Thursday, 2 May 2013

Unknown World 1951

A film with a serious purpose but fails to truly engage

  • Director: Terry O. Morse
  • Producers: Irving A. Block, Jack Rabin, Robert L. Lippert
  • Writer: Millard Kaufman
  • Music: Ernest Gold
  • Cinematography: Henry Freulich, Allen G. Siegler
  • Editing: Terry O. Morse
  • Distributor: Lippert Pictures Inc.
  • Running time: 74 minutes


  • Victor Kilian: Dr. Jeremiah Morley
  • Bruce Kellogg: Wright Thompson
  • Marilyn Nash: Dr. Joan Lindsey
  • Otto Waldis: Dr. Max A. Bauer
  • Jim Bannon: Andy Ostergaard
  • Tom Handley: Dr. James Paxton
  • Dick Cogan: Dr. George Coleman
  • George Baxter: Carlisle Foundation Chairman
  • Harold Miller : Carlisle Foundation Board Member 


Spoilers may follow....

Dr. Jerimiah Morley of the defunct Society To Save Civilization is convinced that humanity is doomed due to the inevitability of a worldwide nuclear war. As indicated in the opening newsreel, Civilisation vs The Atom, humanity has reached the “crossroads of history.” The “Atomic Age” is like a double-edged sword which, on the one hand, holds out the promise of a life of abundance, while on the other hand, offers humanity a bleak destiny as outlined in The Morley Report. Here we are presented with a pessimistic view of the future prospects for human civilisation. For Morley, the answer lies with developing a “plan to preserve civilisation.” In order to do this, it is deemed necessary to “find a temporary haven” consisting of a “geological shelter.”

Morley organizes an expedition consisting of a team of expert scientists who would all journey into the Earth’s interior in an atomic-powered rock-boring vehicle called a cyclotram which is described in layman’s terms as being “like a submarine.” The object of the expedition would be to navigate through “funnels and fissures” until a suitable subterranean environment could be found where survivors of a nuclear holocaust could keep “the spark of life alive.” It is assumed that the Earth’s interior would be conveniently honey-combed with such fissures and that it would be cooler the further you descend!

After 1 year, the project faces failure and for Morley and the team this means that, “we have no plans, we have no hope.” When the crucial government funding falls through, the wealthy newspaper heir and adventurer, Wright Thompson declares that he will personally and privately fund the project on condition that he goes along with them, “just for the kicks” of course.

The Expedition into the Unknown World Begins……

0 -100 miles:

The expedition begins from Mount Neleh (spell it backwards!), which sounds like it is situated in Hawaii, but is the "world's oldest extinct volcano" in the Aleutian Island chain off Alaska. As the explorers begin their descent, they are ominously farewelled by an erupting volcano. As they “take one last look,” is this a warning of the dangers they will face, or a reminder of the possible fate of the world they are leaving behind? 

As the group goes deeper beneath the Earth's crust, they discover a large cave, and a big plaque from the 1938 Engstran expedition. The words indicate that they managed to get this far but no farther. They assume that anyone going beyond this point would have good reason for doing so and that they wish anyone who tries to go farther, “good luck.”

100 Miles:

Dr. Joan Lindsey notes how depressed and suffocated she seems to feel. The psychological effects are explained as due to being away from contact with other people, as if the last chord tying them to humanity is being cut. Paxton believes this is rubbish and that “one strong man” can control nature. Such a strong man can take the lead and others will follow.

After a receiving a “Toxic Gas” warning, it’s discovered that Dr. Paxton and Dr. Coleman didn’t take their gas masks when they left. The others go out to find the missing men. Their dead bodies are soon discovered and they are buried “a hundred and ten miles” below the surface, which seems to be a rather striking notion for the rest of the explorers-no, I will NOT use the word, surreal!

240 Miles

Joan notices that the water level is dangerously low. Thompson negligently left a valve open and the amount of water has not only diminished but what remains is now polluted. There is now a pressing need to find water.

Later on they notice the sound of running water coming from behind a rock wall. They manage to break through, and steam pours out. Back inside the cyclotram they notice that the outside temperature has risen two hundred and eighty degrees.  After the temperature begins falling, the resulting condensation will mean that they will have water. 

Decision time soon arrives: To go on or return to the surface? After a tied vote, Joan casts the deciding vote. The expedition continues on toward its final goal.

960 Miles

The Cyclotram bursts through a rock wall and hits water which turns out to be an underground ocean.  They surface and emerge inside a vast cavern. Is this what they’ve been looking for: Flowers that crumble and fish without eyes?

While exploring their surroundings, Andy manages to slip on a slope and begins to slide down. Thompson rushes to assist by tying his rope around a boulder and lowering himself to where Andy is. As Andy starts clambering up, the rope begins to fray. Just as Thompson reaches the top, the rope snaps and Andy plummets to his death.

With morale low, the expedition members decide that they must leave this “Valley of Shadows” before it becomes their “graveyard.” To go on or return? They decide on the need to go on, “to find what we've been after.”

1640 Miles

How much further will it be to their destination?

Will it turn out that their unknown world will prove to be a “promised land” or will it just be “a haven for the dead?”

Points Of Interest

It is unfortunate that the copy of the film is of such a low quality. Hopefully someone will make use of a digital process to clean it up. As it is, the film has the feel and appearance of a 1930s production. Anyway, try to persevere with it.

The cyclotram has a great art-deco look. If the model of the cyclotram turned up on American Pickers I'd bet it would fetch a pretty good price. It also reminds me of some of the automobile designs of the early 1950s. I doubt very much that the cyclotram would be able to withstand the kind of pressure under water that would be encountered at the depth of 2500 miles. At least the interior shots of the Cyclotram give the illusion of movement along with the sounds of motors whirring. And those great labelled levers, switches and big analogue dials that were part of the technology of the time! It gives you something similar to that solid comfortable feeling you get from holding a big vinyl record LP album or an old large printed book.

There are also other suspect areas in Unknown World in terms of scientific accuracy. Temperatures would not decrease the further you descended into the Earth’s interior. In the film it stated that, "the latest body of theory holds that the inside of a sphere, such as the Earth, is cooler than the temperature at the surface." The erupting volcano in the film would certainly suggest a far more active, hotter and molten environment. Oddly enough, the conveniently gently sloping path taken by the explorers through the Earth’s crust and mantle consists of largely hollow areas containing an abundance of stalagmites and stalactites. If only! Not only that, but one of the characters declares, "The air is clear! You can take off your masks." I would be surprised that there would any kind of breathable air so far into the Earth’s interior. There would more likely be noxious odourless gasses, all of which would prove to be lethal to human beings. Still, how much more do we really know about the Earth’s interior (or the depths of our oceans for that matter!) over 60 years after the making of this film? We probably have a greater awareness of what lies in outer space. So much still remains a mystery to us, leaving conjecture, theories, assumptions and wild guesses to fill in the gaps.

We may question the accuracy of a determination that a litter of dead bunnies is an indication of possible human sterility in the environment of the cavern’s interior. However, it has been established practice to use animals in such endeavours as space exploration to determine the likely effects on human beings.

The pace of Unknown World is rather pedestrian. It is a well-meaning film but it takes itself too seriously and tends to come across as being rather dull. Too much time is taken up with just shots of the explorers inching their way deeper into the Earth’s interior, punctuated by less than gripping events. A lot in terms of entertainment value is lost in the process for the audience.

It took a long time for any of the characters to become people who possess qualities we can relate to. Towards the end of film we had earnest, dull and professional characters evolve into slightly more reflective and introspective characters who can declare such things to each other as, “I used to be afraid of death” (Dr. Bauer) “I was afraid of life.” (Joan)

Post War early 1950s handling of the issue of the role of women is evident with the portrayal of Joan Lindsay. We learn that she's both a medical doctor and a biochemist, and (Shock! Horror! Watch out!) an "ardent feminist!." So how did this beautiful, intelligent and strong woman fall for such a shallow boof-head like Thompson? Her role as a doctor and biochemist would have been a radical concept for a woman at that time. The winds of change might have been on the horizon but were slow in coming. In the meantime, it was considered prudent to stay within the bounds of acceptable behaviour. Just give a hint of what can be for now. Even today, film companies, sponsors and TV stations are reluctant to alienate audiences by pushing barriers in various aspects of life too far.  It seems that for Joan, despite her talents and intelligence, marriage, staying home and having babies may have to take precedence over her career, at least until the wind changes direction…..

We could go on and on cynically nit-picking the film’s faults. But the fact remains that Unknown World is a product of its time in terms of the themes it deals with, the degree of scientific knowledge about the world it draws on, the kind of ethical and moral viewpoints it presents, as well as its portrayal of human relationships. I think we in the 21st. century can look past these things, take note of it and then perhaps even get over it and not waste time making fun of it. Think how we might be viewed in 60 years’ time!

Unknown World serves as an allegory about the dangers associated with a global nuclear war. The question is posed, ‘what do we do about it?’ Do we take our heads out of the sand so to speak and go back to the surface and try and change the world?  Do we work together to see that such a global nuclear war never happens? Or do we run away and hide in fear, seeking our own personal haven, even though it is inimical to life?  

I find that the best way to view films like Unknown World is not to get too hung up on scientific inaccuracies or judge them according to standards far removed from the era in which they were made. I try to enjoy them using the simple “What if…...” principle. For me, Unknown World, is in the tradition of Jules Verne's novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth or At the Earth's Core by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Isn't the modern era film like, The Core part of the same tradition? What if you could journey into the earth’s interior? What dangers would you face? What obstacles would you need to overcome? What wonders might you witness? Why would you want to or need to go such a journey? What would be achieved? What would be learned? 

And so, on that note we come to the end of our look at the classic sci-fi films of 1951. What does the year 1952 hold in store for those who appreciate vintage sci-fi movies? Drop in every now and again and find out as we continue our journey through the golden age of science fiction film......

©Chris Christopoulos 2013

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