Tuesday, 16 October 2012

No Blade of Grass

The film opens with a voice-off indicating that by the early 1970s conditions were ripe for an environmental catastrophe, accompanied by a montage of stock images of pollution, over-population, rampant consumerism and starvation, culminating in the explosion of an atomic bomb.

Similar images will appear throughout, sometimes interpolated in with no direct relation to the narrative. There are also frequent flash-forwards, tinted in red, and flashbacks, with the narrative sometimes chopping back and forward between past and present without clearly indicating so.

The catastrophe, as indicated by the title, stems from a plant disease that attacks grasses – i.e. the key crops for men and livestock alike. First appearing in East Asia, the disease is reported to have spread to Africa and South America, with the current death toll estimated at hundreds of millions in these areas. Social order in India has broken down and starving refugees from China have flooded into Hong Kong.

Not that any of this, as reported on the television playing in an up-market restaurant or club, appears to have had much effect on most of its patrons, a cross section of gluttonous bourgeois grotesques who seem to have wandered in from an Eisenstein or Buñuel film.

Three of those present have a different understanding. One, Roger Burnham (John Hamill), is government scientist party to information that the media dare not reveal. The second, his friend John Custance (Nigel Davenport), is an architect and ex-military man. The third, John’s brother David (Patrick Holt), owns a farm in the Lake District.

David advises John that he and his family should leave London as soon as possible and head for his farm. David says Roger can come along as well, in case they need someone for the pot – a joke whose reality is then indicated by news reports of cannibalism in some parts of the world.

With cities of over 300,000 people about to be sealed off and martial law imposed, along with rumours that there is only a week’s supply of food remaining, John and Roger decide to get out of London.

There’s a nice sequence of match edits around this point, as filmmaker Cornel Wilde cuts from John and Roger’s shocked “Jesus!” and “Christ!” to the image of John’s son Davey at his public school, a choir singing “Was born for thee...” on the soundtrack. Davey then coughs, his cough being taken up by a man on TV who is interviewing government ecologist Sir Charles Brenner (Burnham’s boss) about recent developments.

It seems the Chinese government has nerve gassed 300 million of its own people. Brenner accepts this action as rational in the circumstances, being “necessary for survival”. He then predictably evades the question of whether similar measures would be countenanced for the UK.

The group barely manage to get out of London after getting caught up in a confrontation between a hungry mob and the police – a scene whose images of the former using petrol bombs and the latter teargas and rifles perhaps had a special resonance for British audiences of the time in relation to the Northern Ireland “Troubles”.

The refugees go to pick up Davey and agree to take his friend ‘Spooks’ with them. Their next task is to get some guns and ammunition from a gunshop owner Custance knows, Mr Sturdevant. Sturdevant trusts the authorities and refuses to hand over the weapons, even when Custance explains how things are only going to get worse. Custance and Burnham move to take the guns, only to find themselves covered by Sturdevant’s assistant, Pirrie. Pirrie proves more amenable to Custen’s arguments, shoots his erstwhile employer and throws in his lot with the refugees.

Their next encounter is a roadblock manned by soldiers, whom they find themselves forced to kill:

Ann Custance: “There was no other way, was there darling?”
John: “No”

Clara Pirrie: “Why did you do all the shooting?”
Pirrie: “I had to”

The violence and disorder continue to escalate as the group continue on their way towards David’s farm, with encounters including a marauding biker gang, who rape the Custance’ 16 year old daughter Mary (Lynne Frederick); a rural posse who take their food, vehicles and weapons; a Farmer Palmer type who refuses them food, with predictable consequences; another group of refugees with a pig-headed self-appointed leader, and soldiers who mutiny against their commanding officer. Then, by the time the farm has been reached brother is pitted against brother...

Though released after George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead this survivalist horror can also be seen as a follow-up to director-producer-co-screenwriter Wilde’s own The Naked Prey. In that film a group of white hunters in Africa anger the native population – this, of course, a staple theme of the cannibal film – and are killed with the exception of one of their number, who is then allowed to fight for his life in a Most Dangerous Game type man-hunt.

For the main theme of the film, that of the narrow boundary between modern/civilised and primitive/savage man is one that recurs here and which can also be seen in a number of films of the time, including Straw Dogs, Deliverance, Deep River Savages, Last Cannibal World, and The Hills Have Eyes.

A significant difference between No Blade of Grass is the way it approaches the issue of the other. For in No Blade of Grass there is not an identifiable 'other' against which 'we', via our on-screen representatives, are positioned. Rather, there is the rapid emergence of a state of war of all against all, as per Hobbes or Bataille, where the enemy is (or was) us:

Ann: What kind of people are you?
Leader of posse who rob them: Same kind of people you are, ma’am.

As such, the main reason we identify with the protagonists is more that it is their story we are following rather than their being particularly morally superior to their antagonists, the exceptions being the rapist bikers and the establishment elites.

This scene is also notable for seeing Ann, who had previously questioned the necessity for violence, taking Pirrie’s rifle and cold-bloodedly shooting a wounded biker as he pleads for mercy.

One perceptive IMDB commentator has suggested that there are some intriguing parallels between No Blade of Grass’s main quest narrative, of the search for the promised land, and the Old Testament story of Exodus, with John and Pirrie the Moses and Joshua figures respectively.

While sometimes clunky in its execution, No Blade of Grass remains worth a look for its chilling and plausible portrayal of apocalypse. For ordinary people like us, driven to extremes, are ultimately more terrifying than flesh-eating animated corpses or humans effectively zombified by an implausible rage virus...

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