The end of the world is big business nowadays. Between streaming and broadcasting and movie theaters (which are themselves dying), hardly a month goes by that we aren’t introduced to some apocalypse or Armageddon or what-have-you. If it’s not zombies, it’s a vicious pandemic; if it’s not a giant meteor, it’s an alien invasion. Americans, especially, ensconced in our wealth and ease, have an insatiable appetite for seeing it all go to hell in a handcart.
I think the primary appeal of such end-of-the-world tales is not the catalyst for civilizational collapse; but rather, the pressure cooker it creates in the social dynamic. Just watching people hacking away at a relentless horde of the reanimated, or dropping dead from a bloody flux, isn’t very interesting for very long. What’s really compelling is seeing how the survivors react to the Big Reset; the drama of limited resources, lawlessness, fear and anxiety, and maybe even the chance to build back better.
Apocalyptic stories are as old as mankind, but stories told with attention to scientific plausibility are more recent phenomena. Mary Shelley (of Frankenstein fame!) also wrote the less-well-known novel The Last Man, published in 1826, which imagines a pandemic that nearly wipes out mankind. I’ll spare you a comprehensive list of the many end-of-the-world stories that pop up throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but I’ll bring your attention to the opening credits of the 1959 feature film The World, the Flesh and the Devil, which declare “Screen Play by Ranald MacDougall,” “Screen Story by Ferdinand Reyher,” and “Suggested by a Story by Matthew Phipps Shiel.”
No amount of googling will avail you if you’re looking for information about Reyher’s “screen story” (dubiously listed in some online sources as a short story called “The End of the World”). But Matthew Phipps Shiel is British novelist M. P. Shiel, who wrote an obscure novel called The Purple Cloud, first published in 1901, which tells the tale of an Arctic explorer spared when a mysterious chemical cloud devastates the earth. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction points out that TWTFATD bears a closer resemblance to W. E. B. du Bois’s 1920 short story “The Comet,” in which a black messenger and a wealthy white woman believe themselves to be the sole survivors of humanity after the earth is somehow poisoned by a passing comet. In any case, it seems that TWTFATD draws inspiration from more than one source.
By 1959, Harry Belafonte was already well-known as a successful singer, and as the star of three feature films, including 1954’s Carmen Jones and 1957’s Island in the Sun. In TWTFATD, Belafonte plays Ralph Burton, a mining inspector assessing an unstable coal mine in central Pennsylvania when a sudden, unexplained tremor traps him and cuts off his communication to the outside world. After several days awaiting a rescue that never comes, he manages to claw his way to the surface, only to discover that he appears to be the last man on earth. (Oddly, this film shows no bodies and no damage to either infrastructure or the environment. The rest of humanity has simply… disappeared. I suspect this was a budgetary decision, rather than a creative one, on the part of the filmmakers, since the story never addresses why there are no corpses. As for the disaster itself, Ralph can only glean dark hints from the headlines on discarded newspapers about the “use of atomic poison.” Whatever happened, it was sudden and devastating, but short-lived.)
Ralph “steals” a fancy car from a dealership showroom and makes his way to New York City, where he is taken aback by the sight of the Lincoln Tunnel and the George Washington Bridge packed with abandoned cars; even the usually bustling Times Square is a quiet as a cemetery. Eventually, Ralph gives up his search for other survivors, and begins a months-long existence that’s part survivalism, part fantasy. He settles into a luxury high-rise apartment, living off canned goods and simply tossing his dinnerware out the window (after all, he can scavenge a lifetime’s supply of coffee mugs and plates without having to do dishes ever again!). He occupies his free time by singing to himself, engaging in elaborate conversations with department store mannikins, and using backup generators to light up his city block.
Finally, another survivor, a beautiful young white woman named Sarah (Inger Stevens), discovers Ralph, surreptitiously watching him for several days, unsure if this handsome young black man is insane, dangerous, lonely, or some combination of the three. Once he discovers her, however, the dynamics of the dead world are swiftly resurrected. Despite possibly being the only two people left in the world, they cannot help but revert to the habits and prejudices of mid-twentieth-century America. Her first words to him, when he reaches for her in astonishment, are “Don’t touch me,” which would surely be uncomfortably familiar to a contemporary audience not yet emerged from an era of violent racial segregation, where young black men were lynched with shocking frequency for alleged offenses against white women. (Indeed, in 1955, just four years before TWTFATD premiered, teenager Emmet Till had been murdered in Mississippi, his body mutilated beyond recognition, after allegedly whistling at a white woman.)
Their awkward first encounter notwithstanding, the two survivors gradually become close friends (although he insists that she take up residence in a separate apartment in the same building). Nonetheless, sexual and racial tensions cast a shadow over their everyday interactions. During a moment of optimism, she declares herself “free, white, and 21,” not realizing how deeply wounding this is to him. He cannot escape his identity, even in a world of only two people. “If you’re squeamish about words, I’m colored. And if you face facts, I’m a negro. And if you’re a polite Southerner I’m a ‘negra.’ And I’m a nigger if you’re not!”
In 1959, interracial romance on American silver screens was still all-but-taboo. There had been a couple of controversies in the years just prior to the release of TWTFATD, including an interracial kiss in Island in the Sun, which did not involve Belafonte, but instead white Englishman John Justin and black American Dorothy Dandridge. A kiss involving a black man and a white woman was still a bridge too far. TWTFATD approaches this fraught issue delicately and sometimes tangentially. When Sarah asks for a haircut, she initially meets his rough and fumbling attempts with encouragement (“Be brave!”) but soon with panic. When Ralph stages a fancy dinner celebration in honor of Sarah’s birthday, he assumes the subservient roles of doorman, maître d’, and waiter, all while playing a recording of himself as a romantic crooner. When Sarah asks if he could join her for dinner, he responds, darkly, “Mr. Burton isn’t permitted to sit with the customers.” His remark deflates her, and the evening is spoiled.
Any thoughts they might have had about overthrowing their deeply ingrained racial/sexual hang-ups are abandoned once they discover they are not the only survivors. At first, Ralph makes brief contact via shortwave radio with a European voice. His joy at discovering someone else alive is quickly turned to resentment when he realizes he may soon be the only black man in a population (albeit tiny) of otherwise white people. “Civilization’s back,” he mutters bitterly. (One of the film’s clever Easter eggs includes Ralph’s salvaging of classic paintings from New York’s abandoned museums, most pointedly Winslow Homer’s The Gulf Stream, which depicts a lonely, helpless, half-naked black man clinging to his broken fishing boat, tossed by rough seas and surrounded by sharks. This sentiment, of African-Americans feeling they are always the last to benefit and the first to suffer from societal changes, has persisted to this day. AMC’s hit series The Walking Dead, which debuted in the much more progressive year of 2011, still received considerable early criticism for what some dubbed its “one brother at a time” storytelling; i.e., that the survivors of the zombie apocalypse were overwhelmingly white, with black men frequently the first to die when the going got rough. This dynamic was recognized even by the character T-Dog, played by Irone Singleton. Injured, and with things seemingly about to take a downturn for the group, T-Dog lamented aloud, “I’m the one black guy. Realize how precarious that makes my situation?… I’m talking about two good-old-boy cowboy sheriffs and a redneck whose brother cut off his own hand because I dropped a key. Who in that scenario you think is gonna be first to get lynched?” Predictably, T-Dog later sacrifices himself to save a fellow survivor who happens to be a white woman.)
Soon after the radio contact, Ralph’s and Sarah’s world expands with the arrival of Ben (Mel Ferrer), a nearly dead white man who arrives on the Hudson in a trawler (a Caucasian counterpoint to Winslow’s doomed black fisherman). As she nurses him back to health, Sarah hits it off with Ben, much to the chagrin of Ralph. Ben, with the eternally smug privilege of the white alpha male, simply assumes that Ralph will “give him a clear field” and allow him and Sarah to become the new Adam and Eve. The situation eventually devolves, at Ben’s sarcastically sporting insistence, into a wide-ranging duel to the death with Ralph, the two chasing one another hither and thither around New York, including an ironic shot of Ralph brandishing a rifle beneath the famous “swords into plowshares” inscription, from the Book of Isaiah, installed across the street from the United Nations Headquarters. Ultimately, the two combatants relent. The film concludes with a controversial shot of the trio walking into the distance, Sarah holding each man’s hand, with the words “THE BEGINNING” provocatively filling the screen. Perhaps they will break other sexual taboos in addition to those surrounding race.
TWTFATD is largely forgotten nowadays (although it does retain a cult following in certain sci-fi and cinematic circles), but its influence persists into the twenty-first century. Will Smith’s apocalyptic I Am Legend (itself a remake of two previous horror films) features numerous visual homages to TWTFATD. Even the aforementioned The Walking Dead, with protagonist Rick Grimes’s horseback approach to Atlanta on an I-85 choked with abandoned cars, recalls Ralph’s crossing into New York City on the George Washington Bridge.
While the overwhelming Cold War anxiety about nuclear brinksmanship that sets the tone for TWTFATD has faded into the background along with the Soviet Union, the possibility of a devastating nuclear exchange between the US and Russia (as just one depressing example) is still very much with us. The last two years have also reminded us that natural disasters can just as easily divide Americans as unite us. The occasional uplifting talk of how Americans would ultimately set aside our differences and pull together in the face of an external threat has been exposed as so much empty rhetoric. Nobody talks seriously of bipartisanship anymore. Nobody talks about “post racial” America anymore, and there’s no guarantee that the hard-won gains of racial and sexual minorities won’t suffer shocking reversals given the right circumstances. TWTFATD offered a mirror to 1950s America; the makers of that film would doubtless be shocked at how familiar the America of the 2020s looks in that same mirror.