A Film Rumination: Five, Arch Oboler (1951)


4.5/10 (Bad BUT historically important for the sci-fi genre)

Although there are enough plot holes for glaciers and an assortment of national landmarks and buildings to waltz through, Arch Oboler’s Five (1951) is an underrated and historically important sci-fi apocalypse film.  I must admit, I picked up this film for one reason, as a historian who adores sci-fi, finding what is considered the VERY FIRST movie to deal with the aftermath of a nuclear war released in DVD is a must see.  I was expecting an abomination (i.e. some uncomfortably campy thing a la Plan Nine from Outer Space with a bad case of “look at all the people in the distance in the ‘abandoned’ ‘gutted’ city”).  Instead I was greeted by an excessively talky (mostly the pseudo-philosophical laugh inducing sort of talky) yet surprisingly dark sci-fi film for the ’50s.  Five has be overshadowed by the superior yet equally preachy and heavy-handed On the Beach (1959) helmed by Stanley Kramer.  This is a shame since so many films sprouted from the genre Five popularized.  Just remember, this was the FIRST!

https://i0.wp.com/g-ecx.images-amazon.com/images/G/01/dvd/sony/APlusDetailPages/Five/Five_4_L.jpgPlot (Spoilers!)

There are almost more plot holes than plot — if that is possible.  At least the remaining bits cluster together forming something verging on coherent.  Five people — a pregnant woman (named Roseanne), a friendly poet from New York (Michael), an African-American doorman (Charles), a racist mountain climber (Eric), and a kind elderly shell-shocked bank clerk (Mr. Barnstaple) — congregate in the mountains of Southern California near a Frank Lloyd Wright house (owned by the director) after a nuclear war.  I guess only five people in the world were climbing high mountains, hanging out in lead protected X-ray rooms in hospitals, bank vaults, or in elevator shafts!!!

Let me repeat: the ONLY five people in the world end up in Southern California on a mountain in a Frank Lloyd Wright house.  Although Roseanne lives NEARBY somehow Michael gets there FIRST from NEW YORK after a nuclear war!  I guess massive bombs remove highway congestion — but wouldn’t all the cars without drivers clog up the roads preventing speedy cross country driving?  Maybe I missed something.  Maybe the nuclear bombs were dropped at different times (but then people would hide in mines and the like protecting themselves, right?).

Since Roseanne doesn’t know her husband is alive she wanders around aimlessly in a city nearby however, she doesn’t appear to check any of the logical places and instead heads towards the Frank Lloyd Wright house.  Michael (I guess God whispered to him saying the only woman in the world would camp out in the before mentioned house) darts across the country and gets there BEFORE SHE DOES!

Whatever — ok — so, soon Michael and Roseanne are joined by a friendly religious African-American Charles who wanted to be a teacher and ended up doorman. Eventually, the old bank clerk comes along but he quickly dies of radiation poisoning.  A mini racially equal society is created on the backs of Michael and Charles who plant what appears to be corn.  However, soon a foreign racist mountain climber washes up on the beach NOT TWENTY FEET AWAY from them.  And his hokey story is revealed — he was climbing Mt. Everest and was saved from the fallout.  He wandered across Asia finding no one — took a boat to Hawaii — and flew to California and crashed in the ocean and washed up a few feet away.  Proof that there’s a God.

Well, racist Eric with a horrid accent hates Charles — and lusts after the only woman in the world (he also probably wants to create white supermen).

Oh, and did I forget — they talk a lot.  About things.  About pseudo-philosophical things.  Like, wanting to hear a water facet.

Eventually, well Eric plots to steal Roseanne away from the mini-Utopia on the pretense of finding her husband (whose skeleton she finds).  Eric kills Charles with a knife.  OH, what a relief — Eric finds out he has the radiation spots just in time before leaving with abandoned city with the last woman in the world.  The lesson I learned — racists are not immune to radiation.

And, Michael — well nice poet Michael and demure naive Roseanne do the Adam and Eve thing in the new sanctuary of the human species — a Frank Lloyd Wright house.

https://i0.wp.com/g-ecx.images-amazon.com/images/G/01/dvd/sony/APlusDetailPages/Five/Five_3_L.jpgMy thoughts

I kind of feel sorry for Arch Oboler.  Although he was one of the top-notch radio personalities of the day he was unable to gather together the actors and money for such an audacious undertaking.  Most of the acting isn’t all too bad — besides Erik — whose accent is cringe inducing.  However, I was surprised by the visual quality of a few scenes.  Although the cinematography is often painfully simplistic and formulaic, the city sequence at the end is quite horrifying and atmospheric.  The abandoned cars, the mildly shaking camera, and even the scattered skeletons create some genuine dread.

What surprised me the most about Five was its relentlessly dark tone which is VERY surprising for early 1950s films which are still reveling in the optimistic post-War environment. If not for the poor dialogue and no name actors,  Five would would definitely rank with On the Beach (which was graced with some top notch actors).

All the concepts are in place — a few survivors, the effects of a nuclear war…  Arch Oboler desperately wants to convey to the viewer how the flaws of humans WILL NOT disappear even when faced with a chance to start again.  Racism and even sins like lust will still be issues (even normally level headed and pleasant Michael is carried away by the presence of the last woman in the world, attempts to rape her).  Perhaps this is why On the Beach is considered such a classic — everyone dies — in Five, two of the three most likable of the characters live and are apparently immune to the radiation.  A happy ending was probably required for most films in that day and age but the harrowing end of On the Beach would have worked better.

My biggest problem with the film is actually its treatment of race — Charles, an African American, is portrayed on the whole in a positive light — however, the racist, Eric, kills him.  Thus, the two heroic white characters remain from the five.  Eric’s racist view of a mono racial future is a REALITY although Eric himself dies!! This strange piece of logic defeats the portrayal of the African American as a good character in the first place!

This is a daring movie which needed an equally daring delivery which is sadly lacking.

Some scenes will definitely stay with me — the last humans on Earth huddled in a Frank Lloyd Wright house is beyond hilarious…..

This is a historically important film and definitely worth watching for all sci-fi enthusiasts.  Masterpieces like On the Beach, Dr. Strangelove, Failsafe, and their ilk had to come from somewhere.

15 thoughts on “A Film Rumination: Five, Arch Oboler (1951)

  1. I think it’s called the Arch Oboler Gatehouse and Retreat (or just the Arch Oboler House)…. It was part of a much bigger complex called Eagle Feather which wasn’t fully finished.

  2. Right. Sold. I’ll have a look out for ‘Five’. Anything with deserted streets and skew-whiff motor vehicles will definitely catch my attention. But it sounds like the balance between interesting and naff does swing unerringly towards naff, unfortunately.

    Nice one, JB.

  3. It’s a public domain film, you can download it from the Prelinger Archives site.

    Eric was played by James Anderson, who went on to play the most famous film racist in history: Bob Ewell in “To Kill a Mockingbird” (Miss Mayela’s cracker dad). Poor guy. ‘Course he also played sleazebags in “I Married a Monster From Outer Space” and “The Thing That Couldn’t Die” so he left a fine body of work.

    William Phipps (the male lead) did not like this film or Oboler much, and was very vocal about it in a later interview. He felt it sermonized far too much. I agree. It may be serious, but as far as family post-holocaust survivor fims go I’d much rather watch “Panic in the Year Zero” or Corman’s “The Day the World Ended.” Or hell, even Corman’s “Teenage Caveman.”

    • Haha, yeah, as I said in the review Five is a bad excessively talky/pseudo-philosophizing film — but, the historian in me desperately wants to watch the first! Yup, I was impressed when I looked up James Anderson’s other films on imdb!

      • Thanks, I did really enjoy your review. I feel the same way about “Rocketship XM” which was the first science fiction film of the 1950’s and first post-war space travel film, and suprisingly downbeat and non-formulaic. In spite of all its holes I just love it.

        The swan song of the post-apocolyptic genre for me is “The Omega Man.” Fitting giving Charlton Heston the last word on the subject, I think.

  4. Thanks, I had fun writing it!

    I did enjoy Rocketship X-M (and the fact that they have a female scientist — although they still are not that progressive in her presentation).

    The post-apocalyptical genre is having a major resurgence — The Road was made into a film, and of course the I am Legend adaptation, and the new book Hunger Games is about to be made into a film… I haven’t read/seen anything recent that adds much to the genre though…

    • Thanks for the kind words! I had A LOT of fun writing that review…. But yeah, a historically important film but as “film” absolutely horrid. But yes, I derived a strangely perverse joy watching it!

      • I saw this film in LA, when I was 10 years old, and for me, it was the scariest movie, ever! It effected me in a negative way for years after.

  5. Joachim, I caught up with Five last year, surprisingly late since I so love the genre my friends e-mail me with obscure titles [to them] for me to see. My initial reaction was similar to yours, but damn if after 4-5 months I keep thinking about it. I liked the photography and pacing, probably because I have seen so many Mad Max-like scenarios in this genre. [SPOILERS FROM HERE ON] I thought it was pretty daring in its treatment of both race and the baby; though the black man is killed [conveniently, to eliminate the even more frightening to some suggestion of miscegenation] his death is believable in that situation, and he is the most likable character. The skeletons are a bit clean and there aren`t enough of them, but the desolation is effective. The death of the baby was pretty progressive, too. I`m not blind to its flaws, but it is superior to the 3,764 less ambitious but better-paced trashy films in this genre.

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