What’s crackin’?

I’ve lived long enough to see the end of the world (in whole or in part) many times over and there is enough of a selection of worst case scenarios floating around out there for me to be discriminating.  (I’m talking about movies, of course, not the real end of the world – you got that, right?)  Once upon a time, torrential floods, crumbling escarpments, the loss of a suspension bridge and some brisk, cost effective dialogue communicating an horrific but entirely unseen destruction of major cities was enough to call it a doomsday.  With the advent of computer generated imagery (CGI) over the past decade or so, it’s much easier to bring our capital cities tumbling visibly upon our heads.  We’ve  seen just about all of them go in the past few years:  New York, Los Angeles, Washington DC, London, Paris, Rome and even the mighty Himalayans have fallen in such recent films as INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996), ARMAGEDDON (1998), DEEP IMPACT (1998), THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW (2004) and 2012 (2009).  I have seen the Capitol Records building collapse, the Golden Gate Bridge snap in two and the Vatican tip over like a tailgating drunkard.  You’d think these horrific events would be burned into my memory but the truth is they kind of mush together, prompting such thoughts as “What was the one where the White House blew up?” or “What was the one where the Hollywood sign got julienned by a twister?”  In their desperation to one-up all previous stabs at the end of days, these new disaster flicks remind me of the slasher movies post-1982 and their escalating creative kills, which became a blood-and-circuses spectacle apart from the essential drama, supplanting empathy with schadenfreude and in the exchange forfeiting something real in the mad rush to be memorable.

On July 27th, Paramount Pictures, in association with Olive Films, will release on Region 1 DVD CRACK IN THE WORLD (1965).  Financed by expatriate American producer Philip Yordan as a follow-up to his earlier THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (1962), the film posits a threat to man and his environment not via a hostile extraterrestrial takeover but by dint of scientific overreaching.  An aging Dana Andrews (LAURA [1944]) stars as Nobel Prize-winner Stephen Sorenson, who is laboring with a team of fellow scientists and technicians in Tanganyika to harness Tanganyika the wealth of magma at the center of the earth as a source of limitless clean energy to provide “a life of plenty for all mankind.”  Sorenson is assisted in his quest by his loyal, considerably younger and smokin’ hot wife Maggie (PARANOIAC‘s [1961] Janette Scott) and opposed in his plan to use an atomic warhead to blast through to the magma by the equally brilliant younger scientist he once mentored, Ted Rampion (strapping Irish actor Kieron Moore, from DR. BLOOD’S COFFIN [1961]).  Ted Rampion is not only Maggie’s ex-lover and still in love with her but he also believes the atomic blast will widen existing subsurface fissures in the earth’s crust (byproducts of decades of underground atomic testing), releasing magmatic steam into the atmosphere and causing “earthquakes, tidal waves, mass destruction on an apocalyptic scale.”  Dying of cancer and fearful that if he doesn’t take the risk some other scientist will, Sorenson shrugs off Rampion’s concerns and follows through with the detonation.  At first, the s gamble seems to pay off… until the instruments at Project Inner Space begub register tremors along the Macedo Trench, a fault line that extends from the horn of Africa straight to the northwest Australian shelf.  Which is bad.

This is just a neat movie.  Although the film wasn’t intended for children, CRACK IN THE WORLD has everything a kid wants.  It has Walkie Talkies and binoculars and Jeeps and helicopters and trains and laboratories full of gauges and dials and beakers full of colorful liquids, it has warheads and flame retardant suits and explosions and lava and just everything.  Everybody in the movie works hard and is smart and good at what they do and when they die horrifically, as some do, them’s the breaks and not some snarky comment by the filmmakers that, really, they had it coming (you know, like the lawyer in JURASSIC PARK [1993]).  And all the characters really like one another, even when they disagree, even when they want to steal each other’s wives.  The characters in CRACK IN THE WORLD respect the Hell out of one another, which may seem old fashioned in this quippy day and age but the lack of narrative fat gives the film a forward momentum that never lets up from DISSOLVE TO to FADE TO BLACK.

The project originated with a story and subsequent screenplay by British writer Jon Manchip White (awesome name: agree or disagree?).  Executive producer Yordan hired Andrew Marton (THE THIN RED LINE [1964]) to direct (a helmer of small scale dramas, Marton probably made better money as a second unit director for big budget Hollywood features shooting overseas, such as A FAREWELL TO ARMS [1957], BEN-HUR [1959], and CLEOPATRA [1963]) and brought on Eugène Lourié to serve as both s production manager and director of special effects.  Lourié was a master of forced perspective (in Sam Fuller’s SHOCK CORRIDOR [1963], he had made a short corridor seem endless by placing dwarfs at the far end), a genius with glass shots and miniatures and his ideas for effects necessitated a script rewrite, which was carried out by Julian Halavey (who later wrote the script for the Yordan-produced HORROR EXPRESS [1972]).  The film’s budget was modest, with the Madrid countryside and coastal Valencia in Spain subbing for Africa and many of the film’s money shots achieved through a combination of stock footage and old school miniature work.  The effects will seem quaint or even corny to modern eyes but for those who grew up with CRACK IN THE WORLD these scenes satisfy in a Harryhausen way, as a large scale puppet show enacted before your eyes in real time… with explosions.

Mind you, the MST3K crowd can find much to chuckle at.  There’s something abjectly Freudian about the desperation of Sorenson, who is not only terminally ill but has been (we are encouraged to infer) rendered impotent by radiation treatment, to penetrate the earth’s crust because he penetrate his wife.  Meanwhile, Maggie is feeling the elemental call of nature in the desire for a baby, to maximize the nurturing potential of her own core, an itch that can only be scratched by the impossibly virile Ted Rampion.  (Let’s pause to consider the wonder of that name… Ted Rampion… it should be on a tennis racket or a running shoe.  Champion high divers should shout it as they spring off the board and knife their way to Olympic gold.  )  Midway through the film, with the crack in the earth spreading along the Macedo fault line, Ted Rampion and fellow scientist Steel (Mike Steen) guide a nuclear device into the belly of a volcano in a risky attempt to halt the crack’s progress.  During this tense scene, Marton and cinematographer Miguel Berenguer cut back to Maggie, who is listening in via wireless and biting her wrist in orgiastic anticipation as Ted Rampion descends deeper and deeper into the volcano bearing his apocalyptic payload.

Although Steel perishes in the attempt, Ted Rampion (I simply cannot not use his full name) survives and drops the bomb, which detonates and causes the crack not to stop but to double back on itself in a more or less straight line to… Sorenson.  There’s a hint of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein here, in the notion of a monster returning to its creator; stranger still is how much Sorenson resembles DR. STRANGELOVE (1963) by this point, complete with sunglasses and gloves for his messed-up hands.  At its lovelorn heart, CRACK IN THE WORLD also seems heavily influenced by Camelot (the original Broadway production had closed in January 1963 after a three year run), with the idealistic and essentially good Sorenson standing in for King Arthur and Ted Rampion and Maggie in the roles of the hormone-hagged Lancelot and Guinevere, respectively.  (This seemingly incongruous association might not be so far-fetched, as Sorenson betrays an artistic sensibility in quoting Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s “September Song” as a comment on his barren marriage.)  One of the things modern disaster movies do wrong is in trying to make their characters eccentric and larger than life when they should concentrate on making them practical.  The characters in CRACK IN THE WORLD are all practical, useful people yet the filmmakers keep them from becoming mundane via subtle bits of business that add depth and texture: the motherly way in which Sorenson smoothes back the frazzled hair of a preoccupied fellow scientist (John Karlsen from MISSION STARDUST [1967]) and how Maggie blithely uses a surveyor’s tripod as a dress dummy while preparing for bed.  You grow to like these people over the course of 96 minutes and you grieve for them when they, either by accident or grave resignation, give up their lives in the pursuit of science.

CRACK IN THE WORLD ends in an extravaganza of destruction that finds Ted Rampion and Maggie climbing (wet and tattered and looking not unlike Tarzan and Jane in their shredded khaki) out of an elevator shaft from Project Inner Space as the crack in the earth’s crust races to the bore hole where it all began and Tanganyika crumbles like pie crust. Eugène Lourié took up the entire floor space of one of the largest soundstages at Madrid’s Bronston Studios for the miniature landscape and while you won’t be tricked into thinking the fiery denouement is documentary footage, you would have to have a heart of corundum not to be impressed with the scale model spectacle.  End to end, CRACK IN THE WORLD is a wild ride, a charming bit of old school apocalyptica, and a prime example of hands-on sci-fi/fantasy filmmaking that just isn’t done anymore.  It’s great to have this gem available again via the new DVD from Paramount, looking fine and kicking major ass.

14 Responses What’s crackin’?
Posted By Greg F : June 25, 2010 11:54 am

I have seen the actual end of the world (I’m unstuck in time) but of course I won’t tell anyone when, I wouldn’t want to cause a panic. By the way, apropos of nothing, don’t plan anything for next Wednesday. Anyway…

I believe Capitol Records Building holds the record for movie destruction. I’ve seen it in Earthquake, Volcano, The Day After Tomorrow and probably fifty or sixty I’m forgetting. The Statue of Liberty may be tied for number one, or even have exceeded it, as it presents filmmakers with the opportunity to be symbolic, just like the 27 filmmakers before them. “Look, liberty itself has been destroyed! My god, I bet I’m the first one to think of that!”

Posted By Greg F : June 25, 2010 11:54 am

I have seen the actual end of the world (I’m unstuck in time) but of course I won’t tell anyone when, I wouldn’t want to cause a panic. By the way, apropos of nothing, don’t plan anything for next Wednesday. Anyway…

I believe Capitol Records Building holds the record for movie destruction. I’ve seen it in Earthquake, Volcano, The Day After Tomorrow and probably fifty or sixty I’m forgetting. The Statue of Liberty may be tied for number one, or even have exceeded it, as it presents filmmakers with the opportunity to be symbolic, just like the 27 filmmakers before them. “Look, liberty itself has been destroyed! My god, I bet I’m the first one to think of that!”

Posted By rhsmith : June 25, 2010 3:35 pm

Or filmmakers just keep doing it because they think it’s tradition, like a fake cat scare. “You gotta have it!”

Posted By rhsmith : June 25, 2010 3:35 pm

Or filmmakers just keep doing it because they think it’s tradition, like a fake cat scare. “You gotta have it!”

Posted By Vicky : June 27, 2010 3:22 pm

TCM NEEDS TO RESCHEDULE FOR JUNE 29th, 2010! That’s the date of fantasy filmmaking legend Ray Harryhausen’s 90th birthday, being celebrated all over the world at Museums and theaters, by some of the biggest names in motion pictures, including an exhibit at the Museum of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences! Come on TCM – lead the charge!!!! Don’t be left out!

There’s also an absolutely fantastic article by filmmaker David Rosler, including pictures of bronzes inside Mr Harryhausen’s home at Films In Review, the oldest motion picture journal in the United States at

http://www.filmsinreview.com/2010/06/24/ray-harryhausen-celebrates-his-90th-birthday/

Come on, TCM!!!

Posted By Vicky : June 27, 2010 3:22 pm

TCM NEEDS TO RESCHEDULE FOR JUNE 29th, 2010! That’s the date of fantasy filmmaking legend Ray Harryhausen’s 90th birthday, being celebrated all over the world at Museums and theaters, by some of the biggest names in motion pictures, including an exhibit at the Museum of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences! Come on TCM – lead the charge!!!! Don’t be left out!

There’s also an absolutely fantastic article by filmmaker David Rosler, including pictures of bronzes inside Mr Harryhausen’s home at Films In Review, the oldest motion picture journal in the United States at

http://www.filmsinreview.com/2010/06/24/ray-harryhausen-celebrates-his-90th-birthday/

Come on, TCM!!!

Posted By franko : June 27, 2010 10:21 pm

. . . wait a sec; “fake cat scare?”

Posted By franko : June 27, 2010 10:21 pm

. . . wait a sec; “fake cat scare?”

Posted By medusamorlock : July 1, 2010 2:39 am

You know how I love movies like this! I haven’t seen it in a LONG time, plus I love Dana Andrews. Of course, during my programming days I’d always refer to it as “Crack in the Butt”…

Posted By medusamorlock : July 1, 2010 2:39 am

You know how I love movies like this! I haven’t seen it in a LONG time, plus I love Dana Andrews. Of course, during my programming days I’d always refer to it as “Crack in the Butt”…

Posted By Amanda By Night : July 19, 2010 10:12 am

I love Dana Andrews too! How I’ve seen him in Hot Rods to Hell but not this, I’ll never know! This is a must see!

Posted By Amanda By Night : July 19, 2010 10:12 am

I love Dana Andrews too! How I’ve seen him in Hot Rods to Hell but not this, I’ll never know! This is a must see!

Posted By TCM's Classic Movie Blog : July 27, 2010 2:02 pm

[...] Danger (1951), Dark City (1951), Crack in the World (1965, our Richard Harland Smith wrote about it here), and Hannie Caulder (1971, which Kimberly Lindbergs dealt with here). A wholesale distributor and [...]

Posted By TCM's Classic Movie Blog : July 27, 2010 2:02 pm

[...] Danger (1951), Dark City (1951), Crack in the World (1965, our Richard Harland Smith wrote about it here), and Hannie Caulder (1971, which Kimberly Lindbergs dealt with here). A wholesale distributor and [...]

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