of grass – 1970 film
establishing himself as a reliable leading man in glossy entertainments like Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and Forever Amber
(1947), Cornel Wilde embarked on an unusual directorial career in which he turned out eight films over a twenty-year period,
each one falling into a different genre. Wilde often cast himself as the leading man, never afraid to put himself in an unflattering
light, and pulled off at least one solid hit, the grueling survivalist drama, The Naked Prey (1966), and two underperforming
but fondly remembered films, the 1963 costume epic Sword of Lancelot and the 1967 war drama Beach Red. By the time he reached
the pessimistic 1970 science fiction drama, No Blade of Grass, the brutality simmering in all of Wilde's films finally erupted
full force thanks to the increasingly lenient film ratings system and a confused studio system trying desperately to appeal
to a youth audience Still shocking by today's standards,
the film stars Wilde's wife and frequent co-star, Jean Wallace, as Ann Custance who, along with husband John (Nigel Davenport)
and their children, flees London after enduring increasingly brutal food and resource shortages following a grass-ravaging
plague. At a friend's farm in Scotland they intend to find solace but instead encounter a vicious group of bikers and average
people quickly descending to savagery. Along the way Wilde depicts the results of a pollution-bred blight on the light via
cutaways to corrupted rivers and landscapes, with Roger Whittaker's eerie theme song offering a wistful counterpoint.
and narrative experimentation were certainly nothing new to Wilde by this point, as Beach Red dabbled in wartime surrealism
long before Catch-22 (1970) and M*A*S*H (1972) made such an approach palatable, and The Naked Prey was executed virtually
without dialogue. However, No Blade of Grass proved to be quite radical even by 1970 standards; having not learned their lesson
with Zabriskie Point (1970), MGM apparently had no issue with the film's non-linear cutting and frequent split-second flash
forwards (a device utilized the same year in Dario Argento's The Cat o' Nine Tails) to convey a feeling of dread and precognition
for the audience. Wilde also continues to refine his exceptional eye for scope compositions, often filling the Panavision
frame with surprising choices in which characters intrude into view from unusual angles.
Typical of the politically
conscious climate in 1970, No Blade of Grass makes no attempts to camouflage its ecological message, discreetly tweaked from
the biological warfare gone awry concept of the source novel by John Christopher. Though reminiscent of apocalyptic drive-in
films from the 1960s like Panic in Year Zero! (1962), Wilde's vision works better as a forerunner to the increasingly graphic
depictions of future shock survivalists like Dawn of the Dead (1978, which used biker brutes to similar effect) and George
Miller's Mad Max cycle.
This bleak vision makes sense
especially when one considers the overall trajectory of Wilde's career. Born in 1915 in New York City, he earned a pre-med
degree at Columbia University and took up the study of acting with Lee Strasberg. A solid athlete, he qualified for the American
Olympic training squad in saber, a skill he utilized in several future swashbuckling roles. After a lucrative career with
Fox, he embarked on a career as a jack-of-all-trades in the film industry, serving as an independent producer for a classic
film noir, The Big Combo (1955). The film marked the beginning of his own production company, Theodora Productions, through
which all of his directorial efforts were created. "I really always wanted to direct," Wilde stated in 1970's October issue
of Films & Filming. "I constantly get stirred about what mankind does, and has done, to mankind. Throughout history. And
I think how terrible it is that in so many years of existence, man's primal ways have not changed a great deal. Perhaps they've
become more refined, but fundamentally the things that man does to man are just as terrible today as they were six thousand
years ago. What goes on in business is just as savage as on a battlefield."
One of the greatest strengths of No Blade
of Grass is its sturdy English-based cast, headed by stage and screen actor Nigel Davenport, a familiar face from such films
as Peeping Tom (1960), In the Cool of the Day (1963), A High Wind in Jamaica (1965), Phase IV (1974), and Chariots of Fire
(1981). John Hamill, who plays traveling companion Roger Burnham, soon appeared in MGM's Travels with My Aunt (1972) as well
as a clutch of early '70s horror films like Tower of Evil (1972) and The Beast in the Cellar (1971), while actor Anthony Sharp
(as Sir Charles Brenner) had a prominent role the next year at the end of another shocking science fiction film, Stanley Kubrick's
A Clockwork Orange (1971), and remains best known to cult film fans for the lead role in Pete Walker's controversial The Confessional
Subjected to perhaps the most memorably brutal scene in the film, actress Lynne Frederick made her debut in
Wilde's film and reteamed with Davenport for Phase IV, then appeared in Schizo (1976) for director Pete Walker. However, she
is perhaps most famous as the final and most controversial wife of Peter Sellers; caught in numerous public squabbles with
the actor's family after his death in 1980, she retired from acting and died from alcohol-induced complications in 1994.
No Blade of Grass, Wilde returned to the director's chair once more in 1975 for the seafaring adventure, Sharks' Treasure,
and he continued acting for television and film until 1987, two years before his death from leukemia. His penultimate film
has remained inexplicably difficult to see for many years, only occasionally turning up on the revival circuit and television
where it continues to haunt viewers with its all-too-plausible depiction of civilization brought to its knees for crimes against
Huntingdon (the gun shop) & The Lake District.
The location for the ambush
at the level crossing was Park South, about three miles north of Barrow-in-Furness. The distinctive Furness Railway signal box is still there controlling
the crossing but now overlooked by the new route of the A590 into Barrow which is carried over the valley on a viaduct.
The viaduct in the film is
very obviously Ribblehead on the Settle & Carlisle line in the Yorkshire Dales National Park - a long sequence of shots
are located in this area with the characteristic outline of Ingleborough, one the three major peaks in the Dales appearing
in some shots. You pass Ribblehead on the B6255 road from Ingleton to Hawes.
I did wonder if the ruined
mansion was High Head Castle,
near Dalston, south of Carlisle but I could not confirm this. The film does not show
the main facade.
The final sequence must be
in the Lake District but I could not say where. The quarry shot could also be at Ribblehead.
The quarry was closed then re-opened and is closed again - much to the appreciation of the National Park authority !
Producer/Director: Cornel Wilde
Screenplay: Sean Forestal, Jefferson
Pascal, based on the novel by John Christopher
Cinematography: H.A.R. Thomson
Editing: Eric Boyd-Perkins, Frank Clarke
Art Direction: Elliot Scott
Cast: Nigel Davenport (John Custance), Jean Wallace (Ann Custance), John
Hamill (Roger Burnham), Lynne Frederick (Mary Custance), Patrick Holt (David Custance), M. J. Matthews (George), Tex Fuller
Wendy Richard, remembers: “No blade of grass”
From Her biography.
I made an appearance
in the MGM film No Blade of Grass, which was produced and directed by former Hollywood star, Cornel Wilde. He had adapted
the film from a brilliant book about ecology and industrial pollution, called The Death of Grass, which was way ahead
of its time. I played Clara, the flashy, sexy wife of cold-blooded killer, Pierre (played by Anthony May). They wanted me
to wear see-through tops in the film hut I wouldn't agree, although I did concede to wearing a black wig.
The storyline was about a terrible famine which threatened
civilization. It was filmed entirely on location in London and the Lake District. We all enjoyed working in the Lake District
because it made a pleasant change to get out of London. Nigel Davenport was the star and the young female lead was played
by Lynne Frederick, who later married Peter Sellers. Lynne was only about 15 at the time and her mother, Iris, who had been
head of casting at Thames TV, asked me to look after her daughter while we were away. It turned out to be a nightmare trying
to control Lynne because she was a very headstrong young lady. I wanted to make sure she was OK but she was away from home
for the first time and was obviously intent on making the most of it!
The whole crew were lovely, especially the guys who were lighting
the film, Lee Electrics who were great but unfortunately they grew to dislike Cornel because he had no understanding of their
Cockney sense of humour. Cornel's wife Jean Wallace who, like him, had acted in Hollywood, co-starred. Jean was not supposed
to drink but one of the crew gave her some scrumpy and told her it was apple juice. Not only did she get off her head on it
but she also gave some to their small child.
Cornel was a keep-fit fanatic and would often bait Dennis,
the camera grip, who was a big guy: 'Big Den, how many press-ups have you done today?'
'About 100, sir.'
'Is that all?' Cornel would reply dismissively.
'Yes, but I do them on one hand!' Dennis would counter.
Cornell had no answer, would just swallow and walk away.
Apart from one or two ructions, making No Blade of Grass
was a truly enjoyable experience for me. As it was the last film MGM made at Borehamwood - I suppose you could say I closed
that studio down!
It was also while making the film that I met a young actor
named Derek Keller. We have remained friends to this day and indeed Derek was also part of the John Mahoney Agency who in
due course became my agent and represented me for many years. Derek also introduced me to the medium and clairvoyant, Don
Galloway, who later was to be such a help to me when my mother died.
Please note, my edition includes a rape scene which was mostly edited
from the official release.