May 17, 2011

Breaking the Space-Time Barrier

World Without End (1956)

I have a confession to make-- I have a weakness for "classic" sci-fi with wise-cracking astronauts piloting needle-nosed spaceships to the Moon, Mars or other planets and discovering lost civilizations while battling various and sundry mutant creatures along the way. I'm talking about Rocketship X-M (1950), which won the movie version of the space race when it was rushed into distribution 3 weeks ahead of Destination Moon (1950), becoming America's first "realistic" depiction of manned space flight to hit the theaters. I'm talking about Flight to Mars (1951), Queen of Outer Space (1958), and It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958).  I'm talking about far-out voyages to planets of every size and description:  Angry Red Planet (1959), The Phantom Planet (1961), and Journey to the Seventh Planet (1962). I'm even talking about stinky lunar cheese like Cat-Women of the Moon (1953), Missile to the Moon (1958) and 12 to The Moon (1960).  And then of course there's the big daddy of them all, the greatest space opera of all time by the biggest, grandest studio in history: Forbidden Planet (MGM, 1956).

These films grabbed the headlines of the day -- broken sound barriers, satellite launches, rocketplanes flying to the edge of space --  and propelled them out of earth orbit into new frontiers of great, imaginative adventure. For a kid like myself born at the beginning of the space age, this was irresistible stuff-- it was one thing to read about rockets, spacemen, and bug-eyed monsters, and something else again to see it on the big screen (often in glorious cinemascope and technicolor). Adults might worry about rockets delivering atomic warheads, but space age kids saw them as the ticket to brave new worlds and civilizations. (Now, decades later, the bloom is definitely off the space rose, with only one shuttle flight left to go and some serious questions about whether a dithering, debt-ridden U.S. will abandon manned space flight altogether.)

If you were to pick one sci-fi flick to represent the era in a time capsule, you could hardly do better than World Without End. It packs just about every space opera / sci-fi element you can imagine into its crisp 80 minute running time: a gleaming, silvery-sleek spaceship; time travel; astronauts in military fatigues and bomber jackets; atomic war; an advanced underground civilization; alluring babes in revealing outfits; giant spiders; one-eyed humanoid mutants… all in glorious, colorful Cinemascope.

In the year 1957, America's first ambitious manned space flight is an orbital reconnaissance mission to Mars -- no cautious sub-orbital flights to start things off for this fictional America! The mission is headed by the distinguished Dr. Eldon Galbraithe (Nelson Leigh). John Borden (Hugh Marlowe), Herbert Ellis (Rod Taylor), and Henry 'Hank' Jaffe (Christopher Dark) round out the crew. As they fire the ship's engines to take them out of Mars' orbit and head home, Galbraithe makes a comment about Mars "sliding off into the distance." Borden wryly responds that "it'll be there when we come back." Suddenly and without warning, the ship hits some kind of field disturbance-- the ship and crew are battered around as it accelerates out of control, seemingly engulfed by fire. Gauges and dials spin wildly, and then the crew blacks out. When they wake up, they discover that they've landed on a rocky, snow-covered plateau (see the clip below). The acceleration gauge broke at the max readout of 100 miles per second-- Jaffe, the navigator, wonders if they weren't going even faster (maybe somewhere in the ballpark of 186,282 miles per second?)

Wherever they are, gravity feels about the same as earth's, and they discover to their delight that there's plenty of oxygen in the atmosphere. They grab supplies and weapons and head out to explore their new environs. Fortunately, it's only a short hike (very, very short) from the cold, arctic-like place where they crash-landed to a temperate area with trees and other flora (the transition is so abrupt it almost looks like a continuity error). However, the fauna is another story. In the space of only several minutes they're set upon by German Shepherd-sized spiders (unconvincing rubber props), and their camp attacked by disfigured, primitive humanoids dressed in animal skins and howling like dogs.  In defending themselves, they kill one of the humanoids ("mutates" according to Doc Galbraithe), and observe that the ugly cuss seems to have been born with only one eye. The place seems so earth-like, and yet, the earth they left didn't have giant spiders and mutated cavemen…

Attack of the giant rubber spider
They soon come upon a graveyard with a very interesting headstone indicating the grave's occupant died in the year 2068. These being very educated, scientifically trained men, they quickly put two and two together. Galbraithe recalls talking to another scientist shortly before the mission about Einstein's theory of relativity and time dilation. The ship's instruments indicated they were going over 100 miles per second before they broke. Galbraithe points out that they could have been going 10 or even 100 times that speed. His reluctant conclusion: "While we were blacked out for what seemed like minutes to us, the slow centuries were passing on earth."

The crew doesn't have too long to mull over what's happened before they're attacked again by the relentless mutants. Escaping into a cave, they discover a smooth metal door in one of the cave walls. Before you can say "exponential time displacement," they're standing in what looks like a modernistic office reception area, complete with potted plants. Jaffe discovers a lens behind one of the plants-- "Hey, we're being spied on!" he exclaims. A disembodied voice warns them not to touch anything. What's a poor, confused space-time traveler to think?

It seems they've discovered the last bastion of civilized man in post-atomic war earth-- an intricate underground city populated by gentle, almost anemic men in silvery tunics and skullcaps, and beautiful, lively women in low-cut mini-dresses. Jackpot! They meet with the underground city's council (all men of course), and learn of the atomic war in 2188 that killed off most of humanity and left a world full of surface-dwelling mutants and underground-dwelling "normals." Now, in the year 2508, civilized man has harnessed the heat of the earth's core for energy and learned how to recycle metals (a veritable environmentalist's dream).

So, considering the 20th century men's predicament, what's there to complain about? Jaffe, the only member of the crew to leave behind a wife and son, is hopeful that the tunnel people can help them figure out how to reverse the time displacement that's stranded them in the future. Borden is skeptical: "They have no guts." It appears the tunnel-city isn't much of a paradise after all. Much is made of how listless and bloodless the men are. Galbraithe tries to convince the council that the radiation levels are low and the surface is livable, but the council is uninterested. He can't even get a single volunteer to hike with them back to the ship to salvage supplies. Disappointed, he tells the others: "Underground life seems to have drained all the courage out of these people… safe and comfortable, that seems to be all life means to them!" Jaffe reports that the few children he's seen are weak and listless. "Safe and comfortable" may well spell the doom of civilized man.

World Without End shows its cold-war heart and soul in the conflicts between the 20th and 26th century men. The one villain among the tunnel dwellers, the treacherous Mories (Booth Colman), just happens to be the most passionate pacifist. He tries to turn the council against the 20th century interlopers, decrying their weapons and their crude ways (not to mention the way they look at the women). "We're sick of weapons and war!" he declares. He tries to get Galbraithe & company booted out of town by killing one of the council members and pinning it on them. But the plot is exposed and Mories himself is driven out to the surface, to be quickly dispatched by yowling mutants. Clearly, if the world is to be remade in the image of the good ol' U.S. of A., then Mories and his pinko, pacifist kind must go.

Assorted mutants gather to watch the final battle
And remade it is. With the help of the chastened tunnel people, our heroes fashion a space-age bazooka, and literally carve out the new world with well-placed shots that scatter most of the mutants to the four winds. In the coup-de-grace, manly Borden challenges the cruel mutant chief, the one-eyed Naga, to a fight for supremacy. He prevails by staying on Naga's blind side. In this primitive culture, whoever defeats the leader becomes the leader. The film ends with what looks like a documentary on the Peace Corps, as the 20th century protagonists help the natives build a new community on the surface, and teach the now revitalized children English in an open-air school.

Writer-Director Edward Bernds worked his way from radio in the 1920s, to sound work on early "talkies," to directing shorts, to finally directing features in the early 1950s. His other sci-fi credits include Space Master X-7 (1958), Queen of Outer Space (1958), Return of the Fly (1959), and another time-travel epic, The Three Stooges Meet Hercules (1962; the best feature-length Stooges effort by far).

Hugh Marlowe lent his square-jawed presence to a couple of other '50s sci-fi classics: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956).

World was Aussie Rod Taylor's first substantive role in a feature film. Rod has had steady work ever since, doing drama and comedy with equal aplomb. His notable sci-fi and suspense credits include The Time Machine (1960) and Hitchcock's The Birds (1963). Most recently, he played Winston Churchill in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (2009).

In an interview with Tom Weaver, veteran film and stage actor Booth Colman confessed that his memory was somewhat hazy about the production:
I can't remember very much about it: It was a quickie, it was done in eight or ten days I would say. The Australian actor, Rod Taylor-- I think it was his first job here. He subsequently went over to MGM. And the director, Edward Bernds, was a very nice man. I saw the picture recently because someone gave me a tape of it, and... it's just a quick job of the day. I'm sure it did very well, I'm sure they made a lot of money on it. The actors didn't [laughs]!  (I Was a Monster Movie Maker: Conversations with 22 SF and Horror Filmmakers, McFarland, 2001)
World is a somewhat schlocky, yet energetic and entertaining cold war / atomic / space age artifact. Its worst moments aren't so much the poorly-realized special effects (the lifeless rubber spider is just plain bad even for the era), as much as the long stretches of cold-war propaganda dialog and some perfunctory, cringe-inducing romantic scenes between the lusty astronauts and the scantily clad tunnel women. Its best moment comes in the cemetery, when it becomes clear to the men that they've been marooned in time on an utterly alien earth.

World Without End is available on a "double feature" Warner Home Video DVD along with Satellite in the Sky (1956). The restored print is just beautiful.

"We've unleashed the power of the atom... and now this!"


  1. 1957 was such a good year!!! (grin)

  2. I am sure I have seen this. I mean, you and I grew up watching the same old stuff as kids, but I honestly do not remember this... damn, I'm getting ol--- uh, older!

  3. For a similar story, see 1960's Beyond the Time Barrier. In fact, given the name of this blog, I suspect you've seen this quickie from Edgar Ulmer. How did it get overlooked on this page?

    1. In retrospect, it's somewhat of an oversight to pay homage to Ulmer's film in the blog title, and then not bother to review it after all this time (almost two years now).

      Rest assured that I will be posting about Beyond the Time Barrier and some of his other lesser-known works in the not-too-distant future. Stay-tuned in your current space-time continuum. :)