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No Blade of Grass (1970) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

custance pirrie john film

Principal social theme: environmental issues

MGM. R rating. Featuring: Nigel Davenport, Jean Wallace, Nigel Rathbone, Lynne Frederick, John Hamill, Patrick Holt, Wendy Richard, Christopher Loft-house, George Coulouris, Tex Fuller, Anthony May, Geoffrey Hooper, Mervyn Patrick, Ross Allan, Joan Ward, Karen Terry, Bruce Miners, Margaret Chapman, Brian Crabtree, Christopher Neame, Surgit Soon, John Buckley, Malcolm Toes, Cornel Wilde. Written by Sean Forestal and Jefferson Pascal based on the novel The Death of Grass by John Christopher. Cinematography by H.A.R. Thomson. Edited by Eric Boyd-Perkins and Frank Clarke. Music arranged by Burnell Whibley. Produced and directed by Cornel Wilde. Color. 97 minutes.

Overview

No Blade of Grass is a bleak and unsettling film that portrays a world crippled by global pollution and complete environmental catastrophe. In addition, the film explores the darkest regions of human nature, as civilization begins to disintegrate. The script also managed to do this while avoiding a preachy tone. The powerful message of No Blade of Grass was too dark and disturbing for most audiences, failing at the box office. Nevertheless, it also achieved cult status as the most unrelenting screen depiction of an environmental holocaust.

Synopsis

The picture opens with a montage of global pollution while Cornel Wilde, as narrator, describes how the ecosystem of the planet was abused during the decade of the 1970s until a worldwide famine began. Because of the pollution, a lethal virus has appeared, which destroys all plant life, leading to the complete breakdown of agriculture. The title song, resembling a folk tune, describes this green blight where no blade of grass can survive. The proper story begins in 1979, as Roger Burnham (John Hamill) calls his friend John Custance (Nigel Davenport) with a warning that martial law is about to be declared and the city of London will be closed. John, a distinguished-looking man who wears a patch over one eye, alerts his wife, Ann (Jean Wallace), and teenage daughter, Mary (Lynne Frederick), to prepare to escape to his brother’s sizable farm in the remote hill country. Roger joins them, and as they set off in two cars, they hear increasingly ominous news over the radio. The Chinese are bombing their own cities, killing 300 million people, in an attempt to stretch their meager food supplies. Other organized governments are collapsing, and there are reports of cannibalism. Each of the characters has a flashback of events leading up to the current crisis. The travelers find their way blocked by a street riot as looters pillage the remaining stores. After the police quell the riot with firearms, John decides that they will need to obtain guns if they are going to survive. They stop at the home of Sturdevant (George Coulouris), who runs a firearms store for hunters. His shop is closed, but he opens up for his old customers. He refuses to sell them guns when they do not have the proper permits. They try to explain that their need is desperate and that they are going to a safe refuge in the country. Custance invites the shopkeeper to join them, but he refuses. Sturdevant is then shot and killed by his own clerk, Pirrie (Anthony May), who asks the Custances to allow him and his wife to join them. Now with three cars, the caravan encounters a military blockade, and they get into a gunfight provoked by a belligerent officer who threatens to shoot Roger, and a few soldiers are killed in the battle.

The Custances pick up their young son, Davy, at his boarding school. When Ann learns that Davy’s friend Spooks is now an orphan, she invites him along. While on their way, the boys are warned by Ann never to speak with Pirrie or his wife. Bulletins on the radio report that the country is falling into anarchy and the prime minister has proclaimed martial law. Pirrie and his wife had originally planned to rob and abandon the others but now think it is wiser to stay with them, finding safety in numbers. One car gets separated from the others by the barricades at a railroad crossing, which turns out to be an ambush. After overpowering John, a gang of bikers kidnaps Ann and Mary, dragging them off and raping them. Burnham and Pirrie revive Custance and rescue the women. One of the thugs is wounded in the scuffle and begs for his life. Ann Custance grabs the rifle out of Pirrie’s hands and kills the rapist with one shot. Continuing on their way, the group monitors the latest developments on the radio. A citizens’ committee topples the British government when it learns of plans to use nerve gas on the populace of London. The prime minister flees the country, and the revolutionary committee attempts to restore order. At another roadblock, a citizens’ militia commandeers their vehicles and rations, leaving them with only their clothes, but Pirrie manages to conceal a pistol. They set off on foot and decide to raid a local farmhouse, killing the owners. Custance has difficulty explaining the violence to his son, but after Spooks compares the situation to a western, the boys seem to take it in stride. They tune in America on a shortwave radio in the house and learn that almost all governments have ceased to exist except in North America. The U.S. president starts to speak, but the signal fades away.

After resting, the group sets out again, walking through a rainstorm. They pass the night in an abandoned barn. While there, Pirrie catches his wife trying to seduce Custance, and he shoots her. Custance asks him not to let the boys know of this episode. The landscape gets more rugged as they continue on their way. Mary begins spending more time talking with Pirrie, and her father tries to stop her. A confrontation is avoided between Custance and Pirrie only when Mary says she feels safer being with Pirrie and that it is her own choice. In her eyes, he has become a more preferable partner than Roger. Near a picturesque aqueduct, they chance upon an armed band of stragglers. Custance approaches them, saying that if they band together, they will have a better chance of survival. He says his brother’s farm can serve as a sanctuary they can share and help defend as civilization disintegrates. Joe Ashton, their leader, is hostile and tries to start an argument; he is shot by Pirrie. Custance tries to make peace with the others, stating his that proposal is still open. First one family and then another decides to join with Custance until the group swells to a sizable band. The large group pushes forward relentlessly until the women are too exhausted to continue. John is concerned when he sees that the green blight has already progressed so far north, and the countryside is covered with dead animals who have eaten the diseased grass. A woman goes into labor, and Pirrie sets up an armed perimeter with a handful of men to protect their makeshift camp. Custance helps the mother deliver the new infant, but the baby dies moments after its birth. Weary after avoiding a rebellious army unit, the survivors finally reach the outskirts of the farm of David Custance. The boundary of the farm is very well fortified, and several sniper shots are fired as they approach. A voice shouts out for them to move on. John Custance proceeds with a white handkerchief on a stick, proclaiming his identity. David appears out of the scrub, and the brothers embrace. David is shocked that his brother has so many people with him. He will make room for John’s family and Roger, but no others. David himself has a large assembly billeted on his land and fears they may already exceed the capacity of the farm to support them. John pleads for his associates, but his brother remains adamant. Returning to his followers, John notifies them that they will either have to move on or fight their way in. That night, they try to sneak onto the land through the woods. David’s men are on the alert, and another onslaught occurs. Pirrie and David Custance kill each other in the fracas. After a number of deaths, a truce is declared, and John is recognized by all survivors as the new leader. The victims of this last fight are buried, and John leads a forlorn prayer at their graves, asking God’s forgiveness for everyone. As the survivors return to their compound, the scene is inverted like a photographic negative, suggesting their that days are numbered. The film ends with a reprise of the folk tune reiterating that no blade of grass will survive.

Critique

No Blade of Grass is remarkable, a genuine masterpiece on various levels. Cornel Wilde’s direction is exceptionally hard-edged and brilliant, but the film is so unrelentingly dark that it is difficult to watch. Many viewers are unable to handle such a pessimistic vision. One must commend Wilde for the picture’s unflinching integrity. There is no compromise, and Wilde allows no sentimentality to intrude on his black depiction. At one point, in the childbirth sequence, there seems to be a hint of redemption—of a future—but this comes crashing down when the baby perishes. The style of the picture is very sophisticated, and to a certain extent, No Blade of Grass is really an art film. The editing is both clever and innovative. The techniques include not only flashbacks, but flashforwards as well. Early in the film, Mary suggests to Roger that they begin a sexual relationship, that she wishes to lose her virginity and become a woman. At this point, a quick cut reveals her future rape. These flashforwards occur regularly throughout the film. The script of the film is compelling. The radio bulletins are particularly colorful and interesting as humankind slips further and further down the vortex. The last message on shortwave from the United States describes how all European royalty and heads of government have sought asylum in North America. The president then begins a cliché-filled speech about the lofty ideals of civilization, and he is soon drowned out by static. When his voice resumes, no one remains to hear his empty words. This is a subtle and effective moment.

The characters in the film are unconventional and richly portrayed. John Custance reminds one at times of Wotan, the weary head of the Germanic gods in Richard Wagner’s opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen . Like Wotan, he is silver-haired, wears an eye patch, and is forced into making devastating choices. Nigel Davenport plays Custance with flawless precision, as his character violates his moral code again and again in the name of survival. He has one remaining dream, an idyllic fantasy of his brother’s farm, where the green virus will never spread and where people may live in harmony and dignity as human beings. Of course, he then winds up inviting so many people to come with him that his proposal becomes only another cruel illusion. By the end of the film, John is only an empty shell of a man, and his prayer at the graveside of the victims is hollow and lifeless. Cornel Wilde’s wife, Jean Wallace, delivers a powerful performance as Ann. In another film, her performance might have garnered an Academy Award nomination. Lynne Frederick, who was later married to both David Frost and Peter Sellers, is splendidly convincing as the daughter. She is coquettish and playful at first, but after she is attacked she becomes morose and hardened. Like her father, she is forced to make painful choices, such as when she betrays Roger and selects Pirrie as her future mate because she feels he can protect her. Pirrie is probably the most remarkable character of all. In any other movie, he would be seen as a psychopath and a monster, but in this film, the gun-crazy rake is practically the hero. With the downfall of civilization, Pirrie’s cunning and ruthlessness has made him the most valuable individual traveling with Custance. He saves the situation time and again, and he and Custance develop a grudging respect for each other. When they openly quarrel over Ann, Pirrie restrains his natural “shoot-first” instinct for the only time in the picture. He always refers to John as “Mr. Custance” with a sense of esteem, even when he is shot and dying in the guerrilla attack on the farm. Pirrie is the only one who seems to fit into the savage world, and at times he seems like a modern version of Doc Holiday, brutal and calculating but with a certain code of honor. Anthony May is brilliant as Pirrie, and he pushes the envelope in a marvelous reading. Again, if this were a more popular film, May would have been a contender for an Academy Award for best supporting actor. Another worthwhile cameo is turned in by veteran George Coulouris, perfectly cast as the crusty gun shop owner, a stickler for details and a traditionalist with total confidence in the government.

Despite the high quality of the production on many levels, this remains an uncomfortable film to watch. The brutal procession of events is too unrelenting, and there is no nobility or unselfishness to be found in any of the characters. Religion is not invoked to provide any consolation until the vapid prayer at the film’s conclusion. In some ways, No Blade of Grass resembles Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s towering work, The Gulag Archipelago , the three-volume chronicle of the Soviet slave labor camps. Both works challenge their audience to chart out unblinkingly the lowest depths of humanity. Finally, no other film can rival this one in showing the consequences of environmental disaster.

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