The World, The Flesh and the Devil (6-16-1959)

I wasn’t sure what to expect going in to see The World, The Flesh and the Devil.  All I knew was that it was a doomsday flick, and that it starred the incomparable Calypso crooner, Harry Belafonte.  Let me tell you, it is one excellent movie.

It’s really a three-act piece.  In Act 1, Ralph Burton (Harry Belafonte), an engineer and all-around great guy, gets caught in a coal mine cave-in while inspecting its telephone connections.  After rescue attempts peter out, Ralph excavates himself to safety only to find every person in the world gone.  He drives to New York, its streets eerily empty, and there he discovers the truth–some nation had released clouds of radiation with a half life of five days.  Virtually everyone and everything was killed; but the world Ralph emerged into is once again inhabitable.

Ralph quickly becomes the King of New York, restoring power to a city block, cavorting with and singing to mannequins, saving works of art and literature.  Act 2 quickly follows, with the lovely and spunky Sarah Crandall (Inger Stevens) finally introducing herself to Ralph after several days (weeks?) of silent stalking.  There is immediate romantic chemistry, culminating in a scene wherein Ralph clumsily tries to cut Sarah’s hair.  It’s clear that Sarah has fallen for Ralph, and Ralph does not deny that he feels the same.  But, then Ralph says, “If you’re squeamish about facts, I’m colored.  And if you face facts I’m a Negro.  And if you’re a polite Southerner, I’m a ‘negrah,’ and I’m a ‘nigger’ if you’re not.” 

Thus, the impasse.  Sarah couldn’t care less about Ralph’s color and says so, but Ralph, conditioned by decades of societal pressure, can’t see it working.  Oh, over time, Ralph might have overcome his issues in this rebuilt world in which all the old rules had been wiped away, but then…

Act 3–Benson Thacker (Mel Ferrer) arrives in a boat, apparently having steamed all the way from South America.  Ralph saves his life, but the appearance of even a single white man seems to restore the old order, at least in Ralph’s mind.  He practically throws Sarah at Benson, all the while being rather passive-aggressive about it.  The problem is that Benson, while a likeable fellow, isn’t who Sarah loves.  Moreover, Sarah is peeved that the last two men on Earth are playing tug-of-war with her and not asking her opinion on the matter.

“I’m sick of you both,” she explains to Benson.  “He doesn’t know what he wants, and you don’t think of anything else but what you want.”

(At this point, my daughter leaned over to me and told me she didn’t like the “triangle” part of the movie as much as the first two acts.  I had to agree, but wait.  There’s a surprise.)

Enraged with the situation, Benson grabs a rifle and begins shooting at Ralph, who arms himself in defense.  So begins a quick cat and mouse through the streets.  Ralph ends up in front of the United Nations building in front of the quote about beating swords into plowshares.  Horrified with himself, Ralph tosses away the gun and confronts Benson, who is also unable to shoot.

Sarah arrives, quite happy to see Ralph alive, and she takes his hand, her expression adoring.  Cue the credits?  No!  She calls Benson over, too, and she takes his hand as well.  And they all walk down the street as the final card reads, “The Beginning.”

Let me tell you what is so great about this movie.  Firstly, it is quite well made, easily the highest in production quality amongst the films I have yet reviewed in this column (though not in color, like The Blob).  The bleak cinematography, the sweeping score, the fine acting, the poignant script, these are all points to recommend it.

But it’s the sheer progressiveness of the messages in this movie that really impresses me (and perhaps I should not be surprised that my daughter and I were the only attendees of that showing, and the film is on its way to being a financial bust).  This is 1959.  Jim Crow still rules the roost in much of the country.  The Montgomery Bus Boycott is just three years old.  A Black leading man, much less a romantic interest for a White woman?  Inconceivable!  Yet Ralph and Sarah are a couple in everything but name, and by the end, while there’s no kissing (give it a few years), their bond is cemented.

The brilliant thing about the movie is that there are no (pardon the phrase) black or white characters.  Benton could easily have been played evil.  He even starts the movie with a moustache to twirl (along with a beard).  Yet Benton is smart and sensitive.  At no time does he force himself upon Sarah.  In fact, in an amazing scene, he even notes that it would be easy for him to do so, “all the boyscouts having left town,” and then he asks if that’s what she wants.  She makes it clear that it’s not, and he backs off.  Benton doesn’t hurt Ralph, even recognizes him as the better man.

Which is what makes the ending so standout: Sarah loves Ralph and vice versa.  The two are an item, that’s clear.  Yet they make room for Benton, too, because when there are only three people left in the world, you don’t shun one of them just because, before the disaster, he’d be the odd man out.  Not only are the rules that kept Black and White apart as dead as the old world, but so are the rules that say a relationship involves just one man and one woman.  Benton is a good guy.  He deserves to be happy, just like Sarah and Ralph.

What I find so incredible is that all of the people I’ve talked who’ve seen this film (about four or five, to be fair), no one drew the same conclusion from the last scene.  They thought it a cop-out that Ralph didn’t get the girl.  My friends are progressive, but not quite progressive enough, I suppose.

So watch it while it’s still in the cinema, because it won’t be there for long.  I’d really like to know what you think.

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2 thoughts on “The World, The Flesh and the Devil (6-16-1959)”

  1. I have to agree with your daughter, I found Belafonte alone much more compelling than the rest. The ending was certainly brave, even radical for the time, but as art Belafonte crying quietly as he listens to the recordings of the world dying is more powerful.

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