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Movie–The World, The Flesh and the Devil

It’s not my intention to post a lot of entries regarding films here, but I burned away a couple hours this morning watching this film on TMC and found myself with some lingering thoughts. The World, The Flesh and the Devil feels like a take on I Am Legend although it hit theaters 48 years earlier in 1959. In the older film, we have a lone man, Ralph Burton, played by Harry Belafonte, surviving technological holocaust and living a peculiar life in Manhattan. Eventually he runs into Sarah Crandall, played by Inger Stevens, who prances around town looking awfully fresh and lovely despite all the carnage that has gone before. In time, this pair is joined by Ben Thacker (Mel Ferrer), and we all know where this is going. The World, the Flesh and the Devil has no hordes of light-fearing zombies to keep at bay. No, the real problem is how do two men deal with one woman. The writers tried to make this an enlightened race film, but that pretense seemed pretty feeble. When you’re the only two (or three) people on earth for all practical purposes, then race becomes a fairly irrelevant matter right away. It all gets very primal as the story reaches its crescendo. Evil Ben–or maybe he’s just misunderstood–grabs a rifle and starts shooting at Ralph. Ralph gets his own rifle and shoots back. They sprint all over Manhattan, magically moving from the U.N. headquarters to the financial district in just seconds. But they had to go to the U.N., as Ralph finds himself standing in front of the scripture quotation about beating swords into plowshares from Isaiah 2:4. A statue with that theme had been given to the U.N. by the Soviet Union in 1959, so the theme was fresh, I suppose.
In front of those words, Ralph bravely tosses down his rifle, dashes to Wall Street (several miles) and confronts the still-armed Ben. After one wild shot, Ben cannot dispatch his rival, eventually collapsing and saying, “If you’d been scared, then I could have done it.” As the movie closes, Ralph and Sarah wind up together, joining hands and then calling Ben to join them. The trio then strolls up the deserted canyons of lower Manhattan with the words “The Beginning”–get it? It’s not “The End”–superimposed over them.
The word that jumps into my mind at the conclusion of this film is “facile.” This is “the beginning,” eh? What’s going to happen next? Are the love triangle problems going to magically disappear? Will Ben and Ralph share Sarah? And before that, there’s the facile aspect of Ben throwing his rifle down. Yes, the Bible does prophesy a time when people will beat swords into plowshares, but there’s another passage, Joel 3:10, that reverses that process. There are times, it seems, when violence is the only answer. When a person is firing a deer rifle in your direction would be such a time. Frankly, it would have served Harry Belafonte’s character right if Ben had just blown him away.
If I were to draw a larger conclusion from this film, it is that valuable literary productions are not reductive. They embrace the messiness, the paradoxes, the contradictions of human life. Once the bullets started flying in this production, all subtlety and nuance went out the window, leaving us with something treacly and soon to be forgotten.

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