No Blade of Grass

Dir: Cornel Wilde, 1970. Starring: Nigel Davenport, Jean Wallace, John Hamill. Science-Fiction.
No Blade of Grass

For hardcore moviephiles the Warners Archive Collection has been a godsend. Instead of mass producing everything the company owns, many titles have been released as VOD (Video On Demand) and, because of the lower demand, these are titles that may not have otherwise ever seen the light of day. These are DVDs that include no extras and usually haven’t been remastered, but are still very watchable and often have never been available in any form in the home viewing marketplace. Titles range from Hollywood classics (Tea and Sympathy) to both live action (Sheena) and animated television series (Pac Man the TV show!). But where they have really excelled is in films from the golden period of the '60s and '70s that have never had much home viewing distribution, ranging from the great (Dark of the Sun), the bad (Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze), and the weird (Brewster McCloud) to the culty (You’re a Big Boy Now), the gritty (The Outfit), and the forgotten hits (Freebie and the Bean, The Fish that Saved Pittsburg). Many of these have been films I saw and even obsessed over as a kid (I was dreaming for the Dark Of The Sun release). Most excitingly I’ve finally been given a chance to catch up with a post-apocalypse flick I vaguely remember from an old grainy bootleg VHS copy I saw many years ago. (My memories of No Blade of Grass have haunted me). This most recent viewing reconfirmed the scary power this movie still carries.

Hungarian born Cornel Wilde was a long time pretty boy jock actor. He got an Oscar nomination early in his career for playing Frederic Chopin in A Song to Remember in 1945, but besides a nice supporting turn in The Greatest Show On Earth most of his career was awash in B-swashbuckling adventure flicks. He had dabbled in directing throughout the '50s but it wasn’t until 1965 when he fully connected the dots with his survival action masterpiece, The Naked Prey (a film that has gotten the full bells and whistles treatment from the high-end DVD distributors Criterion). Five years later No Blade of Grass, continues on much of those same themes of man vs. his savage impulses, going even further with the violence and throwing in deeper groovy environmental paranoia.

Pollution and pesticides have created a virus that destroyed grass and plants leading to famine, starvation, and eventually marshall law and anarchy. Sporting an eye patch, British gentlemen architect John Custance (Nigel Davenport of A Man for All Seasons) and his wife (real life Mrs. Cornel Wilde, Jean Wallace) lead a caravan across England to escape the strife in London at his brother’s fortress farm. The road posse also includes their bratty adolescent son, his school chum, their beautiful daughter (Lynne Frederick of Phase IV, who was once married to Peter Sellers) who sends every man into a lustful kill frenzy, and her manly boyfriend (John Hamill of Trog), as well as a gun crazy psychopath (Anthony May) and his attention starved bird (that lower class English jargon for “girlfriend”). Their journey starts off in cars and ends up on foot across blank English hillsides where they have to fight off hijackers, motorcycle gangs, rapists, and random creeps, as well as each other.

The film was adapted from The Death of Grass, a novel by John Christopher (Wilde co-wrote the script and sits it out as actor, only heard as a voice on the radio). If you thought The Naked Prey was bleak, with No Blade of Grass’ dystopian world Wilde is able to open up his lack of hope for mankind to the whole planet (his clumsy WWII flick Blood Red, he directed between the two, is equally as depressing). From about a mile out of town our hero and his crew go into full survival mode, killing the innocent as well as the nasty. Though we are treated to constant stock footage of dirty streams and even a graphic childbirth scene, the heavy-handed symbolism never gets in the way of the story. Eventually they put together their own army of regular folks to huddle together against the crazies lurking in the countryside. When they finally reach the seemingly utopian and safe farm of Custance’s brother they are turned away, forcing them - seemingly decent people - into becoming what they have been fighting: a rabid mob that will take anything in the name of survival, a vicious circle.

While so much of the great dystopian stories of the era center on nukes and man destroying itself from within, No Blade of Grass takes the environmental approach but unlike, say, The Day After Tomorrow this is no disaster film; it’s too personal for that genre. It may wrap itself in an environmental flag, but it’s actually closer to Straw Dogs or even A Clockwork Orange when exploring man’s brutal impulses towards survival, society and especially women. While some other flicks from the era like Where Have All The People Gone?, ZPG: Zero Population Growth, The War Game, Panic in Year Zero, the Charlton Heston post-apocalyptic trilogy of The Omega Man, Soylent Green and Planet of the Apes, and the British television series The Survivors, are now classics (at least the Heston flicks are) the rest tend to date fast. No Blade of Grass feels just as disturbing now as it must have in 1970, maybe even harsher since science-fiction films now tend to be made with massive budgets and aim for the widest audience possible. Even a film as brutal and cold as Children of Men is still a piece of (extremely well made) pop entertainment. The days of small, challenging, and even depressing sci-fi like No Blade of Grass (and Silent Running) are mostly gone, we can thank the mainstream success of Star Wars and Alien for that.

The best dystopian/post-apocalypse flicks in the last thirty years would include Children of Men, as well as the much earlier Mad Max and Mad Max 2 (The Road Warrior), and Dawn of the Dead (I could be tempted to throw WALL-E on that list as well). Maybe the most influential was the 1981 BBC produced miniseries The Day of the Triffids (based on a book by John Wyndham which also was the basis for an excellent 1962 flick of the same name). Where 28 Days Later and numerous other films are direct descendants of it, No Blade of Grass is just too harsh to have direct offspring, though its format is now the standard for survival fiction. And now thanks to the Warners Archive Collection perhaps it will finally be seen and hopefully inspire new generations to make their post-apocalyptic films as ugly as possible.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Feb 26, 2013 6:02pm
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