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CRACK IN THE WORLD (1965)

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"Suppose the Masado trench splits open under the ocean? A crack a thousand miles long, bringing superheated magma in contact with the ocean…. Earthquakes, tidal waves – mass destruction on an apocalyptic scale!"
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crack.jpg (13664 bytes)Director: Andrew Marton

Starring: Dana Andrews, Kieron Moore, Janette Scott, Alexander Knox, Peter Damon, Mike Steen

Screenplay: Jon Manchip White and Julian Halevy

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Synopsis: A government team lead by Sir Charles Eggerston (Alexander Knox) travels towards Project Inner Space, a geological research station situated in east Africa. Sir Charles looks worriedly at a missile positioned on a drill tower. Dr Maggie Sorenson (Janette Scott) points out that the missile isn’t armed. Maggie takes the team down into the Central Operations area of the project, built deep in the earth. The project’s head, Dr Stephen Sorenson (Dana Andrews), is having radiotherapy on his hand when the message that the commissioners have arrived reaches him. Sorenson’s doctor tells him that he will have to cut back his treatments. Addressing the commission, Sorenson explains that the project’s aim is to find a way of using the earth’s magma core as a source of clean, unlimited power. However, having drilled almost to the core, the team is unable to go any further, and wants permission to use a thermonuclear device to blast through the final section. Sir Charles is concerned about the danger, but Sorenson, while agreeing that there is some risk, feels that it is minimal. Sorenson admits that the project’s chief geologist, Dr Ted Rampion (Kieron Moore), has severe reservations, but adds that no-one else connected with the project agrees with him. That night, Sorenson and Maggie set up camp beds in their lab, having given their sleeping quarters to Sir Charles. Sorenson gives Maggie a letter from Rampion, but she puts it aside, saying that she will read it tomorrow. When Sorenson looks concerned, Maggie reassures him that she loves him, that Rampion no longer means anything to her. Approaching her husband, Maggie tells him that she has made a decision: she wants to have a baby. Sorenson, weighed down by the consciousness of his illness, rejects her. Hurt, Maggie returns to her own bed and, with deliberation, begins reading Rampion’s letter. A few days later, Ted Rampion returns from his fieldwork to find the missile being armed. Hearing that the commissioners have been and gone, Rampion confronts Sorenson, accusing him of having gotten him out of the way. Sorenson admits it, but argues that they could not afford to have the project delayed. Rampion announces that he is going to London to present his own case, and resigns from the project. As the team prepares for the missile launch, Sorenson learns that his illness is terminal. In London, Rampion explains his theory to Sir Charles, arguing that the earth has already been damaged by underground nuclear testing, and that an explosion of the depth and magnitude planned by Sorenson could shatter a section of the planet. Impressed by Rampion’s data, Sir Charles tries to postpone the launch. However, Sorenson refuses to take his call. The missile is fired. There is a huge explosion, followed by an eruption of magma. The scientists celebrate their success. Sorenson takes Sir Charles’ call, telling him that he is too late, but that the missile shot was an unqualified success. He also invites Rampion to return. Conceding that he was wrong, Rampion agrees. Arriving back at the project, Rampion finds Sorenson explaining his work to a group of reporters. In the distance, Maggie sees an unexplained animal stampede. Checking their seismographs, the scientists find that a series of earthquakes has occurred. News comes that the city of Port Victoria has been completely destroyed. Sorenson argues that the city had a history of earthquakes. However, reports of more destructive quakes follow. Rampion points out that they are following the line of the Masado fault. Rampion takes a mini-sub to explore the region of disturbance, and finds to his horror that a fissure is opening up all along the fault line, with enormous quantities of magma pouring into the ocean. Reporting his findings, Rampion concludes that if some way cannot be found of stopping the fissure, the world as they know it may be destroyed….

Comments: After consuming nothing but junk food movies over the past few weeks, there was something immensely satisfying about settling down with a piece of serious science fiction like Crack In The World. Given that for much of its running times, the "thrills" in this story are of a purely cerebral nature, it is not, perhaps, a film that will appeal to everyone. However, I found it to be a success on the two levels where a great many science fiction films fail. Firstly, instead of the usual tendency for simplistic categorisation of scientists found in most genre films – i.e. "mad" or "not mad" – Crack In The World makes a real effort to get inside the heads of its protagonists, and to present in detail the pressures and tensions, both professional and personal, that motivate their actions. Secondly, the film is, for the most part, scrupulously accurate in its science, careful to explain itself to both its characters and its audience without talking down to them, and making perfectly logical extrapolations from knowledge to theory. Given the effort that so obviously went into the writing of this film, it is ironic, and rather sad, that Crack In The World is actually based upon false premises. This is not, however, the fault of the screenwriters, but simply the consequence of the film being made when it was. The science of plate tectonics had its origins early in the twentieth century, when Alfred Wegener proposed his revolutionary theory of continental drift. This remained, upon the whole, purely theoretical – and largely dismissed – until after World War II, when dramatic advances in sonar technology made exploration of the ocean floor possible. Investigations continued throughout the 1960s, culminating in Jason Morgan’s explanation of earthquake zones in 1968, and the general acceptance of the mechanisms of plate tectonics in the 1970s. Unfortunately for the makers of Crack In The World, these discoveries came just a few years too late. Thus, in place of the dynamic, even fluid, nature of the earth’s crust as we now understand it, the screenplay presents the crust as one solid mass, a rigid formation whose structural integrity has been compromised by underground nuclear testing, resulting in "cracks" in this previously impermeable entity. Now, I want to make it clear that I am not criticising the writers of Crack In The World; far from it. After all, you might as well criticise the writers of science fiction films of the fifties for errors in their presentation of space flight. I just think it’s a great shame that "reality" intervened so soon after the film’s production – and all the more so since that reality would have fitted beautifully into the overall structure of the film. Had Crack In The World been made even half a dozen years later, it might have been one of those rare science fiction films that succeed in theory as well as in practice.

Equalling the care with which they presented their science is that which Jon Manchip White and Julian Havely put into the delineation of their three central characters. Stephen Sorenson, in particular, is one of the most complexly motivated cinematic scientists I have come across for a considerable time. Sorenson benefits from one of Dana Andrews’ better late-career performances. Despite securing leading roles in genre films varying in quality from the sublime (Night Of The Demon) to the ridiculous (The Frozen Dead), Andrews during this time became progressively less likeable as a leading man, his performances being marked by a combination of impatience and surliness that ultimately didn’t feel entirely acted. His Dr Sorenson is no prize, either, but here the reasons for his character’s moodiness are perfectly understandable. Stephen Sorenson is a man under unbearable pressure. As a scientist, he clearly believes in his work; he detonates that thermonuclear device primarily because he sincerely thinks it is the right thing to do, that it will be a success. But this is not all that motivates him. Mixed with his dedication to his work are incentives less pure; a need for fame, for "a place in history". Further complicating the situation are Sorenson’s feelings for his much-younger wife, whose love he is not quite sure of, and whose relationship with Ted Rampion – her former lover, his professional antagonist – may not be entirely over. The desire to prove himself right and Rampion wrong is manifest in Sorenson’s conduct, leading him to the step of making sure that Rampion is out of the way when the Commissioners visit the project. Much more sympathetically, Sorenson is a dying man. He knows that his illness is terminal, and that Project Inner Space will be his final legacy to science. His time is too short to permit of delays or reassessments. If he is to have his final triumph, it must be now. And finally – and here Crack In The World won me over completely – Sorenson is a man under intense financial pressure. Regular readers will know that one of the things that I find most exasperating about science fiction as a whole is the writers’ blithe disregard of the practicalities of funding: getting it, keeping it, doing what you want versus doing what they want. Crack In The World is a rare film indeed, inasmuch it acknowledges just how much pressure can be brought to bear upon a research project by its backers. When Ted Rampion corners Sorenson and demands that the missile launch be delayed, Sorenson surprises him by agreeing with him – in theory – as a scientist. He knows perfectly well that the project really needs "one year, two years" more research; but as "an administrator", he also knows that they can’t afford to wait. If the missile launch is not done now, not done successfully, the funding will be stopped, the project shut down, and Sorenson and his entire team will be out of work. In addition, and infinitely more importantly, the opportunity to demonstrate that the earth’s magma core can indeed be exploited as a clean energy source may be "lost for a generation". It is these forces combined that lead Sorenson to quell his doubts, and push the near-fatal button…. On a much smaller scale – and usually without the involvement of thermonuclear devices, fortunately – pressures such as these operate upon professional scientists every day. It can be incredibly difficult to make funding bodies understand that science cannot always be run to a timetable; and why basic research is essential, no matter how time (and money) consuming it is. I was once funded by a company that refused to let me do the necessary number of "groundwork" experiments, insisting that I do the "last" experiment first, guessing all of the variables, and worrying about why it didn’t work if it didn’t work (which, needless to say, it didn’t). It was one of the most miserable experiences of my professional life…. We know, watching Crack In The World, that pushing The Button will lead to a disaster of biblical proportions. That we nevertheless understand just why Stephen Sorenson pushes that button, and sympathise with him no matter how utterly we disagree with him, is a tribute to the film’s writers.

Opposing Sorenson in almost everything is geologist Ted Rampion. Had this film been made ten or fifteen years earlier, Rampion’s lone wolf behaviour might indeed have declared him to be the renegade that Sorenson labels him. By the mid-sixties, however, this sort of conduct was likely to have a very different meaning; and from the moment it becomes clear that Sorenson deliberately kept Rampion from speaking to the Commission, we are able to recognise the story’s hero. The relationship between Rampion and his former mentor is thoughtfully worked out. Although in total disagreement over their work, and antagonistic towards each other because of Maggie, the two men never lose professional respect for one another: their clashes are passionate but not violent (when Rampion finally accuses Sorenson of "trying to play God", it sounds strangely out of place). Convinced that he is in the right, Rampion finally quits the project and goes over Sorenson’s head to plead his case directly to Sir Charles. When the missile launch initially seems a success, Rampion concedes defeat and praises Sorenson; and Sorenson, in turn, immediately invites him to return to work. Similarly, when the extent of his error is terrifyingly clear, Sorenson does not hesitate to denounce himself, and vindicate Rampion. Facing catastrophe, the two men are able to put all their personal differences aside and work as a team - even when Rampion is put in charge in place of Sorenson. Some viewers may find all of this lacking in drama, but personally I appreciated the writers’ low-key, realistic approach.

The third point of the central triangle is also complex, but in a much less attractive way. Maggie Sorenson does not exactly emerge from this story smelling like the proverbial roses. We see Maggie mostly through the eyes of the two men who love her, and come away feeling that she doesn’t really deserve either of them. We don’t doubt that she loves her husband; but on the other hand, we feel that what both men have to say about her "taste for success" is probably true. (At the same time, when Rampion accuses Sorenson of having sent him overseas to break up his relationship with Maggie, we feel that’s probably true, too.) In fairness, Maggie’s situation is an unenviable one. Sorenson keeps her completely in the dark about his illness, yet resents it when she is not as sympathetic as he secretly desires her to be. Terrified of losing her, he is nevertheless unable to keep himself from speaking harshly to her in front of the other team members, or from making bitter - and false - accusations. Finally, Sorenson’s treatment of his wife brings about the one thing he fears most - he loses her to Rampion. It is worth noting that all of this, too, is kept low-key, and rightly so. After all, given that we are confronted by the possible destruction of the world, it’s hard to feel that - to coin a phrase - the problems of these three people amount to a hill of beans. The screenwriters evidently agreed; and in contrast to many films (including one recently released), the romantic subplot is kept at all times subordinate to the action. The willingness of the central characters to put their personal feelings aside in the face of disaster increases our interest in them; and when Maggie Sorenson finally receives the news of her husband’s illness, while at the same time monitoring Rampion’s suicidally dangerous attempt to avert the impending catastrophe, we are able to feel for her completely. Although re-committed to each other, Maggie and Rampion pay their final dues by doing everything in their power to rescue Sorenson from the imploding research facility, nearly getting themselves killed in the process. Sorenson, however, has dues of his own to pay, and elects to go down with his project - and to continue recording data until the very end.

Some viewers may find the first half of Crack In The World to be overly talky and slow-paced - not, it must be said, an invalid criticism. However, once the disaster has actually struck, there is a steady acceleration in the story's pace and tension, as the scientists make a desperate effort to undo their catastrophic error. Here, the film's science becomes rather more speculative, but not ridiculously so. As the fault line opened up by Sorenson's missile continues to spread around the world, the scientists conceive a dangerous plan to dissipate its immense power - one involving an active volcano, a second thermonuclear device, and two infinitely brave men. As with the detonation of the first device, this second effort initially seems successful - until it becomes apparent that instead of stopping the deadly schism, they have merely diverted it. The scientists are left to confront their failure and the ultimate calamity, until to their astonishment they discover that they have in fact succeeded - but not at all in the way they planned. (That success comes more through luck than judgement is another nice piece of scientific realism!) For the film's climax, science fact finally does give way to science fiction. Nevertheless, the power of the imagery employed here makes it easy to forgive this last-minute extravagance.

The second half of Crack In The World is dominated by the special effects work of Alex Weldon and Eugene Lourie. It is a tribute to these two that while I was content enough with my pan & scan print during the first section of the film, as soon as their effects took over I found myself longing for the chance to see it in widescreen. The film is visually arresting throughout. In particular, Project Inner Space's underground Central Operations area is a jaw-droppingly impressive set. ("Now I see where all that money went," observes Sir Charles - and possibly Philip Yordan, the film's executive producer.) The crash of a train is also very convincing. However, the drill tower from which the missile is launched looks like something out of "Thunderbirds" (not that there's anything wrong with that); while displayed prominently in Sorenson's geology lab are - yup, you guessed it! - Conical Flasks Filled With Mysterious Coloured Fluids. But it is the disaster scenes that make this film truly memorable: earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides and explosions fill the screen, realised through a combination of skilful miniature work, clever lighting effects, and the unusually seamless integration of stock footage. For all this enjoyable mayhem, however, it was another brief shot that really stayed with me when the film was over: that of the scientists watching an atomic explosion from a distance of perhaps two miles, not an inch of protective clothing amongst the lot of them, just some lead glass to "protect their eyes". There is something about that scene that is both chilling and rather pathetic; kind of like watching Wile E. Coyote trying to ward off a ton of falling rocks by holding up a parasol.

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