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Reviews

No Blade of Grass

No Blade of Grass

Cornel Wilde

USA, 1970

Credits

Review by Cullen Gallagher

Posted on 08 February 2010

Source bootleg DVD

The film begins with the soothing, mournful sounds of musician Roger Whittaker’s voice and plucked acoustic guitar over the opening titles. Like the bard to whom history has been entrusted, Whittaker sets up not only the environmental disaster that sets the story in motion, but also lays out the post-apocalyptic landscape that the characters will populate:

No blade of grass grows, and birds sing no more
no joy or laughter where waves wash the shore
gone are all the answers, lost is all we have won
gone is the hope that life will go on

As the movie progresses, that last line of the first verse proves to be unsettlingly prophetic. No Blade of Grass is less about preserving humanity in the face of annihilation than it is about the characters’ bitter realization that their world may be irreversibly changed.

Directed by Hollywood actor-turned-filmmaker Cornel Wilde, and scripted by Wilde and Sean Forestal from John Christopher’s novel, No Blade of Grass is a distopic narrative of an ecological crisis that leads to the fall of civilization. A mysterious virus is destroying grass all around the world, causing a global panic over food shortage. Crops are in short supply. Cattle are drowned in rivers when there is nothing left for them to eat. Man-made pollution has contaminated rivers and poisoned fish. Bombs are being dropped on cities in order to deplete the population to sustainable levels. In London, citizens get word of the impending extermination and overthrow the government. In the midst of chaos, one-eyed veteran John Custance and scientist Roger Burnham flee with their families to the country in search of John’s brother’s farm, a haven that promises food, shelter, and hope.

Wilde is as audacious and ambitious with the film’s style as he is with the topic—and he’s just as successful in both. His arsenal of aesthetic strategies is surprisingly varied, ranging from B-genre conventions to experimental and documentary techniques: a modernist montage analogizes planet Earth to a chaotic football stadium; a death sequence is composed entirely of still images; and a documentary-like narrator opens and closes the fictional narration. Even within framework of Science Fiction, Wilde introduces passages that seem transposed from other genres such as Adventure (Custance’s cross-country trek is like a safari through a landscape depleted of animal life) and Western (a clash with a biker gang is choreographed like a raid on a wagon train), all fused together with dynamic Action scenes.

An instructive comparison could be made between No Blade of Grass and its recent post-apocalyptic cousin The Road. In that movie, great effort is made to preserve the “humanity” of the father and son characters played by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in order for the audience to sympathize with them. This is problematic because when you live day-to-day outrunning gangs of hillbilly cannibals, you can’t always act like “the nice guy.” In contrast, the characters of No Blade of Grass often have to make decisions they’d rather not in order to survive. John Custance overtly declares he is against violence, yet his plans to rob a gun store and break through a military roadblock result in the death of several “innocent” lives. Even more reprehensible is the fact that his flirtations with a young woman lead her jealous boyfriend to murder her, which he makes no effort to prevent. And when he is in need of weapons and food, he willingly attacks an old couple that is defending their own property. John isn’t alone in his questionable actions: his wife takes pleasure pulling the trigger on the man who abducted her and raped her daughter; and even John’s brother must take up arms against family in order to protect his property, food, and weapons. Such actions actually make the characters more sympathetic, because we see not only how hard it is for them to make these choices, but also how distraught they are afterward. By allowing the horror to manifest through the characters themselves, Wilde shows how endangered humanity really is.

Wilde’s pacing is also curious, and certainly unconventional. Violence is very sudden, and ambushes seemingly come out of nowhere, with abrupt beginnings and endings that offer closure but rarely catharsis. It makes us as uncomfortable and anxious as the characters who are never certain what to expect. The most subversive moment of the film comes during the battle with a leather-clad, Viking helmet-wearing biker gang. Wilde switches up the musical cues, using a soundtrack seemingly more aligned with the attackers than with the victims. It’s a subtle reminder that Custance has often been the aggressor in the past, as well as a foreshadowing as to his group’s offensive attack at the film’s conclusion. Wilde doesn’t see the biker gang so much as an enemy but as a possible alternate protagonist. They could just as easily been the focus of the movie, and things might not have turned out so differently.

After the battle at Custance’s brother’s farm, the last shot of the movie shows the group on the road once again, sullenly walking with their heads down. This time, however, Wilde shows them in negative: with the colors inverted, their faces look as alien and inhuman as the landscape. “This motion picture is not a documentary,” announces an omnipotent narrator, “but it could be.” Actually, there’s not much in the movie that looks like a documentary, at least not in the same way as another post-apocalyptic faux-doc, The War Game, by Peter Watkins. However, the unexpected sobriety and solemnity of the narration is in line with Wilde’s sensibility throughout the movie. The landscapes are closer to the color sequences from Stalker than the broken down ruins of Children of Men or The Road. Wilde’s apocalypse has yet to take its full toll on the land, which makes the slightest sign (like a decaying backyard garden) all the more prescient.

Throughout the course of the journey, Wilde has taken his characters to some very unexpected places. Information we learn at the beginning – such as Custance’s daughter’s anxiety over her virginity, or the fact that Roger Burnham was a scientist working on the grass pandemic – is not always followed up on or ever resolved. Likewise, several members of the group that were left along the road (including a woman who couldn’t keep up after a traumatizing stillbirth) were never reunited. While this may seem like sloppy plotting, I would argue that these “loose ends” give the film’s final scene much greater impact. The story has shifted from an ecological disaster movie (in which characters hope a solution to the pandemic will be found) to something much more destructive. The community built up around Custance was forged by violence and desperation, camaraderie extends to those who can keep up and contribute—the weak and sick are cut off for “the greater good.” But how much longer will this “greater good” last, and to what extent is it still “good’? The limits of morality is something that Wilde questions again and again throughout No Blade of Grass: do his characters’ struggle for survival make them more heroically human, or do their actions deprive them of the very humanity they struggle to maintain? Such lingering questions, which Wilde leaves for us to answer for ourselves, make the final, negative image of the wandering group all the more disquieting and alienating.

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