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Quatermass and the Pit: Analysis and Musings - Synchronicity swirls and other foolishness

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January 19th, 2007


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02:24 am - Quatermass and the Pit: Analysis and Musings
Over the weekend we had a bunch of people over to watch the old 1967 Hammer film Quatermass and the Pit, aka Five Million Years to Earth (98 minutes long). Today, I also watched the original 1958 BBC miniseries, the three hour Quatermass and the Pit. Not unsurprisingly, I liked the more recent, color, and shorter version better, since much of the three hour version seems to be filler and set up for cliff-hangers between the 6 episodes. However, both are very similar and are far more complex than one would expect from this sort of film.

It's a story about war and evil, and was carefully designed to foreground this for the British audience that it was originally designed for. In the mini-series, when the Martian hive-mind has taken over London, viewers get an aerial view of London in flames, which are either actual footage from the WWII bombings or was designed to look identical to it. The newer version leaves out that scene, wisely in my opinion, because these scenes are no longer so instantly recognizable. Instead, we have images of a crowd controlled by the hive-mind using their psychic powers to stone to death a lone man. The stony faces and rigid postures of the crowd mirror Nazi images, while the man (who is killed because he is "different", in that he is not under the control of the hive-mind and presumably also not psychic) can potentially be read as Jewish.

However, the film also goes out of its way to assure us that this problem is far older than the Nazis and is far from limited just to them. Instead, the problem stems from human aggression, blindness, and xenophobia (very obviously) touched off by the military, or more specifically by ignorant warmongers in the military, backed by weak-willed or thoughtless government officials. In short, both versions are stories about the Cold War era and more generally about the problem of hatred and war in the modern day. The mini-series does a better job of making this obvious, with its news-clips about race riots in Britain and distant wars and similar troubles abroad.

One interesting facet of the film's attitudes about the military is while they are largely painted as far more blinded by fear and ignorance than actively evil, the final fate of Colonel Breen is to gaze in blind and worshipful awe at the Martian ship that is (in the later part of the film at least the trigger of ancient war and aggression, until he dies in manner that makes him look very much like a victim of a nuclear blast. The military is not so much villains or source of active evil as much as they are the most blind and therefore the most dangerous people, because of their ignorance and "...unwillingness to look outside their ivory fortress..."</em> to quote a line from Professor Quatermass to Colonel Breen.

The solution to war and evil is naturally enough for the era, science, rationality, and more than that a visionary willingness to look forward to a future without war, where people can explore both the interior of their minds and the solar system. This contrast is foregrounded (especially in the mini-series) by Professor Quatermass talking about of using rockets to explore the solar system and leave our old hatreds and prejudices behind us vs. the various people in the military talking about using rockets to create a Moon base armed with ballistic missiles pointed at Earth as part of an insane nuclear "dead-man switch". This is the vision of science that I grew up with and that I very much wish was far more prevalent today. Interestingly, the film also addresses religion and the mini-series does so even more with it, by having the Anglican parson present in several scenes. The spiritual power of god is largely shown to be ineffective or nonexistent and the explanations are all scientific, but the scientists are in no way hostile to religion or the religious. Instead, blind superstition is decried (especially in the mini-series) but in both religion is shown to be a source of both comfort and compassion and also a source of knowledge that is less useful than that found in science, but both not necessarily in conflict with it and also potentially useful in its own right.

Much of the attitude about religion is particular to both the era and the nation. I cannot see anything made in America either then or now treating religion in anything like this fashion – it's either the enemy of science (to the severe detriment of one or the other) or it is ignored in hopes that not talking about it won't offend anyone. However, I watched both versions and was struck by how humane, sensible, and hopeful the vision of humanity and the world was in this story. Of course, since the film ultimately deals with the problem of evil by assigning it an external source. This is a somewhat easy answer – except that while the source of evil (depicted largely as war, murder, xenophobia, and the blindness of the military) is clearly the Martians. Their colonization-by-proxy project worked to a great extent and another lesson of both versions is very much "We are the Martians now", and so the once external evil is now inside almost everyone and can only be fought by strength of will, rationality and science.

Of course, both versions are also far from idyllic from a modern perspective. The female scientist (Barbara Judd) is barely a character in the BBC version, and while she has a far more active and heroic role in the film, the attitudes found in the film are still very much the attitudes of pre-feminist discourse. She is a "sensitive" (a fact made even more obvious by her bright red hair) who is clearly quite intelligent and thoughtful, but ultimately less able to resist the Martian mental influence. Her role and her character would look much different if this film was made today by people with similarly progressive ideas.

The use of her character is also an interesting difference between the British and US versions of the trailer for the film, which are practically an education in UK/US attitudes about and in media. In the UK trailer, the cuts are longer, there is far more dialog and the focus is on a mixture of mystery and exotic horror. Meanwhile, the US trailer is impressively lurid, containing not only quite literally every special effect in the film. In addition, the cuts are far faster, there is much less dialog from the film (and the segments of it are far shorter) it is also far more focused on threats, dangers, and contains promises of various sorts of violence, including the line "Women will be defiled" with a cut to the scientist writhing under the influence of alien mind control. The differences between the trailers were simultaneously deeply amusing and somewhat disturbing. When I watched the film with Aaron, Daire, and others, Aaron suggested that one difference is having suffered far less damage in WWII, and being far more at the center of the more terrifying but also less viscerally obvious threat of the Cold War, a general sense of danger was magnified in the US, because the actuality of the danger is so much less real to most US residents. This is something that can be equally said of the inhabitants of the modern US.

In any case, definitely a film or mini-series to watch both learn more about the attitudes of that era and also for a vision of a hopeful union of peace, science, and (to a degree) spirituality that is so very much needed today.
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative
Current Music: O Valencia - The Decemberists

(5 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:diluvian
Date:January 19th, 2007 02:57 pm (UTC)
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Hello! Just dropping in to say that your posts are interesting and I like them.
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From:kitten_goddess
Date:January 19th, 2007 07:32 pm (UTC)
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"I cannot see anything made in America either then or now treating religion in anything like this fashion – it's either the enemy of science (to the severe detriment of one or the other) or it is ignored in hopes that not talking about it won't offend anyone."

These twin attitudes have allowed Dominionism to rise and take over America's religious discourse.
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From:onyxrising
Date:January 20th, 2007 12:55 am (UTC)
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Do you have this film still?
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From:heron61
Date:January 20th, 2007 01:15 am (UTC)
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Sadly no, but Movie Madness on SE Belmont has both versions in their Hammer Films section.
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From:onyxrising
Date:January 20th, 2007 01:17 am (UTC)
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And I bet Netflix has it. As my roommate now works there, and gets to take home lots of extra movies for free as a result, I'm sure we can get our hands on a copy.

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