The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959) / Sci Fi-Drama
aka The End of the World
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably PG for violence and some brief language
Running Time: 95 min.
Cast: Harry Belafonte, Inger Stevens, Mel Ferrer
Director: Ranald MacDougall
Screenplay: Ranald MacDougall (based of Ferdinand Reyher's story, "End of the World" and M.P. Shiel's novel, "The Purple Cloud")
Review published September 2, 2015
The awkward title, The World, the Flesh and the Devil comes from the Christian theological representation of the three enemies of the soul -- the sources of temptation to sin. In the film, the world changes so that different rules may apply, the flesh being the attraction between a man and a woman, and the devil being that metaphorical one that is within us to commit heinous acts so that we may possess the things we desire most.
This post-apocalyptic 1959 sci-fi film stars Harry Belafonte (Bobby, White Man's Burden), whose company helped to produce the film, as Ralph Burton, doing his job inspecting a coal mine in Pennsylvania when he ends up getting caved in. When he finally is able to dig himself out days later, Ralph discovers that there is no one to be found anywhere, with newspapers announcing the end of the world through the use of atomic weapon that caused a poison dust cloud to envelop the Earth for several days. Surely, if he can survive, Ralph thinks, there must be others, so he heads to the biggest metropolis that he knows, New York City, in order to try to return to human civilization, only to discover he has the entire city to himself.
Loneliness sinks in, as he tries to make the best of it, finding ways to generate electricity for the apartment building he takes as his own, he finally discovers another survivor in Sarah Crandall (Stevens, Hang 'em High), who becomes his friend at first, but given that they're the only ones they know of around, the possibility exists for more. However, as amenable as Sarah seems, the deep-rooted feelings from a life living within a segregated society are so engrained within Ralph, an African-American, that he cannot break down the racial barriers within his mind to physically engage with a white woman, even though there's no one around anymore to tell them what's allowed. Nevertheless, the feelings of love are there, but are soon complicated by the arrival of a third man named Benson Thacker (Ferrer, The Longest Day), a white man who also takes a fancy to Sarah, causing an already uneasy situation to become troubled and tense among them.
Although credited as being adapted from two sources, M.P. Shiel's 'last man' novel of 1902, "The Purple Cloud' and Ferdinand Reyher's story, "The End of the World", some would find more similarities with a 1920 short story by W. E. B. DuBios called, "The Comet", which relates how a black man, trapped in an underground vault, eventually makes his way out to find that everyone is dead after a comet has hit New York City, killing everyone with a poison gas. He has the city to himself for a while, but later discovers a white woman alive and saves her. The former rules on racial divides between them no longer apply, until further survivors are discovered, and they go back to living with the onus of a separated society.
The World, the Flesh and the Devil starts off well, as Belafonte is a very likeable and engaging personality, and even if he's on screen by himself for the ntire first third of the film, watching him try to overcome his loneliness through improvement projects, mannequins that he adopts as imaginary friends, and instances of his trademark singing and dancing, all the while trying to piece together what happened to the world and if he is indeed the only person left in it, makes for an entertaining and interesting story in and of itself.
The movie takes a small dip when Inger Stevens finally becomes an active part of the film. From the very first line she delivers, the tone and tempo of the film feels like it shifts dramatically, especially as her sometimes brash acting style feels out of synch with Belafonte's easygoing demeanor. Nevertheless, what's lacking in terms of good performance is made up for by a thoughtful look at the lingering effects of a racist world upon the people living within it, as the residual barriers they feels toward one another that should no longer exist are so firmly entrenched in their ways of thinking, they can't find a road to happiness without feeling like what they're doing is somehow not allowed, even in a world no longer there to judge them. So, while the white characters can "reach out", as has been their right to do all along in American society, the black character has never been afforded such a luxury of spirit, and doesn't know how to embrace the possibility of a truly color-blind world, or as much as it can be given people who've grown up in an era of prejudice.
Most interestingly, the white characters are willing to see beyond racial divides, or so they say, but the black man finds the situation still charged with too much abiding negativity. Perhaps that's not completely surprising given that, as Sarah states, she is "free, white and in her 20s", meaning that she can also choose to live life as she sees fit, but that Ralph has lived his entire life in a country where he was not free to make such decisions on who or what could accept, until now, and his choice is to not engage with Sarah physically, even if he sometimes seems to be affectionate towards her. Further continuing this theme is when Ralph woos Sarah with a massive diamond and an invitation to a fancy restaurant, presenting an elaborate meal experience. She asks him to join her at the table, but Ralph comments about it not being his place, embittered by a lifetime in a society which didn't allow for such things, and knowing that Sarah would not have given him the time of day before the global catastrophe. He resumes his derisively stubborn embracing of his "place" by continuing his role as her servant for the evening.
Not that Hollywood of that era would have allowed even an on-screen kiss between a black man and white woman to occur, which is likely the real reason for the divide, an irony that a film that shows the absurdity of continued societal shackles would have restraints on what it could and couldn't show to demonstrate this. When a white potential suitor does appear, Ralph pre-capitulates to what he feels is the inevitability of the situation of Sarah and Benson being together. It should also be noted here that Ralph knows that there are other survivors in other parts of the world that he communicates with on the radio, so even if there's no immediate societal pressure, there still the semblance of society that remains -- unseen, but still evident.
The World, the Flesh and the Devil has a strong first half, and feels bold for its era in demonstrating not only the absurdity of racism, but also its detrimental effects on good people who shouldn't see each other with the kind of stigma that society forces them to follow. It's also quite visually appealing, as it is striking to see the city streets of New York completely abandoned save for litter and debris. Writer-director Ranald MacDougall (Man on Fire, Queen Bee) does a remarkable job at capturing the resultant emptiness and loneliness of a world without many people, though it's never quite explained where all of the bodies are of any humans or other animals that presumably have perished in the billions during the days of the toxic dust cloud. The second half of the movie isn't as well-conceived, as it becomes more like a soap opera about two men fighting for the same woman, with the only thing of interest in this coming from the fact that one of the men has already conceded the battle, but his continued presence causes problems because of her continued feelings toward him. The very end of the film, which I won't spoil here, is somewhat surprising, but feels like there are too many unresolved issues to fully buy into.
The World, the Flesh and the Devil isn't a movie about racism specifically, even if it comes into play in a large way, and even if that's one of the most fascinating themes that gets brought up. More importantly, it is about how little humans have learned over many millennia about jealousy, envy, and selfishness, such that, even in a whole, wide world full of infinite new possibilities, the small number of participants will still fight over the same petty issues, even to the death in some cases, rather than find a way to live harmoniously. The seemingly tacked-on ending does try to suggest otherwise, and yet it's unconvincing because it goes against all of the themes that the film had built up without any arc to support it.
Still, for a dynamite first half, and for a daring exploration into race, gender, and sex in an era that treaded very lightly on statements of either, The World, the Flesh and the Devil is a bit of a flawed masterpiece, with absorbing and revelatory story threads that captivate for moments, only to be encumbered by that era it exists in, as well as the need to keep the movie from descending into permanent nihilism through a silly climax and a sugar-dolloped optimism of an ending. Belafonte's film is a bit before its time, with themes further explored with complexity in more robust modern features that basically were spiritual remakes The Quiet Earth and Z for Zachariah.
©2015 Vince Leo