AND YOU CALL YOURSELF A SCIENTIST!
Strikes Back /
The Reel World /
It's A Disaster! /
Etc., Etc., Etc.... /
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“The quake is moving eastward.
Director: Felix E. Feist
Starring: Peggy Shannon, Sidney Blackmer, Lois Wilson, Fred Kohler, Matt Moore, Lane Chandler, Samuel S. Hinds, Edward Van Sloan, Ralf Harolde
Screenplay: Warren Duff and John F. Goodrich, based upon the novel by Sydney Fowler Wright
world, scientists hold grave fears over the effects of bizarre and
inexplicable weather patterns. Warnings of imminent violent storms are
broadcast; all aeroplanes are grounded, and all ships ordered to return
to port. In
is a film with a strange history.
Produced independently by a small outfit called Admiral Productions,
Incorporated; sold to RKO (who were looking for a suitable cash-in
King Kong); and
released during August of 1933 to a mixed but generally positive
critical response, the film went through a successful cinema run and
then, apparently, vanished from the face of the planet. The only
evidence of the film’s existence lay in the vivid memories of those who
had witnessed the cinematic destruction of New York during
first and only run, and in the occasional reappearance of that
spectacular special effects footage, which somehow ended up in the
possession of Republic Pictures, and was integrated by that notoriously
penny-pinching studio into a number of films and serials, most famously
the climactic episode of 1949’s
The Rocket Men. Otherwise,
seemed to have joined the tragic ranks of “the lost film”, until the
serendipitous discovery of what is to all evidence the sole surviving
print of it by the late Forest Ackerman, during a visit to a cinema
Deluge is a disaster movie rather than a science fiction film chiefly because it offers no explanation of any kind for its catastrophes: they just happen. We might be tempted to call these events an act of God, but the film takes pains to let us know that they are anything but. Deluge opens with a quote from Genesis, a reminder of the covenant between God and Noah: Neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of the flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the Earth. This is meant as reassurance: this film is simply a fantasy, it couldn’t really happen. Deluge is a disaster movie also because of the way it shifts the focus of its source material. Sydney Fowler Wright was more or less a contemporary of H.G. Wells, and like him wrote tales that might be called “scientific romances”; but there the comparison ends: the philosophies of the two were violently opposed.
Fowler, like many in the post-WWI era, was profoundly suspicious of the industrial complex, which he regarded as responsible for much of that conflict; but it did not stop there: he was also deeply hostile to the whole concept of “civilisation”, upon which he blamed what he regarded as the degeneration of the human race. He was similarly against “progress”, and against “science”, and against “the law”, and against----well, evidently there was very little in existence during the 1920s that Fowler was not against, although his two main specific bugbears seem to have been the motor car and the idea of birth control. (And as a corollary to the latter, Fowler believed that only civilised women suffered pain during childbirth, a consequence of their “degenerate” physical condition.) A significant proportion of his writing concerns the sweeping away, by one means or another, of this hated modern world, and the subsequent struggle and triumph of a chosen few in a strange but (in his opinion) superior realm. Thus, in the novel upon which Deluge was based, the global catastrophe that re-writes the face of the planet and eliminates all but a handful of human beings occupies only the first couple of pages; for Fowler, the violent earthquakes and the rising of the seas are merely a means to an end.
Not so for the makers of the
who were determined to give their audience something it had never seen
before. Cinema-goers had certainly witnessed large-scale destruction
before, primarily during the
Not final reels of various Biblical
epics of the silent era; but this would be something else, something
new: the destruction of a contemporary city. Sydney Fowler Wright, an
Englishman, set his novel in
The section of
that precedes the devastation of
The early part of
also introduces us, briefly, to our three central characters. We are
given are a rather provocative glimpse of Claire Arlington, lying under
a towel and being given a grease rub-down by her masseuse prior to the
proposed long-distance swim that is one of the more minor casualties of
the imminent disaster. (In the script, Claire was to attempt to swim
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about
is that it was not the work of a highly-resourced major studio, but
rather emanated from one of the many tiny independent outfits that at
the time operated upon the fringes of
The special effects in
were the work of three men: cinematographer Billy Williams (who, many
years later, was involved in shooting the opening credits of
matte artist Russell Lawson; and model builder Ned Mann, who had also
worked on what was, prior to
Hollywood’s nearest attempt at a disaster movie, Darryl F. Zanuck’s
Noah’s Ark. Like
his producers, Mann would find himself in hot demand thanks to his
contribution to this film, and was tapped by Alexander Korda to head up
the special effects team for
Come. To facilitate the destruction of
The conceit of
Deluge is that this unexplained
catastrophe commences in
Of course, at this blasé distance it is easy enough to recognise the various flaws in the implementation of this sequence: chiefly the unconvincing superimposition of footage, but also some obvious model work, and that perpetual disaster movie bugbear, a lack of scale and weight in the watery destruction scenes; but ultimately, it matters very little. The sheer ambition of this four-minute sequence, its relentlessness and intensity, make it very easy indeed to overlook any technical shortcomings. No wonder that its creators were so quickly snapped up by rival organisations. No wonder that so many of those people who saw this film during its single run in 1933 were able to recall this sequence with clarity even decades afterwards.
One of the most critical aspects in the making of a disaster movie is the question of structure. By definition a disaster movie is primarily about spectacle: how does it strike? – and perhaps more importantly, when? – at the beginning? – at the end? – all the way through? Is the disaster the catalyst for the action, or its climax? Is the spectacle consistent, or will we be obliged to spend an indeterminate period with characters who may or may not hold our interest to the same degree?
Many disaster movies – more in honesty than cynicism – recognise the sadistic streak in their audience, and pander to it by offering up A-, or B-, or C- – or Z- – list actors and subjecting them to a variety of gruesome fates; others stint on the disaster scenes and then – apparently in all seriousness – imagine that the audience will be compensated for this lack by, most frequently, the reconciliation of an estranged couple or family.
Deluge itself must be exempt from most of this analysis, of course, purely by virtue of being the first, and thus having no template or example other than its source novel. On the other hand, there is a contemporary disaster film that, structurally, resembles Deluge to a remarkable and occasionally amusing degree – namely, The Day After Tomorrow, which like it posits a worldwide catastrophe of unimaginable magnitude, crams all of its disaster footage into its first third, and inflicts its tortures predominantly upon New York.
(I’m ambivalent upon the question of whether this resemblance is intentional or not. Some scenes in The Day After Tomorrow, particularly the use of the Statue of Liberty, look like a direct copy. On the other hand, I suppose using the Statue like that is a fairly obvious choice; and quite frankly, Roland Emmerich doesn’t strike me as the kind to bother researching his roots, least of all with respect to an obscurity like Deluge.)
As to which of the two films is “better”, that is very much a matter of personal taste; although to my mind Deluge does have two distinct advantages over its mega-budgeted descendent. Firstly, it’s a merciful full hour shorter; and secondly, although it commits the same disaster movie sin of serving up no more disaster in its latter two-thirds, the character scenes that take the place of the spectacle stay reasonably close to the tale that they were based upon, and therefore carry with them much of Sydney Fowler Wright’s peculiar personal philosophy; a philosophy that, whatever else one might say about it, certainly has the quality of arresting the attention.
When the quakes subside and the waters recede, Martin Webster staggers to his feet to confront a world wholly altered, a desolate landscape of inland seas, of shoals and islands. In time he locates an abandoned hut, near a newly excavated railway tunnel; and, having secured shelter, begins the task of gathering supplies....
Elsewhere, in another lonely shack, two men are
making a staggering discovery: one of them, going out to fetch drinking
water, finds an unconscious woman almost on his doorstep. Claire
Arlington later wakes to find herself the object of an argument over
which of the two men “owns” her, with the bigger of them, the brutish Jephson, laying claim to her as a matter of course, insisting that he
owns her as he owns everything else in the hut, and telling Norwood
bluntly that if he doesn’t like it he can get out and find his own
shelter. Nevertheless, it is the seemingly more timid
Claire takes advantage of the moment and flees the hut, stripping off her clothing and plunging once more into the surrounding waters, swimming for her life and safety. Jephson stares after her in a rage, then gathers supplies, food and a rifle, and begins preparing his boat....
Martin emerges from his own shelter to see a figure lying motionless on the shore. He carries the exhausted Claire into his cottage, and puts her to bed. Meanwhile, Jephson, too, makes his way to Martin’s island, although he does not immediately see the cottage. Worried, Martin shadows him as he searches, and thus both men make a grim find: the dead body of a young woman, tossed carelessly aside after being raped and murdered. By the time Martin catches up with Jephson, the intruder has made contact with more strangers, a rough band led by a man called Bellamy. Martin overhears news of a settlement of some two hundred survivors, situated twenty miles to the south, who ran the violent band out of town. Then, to Martin’s horror, Jephson tells the others of his search for Claire.
Back at the cottage, Claire wakes to find herself in another strange bed, watched over by another strange man. She is wary and mistrustful, but after greeting her cheerfully, supplying her with new clothing and inviting her to help herself to some food, Martin tactfully withdraws. Claire eventually joins him outside, and the two exchange stories, with Martin making painful reference to his lost wife and children. When Claire intimates that she intends leaving her refuge – “To see what is left of the world” – Martin warns her of the roving band of men, of Jephson’s presence, and of the dead woman on the heath; he then invites her to stay with him. Disliking the sense of compulsion but left with little choice, Claire accepts – for the present.
Meanwhile, those twenty miles away, the community of survivors of which we have heard are making only desultory efforts at rebuilding the shattered town that they occupy. (In a foreshadowing moment, one elderly resident, after remarking sourly about people who seem to think they’re on vacation, adds that what is needed is, “Someone to take them in hand and knock some sense into them.”) One survivor who is working hard is a man called Tom, who returns to his house carrying chickens for dinner and a bucket of water, which he intends for the care of his houseguests: Helen Webster and her children....
There is some question about the correct
Deluge. The IMDb
lists it as seventy minutes; the website for its post-recovery VHS
release has a running-time of fifty-nine minutes; while my own print
runs about sixty-four. It seems certain that some footage has been lost,
even if we cannot be certain how much. This is felt most strongly in the
immediate wake of the catastrophe; we never know, for example, why
Martin is so certain that Helen and the children are dead, or how they
came to be so widely separated in the first place. An additional problem
is the dubbing and subtitling of the dialogue, which makes its most
serious impact in the scenes between Martin and Claire, Helen and Tom,
as they debate and reconfigure their relationships. The subtitles are in
any case substandard, full of misspellings and grammatical errors and
dialogue drop-outs, and the occasional outright blooper. (My favourite
comes as the disaster is just about to strike
In Wright’s novel, surviving men outnumber surviving women four-to-one. No explicit explanation is ever offered to account for this outcome of the disaster, one that seems all the more unlikely considering that his story was based in a post-war, gender-imbalanced society in the first place. (There is a passing reference in the novel to the extra “ruthlessness” of men, possibly implying that when the catastrophe hit, the men saved their own lives while the women lost theirs trying to help others. At the same time, novel-Claire abandons her husband, an invalid in a nursing-home, with barely a backward glance. Since much of Wright’s social theory involved the winnowing out of the weak – sorry, the degenerate – presumably this piece of female ruthlessness carried authorial approval.) It might be expected that in a world requiring complete rebuilding, women would achieve parity as a matter of course; but Sydney Fowler Wright had other ideas. It is Tom, talking to Helen, who spells out the new state of social affairs: that with so few women and so many men, no woman has the right to have no man; she can choose a man for herself, or one will be chosen for her; no third option. This arrangement – this “passing of a new law” – is the work of the men, and if any of them objected to the idea, we never hear of it. The women themselves were, of course, not consulted.
This, then, is the brave new world of Sydney Fowler Wright: where in a matter of minutes, the female sex is reduced to the level of a commodity, with no future beyond the choice between voluntary concubinage or rape; not rising of necessity or election to a position of equality, but rather reduced to one of slavery; mere breeding stock. And it is also part of Wright’s vision that the surviving women – who, naturally, are all of reproductive age, and physically attractive – see no particular reason to protest.
(And it is not only the women who get short shrift in Deluge, although I can’t blame anyone but the film-makers for this one: amongst the survivors are a black couple, who seem written into the story primarily to reassure us that even a catastrophe won’t entirely change the world, and that whatever comes, black people will still be lazy and stupid. Oh, and to give the nice white people someone to laugh at condescendingly. Brave new world, indeed.)
Remarkably, the film version of Deluge follows the novel quite closely – apart from upping the ante even more, its advertising art trumpeting luridly, TEN MEN FOR EVERY WOMAN – and no law known except desire! – but, at least in the surviving version, it spends a lot less time discussing the details.
Tom explains the new facts of life to Helen, with
whom he has fallen in love, adding that she cannot stay in the
settlement without choosing a man. She, however, continues to insist
upon her belief that Martin is still alive. She’s right, of course – and
he’s busy falling for Claire – and, from one perspective at least,
rightly so. As she and Martin sit companionably in a sunny grove, Claire
gives an account of herself and her old life (which, in
version, does not involve an abandoned husband or a dead baby): a
(Seriously – we need more movie women like this.)
This idyll is rudely shattered with the reappearance of Jephson, who strikes Martin down and abducts Claire. Martin catches up with them some hours later, in camp with Bellamy and his men, and succeeds in freeing Claire and stabbing Jephson, although not fatally. A desperate chase follows, with Bellamy’s gang pouring into the woods in pursuit of the fleeing couple. Martin and Claire manage to escape back to their refuge, however, with Martin insisting that they spend the night in the tunnel where he keeps his scavenged provisions, reasoning that anyone searching for them will attack the cottage first and thus give them a chance to escape. The two of them bed down for the night....and Martin makes an impassioned declaration, pleading with Claire to make her home with him permanently. “All that is in the past – you are all that I have and all that I want.” And Claire returns his embrace....
But danger is closing in. Bellamy’s men, following Jephson’s directions, attack Martin’s encampment, meaning to kill Martin and seize his possessions – Claire included. They themselves, however, are the object of another attack. At the settlement, the body of the dead woman has been discovered, and the men agree that driving out Bellamy and the others is not enough: they must be exterminated. And so even as Jephson, Bellamy and the others lay siege to the tunnel, the men of the settlement, under the leadership of Tom, close in for a kill of their own....
(The experienced genre-watcher may feel a strange
throughout this extended sequence of abductions, pursuits and battles,
which were not only filmed – surprise! – in
When the smoke clears, Bellamy and his gang lie dead. So too does Jephson – killed by Claire, as he tried to strangle Martin. The two of them, bloodied and exhausted but in one piece, stagger out of their refuge to confront their rescuers, and Tom learns that Helen’s instincts were right all along. He says nothing, however, but invites Martin – who introduces Claire as his wife – back to the settlement. In return, Martin offers up his store of provisions for general use. Thrilled to be safe, and to be amongst something of a society again, Martin and Claire laugh and joke – only for both of them to have the smiles abruptly wiped from their faces when Martin spies two small children playing in the street. His shock turning to joy, Martin embraces and kisses the pair, then asks after their mother, turning his back upon the stricken Claire without a word as he follows their pointing fingers. It is left to the similarly bereft Tom to put a consoling arm about Claire's shoulders, and to direct her to a different shelter, somewhere she can hide herself.
Although both the novel and the film reach this impasse, their resolution of it could not be more different. One thing that they do retain in common, however, is their language. It is notable, and rather startling, that in this post-apocalyptic world, there is no religious presence at all – and nor do any of the characters seem to feel the need of one. The restructuring of society is carried out without even a glance at the old mores and moralities; women are handed to men without debate; Martin and Claire, having slept together voluntarily, consider themselves married. But Martin already has a wife; a “real” wife.
In the novel, the public revelation of the relationship between Martin and Helen means, as far as everyone else is concerned, that Claire is available to all the other men, and she is offered the same blunt ultimatum: choose or be chosen. And choose she does, but not as any of the others expect. Incredibly, in a story that turns upon the enforced distribution of women, in which men prove themselves only too willing to fight and kill for the possession of a single woman, we are expected to believe that Martin Webster will be permitted to have two. But this is exactly how the novel – in the course of which, Martin, having ruminated upon the subject, concludes that while polygamy is an “acceptable” arrangement, polyandry is “monstrous” – resolves its dilemma, with Martin offered the prospect of a ménage à trois with warrior princess Claire and domestic goddess Helen, the two women having discussed the situation and agreed between themselves that this situation will constitute “one honour for both”.
It is debatable whether this hilarious piece of masculine wish-fulfilment comprises a better or a worse ending to the story that the one offered up by the film version of Deluge; better, I suppose, at least in some ways; at least it preserves Claire. Of course, there was no way on earth that a film of this time, even one released in the pre-Code era, was ever going to get away with even the suggestion of a threesome, least of all one proposed seriously as a workable domestic arrangement. (Which is to say, that although Ernst Lubitsch got away with it in Design For Living, that was a comedy, and comedies always were given more leeway; and besides, his film gets by on the not-exactly-credible suggestion that while the three characters are living together, they’re not sleeping together.) Here, someone is going to be the loser – and there is very little question as to who that someone will be. As in the novel, Helen is made aware of the relationship between Martin and Claire – he confesses it to her, admitting that he loves Claire, even as he has told Claire that he loves Helen – but only in the film is there a big confrontation scene between the two women as a consequence.
By one of those curious rules of movie morality, the very fact that there is a confrontation means that Claire has already lost. (In the same strange way, when Claire was talking about herself earlier, every word that made her a better and a more interesting character also made it more certain that she was ultimately going to lose out.) It is Helen who forces the issue, asking if the two of them cannot discuss the situation, and try to come up with some honest solution? Movie-Claire does not react as novel-Claire does, however. Instead she announces her intention of fighting for Martin no matter what; that she considers herself as much Martin's wife as Helen is; that she doesn’t care about Helen, or even about the children. This speech essentially serves as her epitaph. While the womenfolk are thrashing out their – and his – domestic problems, Martin has set about making himself indispensible to his new community, and soon proves to be that “someone” they were wishing for earlier, capable of taking charge and knocking the embryo society into shape. In a town meeting, Martin is formally offered the position of leader, and formally accepts. Helen then proves herself the perfect politician’s wife, clinging to Martin’s arm, gazing up at him adoringly, and offering no opinion more controversial than, “Oh, darling, I'm so proud of you!” This little scene is enough for the watching Claire, who turns on her heel and strides away, even as Martin begins to search the crowd for her. He pursues her, increasingly desperate, but by the time he reaches the water Claire is gone, her clothing left once more upon the shoreline as she strikes out towards a very uncertain future. Given what we have already seen of “the rest of the world”, it is difficult not to view this as being, one way or the other, a suicide....
And here, I think, we hit upon the true cause of Deluge’s disappearance and near-loss. Although at the time there was no such thing as television or video, many movies were released to the cinema more than once. However, from 1934 onwards, before they could be so they had to meet the new demands of the Production Code, belatedly enforced. Thus, while some films were passed uncut and some were re-released censored, some didn’t even bother to make the attempt – including, in all probability, Deluge. Barely a single aspect of post-apocalyptic life in this film would have passed the censor, from the big stuff – the reshaping of society, Martin and Claire shacking up, Claire’s possible suicide – to the small, like the amount of time Claire spends in her surprisingly brief underwear. The destruction of the world as we know it might have been an acceptable story element under the Hays Code, but don’t expect anyone to get away with a woman showing her naval.
It is a sign, I suppose, of how much faith the producers put into the ability of their special effects sequence to carry their film, that they were willing to entrust the acting scenes to a rookie director. This was the first feature film directed by Felix E. Feist, at the age of only twenty-three; he would go on to lengthy if not particular distinguished career in both film and television, one probably highlighted by the seminal Lawrence Tierney noir, The Devil Thumbs A Ride – although he also co-wrote and directed Donovan’s Brain. Feist was the son of MGM executive Felix F. Feist, which probably explains how this independent production managed to secure the services of top cinematographer Norbert Brodine, who contributes some beautiful photography, particularly during the scenes immediately following the catastrophe, and at the end. Like most disaster films, this really isn’t an actor’s movie, but without question the show is stolen by the lovely Peggy Shannon. Tragically, post-Deluge, Ms Shannon’s career, quite inexplicably, went nowhere; she became an alcoholic and died young, possibly (painful irony) a suicide. Otherwise, most of the cast is made up of second- and third-tier character actors, with the only really familiar faces here being Sidney Blackmer and Edward Van Sloan, who has a brief supporting role as the head of the Astronomical Society.
But of course, the significance of Deluge lies elsewhere, in the establishing of an entirely new movie genre....even if this is only evident in retrospect. It is fascinating to reflect how many of what we now consider the clichés of the genre put in an appearance here, right down to the obliteration of New York, that most long-suffering of cities. However, although the film was popular with the public, and a financial success, it was not immediately influential – except for those unforgettable special effects, which continued to have an impact upon cinema-goers for a full two decades after their first appearance. It would be almost forty years before the disaster movie really found its feet – and then, like the characters in Deluge, almost without warning the world would find itself completely inundated. Given the extreme rarity of this film, and that it was not made available to the public until 1989, I suppose it is unlikely that Deluge was a direct influence on the disaster films of the seventies, that decade of destruction – although personally, I like to imagine that Irwin Allen, a New Yorker by birth, caught a screening of it while still in his teens – and came away scarred for life....