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"No You and Me / It's the end of love."
An uncommonly tough "R" rated release from late 1970, No Blade of Grass disappeared quickly from screens and only infrequently returned on double bills. Actor-director-producer Cornel Wilde had hit pay dirt in 1966 with his highly successful, respected African adventure The Naked Prey. As his own producer Wilde was free to take the story of survival to its logical extremes, and audiences appreciated the film's no-flinching attitude towards barbarity. Wilde treated WW2 in the Pacific as a game of survival less successfully in the crudely-made Beach Red, a pastiche of over-acting and no-budget gore that employed montages of still photos of "women left at home" to impart a dubious contemporary feel. Unlike The Naked Prey, the movie delivered a pretentious anti-war message while wallowing in trendy slaughter.
Perhaps the first post-apocalyptic drama not associated with a nuclear threat, No Blade of Grass comes from a powerful novel by John Christopher entitled The Death of Grass. A worst-case extrapolation of Rachel Carson's ecological movement-starter Silent Spring, the book takes the social upheaval theme of John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids in a frightening direction. A plague virus destroys most varieties of grain plants -- wheat, rye, rice -- which quickly leads to the collapse of human society.
Cornel Wilde had already expressed his interest in survivalism and his love of wild nature. He seized upon Christopher's book and fashioned a movie that, thanks to the abandonment of the production code, goes far beyond his earlier work in violence and ugly imagery. To Wilde, the shock content in No Blade of Grass is all in the service of a good cause. Science fiction fans will find the movie a fascinating keystone picture that preceded decades of ever more violent post-apocalyptic survivalist stories. Most of the 1970 audience thought the film in deplorable taste; it must have encouraged older patrons to retreat to the safety of their television situation comedies.
The story begins with an alarming montage of images of water and air pollution. Although the English authorities are downplaying the threat, mass starvation, governmental genocide and cannibalism have been reported in the Third World. It's all because of the worldwide collapse of agriculture due to the pernicious disease that is killing grain plants. London architect John Custance (Nigel Davenport) gets early word that the government is going to seal off the city. The leak comes from young Roger Burnham (John Hamill), the boyfriend of his teenaged daughter Mary (Lynne Frederick). John's brother David owns a self-sustaining farm way up in "the North Country" 1 and the plan is for John, his wife Ann (Jean Wallace), John and Mary to drive there immediately, picking up their son Davey (Nigel Rathbone) from boarding school on the way. With riots already beginning, the two-vehicle caravan barely makes it out. John stops at a gun shop. He knows the owner (George Coulouris), who refuses to sell or give him weapons. The gunsmith's assistant, Pirrie (Anthony May) is an ex- Borstal Boy who immediately understands what's going on. Pirrie shoots his employer. He and his girlfriend Clara (Wendy Richard) join the group -- Custance values Pirrie's facility with guns and cars.
Because of army roadblocks and constant threat of death by other citizens as desperate as they are, the trip north soon becomes an ordeal. John and Pirrie kill soldiers and civilians, and are themselves set upon by roaming criminals. Mary is raped in an ambush, and transfers her trust from John to the ruthless Pirrie, who has become fed up with the unfaithful Clara. The group is robbed by locals that steal their vehicles; continuing on foot, they witness an army mutiny in which an officer is murdered. John finally joins his clan with a group of armed refugees, telling them that they can all find refuge in David's farm. This larger band must do battle with a marauding motorcycle gang that they meet on the road.
No Blade of Grass opens with a dour title ballad sung by Roger Whittaker, whom 1980s TV watchers may associate with K-TEL record ads that also promoted Gheorghe Zamphir and his Pan Flute. The 'ecological horror' montages that return several times during the film were edited by Eric-Boyd Perkins, a terrific talent who also gave shape to the montage-dependent giant monster movie Gorgo and introduced clever cutting schemes to a number of classic Brit horror pictures. Cornel Wilde thinks nothing of juxtaposing shots of fat Londoners feasting on grain-fed beef as they ignore a TV image of an emaciated, starved African child. This in-your-face visual rhetoric marks No Blade of Grass as an unsubtle screed. Wilde is openly charging us First Worlders with responsibility for the child's death; he's saying we're murderers. In the general sense that we're all responsible for each other he's correct, but the average citizen living in Europe or America is no more in control of things than is the dying child's parents.
It's not a constructive argument. No Blade of Grass takes this accusatory tone throughout its 97-minute running time.
Survival stories, disaster epics and post-apocalyptic fantasies have an immediate appeal when we can identify with the desperate folk trying to outrun floods, frostbite or man-eating zombies. What would we do in their place? Can we think of better options? Cornel Wilde seems to have studied Ray Milland's Panic in Year Zero! and decided that its "America has to get tough" philosophy is far too soft. Milland and his family go through most of the same travails -- they're held up by thugs, must steal food and gas, and their daughter is similarly raped. But paterfamilias Milland agonizes over the necessity of taking the law into his hands. Wilde's John Custance is already primed for violence. He doesn't need to be provoked by the people he kills, especially with the trigger-happy Pirrie at his side. They gun down soldiers at a roadblock and invade a farmhouse ready to kill. Custance himself kills a farm woman point-blank with a shotgun. Then he goes back to his car, where his wife Ann readily minimizes the event with her limp response: "Well, I guess you just had to do it."
Ann can ignore the death of strangers but freaks out when Pirrie makes a claim on her daughter Mary, and intends to back up his demand by force. To Ann's horror, Mary wants this new arrangement. It may be the best scene in the movie. Everything's different now: the strong man who can deliver the illusion of security will take charge. Perhaps this is how "The Boss" in H.G. Wells' Things to Come got started: Who Dares, Wins.
In its last third No Blade of Grass devolves into a strange, crude exploitation picture. After more scenes of ruthlessness, including a military mutiny incident that seemed particularly shocking in 1970, 2 we're treated to a badly filmed battle with a very unlikely motorcycle gang. The horned bikers get shot down while riding in circles, like Indians in a John Wayne western, Wilde has a dotty English housewife run into the crossfire to retrieve her cooking pots. Somebody call Terry Gilliam and the Python gang! Wilde also shows that Custance and Pirrie refuse to help people who cannot contribute to the communal trek. A breastfeeding mother and her starving husband are left behind. In the film's least palatable scene, one of the group gives birth on the trail. Wilde fills the Panavision screen with a real live childbirth, subject matter that in 1970 was still limited to Kroger Babb's old 'hygiene'- themed Tent show movie Mom and Dad. The baby doesn't survive, and the movie leaves us wondering if it was supposed to be horribly malformed due to the omnipresent pollution.
Although much of No Blade of Grass is handsomely mounted, the biker scene and the overall emphasis on sleazy, rub-your-nose-in-it details makes the movie look cheap. As if fearful that the audience will not wait for the "violent bits", Wilde has his editors cut in jarring flash-forwards to scenes like the rape, and even the climactic shoot-out. These attempts to goose the film's surface seemed awkward even when new, less Jean-Luc Godard than Cornel Wilde playing funky games with tinted freeze-frames. Worse, the flash-forwards tip us off to important plot climaxes, spoiling some of the suspense. Cornel Wilde isn't dead set on making No Blade of Grass into a colossal downer. Perhaps he thought he was throwing his audience's lust for sensational content back in its face.
So what we have is an exploitation movie with a fairly important message, that makes audiences feel like they need a bath. Much of early '70s eco-thrillers ended appealing to the wrong crowd or taking the paranoid viewpoint that no solutions to the problem are possible. No Blade of Grass now stands out as an ultra-grim oddity. It's the kind of movie that follows a thoughtful, credible observation of human weakness with a shot of a woman being blown in two, complete with an unconvincing spurt of animated blood.
Excellent actor Nigel Davenport (Play Dirty, A High Wind in Jamaica) makes the film work with his no-nonsense approach to each challenge. He and the young heartthrob Lynne Frederick would return in the strange sci-fi film Phase IV, which predicts the demise of mankind by a new race of intelligent ants. Also a standout is the interesting Anthony May (Cromwell), who creates an excellent, pragmatic working-class scavenger-killer for the new age. May's Pirrie is reprehensible, yet he's a needed ally in the struggle for survival. The beautiful Jean Wallace was Wilde's spouse and companion-actress in many of his self-produced films. She's uneven in her role, but part of that may be her husband's lack of direction. If the actors don't bring their game with them it's just not there, and Ms. Wallace doesn't always seem to be in sync with the grim tone. I haven't seen her promising turn as Guinevere in Wilde's Sword of Lancelot, but Wallace positively glows as the sexual centerpiece of Joseph H. Lewis's essential The Big Combo.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of No Blade of Grass looks terrific. Cameraman H.A.R. Thompson filmed Wilde's dazzling The Naked Prey. This show spends most of its effort trying to make things look ugly, to match the stock footage of polluted rivers and dying wildlife. Viewers are often confused by the title and the movie's advertising artwork, which would seem to contradict the constant views of green hillsides. Burnell Whibley's intermittently effective score goes completely awful when it comes time to back the bikers with fuzz guitars and rock drums. That sequence may be a precursor of the later Mad Max movies, but it is still a total embarrassment.
The WAC's restoration is very welcome. I finally saw this picture again around 1994 on a ratty Turner videocassette, pan-scanned. TCM has shown it only a handful of times, flat and letterboxed, with the live birth scene removed. Only in this new transfer does it resemble its original 1970 self, with good color and a stable image. With post-apocalyptic dramas so popular these days I should think that No Blade of Grass would have a natural appeal -- if only more people knew about it.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
No Blade of Grass rates:
1. Apologies to U.K. readers: is this assumed to be northern England, or Scotland?
2. No Blade of Grass came out in the middle of the Vietnam War, when all kinds of minor insubordination and possible "fragging" incidents were said to take place. Was this MGM release shown to servicemen in Vietnam?
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T'was Ever Thus.