If I remember correctly, I think it came to me via a list of obscure films from history that focused on either an Apocalypse or were Apocalyptic-themed. Given as much reading as I’ve done across my lifetime into genre flicks – both known and unknown – I was a bit surprised that I’d somehow missed this one. (If it did pop up anywhere along the way, then it must’ve been mentioned so matter-of-factly that I made absolutely no reference to it.) Now having watched it – thanks to the good people at Kino Lorber for providing me with a complimentary copy – I’m astounded that it hasn’t earned a bit of extra love over the years but equally understanding of why it may’ve failed to resonate: at 95 minutes, it suffers a bit by way of an overly melodramatic presentation and just not enough focus on the dire circumstances (in some ways) to earn fandom’s sometimes fickle attention. This isn’t to say it’s a bad film in any measure; it’s just a bit uneven.
Still, for those interested in seeing how deeply even all the way back into the 1930’s that Science Fiction and Fantasy elements were finding their path to the big screen, End Of The World should be a welcome discovery. It may lack the visual finesse of today’s effects-laden blockbuster disaster films, but there are still the seeds of what universally fascinates audiences about the prospect of the end of life as we know it. Earth may not wind up entirely destroyed, but it’s clear that what remains of mankind is going to be rebuilding for decades after the depicted events.
Maybe we’ll get it right the next time!
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s product packaging:
“Following the discovery of a comet heading straight for Earth, a scientist, helped by his brother, manages to unify all the nations of the world and have a Universal Republic proclaimed.”
For those unaware, there are many academics and scholars who’ve suggested – on more than a single occasion – that Science Fiction owes its cultural foundation to some 18th century ideals when writers began both imagining and developing formulas to craft the perfect society.
While I’m not among those who share such a conclusion, I’ll admit that – sure – the way these thinkers went about either proselytizing for or plotting to encourage cultural change is most definitely under the purview of Science Fiction. There are a great number of literature and film classics (Brave New World, Things To Come, Gattaca, etc.) that explore this very theme, so the inclusion of such a massive intellectual movement arguably deserves some discussion. My issue with it is that I consider it more as a subset to the broader issues SciFi has dealt with; had the efforts of any of these forward-thinkers developed beyond the planning stages, then maybe I could give it more credit. As is? Meh. Interesting, yes! But still … meh.
Also, I’ve written at times about just how often Science Fiction has gone to great lengths to explore the demise of man. Many, many, many films have tapped into that narrative zeitgeist, so much so that I’ve often wondered if there isn’t some latent programming within our core DNA which makes so very many of us flock to theatrical screenings of such tragedies. Could there have been some event in our distant past – alien intervention with the dawn of our species, or maybe even a flood of Biblical proportions – that was so widespread and significant that dormant memories lie in wait within our very cells? Certainly, something accounts for our collective fascination with extinction level events – if the box office is any effective indicator – and the conspiracist in me suspects it’s deeper than mere escapism.
1931’s End Of The World rather effectively explores this territory in two wonderful ways. The first one? Well, that’s quite obvious as a great deal of the story revolves around this comet rocketing through outer space with our planet smack dab in the middle of its path. The other one? That’s a bit more complicated.
The film opens with an accounting of Christ’s crucifixion. Men and women are gathered around the cross mourning the sight unfolding right before their eyes. Jesus calls out for a drink of water, and one Roman soldier kinda/sorta responds with a wet sponge. Eventually, the man hanging by his wrists succumbs to his wounds, and the viewer can feel the swell of emotion overtaking the son of God’s followers. It’s a solemn moment delivered quite beautifully on screen … only then the camera dollies back to reveal that we – the audience – have been treated to little more than a stage play of the revered event from our history.
Depending upon what you’ve been told (and/or taught) about the crucifixion, you may not give this protracted opening a second thought. Me? Well, back in the days of my Sunday School at the Baptist church, I remember being persuaded to look at Christ’s end (on the cross) as the end of Man. Yes, yes, and yes: Christ died on the cross so that man could live – his sacrifice meant a kinda/sorta Biblical new beginning for each of us – but the youth minister was adamant that who we were as a people came to an end in those moments. (I realize some religions attach this meaning to Christ’s resurrection, but you can’t have that without the death, so it made sense to my young mind.)
From there, End pretty much descends into a fairly routine melodramatic potboiler not all that different from the era.
Its characters come together and clash in ways we’ve seen before, and the bulk of the screen time is actually committed to affairs far more conventional than they are … erm … fantastic. The SciFi element – the looming Apocalypse – is really only a hook with which to explore an otherwise predictable yarn indicting global conflict, capitalism, and warmongering. Gance – who is largely credited with directing the piece which would become France’s first all-talking feature – achieves pretty solid results in moments big and small: his close-ups are particularly impressive – I say this as one whose exposure to films of this era is fairly limited – and the film keeps pushing forward with a great deal of pomp, circumstance, and attitude. There are even some rather lurid moments involving the unseen rape of Genevieve de Murcie (Colette Darfeuil); given that her plight is a catalyst for so many characters’ motivations, Gance gives the sequence the dramatic polish it deserves.
However, there are some obvious cultural threads that weave across End that might deserve a bit of thought.
While I can’t say what for crertain, Gance appears to be making some analogies between the treatment of women tying into the demise of man, perhaps even suggesting that such misogyny might spell certain doom. (We spend more time with the women at Christ’s feet and their observations than we do any men; and de Murcie’s deflowering – as suggested above – puts a great deal of the plot in motion.) But the fact that these women – especially de Murcie – are only circumstantially tied into their respective villain’s fates leaves me wondering precisely what I was to make of it all. Also, End gets high marks for showing that – in the face of our destruction – all governments of the world are able to come together in what we believe might be our last moment … but for what? Essentially, we create a super government – one meant to preside equitably over all – while the rich and powerful are still off in their respective enclaves living their last moments in utter debauchery, the likes of which have been rarely shown on film of this era. Again, the union of two vastly different themes portrayed simultaneously has me wondering whether the director was hopeful for our tomorrow or knew well enough to know that some don’t/won’t didn’t give a damn … no matter what.
End Of The World (1931) was produced by L’Écran d’Art. DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated by Kino Lorber under their Kino Classics label. As for the technical specifications? Though I’m no trained video expert, I thought that the sights-and-sounds to this advertised 2K restoration were quite good, especially given the age of the surviving elements. (NOTE: I’ve read online that this 95-minute version is a pale imitation of the original, which one person claims ran well over 180 minutes. I can’t speak to that, but I thought it worth mentioning here.) Lastly, if you’re looking for special features? The disc includes ‘On The Trail Of A Dream: Interviews About The Film’ that discusses the efforts to both assemble this version as well as explore some of Gance’s legacy on film.
Recommended, but …
I suspect that there’s an audience out there for End Of The World (1931), but it’s likely a bit slim. As a completed feature, I’m led to believe it’s incomplete: this clocks in at 95 minutes while others online insist the French-language original is, perhaps, twice that length. The plot moves along well enough, but, frankly, I’ll admit that there were a few sequences that kinda/sorta left me hanging (as to some specific character motivations). All involved handle the melodrama quite nicely, and the end montages – involving the catastrophe unfolding on our planet – are quite good given that they’re likely largely assembled from stock footage. A bold attempt – especially for its time and place in filmdom – but I, too, couldn’t help wondering if there were more.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Kino Lorber provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray of End Of The World (1931) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.