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Quatermass and the Pit (1967) (AKA: Five Million Years to Earth)

Andrew Keir as Quatermass
Quatermass and the Pit is the last of Hammer's three Quatermass films and is usually regarded as the best. The film stars Andrew Keir as the renowned Professor Bernard Quatermass, this time investigating a mysterious object uncovered during excavations at Hobb's End station on the London Underground. Workmen there have uncovered prehistoric human skulls during building work and a team of scientists is brought in to investigate the site, led by Dr Matthew Roney (James Donald) and Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley). They discover that the bones are of extremely early humanoids, dating back millions of years. But during their excavations they uncover something even more unexpected; a strange, huge, metallic object of unknown origin.

Fearing that it might be a German bomb or rocket from WWII , they call in the army bomb disposal squad, and with them comes Colonel Breen (Julian Glover) who has expertise in WWII explosives. Breen was in the middle of a meeting with Quatermass, who is his new and reluctant colleague, since the military are taking over his British Experimental Group. Quatermass tags along to the Hobbs End site, where the object is being uncovered. Breen is convinced it's a German weapon of some kind, but Quatermass starts to suspect it has extraterrestrial origins. Strange things start to happen on the site and Quatermass learns that the area has a history of poltergeists, apparitions and supernatural activity. Could they be linked to the strange object? And is the object not a bomb but some kind of space ship? And what is the connection between the object and the ancient humanoid fossils found with it?

I think I've gone about as far as I can without getting into spoiler-ish territory, because the way the story unfolds and the ideas it develops are among the film's great pleasures. Quatermass and the Pit is an intelligent, engrossing and intriguing sci-fi story with some mind-bending ideas. Professor Quatermass was a British scientist who, over the course of three BBC TV series, was repeatedly involved in alien invasions and sinister conspiracies. The first series The Quatermass Experiment, became a TV phenomenon when first broadcast in the UK in 1953, although it probably helped that there was only one TV channel at the time. Quatermass's creator, Nigel Kneale, followed up with two equally popular TV series, Quatermass II in 1955 and Quatermass and the Pit in 1958. Quatermass is one of the most frequently re-cast parts in British film and television, rarely being played by the same actor more than once. He was played by Reginald Tate in the first TV series, John Robinson in the second and Andre Morell in the third. A fourth series simply titled Quatermass was produced in the 1970s for the ITV network, with John Mills as the professor, and a 2005 BBC TV remake of The Quatermass Experiment starred Jason Flemyng.

Hammer bought the rights to the first two TV series in the mid-1950s and hired American import Brian Donlevy to play the title role in two feature film versions, The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), with the title slightly tweaked to cash in on the new 'X' certificate, and Quatermass 2 (1957). In the US they were released as "The Creeping Unknown" and "Enemy from Space" respectively. But Donlevy wasn't anyone's idea of a British scientist, and Kneale was so unhappy with his casting that he refused Hammer's efforts to secure the rights to the third story until he was safely out of the picture.

Andrew Keir and Julian Glover
By the time the film version of Quatermass and the Pit finally appeared in 1967 it was with Scots character actor Andrew Keir in the role and he is certainly better cast than Donlevy. Keir is outwardly gruff but is also intelligent, inquisitive, and more thoughtful and sympathetic than we've seen in previous films. He is convincing as a man of science, always drawn to a mystery and looking for answers, despite concern about what he might find. The rest of the cast are equally good. James Donald is well cast as the anthropologist Dr Roney and there's an obvious rapport between the two men. Donald is actually top billed here, as he had the more impressive film credits, having co-starred in Lust for Life, The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Great Escape. Unusually for this type of film, Barbara Shelley actually gets to act like someone who might be a scientific researcher and isn't just there as eye candy or a token woman. Julian Glover is suitably arrogant as Colonel Breen, although he is too young to have been involved in WWII as the film implies. Duncan Lamont gets some criticism for his part as a specialist driller who is driven near insane by his alien encounter. I think he's OK, but as I've never been possessed by an alien intelligence, I can't say how realistic his performance is.

As with the TV version, the script is by Nigel Kneale, and his screenplay draws you in and is completely absorbing, unfolding at a good pace with each development well planned. The film throws out a lot of ideas and information and expects the audience to keep up. It improves on the TV series in some ways, changing the location from a generic building site to the more atmospheric and enclosed setting of a London Underground station. Kneale's screenplay deals with big themes, including questions of evolution, psychology, extraterrestrial contact, race memory, the supernatural, ancient civilizations, racism, xenophobia, folklore, mob violence, conformity and the perversion of science by government and the military. In its interest in the possible alien origins of humanity and in the destructive nature of humans, it finds common ground with its contemporaries 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes. It's also recognisably a product of the post-WWII era and the Cold War world of Mutually Assured Destruction, but its themes can sometimes feel surprisingly contemporary, as when Quatermass tells Roney that he felt compelled to kill him “because you were different”. The film is also a classic, almost archetypal, Nigel Kneale story, in its mixing of folklore and the supernatural with sci-fi and extraterrestrials, with the hero finding a scientific explanation for events and phenomena that appear to be supernatural. Kneale would return to this theme, notably in the 1978 TV series Quatermass, and in his TV play The Stone Tape.

Original UK poster for Quatermass and the Pit
It's a totally unoriginal observation to say that some of the special effects are not up to scratch, but I'm going to say it anyway. The aliens are adequate at best and the grainy TV images of race purges on Mars look wonderfully hokey, like someone playing with cardboard cut outs. But for a fairly low budget film the mysterious object looks believably alien, the giant apparition over London is suitably other-worldly, and the scenes of chaos and destruction in London (or a small part of London) are convincing enough. There's also excellent use of sound, especially the unearthly noise when the alien ship comes to life, and the scenes of a riot of stuff moving about on its own accord are well orchestrated. The film is well directed by Roy Ward Baker, whose previous films included The October Man (1947) and the Titanic drama A Night to Remember (1958). The direction builds tension, unease and eventually a sense of palpable hysteria. The climax, with a panicked crowd, unspooling film cameras and Roney urging Quatermass not to look at the apparition looming over London, does make me wonder if Steven Spielberg had seen this before he shot the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Quatermass and the Pit didn't get much love on its initial release in North America where, like previous Quatermass films, it was retitled, this time to "Five Million Years to Earth", which sounds like someone misremembering the name of the Ray Harryhausen film Twenty Million Miles to Earth, and shoved onto a double bill with Hammer's Vengeance of She. The Quatermass name wasn't really a selling point in the US, but the original title is significant, since the pit it refers to is both a physical and a metaphorical one. (The film contains other sly allusions like this, as when the bomb disposal officer says he thinks the object "could be a Satan", ostensibly referring to a type of WWII German bomb.)

The British critics were a little more enthusiastic, and over the years Quatermass and the Pit has grown into a well regarded and influential cult favourite. The influence of the Quatermass stories is apparent in films and TV series like Doctor Who, The X Files (Kneale was asked to write for the latter) and many others. Celebrity fans include John Carpenter, who had his own stab at this genre with Prince of Darkness (1987), which he wrote under the pseudonym “Martin Quatermass”.

Quatermass and the Pit is the consensus pick as the best of the three Quatermass films and I'm happy to go along with the consensus on this one. It's not only the best Quatermass story, it's one of the most intelligent and intriguing sci-fi films of its era, and one of the best films Hammer ever made.


Quatermass and the Pit

Year: 1967
Genre: Sci-fi, Thriller, Horror
Country: UK
Director: Roy Ward Baker

Cast Andrew Keir (Professor Bernard Quatermass), James Donald (Dr Matthew Roney), Barbara Shelley (Barbara Judd), Julian Glover (Colonel Breen), Duncan Lamont (Sladden), Bryan Marshall (Captain Potter), Peter Copley (Howell), Edwin Richfield (Minister of Defence), Maurice Good (Sergeant Cleghorn), Grant Taylor (Police Sergeant Ellis), Robert Morris (Jerry Watson), Sheila Steafel (journalist), Hugh Futcher (Sapper West), Hugh Morton (elderly journalist), Thomas Heathcote (vicar), Noel Howlett (abbey librarian), Hugh Manning (pub customer), June Ellis (blonde), Keith Marsh (Johnson), James Culliford (Cpl Gibson), Bee Duffell (Miss Dobson), Roger Avon (electrician), Brian Peck (technical officer), John Graham (inspector), Charles Lamb (news vendor)

Screenplay Nigel Kneale, based on his TV series  Producer Anthony Nelson Keys  Cinematography Arthur Grant  Supervising art director Bernard Robinson  Art director Ken Ryan  Supervising editor James Needs  Editor Spencer Reeve  Music Tristram Cary  Musical supervisor Philip Martell  Special effects Bowie Films

Running time 97 mins  Colour Deluxe
Production company Hammer Film Productions  Distributor Associated British Pathe, Twentieth Century Fox (US)

AKA: Five Million Years to Earth (US/Canada title)


This review was for the Movie Scientists Blogathon hosted by Christina Wehner and Silver Screenings.


Comments

  1. Excellent look at an intriguing film. I found it genuinely creepy as a teenager, and in my later years it is still a compellingly told story.

    PS: If it weren't for the presence of Barbara Shelley, I never could have gotten the hubby to watch.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Have you seen the other Quatermass films?

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  2. You had me at "fans include John Carpenter."

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    1. Just to confirm it, the name of the town in Carpenter's “In the Mouth of Madness” is Hobb's End!

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  3. This is one of those movies that it's wonderful to discover by yourself, preferably late at night. The denouement is really scary - and unlike most alien tales, once you know the explanation, it's still scary!

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    1. That's probably the best way to encounter it, if you're expecting a typical 60s sci-fi film it can really take you by surprise. I think the finale is very effective. Even though the menace is defeated it isn't defeated conclusively, the problem will always be there.

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  4. I didn't realize there were more than one Quartermass film, none of which I've seen. However, everyone keeps saying "Quartermass and the Pit" is the best, and it certainly is the most famous. You've reminded me that I need to see this. Thanks for that, and thanks for bringing it to the blogathon! :)

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    Replies
    1. Yes, you need to see it! I hope I didn't give too much of the plot away. Thanks for running the blogathon, it's a great subject.

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  5. I've been looking for this ever since it was named as one of the "100 Sci-Fi Movies You Must See Before You Die", a book I purchased a few years ago. Still looking, obviously... Good review.

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    1. It's on Youtube, for the moment at least:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sGl2PKEFxww

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  6. I first watched it late at night and it scared the bejesus out of me. There is something very unnerving about the movie! Nice review! :)

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