No Blade of Grass
(SPOILERS) A UK-set vision of environmental apocalypse, No Blade of Grass is, thematically at least, well ahead of its time. It nurses a believably grim depiction of the disintegration of global society once there is no longer the means to support its populace. It’s a shame then that running counter to such worthy intent is the crude, rough-hewn presentation accompanied by the frequently rather lurid, excitable tone struck by writer-director Cornel Wilde (the former hat under the pseudonym Jefferson Pascal, Wilde is best known for his acting work).
Narrator: By the beginning of the ‘70s mankind had brought the destruction of the environment close to the point of no return. Of course, there was a great deal of rhetoric about saving the Earth but, in reality, very little was done… Then, one day, the polluted Earth could take no more.
No Blade of Grass derives from John Christopher’s 1956 novel The Death of Grass – back before he was writing what we’d now call Young Adult fiction. It was titled No Blade of Grass when it was published in the US (no doubt it retained that title for the film as MGM provided financing). The Death of Grass was Christopher’s (actual name Samuel Youd) second novel, and the one that enabled him to take up writing full time.
The plot concerns a virus (the Chung-Li virus) that has infected crops in East Asia and causes widespread famine, soon spreading from rice crops to wheat and barley and thence all grasses; the entire planet is threatened. John Custance (played by Nigel Davenport in the film) leads his family up the country to the sanctuary of a Westmoreland (Scotland in the film) farm, during which journey they face frequent harsh realities and “them or us” choices.
Christopher reportedly couldn’t stomach more than several minutes of the film version, and it tends to invite unflatteringly comparisons with the novel. That said, in template at least, Wilde has stuck to particular of the principal ideas; governments that lie to their populaces, and most starkly the potential within all of us to be embrace unconscionable acts when necessity dictates; as has been noted, morality becomes a luxury. Christopher may have been immediately put off by the reconfiguration of the premise from one in which the breakdown of everything is triggered by an out-of-control biological warfare experiment (courtesy of the Chinese no less; they’re blamed here also, in what is intended to pass for a bit of husband and wife racist banter) to the nascently topical one of the Earth saying no (Gaia is not invoked, but it’s a close thing).
The film points the finger at “cumulative residues of pollutants and pesticides”; the grass disease is carried by a virus, but the intent is a different. Retaining Christopher’s original idea might not have granted the picture a predictive status that elevates it from its often-trashy final form, but it would have offered the possibility of a more archly conspiratorial tone. In a world where rumours of Ebola as a man-made virus are wont to hit the mainstream (Channel 4’s recently axed Utopia – although that series had run it’s course in one season), No Blade of Grass offers the prospect of governments taking drastic action in order give remainders of the population a chance. In the book Christopher drops hydrogen bombs on the cities; Wilde favours nerve gas. Those who suspect a shadow elite of planning to stem the tide of uncontrollable global population growth (also the crux of Utopia, just without an all-powerful cabal behind it all) will find the overt, rather than commonly held as likely covert, means here particularly raw.
Alternatively, Christopher might just have found the first 10 minutes (or however many he lasted) so bludgeoning he gave up all hope. Wilde employs stock footage ad nauseam; chimneys belching fumes, piles of scrap, car exhausts, wastewater, pesticide spraying, atomic testing. Capping this is Roger Whittaker singing No Blade of Grass, a cheesy regretful folky sub-western ballard (the lyrics are as explicit as Wilde’s choice of imagery). The combination makes the later Silent Running look restrained in comparison (actually, Running is leaps-and-bounds ahead of this in terms of presentation; it isn’t just Whittaker vs Joan Baez, it’s a filmmaker who can engage with the poetic – post hippy, perhaps – stood next to one who’s visual language is able only to barrack you).
This reaches its apotheosis with a flashback sequence in which English patrons tuck in while Rome burns; Wilde intercuts close ups of greedy eating with footage of the starving in Africa. Frankly, one would expect a first year film student project to show greater nuance (compare it to a structurally not dissimilar sequence at the beginning of Leone’s A Fistful of Dynamite for how this sort of thing can be done well).
We learn of escalating deaths; 600 million from starvation, cannibalism taking place where formal government has ceased. During a television interview ecologist Sir Charles Brenner (Anthony Sharp) expresses the view that the Chinese slaughter of 300 million of their own people “appears to be barbaric on the surface” yet is logical to ensure their continuance; since Wilde would rather brick us than play softly-softly, we know the interview’s suggestion that the British government might follow course is on-the-money. The man who announces “I’ve got complete confidence in the integrity of our government” is the blind, blind fool (who gets shotgunned moments later). Later, when the Citizens Emergency Committee announces it has taken charge of the BBC, on discovering that half the population is to be murdered, we can tell things are serious as the voice on the radio is no longer RP.
The news bulletins diminish as the company continues up country, although Wilde can’t resist punctuating the journey with copious corpses of dead animals – from eating diseased grass – and toxic footage. The children, Davy (Nigel Rathbone) and Spooks (Christopher Lofthouse) lecture on climate change, culminating in the ice caps melting. Despite this, Wilde has no choice but to throw in the occasional line about unaffected areas so as to cover for the lush foliage everywhere (as I understood it, the picture affirms the idea that grass and grass crops are the ones affected, but there’s no suggestion of how survival is planned even with mass population culls; are there still nuts, berries, fruit and veg all round? Is all plant life at risk?). The farm apparently has plenty of food, so one assumes they are able to survive on other crops (if not, everyone’s days are numbered).
The reportage device has been used prior to this in on-a-budget British fare, to suggest imminent catastrophe (most effectively in The Day the Earth Caught Fire). Wilde attempts to mix things up here by including both flashbacks and flashforwards; the doom is both pre-ordained and presaged. So we begin with John Custance preparing to leave London before martial law takes hold. He sets off with wife Anne (Jean Wallace, Wilde’s actual wife), infant son Davy and teenage daughter Mary (Lynne Frederick, who also co-starred with Davenport in the ant apocalypse that is Phase IV) and in-the-know civil servant Roger (John Hamill). That they have done nothing for a year (John in particular wants to stick out his building project, something Ann will later call him out for after multiple rapes and murders have taken place) is particularly resonant of our capacity to ignore what isn’t actually on the doorstep.
In that respect, No Blade is a film made at a key point. Hollywood, post counter-culture and post-JFK, the US fully enmired in Vietnam, was fully on board the disillusionment train; crucially it could spell big bucks, but because the execs had no idea quite what would make this nebulous loot choices of what to make and what to say no to could be borderline indiscriminatory. This may be why the picture is so ungainly, a strange blend of British reserve and gratuitous violence and unfiltered Corman-esque coarseness.
On an immediate level the flash-forwards impart the picture with an effective foreboding; there is nowhere that is safe. Wilde decision to incorporate them throughout more than ensures this. But his means are so sensationalist, flashes of blood red frames and imminent threat accompanied by Burnell Whibley’s low-rent, intrusive, frenzied percussive score, they suggest a director who has seen a technique employed elsewhere and appropriated it without care or attention to its suitability. There is also a peculiarly intimate gynaecological scene – included for no other reason than Wilde could get away with it? – in which a stillbirth is intercut with Ann’s remembrance of giving birth. While the loss of the baby underlines the themes of poverty and malnutrition, the flashback undercuts its effectiveness.
But a very British apocalypse is a hard thing to pull off. The Day the Earth Caught Fire succeeded because it set 90% of the action in one claustrophobic, sweaty location. No Blade pre-empts the unsettling rurality of Straw Dogs, but by way of the strange post-war embrace of a disintegrating remnant of society found in the previous year’s The Bed Sitting Room; families with suitcases wander across desolate landscapes and those with guns resemble an ill-equipped home guard. 28 Days Later got round the problem with youth and zip and running zombies; No Blade is closer to the When the Wind Blows remembrance of things past, but here unable to show sufficient imagination to express it with conviction (and absence of indulgence). The leader is a WWII vet with an eye patch! Never mind, have a nice cup of tea and wait until the demonic biker gang shows up.
Yes, the dread embodiment of threatening outsiders is a gang of roaming Hell’s Angels with Viking horns on their helmets. Obviously, Hell’s Angels were a much loved symbol of the disintegration of society at the time; were this lot pre-existing, just waiting for their moment to reign over the anarchy, or did they sprout fully formed with a mass yen for rape and pillage? There’s definitely a proto-Mad Max vibe to the crumbling of everything, a land in which no one is safe and where your best protector might be the last person with whom you’d want to spend civilised time. Mad Max is a tonally superior piece, however.
Wilde allows an already disturbing-enough rape scene to play out with alarmingly excitable score suffusing it; it’s not so much the content (Ann embraces the new rules when she shoots one of her assaulters; within the scene it plays as catharsis, but subsequently it is clear it is nothing of the sort) but the execution.
Elsewhere Wilde – just spit-balling in the editing room? – pauses at an abandoned Rolls Royce and inserts an incongruous advert on the soundtrack (“If you’ve ever considered owning a Rolls Royce, there is no time like the present”). As an idea it has merit (consumerism come to nothing) but it plays as clumsy satire with no frame of reference within the picture as a whole. There are a few such moments, where the unsophisticated visual acumen of the introductory scenes extends to the humour; “David, keep up with your Latin. It will stand you in good stead” instructs the boy’s teacher.
Despite the eco-theme hammered onto the picture, the core is still the collapse of the group’s moral underpinnings. While the unflinching choices made are impressive – one would usually expect screenwriters to bottle out or cheat the hard choices - there isn’t really much interrogation of them within this travelogue format. Davenport is too staunch and stalwart for anything to really affect; he’s walked in from a ‘50s movie. That’s he been hanging out in ‘60s London with an eye patch (he didn’t miraculously lose it for the occasion) tells us he’s ready and capable for whatever may come. He doesn’t bring to the prop the blithe amorality that to Kurt Russell would a decade later, but nevertheless one of the most interesting aspects of the picture is the way in which John is a little too prepared for every one of the hard choices he has to make. They aren’t quite hard enough. It makes the character both distinctive and disturbing.
Pirrie: I’m very useful with weapons and cars and things. You’ll need a bloke like me the way things are.
Of course, being ex-services makes him the ideal leader, and the sociopathic Pirrie (Anthony May) is more than willing to serve as the unflinching muscle (and lieutenant). He knows John’s strategic strengths will serve them both. May’s performance is probably the most impressive here. It’s the more interesting that we expect a confrontation with Pirrie that never comes; Roger disappears into the background, even when the interloper plucks Mary as his possession.
John’s pragmatic stance on everything Pirrie does, from the first massacre at the army checkpoint (“Why did you do all the shooting?” asks Wendy Richard as his wanton wife Clara) to shooting Clara after she seizes a kiss from John (John accepts the new law Pirrie is living by very quickly, as he needs the psychopath and knows Pirrie has the edge on him, and is more concerned about who they shouldn’t tell about it) to near-enough endorsing his declaration that Mary is his domain; there’s a legitimate complaint that John is let off the hook by Mary wanting Pirrie in return, but even that posits an interesting twist on survival instincts; “I feel safe with him”.
John refutes Pirrie’s bloodlust quite distinctly (“I just hate killing. Nothing to do with the eye. Just hate killing”) and he notably offers a different take on punishment. Pirrie is of the view that “The guilty don’t deserve to die as quick as the innocent” but John’s is a simple Old Testament doctrine (amusingly, when he tells one of their burgeoning group to hit the man who assaulted him, eye for an eye, the fellow just pats his face; this elicits a reconciliation that would likely not have occurred had John’s instruction been followed to the letter). He may reject Pirrie’s “law of the brute” for “the law of the group” but he needs the brute at his side to keep order.
This is an inevitably masculine vision, bordering on the misogynist (again, Wilde doesn’t have the refinement to distinguish between the two), one in which Richard – and her free range nipples – is dismissed as a natural to stay alive (“She’s got a survival kit between her legs”) and in which it’s best to abide by a rape victim’s wishes (“Kill me!”). It’s also a place where wife Anne shows sympathy for all her husband has been through in spite of the traumas she has endured.
John is looked to for moral affirmations (“There was no other way was there darling?” Anne asks after the checkpoint incident) so can come up with very little in response to others doing the same. When their cars and guns and supplies are taken he asks “My god what kind of people are you?” to which the response is “The same kind of people you are”.
Perhaps the crucial scene, and one that comes from the novel, has the family break into a farmer’s cottage and shoot him and his wife dead, effectively for potatoes. Anne doing the washing up after they have eaten at their victim’s abode is a nice touch, and one Wilde could have done with more of; generally, his script is superior to his direction (or perhaps it’s just that he recognises good source material enough not to completely massacre it). This is a particularly bleak vision of humanity’s destination, where the first thought on killing others is the extra armaments the act has provided.
John only becomes leader of a larger rabble when Pirrie shoots their boss; his rule is tenuous but authoritative. We wonder how long he will be able to maintain his rule without Pirrie, as his resolve will ultimately be tested. That said, while he’s quite willing to leave the weak behind he doesn’t reassure his wife when he asks what if it was her in their position. Given the fate of his brother (Patrick Holt) perhaps he does have what it takes.
The promise “It will be different when we get to the farm” doesn’t prove to be the case; more killing ensures, including his sibling. If John isn’t marked down as a latter-day Cain, the analogy is close enough as he chose his group over fraternal obligations. Like the worst (or best) of battlefield commanders, John calculates odds and losses in a wholly impersonal manner. It is ‘them or us” and that includes “poor, generous David”. He knows the lengths to which he is capable; “If Pirrie hadn’t killed him, what would I have done?”
Wilde handles other aspects typically variably. The detailing of the military response to the sweeping chaos is effectively summarised in a mutinous exchange where a platoon mows down their superior before he can inflict punitive measures.
The confrontation with the biker gang is the big action set piece, staged as if they are Native Americans attacking a wagon train (the boys refer to it as Custer’s Last Stand). It goes on and on and on, and includes inappropriately jaunty music and slow motion. The children get little attention, but what they do is filtered through a lens that masks the horrors of their new world. “Everything’s different now, boys. We have to fight to live,” instructs John, to which Davy agrees; “Like in the westerns”.
It’s a disappointment that No Blade of Grass is so unpolished and roughshod, as there are more enough strong elements and ideas (most of them ones surviving from Christopher’s novel, it must be said) to have elevated it to forgotten gem status. The faults lie not in the cast, or even – particularly – in the screenplay, but Wilde’s unmoderated and unsophisticated treatment of the material. Its many strengths – the eco-warning theme, the suggestion that we’re all just one step from barbarism when stripped of our cossets and comforts – are unfortunately filtered through an undifferentiated approach whereby anything goes in the name of low rent thrills. In execution, this is just another exploitation picture; ironic given Wilde's unabashed liberal leanings.
The final warning that “This film is not a documentary – but it could be!” would only hold sway in a world where Viking bikers roam every motorway and a frenzied soundtrack accompanies our every move. One where people still wear eye patches. As such, the Alistair Maclean meets the Hells Angel’s poster is perhaps slightly closer to the finished movie, but the more interesting one would have been the sinister, evocative, barren landscape of the alternative (one that surely inspired the poster design for Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers).
The great Joe Dante also gives an insightful Trailers from Hell commentary.