Friday, 22 March 2013

When Worlds Collide (1951)

Overall, Quite Good

  • Director: Rudolph Maté
  • Producer: George Pal (See my tribute to George Pal)
  • Written by: Sydney Boehm
  • Music: Leith Stevens
  • Cinematography: W. Howard Greene; John F. Seitz
  • Editing: Arthur P. Schmidt        
  • Release date: August 1951
  • Running time: 83 minutes


When Worlds Collide began life as a six-part monthly serial from September 1932 to February 1933 and as a 1933 science fiction novel both co-written by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer.


  • Richard Derr  (David Randal)
  • Larry Keating  (Dr. Cole Hendron)
  • Barbara Rush (Joyce Hendron, Cole’s daughter)
  • John Hoyt  (Sydney Stanton)
  • Peter Hansen  (Dr. Tony Drake)
  • Alden Chase  (Dr. George Frye, Dr Hendron's second in command)
  • Hayden Rorke  (Dr. Emery Bronson)
  • Frank Cady  (Harold Ferris, Stanton's assistant)


  • David Randall, a skilled pilot is paid to deliver some mysterious and secret information from one esteemed astronomer to another astronomer, Dr. Hendron
  • Hendron confirms the sender’s shattering findings that a planet called Zyra, orbiting a sun called Bellus, will enter our solar system. The sun, Bellus will collide with the Earth and bring about human civilisation’s end.
  • a UN body is informed that the world is about to end, and that the only hope for humanity’s survival lies with the construction of a rocket-ship to send a select few (40) to the planet Zyra as it passes. The urgent information about humanity’s fate is met with by the response that there “is no cause for alarm.”
  • We learn that two philanthropists pledge to help Dr. Hendron finance the building of this rocket ship that hopefully will take them to the planet Zyra, assuming that it is habitable for humans.
  • Sydney Stanton, a cynical and bitter wheelchair-bound old man puts up the rest of the money, provided that he is taken on board the rocket ship.
  • The problem is that only so many passengers and only so much cargo can be accommodated on the rocket ship, not to mention that the countdown is on for the approach of doomsday! Will this modern-day Noah's ark save what remains of humanity from total extinction When Worlds Collide?........


Points Of Interest

Even though the film, When Worlds Collide was made (at the time of writing) 62 years ago, it does remain relevant to the concerns about potential threats to humanity’s existence in the 21st. century such as global warming; earthquakes and tsunamis in the Indian Ocean and Japan; devastating floods in England and Australia; Hurricane Sandy in the US; meteors hurtling across the sky and blasting out windows in Russia and more.  With such events seeming to occur with greater frequency and impact, our minds tend to become more focussed on the rather precarious nature of our existence. Even on a more personal and individual level, as we continue on our journey through life, we eventually come to the realisation that the number of days that lie ahead of us will be far fewer than the number of days that lie behind us. The important question then for civilisation and for individuals is how do we meet the challenge presented to us by our inevitable mortality, the impermanence of any civilisation and the transitory nature of our existence? The characters in the film, When Worlds Collide, find that circumstances have forced them to consider such a question head on as the countdown is on to the end of the world. In the film we see aspects of ourselves as we witness people……

At their very worst:

In the film we see people acting selfishly, not caring about anyone else's survival, and merely just looking out for Number One. For instance, Stanton bankrolls the whole rocket ship project not due to any sense of altruism on his part but rather as a means of buying his own survival. Here we see a man used to “weighing the percentages,” who doesn’t “deal in theories, only realities” and who views civilisation as merely being governed by the principle of “dog eat dog” and the “law of the jungle.”

We also see reason being replaced by fear and desperation as the work crews question “Why should our lives be decided by a raffle?” and attempt to gain entry to the rocket by means of mob violence. Would we act differently if we were faced with such a threat to our very survival?

At their very best:

The worst possible state of affairs can also bring out the best in people. In When Worlds Collide we see examples of self-sacrifice whereby characters find themselves forced to decide between saving their own lives or opting for something more ethical, moral or just more important than life itself.

The rather blatant but understandable attempt by Dr Hendron to rig the lottery so that his daughter and future son-in-law, David can get a seat on the ship, manages to produce a dilemma requiring an ethical and moral decision to be made by David. We know earlier that David did not succumb to the offers from “Donovan from the Sentinel.” So some kind of moral framework is being established here for which we can forgive him his obvious past philandering and womanizing ways. Hendron did “stretch the point to include” David who according to David himself would be little more than an “aerial taxi driver.” David’s sense of ethics therefore won’t allow him to go along with Hendron’s decision.

As was mentioned in the film’s synopsis, acts of selflessness were shown when the two philanthropists pledged (with no strings attached) to help Dr. Hendron finance the building of this rocket ship. Another such act, but on a more personal and emotional level, was Doctor Drake’s convincing David to go on the flight, even resorting to deception by stating that, “if Frye doesn’t make it, you’ll be in command of the ship.” Of course, there is nothing medically wrong with Frye! Despite Drake’s involvement with Joyce Hendron, he places the happiness of the woman he loves above that of his own feelings and desires. If her happiness lies with being with David, then he’ll be the one to make it happen.

Placing their lives in perspective:

Money, material possessions and all those petty concerns and conflicts no longer seem so important when faced with the inevitability of total annihilation. For example, following from Bronson’s earlier comment that a “day will come when money won’t mean anything,” we see David Randall in a nightclub contemplating a dollar bill. Knowing that it soon will be of no use to him, he decides to light a cigarette with it. This one action demonstrates how aspects of life that were once taken for granted and were seen to have been important no longer matter when faced with a threat of such magnitude as the one being faced by the film’s characters.

The petty conflict developing between David and Dr. Drake over Joyce Hendron is soon seen by both of them for what it is. Just as they are about to come to blows, the radio operator merely has to turn up the radio’s volume where they hear an urgent plea for more penicillin. Without anyone having to saying anything obvious, they both come to their senses and focus on what is important. Even a bit later when both men are rescuing a young boy from a rooftop, it seems as if Drake is about to leave David behind. However, he quickly circles back in the helicopter and picks David up. It seems that there are far more important things in life than petty jealousies and rivalries in the face of the devastation around them.

There are times when even one’s personal life and survival is a secondary concern when faced with the prospect of losing something or someone who is more important than life itself. An example of this is young Eddie deciding to stay behind with his sweetheart, Julie Cummings rather than taking his place on the ship and possibly living life without her. Fortunately, it worked out well for both of them.

Seeking spiritual strength:

When faced with the prospect of death and total loss of everything, it is no surprise that we learn in the film that never have people “felt so close to God.”

Reflecting on what one’s life has amounted to, wondering what will happen when we die, thinking about whether or not there is an afterlife and so on. Such thoughts probably occur to most of us at some stage in our lives and probably more so for many people when faced with the prospect of inevitable and imminent extinction. Only a select few in the film can be physically saved. The rest of humanity must cling to some hope of salvation after the Earth’s destruction, even if it is in the form of faith in humanity’s rebirth in both a spiritual sense and as a species.

There are of course some aspects to this film, When Worlds Collide, that tend to detract from its finer qualities. Among them are;
  • A rather ageist view that no senior citizen can possibly be useful to a new society. As Dr.Hendron stated, “This new world isn’t for us.” Have we really changed our perceptions as to the worth and value of our older citizens significantly since that time?
  • An awful representation of the planet Zyra. Just look at it. Words are not needed.
  • A mixed collection of special visual effects ranging from a convincing interior room shot during an earthquake through to disaster-type stock footage. Some scenes look convincing but others plainly do not.
  • Suspect science even for the times. For example, human beings and much of everything else would have been vaporized from the star Bellus’ heat long before being hit by it.
  • Overdone parallels with the biblical story of Noah and the Great Flood complete with quotes from The Book of Genesis, a craft being constructed to take the chosen few to safety, livestock being led in to the ship two by two, ethereal music and on it goes.

©Chris Christopoulos 2013

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