World Without End (1956)
Written and Directed by Edward Bernds
Starring Hugh Marlowe, Nancy Gates, Nelson Leigh, Rod Taylor, Shirley Patterson, Lisa Montell, Christopher Dark, and Everett Glass
One of the most enduring science fiction stories is The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells. Apart from popularizing the notion of time travel, it influenced the way we think about the future in terms of what will become of the human race and its civilizations. Humanity splits in two, with the Eloi physically dwindling and living in shiny towers while the Morlock grow strong laboring underneath. While Wells’ work stressed the division between the working and ruling classes, others would use the premise to make their own statements. The film World Without End uses the threat of nuclear war to create a future where humans on the surface are enslaved by mutants while those who sheltered below ground are failing to thrive.
The time travelers in World Without End are four astronauts who take a one-way trip through a space-time hole. They crash land on Earth in the year 2508, and after some dangerous encounters with the locals they end up in an underground community, the last known bastion of advanced human civilization. Led by Timmek (Everett Glass) and his council, these humans use science to produce everything they need. Yet the number of children is low, and this generation may well be their last. The reasoning is hazy here, but it seems to boil down to “you children should go play outside”.
The 1950s didn’t create toxic masculinity, but they certainly codified its modern expression. Science made life nicer, but a Real Man needed to work with his hands. He needed to get outside and sweat under the sun. Eggheads living underground obviously can’t be thriving. This mixes oddly with the mutates, who are outside but are degenerated and bestial. Shouldn’t they be superior, being outside? The solution the movie supplies is that the mutates leech off of the hard work of normal humans, who somehow survived the centuries of high radiation unchanged. It’s frankly baffling trying to sort this jumble of factions into a consistent message. The one thing that is clear is that the only ones who can straighten it all out are men from the 1950s.
This preference for (then) modern morality and culture isn’t original to the 1950s. Although some periods produced optimistic visions of the future, the main narrative in Western society has always been that civilization is in the decline. On a casual level, just look at the way we refer to the history of comics, movies, or any popular entertainment. First comes a golden age. Then silver, bronze, ever downward to excreta I guess. This matches the Christian view that humanity has been falling since the eviction from Eden, and every generation produces countless articles about how their children are ruining everything. So while we are inferior to the people of the past, we are also still superior to those who are to come, and four dudes from the middle of the 20th century have the responsibility to save the future.
This review has been pretty abstract so far. In part that’s because the most interesting thing about the movie is the oddity of the Eloi surrogates living underground. It makes sense in the context of sheltering through the nuclear winter; but again, the majority of the population remaining above ground weren’t corrupted by the radiation. One of the best supporting characters is even a woman from the outside world who is assigned to tend to the visiting astronauts. Deena (Lisa Montell) demonstrates that her people simply need access to the science and preserved knowledge that are locked away. Only the mutates keep the human race from becoming whole again.
It’s worth mentioning that being a studio production from the 1950s, the phrase “human race” is limited to white and white-passing people. It’s the sort of thing that stands out, like how there are no women on the council. Weirdly, the costumers split the difference on sexualizing the female characters, putting the cultured ones in long-sleeved mini-dresses and Deena in tight pants and a crop-top with short off-the-shoulder sleeves. It others her for no particular reason, other than to signal that as someone born outside she is less feminine somehow. It’s likely no accident either that Montell portrays Deena as vaguely ethnic, the closest hint of diversity in the cast. The Polish actress was often called on to play islanders or South/Central Americans, and her role is similar here — a simple “native” whose jealousy over a man becomes central to the plot. This is not one those enlightened sci-fi stories you sometimes hear about.
World Without End is not without its pleasures. There are science projects with produce, a subplot involving a treacherous council member, and a duel with the mutate leader. For my money, though, the highlight comes shortly after the crew crash-land into the future. With no idea where (or when) they’ve landed, they descend from the snowy mountains to what is unmistakably a valley in Southern California. They decide to enter a cave for no real reason and walk smack dab into a giant spider web. Seconds later, three of them wrestle a spider prop while the fourth flails around in the web. This is the same spider (and possibly the same cave set) that would appear five years later in Bernds’ Valley of the Dragons, but here it’s not only in color but there’s a second spider! It retreats before their gunfire, but it waggles menacingly from above. These props also appear in Bernds’ Queen of Outer Space, which is probably the most remembered of the three films.
It’s not exactly a bad film, but it is pretty forgettable. The CinemaScope lends it a grandeur that the sets and locations rarely fulfill. The costuming and design is delightfully dated, and it looks great in full color, but the effects are both brief and regrettable. The spaceship stuff is mercifully brief, but the mutate masks are terrible and get plenty of use in action pieces at the start and end of the film. While doing this write-up I had to consult my notes frequently, as I kept mistakenly attributing scenes from other movies to it. It turned out that there hadn’t actually been any sampling of experimental fruit during the tour of the science labs; I’d been recalling a scene from 1964’s The Time Travellers, a more enjoyable movie that I’d recently rewatched in the new series of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Perhaps it’s my familiarity with so many of the plot beats in World Without End that made it fall so flat for me. I’d seen all of it before, although often with some variation in the details. If you’re new to these Future Earth movies, especially from the mid-century, you’d likely enjoy this. It’s entirely possible that it was fresh enough for audiences of the time, especially in color, that it was received well. It certainly did well enough to attract the attention of the Wells estate lawyers, who sued over the striking similarities to The Time Machine. While it’s clearly a rip-off of the novel — I only found out about the suit after making the connection myself — the details are different enough that there’s no firm legal case. This isn’t like F.W. Murnau making a Dracula movie as Nosferatu because he couldn’t acquire the rights. World Without Endis how it’s supposed to work; it uses previous works as a springboard, taking it to a new place. In the end, that’s what I like most about the film. No matter how much of it felt like well-trodden ground, the unusual arrangement of human remnants and mutates was new, and I still haven’t worked out what to think of it.