Thursday, 11 April 2013

Five (1951)

Historically important
  Ahead of its time

  • Director: Arch Oboler
  • Producer: Arch Oboler
  • Screenplay: Arch Oboler
  • Story: Arch Oboler
  • Music: Henry Russell
  • Cinematography: Sid Lubow, Louis Clyde Stoumen
  • Editing: John Hoffman, Ed Spiegel, Arthur Swerdloff
  • Studio: Arch Oboler Productions
  • Distributer: Columbia Pictures
  • Release date: April 25, 1951 (U.S.)
  • Running time: 93 minutes (Black and White)
  • Budget: $75,000 


  • William Phipps (Michael Rogin)
  • Susan Douglas Rubes (Roseanne Rogers)
  • James Anderson (Eric)
  • Charles Lampkin (Charles)
  • Earl Lee (Oliver P. Barnstaple)


As stated in a newspaper headline, a warning had been issued that detonating a new type of atomic bomb could result in humanity's extinction. The film’s title, “Five,” refers to the number of survivors of this atomic bomb disaster that has wiped out the rest of the human race.

The film opens with the once invincible and dependable icons of civilisation (Big Ben, Tower of London, Kremlin, Eiffel Tower) suffocating in a sea of destruction-smoke, sirens and screams. An aerial shot slowly closes in on the small isolated and exhausted rag doll figure of Roseanne Rogers as she numbly staggers in shock along the roadway in her search for another living human being. We discover that Roseanne was in a hospital's lead-lined X-ray room when disaster struck. It is almost ironic that she has been saved from death by radiation by undergoing a process that involves radiation (X-rays) which outside of controlled medical uses is deadly to humans.

Receiving no reply to her piteous plea, “Somebody please help me!” Roseanne makes her way to her aunt's isolated hillside house. Walking in upon a scene with a strangely unreal homely atmosphere, she finds that someone else is already living there. It turns out that the man, Michael, a sensitive young poet and philosopher who is glad that the “cheap honky-tonk of a world” is dead, had been in an elevator in the Empire State Building (“mighty edifice”) when the ‘end’ came. He can even recite the speech he used to give to visitors to the building which now seems utterly absurd under the circumstances. Too numb to speak, Roseanne slowly recovers. She rejects Michael's attempt to force himself onto her, stating that she is both married and pregnant.

Two more survivors eventually arrive: Oliver P. Barnstaple, an elderly assistant cashier who is in denial in that he believes he is on vacation, and Charles, an African American, who we learn wanted to be a teacher but wound up becoming a doorman. Charles has been taking care of Oliver since they were both accidentally locked in a bank vault when the disaster occurred.

Later on while at the beach, they discover a man in the water. After dragging him out, they learn that his name is Eric, a cosmopolitan Alpinist who was stranded on Mount Everest during a blizzard when disaster struck. He was making his way back to America when his plane ran out of fuel just short of land.

After seeming to recover, Barnstaple dies peacefully at the kind of place he had always wanted to be.

With Eric’s inclusion in the post-apocalypse community, the seeds of conflict and discord have been sown. Eric believes the reason that they lived was because they were immune to the radiation. He wants to search for and gather together any other survivors. Michael, however, believes that the radiation is more intense in the cities that Eric wants to search.

As can be seen from his attitude toward Charles, Eric is a racist. The fight that erupts between the two men is halted when Roseanne goes into labour. With Michael’s help she gives birth to a boy.

With hopes emerging for making a better life, it is Eric who spoils things by deliberately driving the jeep through the little community’s cultivated field, destroying a portion of their crops. Michael orders Eric to leave, but Eric resorts to a show of power and threat of violence as he brandishes a pistol and states that he will leave only when he is good and ready to.

Needing to discover what became of her husband, Roseanne accompanies Eric to the city. Eric, not surprisingly insists that Roseanne not tell Michael about this. Eric has been stealing supplies, and a fight results between him and a suspicious Charles who is stabbed in the back and killed by Eric.

In the city, while Eric is looting, Roseanne discovers her husband's skeleton in a waiting room. Eric refuses to let Roseanne return to the group and after they struggle his shirt is torn open to reveal that he has radiation poisoning.

Eric’s fate seems to be sealed. But what of Roseanne and her baby’s fate?  What about Michael? Will they ever be reunited? Is there any hope left for the fledgling little community? Or has all hope for humanity’s survival been destroyed by the fallout of its most destructive sins of violence, domination, fear, lust and greed? 

Points Of Interest

Five is the first film to depict the aftermath of a catastrophe involving fall-out from a super-atomic bomb that, with the exception of a few survivors, wipes out humanity on earth.

Remember that this film was made just over five years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that brought an end to World War II. While the film was being made the world was embroiled in the Korean War. General MacArthur proposed using nuclear weapons on strategic targets in China. Meanwhile, in the US, children were being taught to “Duck and Cover.” Since then we have had the Cuban Missile Crisis, Mutually Assured Destruction concepts, proliferation of nuclear weapons with politically unstable states having access to them and (at the time of writing) headlines screaming with the hysterical rhetoric of nuclear retribution and retaliation from North Korea. Perhaps some of our more bellicose political leaders need to see what life would be like for the survivors of a nuclear holocaust.

However, the film makes one wonder whether anything will really change  should such a calamity befall humanity. Judging from the characters’ words and actions, it seems that the failings of humanity would not magically disappear even with the prospect of being able to start afresh.  Racism, lust and all the other self-destructive human failings will probably still rear their ugly heads. Take for instance, Michael’s attempt to force himself on the last woman on Earth-and this from a fairly nice, deep and introspective character. In this study in group-dynamics, this small but diverse group of survivors face, and try to overcome a great cataclysm. While doing so they are forced to face a crisis within-a crisis of their own making where prejudice, fear, intolerance, greed and other base human instincts threaten to cause an implosion of the last five surviving members of the human race.

If that sounds pretty dark, well, that is certainly the mood and atmosphere for much of the film. The tension and sense of dread is palpable during the shooting of the city sequence as we see the image of the buildings, abandoned cars and scattered skeletons through a shaky camera lens, as we witness the emotions register on the close-ups of Roseanne’s face and hear the constant soul-shattering wailing sound of sirens.

The film Five contains characters who each symbolise different elements that go to make up our modern civilisation and community. There is something of each character that we recognise within most of us. For instance, we have the mountain climber, Eric (“I climbed Mt. Everest. I alone. Always alone.”) who represents the kind of politically ideological, dogmatic, racially intolerant, destructive and domineering fascism that left much of Europe in ruins a few years previously. Perhaps there is a bit of Eric buried within all of us with our need to have, possess and control things and people. For Eric, (and for how many other fascist-minded dictators?) the cities are there “bursting with food” ready to be plundered. Not for him the “return to primitiveness” and living by the sweat of one’s brow. He must lead others (preferably the select few of humanity who have “special immunity’) by his strength of will toward the mountain summit no matter what the human and material cost.  How many people have had to die as the “King Eric 1’s” of this world have led others in their quest to turn their “theory” into “fact” just so that they can “justify their existence?”

Then there’s the banker, Barnstaple, who represents an old-order mentality which he tries to hang on to cope with the dire circumstances. After all, “vacations are delightful, (but) one has obligations to one’s work.” It is such a mode of living that can make one want to “sleep under the stars” for “40 years” but never get to do so. It is too easy to have one’s priorities and values twisted so much that the only life that is lived is a life of lost opportunities, unrealised ambitions and unfulfilled wishes-a wasted life. For Barnstaple, and for most of us, we have always wanted to go somewhere, be something or do something but are left thinking, “I don’t remember why I didn’t.” Barnstaple is only now able to enjoy the simple pleasure of being at the beach at the last moments of his life. Only with the approach of death is he able to appreciate the value of what he has lost sight of for much of his life while dutifully fulfilling his role and function as assistant cashier.

For me, Charles represents the true heart and soul of this little community. He is like a ‘one who was blind but can now see’ type of character who wanted to be a teacher, “but lost my way somewhere I guess.” Like most of us, Charles settled for a “piece of security” with the result that, “all my life in the city and I never saw the lights.” A life of security and obligation is fine but a question inevitably has to be asked; is that all there is? Looking behind and beyond the façade to really see “the lights,” to really hear the “dripping of a faucet,” or to derive satisfaction at growing something simple like corn, helps to connect one to what is truly meaningful and important in life. We never know how important and significant such things are until we are deprived of them.

Finally, there is Michael and Rosanne. In many respects they seem to represent a kind of new Adam and Eve of a new Eden. They hold out a promise of future hope and a fulfilment of a God’s hope when He “shaped a lump of clay into his own image.” Now that a breath of life has been given to a new living soul in the form of the birth of a child, we have a sense of the possibility of a new life where people “work together, live together, like friends” and never repeat the mistakes of the past. For Michael, it could be a world where a Roseanne can be seen for who she is; a Roseanne, a person with an identity instead of being objectified and seen as being “just a woman.”

The shooting location of Five was the remote 360-acre ranch owned by director Oboler and his wife Eleanor in the Santa Monica Mountains near Los Angeles. The cliffside house used in the movie was designed by famed architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. A gatehouse and the hilltop retreat were the only buildings actually completed. The shooting location seems to reinforce the isolated (exterior) and cramped feel (interior) of the film itself.

You will soon notice that dialogue or talk tends to dominate the film, Five at the expense of action. This tends to make the film rather slow-moving, especially for many of today’s audiences who might be more used to action and special-effects dictating what happens on screen. This may not be the film for you if you have a short attention span or prefer a diet of sci -fi films where one damn thing happens after another in a universe, far, far away.

There is also far too much in the way of presenting religious messages and Biblical imagery. One can only take so much of needing to repent ones sins along with references to Eden and quotes from the bible.

Arch Oboler’s handling of the issue of racial tolerance is interesting and is probably a product of the times. For some people, Charles seems to be there largely to assist Barnstaple or help out with tending the crops. Strangely from our perspective, Charles doesn’t seem to show the kind of sexual interest in Roseanne as the other men do. He is even killed off along with any hope of passing his heritage on to any future generations! Such a scenario would have made a reprehensible character like Eric quite happy!

The depiction of nuclear war doesn’t seem to coincide with what we know about effects of a nuclear explosion and radiation fallout. In places it almost has more in common with the aftermath of a neutron bomb explosion whereby organic material is impacted while leaving inorganic materials largely intact.

Whatever the finer points are of the film Five, the one inescapable fact to be derived from it is the stark and shocking manner in which it grapples with the enormity of having to face the consequences of nuclear war. It seems that we still have a lot to learn….

©Chris Christopoulos 2013

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