Bringing about the end of the world on a ‘50s B-movie budget was always going to be a difficult proposition. George Pal, the former Puppetoons wiz who had moved into feature film production with the successful, if not exactly stellar, Destination Moon in 1950, decided to make his next film an adaptation of Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie’s novel about the end days of Planet Earth, about to become a minor roadblock in the path of roving star Bellus and its orbiting planet Zyra. Pal’s rigorous production methods squeezed the potential out of every limited dollar, chiefly by relying on the promise of spectacle and special effects rather than stars to sell When Worlds Collide, and in spite of that low budget, it’s always tantalising to me how much of a charge, a sense of eventfulness, that Pal was able to imbue his films with. There’s a lot of tackiness, too, which is part of their pleasure. When Worlds Collide is the defining example of the science fiction disaster movie, with only the likes of Paris Qui Dort (1925) and Abel Gance’s La fin du monde (1931) preceding it, and modern super-inflated spectacle films of the ilk turned out by Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich owe everything to it, whilst also representing a debasement of Pal’s hand-crafted dramas.
When Worlds Collide was helmed by Rudolph Maté, Krakow-born cinematographer turned director, who shot The Passion of Joan of Arc and Vampyr for Carl Dreyer decades prior, and who had made his own best film, the gamy D.O.A., the year before. An amusing aspect of Pal’s style as a science fiction maestro was his clear emulation of Cecil B. DeMille in orchestrating grandiose events and apocalyptic images, infusing his vision of the genre with DeMille-esque religious images and references, and stentorian voiceovers. Pal pushed that too far eventually with Conquest of Space (1955), but it’s part of the inflated, iconic quality that makes When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds (1953), in which Pal made an evident shout-out to DeMille by having his characters attend Samson and Delilah (1949), so enjoyable and effective. Ironically, When Worlds Collide had been purchased shortly after the novel's publication early in the 1930s by
as a property for DeMille, but he chose to make The Crusades instead. DeMille’s fingerprints are still on the project, which also still bears traces of the darkly racist overtones of the source novel and its sequel, which by all accounts made no bones about leaving all those pesky lesser races to die. These influences have their own, probably unintentional and yet still telling resonances: When Worlds Collide commences with a quote from Genesis and concludes with a mock page from a new one, and, like War of the Worlds, clearly presents white American Christian centrism as the bulwark against chaos and devastation whilst evoking planetary landscapes of struggle and sacrifice. There are, say, no African-Americans on that rocket ship to the other world. We’re assured other nations are working on similar projects, but the results of this are never shown. This sort of detail might make the film sound rather fascistic, which it really isn’t, for the core of the drama is a clash between a misanthropic and idealistic sense of humanity, but these blind spots are still worth noting, for they say much about what was once permissible to elide in popular culture. Paramount
Pal became the first filmmaker to truly, successfully sell science fiction to a mass audience by assuring them that the space age was a continuation of, even a reestablishment of, archaic certainties, and the notion that technological conquest and worldwide calamity may go hand in hand with heightened spirituality and renewed social vigour. The spaceship ride to the future will also have room for cute dogs and apple-cheeked young couples. Simultaneously, the screenplay, by Sydney Boehm, sets up the oppositions that have subsequently recurred through many of the films inspired by it: the assurance that the nerdy savants of the world might have the fibre to rebuild worlds is balanced by handing the audience an Everyman identification figure whose grounded, anxious response to finding himself thrust into Biblical-scale events, and rising to the occasion, provides surest proof of human worthiness. Here he takes the form of Richard Derr’s David Randall, a pilot who becomes involved in the great project when he’s hired to courier photographs from a South African observatory by Dr. Emery Bronson (Hayden Rorke), a great astronomer who first observes and predicts the coming, destructive cosmic bodies. There’s a power in the notion of such a normal, if talented in his way, man as Randall – he’s introduced indulging a bit of cockpit nookie with a girlfriend and reiterates his eagerness for money – being entrusted with such a colossal responsibility, and only perceiving the magnitude of it by absorbing the reaction of people who know, or sense, the truth of what he carries in the suitcase cuffed to his wrist.
Fate is on Randall’s side as he delivers the information to the recipient Dr. Cole Hendron (Larry Keating), after he bluffs his way through a conversation with Hendron’s daughter Joyce (Barbara Rush), and then into her father’s briefing of other scientists and businessmen about the dread truth. With Joyce attracted to him, in spite of her long-time attachment to family friend Dr. Tony Drake (Peter Hansen), Hendron humours his daughter by keeping Randall around to work on his colossal project to build a spaceship ark to transport a handful of people to Zyra after Earth is consumed by Bellus. Jeered by disbelieving UN delegates and rival scientists at first, Hendron gets financing for the project from credulous philanthropist businessmen and then, less agreeably, from wheelchair-bound plutocrat Sydney Stanton (John Hoyt), who puts forth money in exchange for a seat on the ship. When Randall discovers he’s only been given a seat on the ship by Hendron because of Joyce’s attachment to him, he’s stricken with guilt and refuses his place, not able to think of a role he can play in the new world.
Of course, this soul-searching is rendered in the naïve, two-dimensional fashion of old
Hollywood dramaturgy. The triangle between Randall, Joyce, and Drake resolves in a far too cute fashion. Drake, after a couple of fraught exchanges and a near fistfight with Randall, and a will-he-or-won’t-he sequence in which Drake seems to toy with the notion of leaving Randall stranded during a rescue mission, nonetheless to make Joyce happy, and for the sake of common humanity, convinces Randall to come along as back-up pilot to Hendron, by falsely claiming to have evidence that Hendron’s heart may not stand up to the G-forces during lift-off. No-name Derr is actually quite engaging as Randall, especially by the generally wooden, jut-jawed standards of the heroes in these things: whether drunkenly burning his money to light cigarettes after learning of the coming end of the world, or when rushing out to gleefully kiss Joyce when Drake convinces him of his worthiness, he gets you on Randall's side. Much more interesting however is the subplot pitting , an ugly face of pseudo-fascist exceptionalism, against the selfless, humanitarian Hendron. To Hendron’s ideal of humans working together to take a last desperate grasp at saving a tiny sliver of itself, Stanton counters with visions of fearful proles overwhelming the chosen few, and stockpiles weapons to forestall any such revolt. When he makes his initial offer of cash to Hendron with a demand to make sure he be the one to select the passengers, Hendron retorts, “My proposition’s simple – your money for your life!” Stanton
Hoyt’s excellent nastiness asserts itself later when his valet, Ferris (Frank Cady), tries to take for himself a ticket abandoned by a young man who doesn’t want to be separated from his wife. Ferris threatens Stanton and Hendron with a gun, declaring his grinding hate for his employer, whereupon Stanton’s own gun, hidden beneath the blanket over his knees, booms out repeatedly. As the Earth's final moments near and the spaceship readies to take off, Stanton’s predictions prove correct as workers rise up in armed rebellion and try to storm the ship, and Hendron, to help the ship get away quicker and lighter, refuses to enter the vessel, and holds Stanton back with him, declaring, “The new world is not for us - it’s for the young!” This dichotomous pair deserved more of the spotlight and stronger scripting, because Hendron’s a one-note heroic scientist figure. But the image of Stanton, determined to live with malignant yet desperate self-regard rising from his chair in proto-Dr Strangelove fashion, in a scene bathed in the bloody red glow of the approaching sun, trying to chase the ship on withered limbs, is not quickly forgotten. Interestingly, the film avoids depicting civilisation in break-up, with the usual orgies and panics: sticking to the spaceship project lessens the necessary dramatic scope and therefore budgetary pressures, but also emphasises the essential theme of acceptance of the inevitable as well as grasping for a last chance is overt here, voice-over and doctored newsreel footage telling us that never before have so many people felt as close to God. This is finally contradicted by the last revolt of project workers, who complain that the procedure for picking passengers wasn’t fair (they may have a point). In spite of such sticky sentiments, the drama of the film is, in spite of the ‘50s blockbuster naïveté, ethically speaking rather in advance of, say, the recent emulation by Emmerich of this kind of drama with 2012. In that film, most of the people saved thanks to the great save-the-world project are rich people who buy their places, the Everyman heroes never doubt their right to survive, and their actions nearly create a hugely fatal disaster for one-quarter of what's left of humanity.
From a nearly sixty year distance, the most amusing quality of When Worlds Collide’s science is the suck-it-and-see approach to such endeavour: no-one has any idea whether Zyra is inhabitable, nor does anyone look to check when it’s close enough to tell. When Worlds Collide, like Destination Moon before it and War of the Worlds after it, captured for Pal’s crew a Special Effects Oscar, which is interesting considering how judicious the effects are. The actual scenes of worldwide disaster caused by Zyra’s passing are a hodgepodge of original effects, including a great matte painting of a drowned New York, and stock footage, full of random glimpses of swollen rivers, burning oil fields, and erupting volcanos. I swear there’s a shot from For Whom The Bell Tolls (1943) in there. There is, of course, the tinny yet visually delightful spectacle of the spaceship’s take-off along a colossal ramp, and its entry into Zyra’s atmosphere, landing in a snow-crusted valley, carving a great furrow in the ice, in one of the first glimpses of well thought-through realism in visual effects, back when those effects were still thoroughly subordinated to the needs of the story. The final landscapes of Zyra, matte paintings that resemble a kind of modernist Garden of Eden, are weak (reputedly slapped on in place of more detailed ones for preview showings and then never replaced), but then again the storybook mystique fits the material: the voyage to Zyra is an act of faith, and the world they find is like a dream of imagined futures, essayed in that marvellously saturated Technicolor. I also dig the dated but piquant details like the calendars counting down to doomsday with the affixed message, “Waste Anything Except Time – Time Is Our Shortest Material”. When Worlds Collide is indeed a broadcast from the early years of our modern era in which awareness of the preciousness of the Earth infuses so much of our thought and discourse.