12 August 2016

The Greatest Haircut Scene in Cinema: Race at the End of the World in The World, the Flesh and the Devil

I've been teaching a class these past five weeks on apocalyptic and postapocalyptic fiction (I'll probably talk more about this in a future blog post). This week we watched the film The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), solidifying my view that it is one of the best movies I've seen.

I first saw the film last year, when I made an effort to watch the film versions of all the books I'd taught in Fall 2014. The World, the Flesh and the Devil (yes, the lack of Oxford comma irks me every time I type the title out) is very loosely based on the 1901 postapocalyptic novel The Purple Cloud by M. P. Shiel, though about the only thing that's carried over is that there's one man and one woman left alive after the end of the world. Everything else-- method of apocalypse, character names, setting and locations, themes-- is entirely different.

The World, the Flesh and the Devil stars Harry Belafonte, who I actually didn't know much about, but was a popular singer in the 1950s. He's the guy who made "Day-O" into a popular hit in America:

Belafonte was an actor, too, though he eventually largely gave up the profession because he didn't like most of the roles available to him as a black man. He even produced his own film (Robert Wise's Odds against Tomorrow, which I'd really like to see) once in order to get a role worth playing.

Belafonte plays Ralph Burton, the last man alive, a black coal miner safe underground when radioactive dust kills the population of the world. He carries the first third or so of the film by himself, filled with striking imagery of an abandoned city. (For some reason there are no bodies anywhere.)

But after he's set up a life for himself in a New York City apartment, he meets another human being: Sarah Crandall, a young white woman. Ralph and Sarah quickly take to one another, but race presents an insuperable barrier between them. This is where the film really shines, in my opinion, as the two dance around each other. Sarah isn't racist-- but she's also largely unaware of the privileges her race has given her compared to Ralph, proclaiming at one point, "I'm free, white, and twenty-one, and I'm gonna do what I please," apparently a bit of an historical catchphrase for young folk declaring their opinions. She says she likes Ralph completely, and it's true, but Ralph points out that in any other context than the end of the world, Sarah wouldn't even know him. "Why," he asks, "should the world fall down to prove I'm what I am?"

After an argument about Ralph's emotional isolation (he won't even let Sarah live in the same apartment building as him), Sarah asks Ralph to cut her hair. Here's the beginning of that scene:

When my wife and I first watched this movie, we paused after this scene, and were like, Whoa, what happened? Every thing about this scene screams sex and intimacy: the way Ralph moves from being too timid to being too forceful, the way Sarah gasps with each movement he makes, the little comments they make about lack of experience and need. Harry Belafonte and Inger Stevens are on fire here. I don't think you have to be an overinterpreting English teacher to conclude that this scene is as close as screenwriter and director Ranald MacDougall could get to sex in a 1950s film about a black man and a white woman. But it's probably sexier than a more straightforward encounter actually would be.

It's not much a spoiler to say that a white dude named Ben eventually turns up (he's on the poster). Ben wants Sarah because she's the last woman left alive, and he's happy Ralph is ostensibly staying out of his way. Ralph isn't overtly racist, but he does make a number of assumptions about Ralph's role in their little community. At one point, Ben tells Ralph, "I have nothing against negroes"; Ralph responds in a very biting line, "That's white of you." Things are especially tense, I would argue, because as soon as Ben wakes up, Sarah attempts to give him a haircut. As much as Sarah might possibly love Ralph, what is difficult with Ralph comes more easily with a member of her own race.

Inger Stevens, who died of a drug overdose at the age of 35, was actually secretly married to a black man in real life. She kept the marriage hidden for the last nine years of her life because of her career, and it only came out after she died.

Something we've discussed in my class throughout the semester is that many work of apocalyptic fiction feature a reversion to a "state of nature": they imagine human beings without the trappings of society. Sometimes this is good: Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra's Y: The Last Man argues that without the trappings of a sexist society, women can do all the things men can do, for good and for ill. More often it is cynical. Humans turn on each other in the state of nature in stories like Octavia Butler's Dawn, the BBC Survivors, and Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead.

I would argue that there is no state of nature in The World, the Flesh and the Devil. Ralph, Sarah, and Ben all bring their own racial and sexual biases with them into the postapocalypse, despite the complete lack of meaning they hold there. They don't just magically lose these systems of knowing the world that they've internalized.

The first time I saw the film, I found the ending a little corny and a little unsatisfying. (The Science Fiction Enccylopedia says of it, "in the world of 1959 Cinema the last sequence – which invoked both miscegenation and polyandry – was relatively daring. The film tanked in America.") After a fight (I like that one of the characters calls it "World War IV," and I like that the fight takes them to the United Nations Plaza), Ralph, Ben, and Sarah walk away hand in hand:

But watching it with the framework of the state of nature in mind, I see it as all three of them rejecting the social systems they grew up with. Now they really will return to the state of nature, and who knows what will happen next?

(Well, probably, the human race dies out anyway because three people do not make a very big genetic pool, but whatever.)

If you haven't seen it, and I imagine most of you haven't, I highly recommend it. The directing is good and the script is decent with occasional flashes of brilliance, but the performances by Belafonte and Stevens are must-see. I haven't seen them in anything else (one of my students informed me that Stevens turns up in The Twilight Zone a few times), but their work here is excellent.

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