While doing a little background research a few weeks ago for my review of The World, the Flesh and the Devil (Harry Belafonte’s provocative 1959 post-nuclear-Armageddon drama), I discovered just how hard it can be sometimes to nail down what was “the first” of something. It turns out that TWTFATD, while a very early cinematic depiction of an atomic aftermath, is not the first such depiction.
An obvious, straightforward dramatic account of atomic war comes to mind, wherein a conventional war escalates into a widespread nuclear exchange, mushroom clouds for everyone, then the sick and desperate mobs turn on local authorities, and eventually one another, until there’s no one left but a traumatized core of survivalists who were willing to do the hard and repulsive things necessary merely to stay alive.
But this sub-genre of speculative fiction never arrived in such a straightforward way. Literary speculation about atomic power and atomic war goes back to the late nineteenth century (the first mention of an atomic weapon may be Robert Cromie’s 1895 novel The Crack of Doom). In 1913, H. G. Wells imagined that, while an atomic explosion might be equivalent to a conventional explosion, it would simply keep exploding indefinitely.
Speculation gave way to reality on August 6, 1945, when World War II became the first (and so far, last) nuclear war. “Only” two atomic bombs were dropped, and soon the names Hiroshima and Nagasaki became dread-inducing household words, and the world learned about mushroom clouds and ground zeroes and radiation sickness. In 1949, the Soviet Union detonated their first atomic bomb, and the Cold War promised to get very hot indeed. In 1950 the United States had 299 warheads to the Soviet’s mere five; nonetheless, military strategists (and clever science fiction writers) were already looking forward to the inevitable days of sizable stockpiles, thinking about the disastrous consequences of the widespread use of such weapons, and struggling to understand if and how nuclear tests might gang agley.
Which brings us to what may be the very first post-atomic apocalypse at the movies: 1951’s FIVE, “a story about the day after tomorrow.”
FIVE was written, directed, and produced by the very interesting Arch Oboler, a prolific writer probably best known for his contributions to the late-night radio horror series Lights Out. Oboler was not afraid of risk or experimentation. One episode of Lights Out was titled “Chicken Heart,” in which a scrap of tissue in a lab experiment begins to grow out of control, its accelerating mass outstripping even the ability of the U.S. military to contain it. Oboler took this ludicrous premise and, in the space of a few minutes, spun it into a tight and terrifying tale of a world about to end.
FIVE begins some five or six months after disaster strikes. A yellowed newspaper declares, “WORLD ANNIHILATION FEARED BY SCIENTIST – SAVANT WARNS AGAINST NEW BOMB USE.” Apparently, this “new bomb” is something akin to a neutron bomb, which leaves buildings and infrastructure largely intact, but is especially lethal to living organisms. As the film eventually reveals, the cities and the landscape are relatively unharmed, but the survivors have reason to believe that “the radiations” are more concentrated in urban areas.
Speaking of survivors: there only five that we see, as the movie’s title indicates. They include Roseanne (Susan Douglas, a.k.a. Susan Douglas Rubeš), a pregnant young woman who makes her way on foot to her aunt’s rustic mid-century cabin in the California hills. There, she finds a squatter: Michael (William Phipps), a former tour guide at the Empire State Building who has trekked, against all odds, across the United States without meeting another living person. Soon they are joined by Oliver (Earl Lee), a befuddled, elderly bank teller, and his co-worker Charles (Charles Lampkin), an amiable and capable African-American. Oliver soon displays mysterious lesions, but in a few days, he regains some of his strength, so the group decides to celebrate with an outing to the nearby beach. There, they discover a man washed up on the shore: Eric (James Anderson), a European of indeterminate nationality who improbably claims to have survived the disaster because he happened to be scaling Mount Everest! He has made his way across Asia by foot, to Hawaii by boat, and just short of the Pacific coast by plane.
Oliver unexpectedly dies on the beach, but Roseanne’s baby is born soon thereafter, so there remain five survivors. The blessed event is overshadowed by tensions over how best to continue their survival. Michael and Charles throw themselves into establishing a garden and setting up a small generator to provide their hillside home with electricity. Eric points out that there are enough untouched goods in the country’s thousands of stores and warehouses that they could live the rest of their lives without doing serious work. Indeed, Eric lolls about when he’s not taking a Jeep out to forage, and even spitefully drives it through the garden in an attempt to bully the others into moving into the city, where vast, untouched riches await, and possibly other survivors.
Things truly come to a head when Eurotrash Eric reveals himself to be an inveterate racist, suggesting that, whatever kind of society the few survivors decide to build, it must be built without the offensive and “interfering” presence of Charles. “Now it’s out,” mutters Charles, with disgust, but not surprise.
Critics who complain about FIVE being slow and boring, and filled with dull, chatty characters, miss a central aspect of the film. It takes place starting half a year after the nuclear holocaust, not in the horrifying minutes or days immediately after the event. These survivors have had time to get past the panic and grief, but now live in a state of residual shock. At the same time, they’re resigned to the death of the old world and ready to talk about what, if anything, can be done to rebuild a new world. So yes, the movie is deliberately paced, thoughtful, artfully presented, and bleak. It’s also driven in large part by the limitations of budgets and production schedules. Oboler relied heavily on stock footage in the film’s establishing montage, and shot the main sequences in and around his own Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house in Malibu. (Unfortunately, this house was destroyed in California’s 2018 Woolsey Fire. Its remnants have been declared a historical structure, so there’s hope this interesting home will be resurrected.)
While FIVE was not exactly a box office smash, it is nonetheless a noble pioneering effort to grapple with the potential consequences of a new, terrifying, poorly understood, and potentially civilization-ending technology.
The largely forgotten FIVE premiered just weeks before The Day the Earth Stood Still, another sci-fi film that addresses the growing anxiety over the nuclear arms race. While The Day the Earth Stood Still deserves its place as a classic of the genre, FIVE also deserves to be watched and discussed more often than it is. The Cold War may be over, but the threat of nuclear annihilation still looms over our heads, so the issues raised in FIVE are as relevant today as they were in 1951.