Susan Douglas Rubes, James Anderson, Charles Lampkin. Music: Henry Russell, William Lava, Charles Maxwell. Cinematography: Sid Lubow, Louis Clyde Stoumen. Editing: John Hoffman, Ed Spiegel, Arthur Swerdloff. Art direction: Arch Oboler. Sound: William Jenkins Locy, Gus Bayz (special sound effects). Produced by Arch Oboler for Arch Oboler Productions.