Science Fiction Editor Keith Allison’s mission of galactic import continues this week. In the meantime, enjoy this piece he wrote on World Without End and the action scientists of 1950s science fiction!
I spend a lot of time, perhaps too much time, waxing poetic about the golden cliches of yesteryear that seem to have disappeared from everywhere except Univision. Grown men dressed in those little sailor boy outfits holding oversized lollipops. Quicksand gags. So many lost greats. One of my favorite forgotten cinematic trends is the “scientist of everything.” Back in the 1950s, these guys were everywhere, and they were usually played by John Agar. Anyone familiar with old sci-fi films knows these guys. They are identified as “professor” but it’s never really clear what exactly they are professors of. At any given moment, they will prove themselves geniuses in the realms of physics, history, chemistry, geology, geography, aerospace engineering, paleontology, auto mechanics — you name it and these guys will show off their knowledge of it, usually at the belittlement of their clueless sidekick scientist, who is more than likely being played by Hugh Beaumont.
The scientist who knows everything and his sidekick, who knows so little you wonder how he became a scientist, were almost as common as the stern spaceship captain and his goofball mechanic sidekick named Corky or Dewy or something. They’re like those novelty educational figures who appear wearing the college graduation gown and cap, waving a baton and calling themselves “Professor Ebeneezer J. Knowsalot, professor of knowledgology.” Who did educators think these Dr. Demento looking crackpots were going to inspire? The best thing about the scientists of everything is that aside from being smart about all things ever, they were also ass-kicking heroes who were as handy with the fisticuffs as they were with a slide rule. They were out climbing mountains and repelling into bottomless caverns, where they would encounter strange new civilizations and proceed to kick the shit out of them. Hell, Agar and Beaumont conquered an entire mole people civilization with just a flashlight.
Sadly, the ass-kicking scientist of everything seems to have vanished, replaced by the hacker who can hack into anything, anywhere, even if it’s not a computer, in like five keystrokes. So we have to look to the past to marvel at these ruggedly handsome geniuses. And one of the best places to look is the 1956 sci-fi b-movie classic World Without End. It’s an action-packed, low-budget blend of HG Wells’ Time Machine and the Charlton Heston masterpiece Planet of the Apes, which of course it predates by many a year. That’s time travel for ya.
A ship full of scientists exceed the speed of light, probably as a result of a goofy mechanic named Corky getting his Yankees cap caught in the warp engine, catapulting them thousands of years into the future. They land on what they think is Earth, only it doesn’t look like the Earth they left. Everything is all barren. The cities are gone, and in their place are various bits of scenery from Ponderosa. And there’s these damn cavemen all over the place, grunting and waving clubs and throwing rocks. You know, caveman stuff. Because the leader of the bunch is one of those super-smart professors of everything, he quickly figures out that they have warped through the space-time continuum and landed on Earth thousands of years into its future, apparently after some sort of cataclysm has wiped out all the population without a protective pelt of body hair. So already these guys have figured out in five minutes what it took Chuck Heston the entire movie to figure out. Unfortunately, none of them drop to their knees and scream “You maniacs! You blew it up!” But there is a lot of head scratching and checking of revolvers, which is probably more practical.
Our intrepid gang of astronauts, in what is perhaps a salute to The Time Machine, includes actor Rod Taylor, who played the lead role in the famous 1960 film adaptation of the story, which of course hadn’t yet been made (time travel!). Suffice it to say, when faced with this post-apocalyptic wasteland of a future, Rod Taylor is concerned primarily about two things: where are the babes, and how long until he can take his shirt off. Luckily, the movie has him covered. In between shooting cavemen, hiking, and talking about repairing their ships — they are, after all, not just brilliant physicists, astronauts, pilots, and marksmen, but are also skilled mechanics and engineers who can fashion a spaceship out of materials commonly found in prehistoric times — they manage to stumble upon a secret cave with futuristic sliding doors. After proceeding into the cave, they discover the last civilized inhabitants of planet Earth…and they are all frail old men in sparkly robes and sexy young women in hot pants and little togas.
The scientists also learn that the cavemen are in fact mutated humans who have gone back to the primitive ways of homo robustus. Our heroes get a mute slave girl, Deena (Lisa Montell), assigned to them, and immediately Rod Taylor starts putting the moves on her in that charming 1950s macho way, by slapping her on the ass and walking around wearing nothing but a towel. The scientists from the past soon discover that the men of this underground world are impotent pansies. The women, in turn, are all hot over these studly, verile spacemen from the past with their sculpted 1950s haircuts and manly chests. This is, of course, an age-old literary tradition. Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is one of the best examples of the conceit of modern man that we can basically travel to any point in history and kick some ass with our knowledge and/or strapping bods (I can’t remember if the strapping bod thing was part of Mark Twain’s story, so let’s just assume yes). And pretty much the crux of every John Agar “explorin’ scientists” movie was that we would discover a new civilization and show them what backwards, cowardly losers they are when up against the might of modern man. Or prehistoric man, as the case is in this movie. But not so prehistoric as to be prehistoric as those cavemen types up on the surface.
Rod and the boys are disappointed in their wimpy descendants and urge them to get up off their sparkly robe wearing asses and take back the surface lest the whole of humanity die out as a result of their cowardly, non-sex-having ways. The men of the future ho and hum while the women flock to the 20th century bad-asses. Rod, lucky dog that he is, eventually cracks the lovely enigma that is Deena and discovers that she’s not mute at all. And in fact, she used to live among the cave people and was considered by them to be a hideously deformed freak of nature. Har har har! Oh, the sweet irony of it all. They cast her out of the Quest for Fire club, but the underground humans adopted her and let her move on to a lucrative life of folding sheets. They all decide to forget these old men, who regard a confrontational nature as the reason the world ended in the first place, and make a bunch of guns. Luckily, they all know how to craft handguns and rifles out of raw unrefined ores. The plan? Kick some caveman ass! Man, if I had a dollar for every time I had to do that.
I guess they also plan on establishing some sort of above-ground colony that will apparently be populated primarily by the offspring of Rod and Deena. Oh well, we could do worse, I guess. In order to conquer the mutant cave people, our heroes must beat the hell out of their leader, thus proving that not only are we superior to the men of the future, but we are also superior to the men of the past. Hell yeah! Naturally, by the time the big fight is over, we’ve whupped a little mutant booty and shown the whimpering underground men to be cool and tough and try to satisfy their ladies a little more, thus saving humanity for generations to come.
Technically, World Without End does a pretty good job of disguising its low budget. The sets were from older sci-fi films but this was the first time they were actually seen in color, and one thing the film manages to do well is take advantage of color. Everything is colorful, almost hallucinogenic in its appearance. In the great scheme of things, Forbidden Planet is still probably the coolest of the 1950s sci-fi films, if for no other reason than its weird musical score and the joy one can get watching someone figure out for the first time that’s Leslie Nielsen. But World Without End is that movie’s two-fisted action-packed little brother that may not be as respectable or ambitious, but just might be more fun. It may lack the sophistication of a Forbidden Planet, but it’s exciting and colorful pulp fun that actually manages to break a little new ground thematically. For instance, the women of the future are tougher and more alive than their male counterparts, and they can handle themselves better in a fight.
Of course, when 20th Century Man steps onto the scene, the women are back to their knuckle-biting “fall down and scream” routine while Hugh Marlowe and Rod Taylor stride forth to save them. But they fare better and fall down a lot less than, say, the woman in This Island Earth, who actually fell down like three times while walking slowly away from a mutant on a perfectly flat, stable floor. Despite that small victory for womankind, if you can call it a victory (since it does end with shirtless Rod Taylor slapping some butt — uh, so I guess not much of a victory unless she gets to slap his back, which I’m sure he’d be cool with), World Without End is filled with the usual great American guy superiority of the 1950s, and it teaches us that if we want to survive in the future and be able to slap Lisa Montell’s butt, we must not forget our vitality. We must learn, advance our knowledge, but we must not allow ourselves to become apathetic when surrounded by our sliding doors and future stuff. We gotta remember to kick a little ass every now and then, and risk having our own asses kicked.
World Without End’s message is actually one of learning to bridge the worlds of technology, philosophy, and physicality, making them all work in conjunction with one another, and that’s a noble goal. It is, of course, basically a retelling of everything HG Wells told us before, right down to the weakling utopians who would rather die out than find the courage or take the risk to take a stand against the brutish mutants. Yeah yeah, Eloi versus Morlock. But retelling The Time Machine is a lot more interesting than going, “Wait a minute, what about a modern-day adaptation of Romeo and Juliet?”