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No Blade Of Grass
(1970)
 

Director: Cornel Wilde                        
Cast:
Nigel Davenport, Jean Wallace, John Hamill


Sometimes we daydream about ourselves being placed in certain dangerous situations, and as we imagine this, we carefully plot out step by step how we would get out of danger unharmed. However, we don't want to think about the possibility that in real life, we might be terrified and not thinking straight, and about possible unseen factors placing further complications in the situation. The actions that you really would do are often different from the actions that you would do. Put yourself in this situation: Irreversible anarchy has struck the country, and you and your family are stuck in the middle of nowhere, where danger could be hiding behind every hill or tree. You are all starving, and there is a farmhouse ahead where undoubtedly there's food. You know the farmer won't want to share his food, and that the only way you could get his food would be to kill him. Even though you and your family have empty bellies, could you stomach the courage and cold-blooded attitude needed to kill him? Even if you did, could you be sure you would be able to kill him without any injury to you or your loved ones?

That's just one of several unenviable situations the protagonists of No Blade Of Grass (an adaptation of the acclaimed John Christopher sci-fi novel) find themselves in. As you can probably guess, this movie isn't exactly upbeat - it's a cynical, often depressing story, but compelling at the same time. Though things get bleaker and bleaker for the characters as they make their journey, I couldn't turn away. I wanted to know what they would do, and what their eventual fates would be. If a movie with grim subject material can keep you interested and watching, then I feel it's worth a recommendation. Even though it's a good movie, it could have been a lot better had it not been for frequent self-indulgence by the director.

I'm not saying that action actor Cornel Wilde was without any talent as a director. I've seen two other movies he's directed; The Naked Prey was an exciting and colorful twist on the story The Most Dangerous Game, and his underrated surreal war film Beach Red undoubtedly was seen by Steven Spielberg before he made Saving Private Ryan. In Beach Red, Wilde used a number of unconventional editing techniques to bring viewers a sense of the confusion and unreality of war, and they worked well there. Wilde repeats his editing technique here, but it doesn't work this time around. The worst example is his use of flash-forwards, showing us at various points quick clips from scenes that happen later in the movie. Besides spoiling some key turns in the plot for the audience, this editing gives them a headache, because not only are these scenes seemingly inserted at random points in the movie for no apparent reason, a red filter over the clips blinks on and off while a harsh cord plays on the soundtrack. Perhaps Wilde was trying to be cutting edge and appealing to the youths, but you just end up questioning his artistic tastes.

Wilde also spoils the movie by insert messages in the movie - not by the messages themselves, but in his heavy-handed way of delivering it to us. In one scene at a cafe, while a TV there broadcasts a news report of people starving in China and Africa, Wilde mixes in with this far too many close-ups of the ample display of food at the cafe, as well as close-up shots of mouths chewing and gulping down the food. Even worse is his anti-pollution stance; about every ten minutes, Wilde moves the camera away from the actors to show us close-ups of polluted rivers, billowing smokestacks, and garbage piled up on the moors. In fact, the first few minutes of the movie, under some narration about how by the '70s man had pushed the earth too far, show us stock footage clips of traffic jams, exhaust pipes, buildings, crowds, pesticides, dead fish, mining, oil pumping, nuclear explosions....

Give me a break. I grew tired of Wilde hitting me over the head with his messages, and losing focus from the story. Maybe Wilde though the story was too simple to grab our attention; the ironic thing is that the story is compelling, because its simple nature is more accessible to us, reaching into our deep feelings and making us think. The premise is that a deadly new virus is on the loose and spreading quickly, a virus that kills member of the grass family - including key crops like rice and wheat. In just a year, it has spread from Asia to Europe and Africa, causing every country it spreads through to collapse from starvation and anarchy.

London architect John Constance (Davenport) is prepared, however. With his friend Roger in the government, he plans to flee London at the last minute with his family and John to his brother's farm in the north of England if Roger gets any word about London possibly being put under martial law and sealed off. Word does come, and the Constance family, with Roger, barely manage to flee the rioting mobs that break out not long after they start their journey.

It soon turns out that their escaping the mobs by the skin of their teeth is going to be one of their lesser problems in their drive up north - that is, if they manage to get to their destination. They face danger not only from soldiers and biker gangs, but even within their own group - they pick up a seedy character (played by Anthony May) along the way who is untrustworthy, but they need his fighting skills to be protected. Even common citizens can't be trusted; at one point some citizens of a small hamlet rob the group. When John's wife asks them what kind of people they are, they answer, "The same kind of people you are." It's subsequently interesting to see that the hungry family's sense of justice quickly disappears when they see that farmhouse.

A subtle theme runs throughout the movie about how man can quickly revert to barbaric behavior when there is no control in his life and in the rest of society. One chilling scene has May's character making a confession that he had a secret desire to do a certain savage act for a long time, but never dared to even dwell on it - until now. Wilde does well in exploring this theme, even managing to give us looks at various adversaries the family faces so we frequently sympathize with them at the same time we sympathize with the family. It's clearly every man for himself, and Wilde brings us the uneasy feelings a situation like this creates in many different ways, such as with direct combat (the London riot is filled with sheer chaos and destruction), radio reports that become bleaker as the days go by, and soon stranding the family in the middle of nowhere in the countryside - the farthest you can get from any sense of a civilized society.

There are a number of little moments Wilde puts here and there that make No Blade Of Grass not your usual end of the world movie, such as a sequence with the military captain who absurdly attempts to keep some sense of order and civility in his soldiers despite what is happening all around them. This particular scene is paced and played out at the right length and speed, though this isn't typical. Many scenes in the movie seem to start about thirty seconds too late, and it takes a few seconds to figure out just what the characters are doing. At the other end, some scenes all of a sudden abruptly end before some matters have been fully cleared up. Even the MTV generation will be bewildered by this editing style.

As confusing as No Blade Of Grass gets at times, I still found it worthwhile. I found the story to be irresistible, one that had me wondering what just would happen to the family - and you probably won't be able to predict the ironic ending. It also made me think, "What if it happened here?" - that alone is probably why this movie, even though it could have been better, stuck with me so much. Though it's also probably due to the haunting title song sung by Roger Whittaker, which really sets the mood for what's to come. If you find the premise interesting, the greater chance you'll like the movie despite its faults.

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)
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Check Amazon for John Christopher's original novel

See also: Spoiler, Stryker, Tycus

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