My first exposure to the world of Nigel Kneale’s science fiction hero Bernard Quatermass came via John Carpenter. Carpenter, a huge fan of Neale’s work, credited himself under the pseudonym Martin Quatermass for Prince of Darkness. Kneale supposedly hated the tribute for various reasons but it’s an appropriate nod. Carpenter’s remake of The Thing owes as much to The Thing From Another World as it does 1955’s The Quatermass Xperiment( aka The Creeping Unknown). You can imagine a 19 year old Carpenter seeing Quatermass and The Pit, storing it away, and years later writing the similar Prince of Darkness.
Quatermass and The Pit is a great movie in its own right though. A group of construction workers stumble across what seems to be a mass grave. However, the skulls of the people look deformed. Scientist guess the skulls are five million years old. Soon they discover a strange metal object also buried. The military believes it’s unexploded German ordinance from WWII while scientist Dr. Bernard Quatermass thinks it may be an ancient spaceship. As more excavation occurs, a battle of wills takes place between scientists and the military. Increasingly strange events happen leaving the fate of the world in the hands Quatermass and his fellow scientists.
Even 55 years later, Quatermass and The Pit remains refreshingly modern. There’s an exchange early in the film between Dr. Quatermass and his colleague the paleontologist Dr. Roney.
“Roney, if we found out earth was doomed – say, by climatic changes – what would we do about it?”
“Nothing. Just go on squabbling as usual.”
The exchange is cynical but seems surprisingly prophetic given today’s struggles with climate changes. As the film progresses it becomes a thesis statement. Nigel Kneale’s script wants to believe in the optimism of the scientific advances of the 1960s. Finding the skeletons, spaceships is treated as a genuine scientific find. Still he’s pragmatic about the cyclical self destructive nature of society. When presented the impossible before them, government officials go with the sensible answer presented by one of their own. Nigel Kneale’s script earns its cynicism because society doesn’t unite against a threat. Society collapses in the face of an ancient aggressor.
Here is speculative cinematic science fiction that still seems grounded in a way other then contemporary films in the genre weren’t. I wonder if Quatermass creator and scriptwriter Nigel Kneale knew about the concept of psychogeography when writing his script. The history and location of the fictional neighborhood Hobbs End, play a major role in the story and to the horror. Kneale seems keenly aware of the effect a place has on people. This might be the rare science fiction story interested in the various social strata of country. I can’t think of another science fiction film that isn’t just working class struggling upper class or workers against management. There’s crusading scientists, stiff military men, and oblivious government ministers. There’s also clergymen, construction workers, and pub regulars. People get food from trucks and street vendors. When the attack occurs at the climax, seeing all of this neighborhood and society collapse only adds to the terror.
A through line in the film consists of the struggle between science and the military. Quatermass and his military counterpart Colonel Breen consistently argue over the purpose of science. Breen consistently argues for science as a means to serve the state while Quatermass believes in science as a purely altruistic pursuit. Yet Breen never comes across as a power mad martinet. This man exists as a Cold Warrior aware of the dangers to the state. The theory of a prehistoric alien spaceship sounds preposterous to a man who remembers Nazi bombs raining down on London. To him, a Nazi plan to terrify the country with a fake is more likely. Horrors exist for him but not of the supernatural variety despite evidence to the contrary. Breen is a man dedicated to Queen and Country.
Watching this film feels like witnessing ground zero for science fiction to come. Here is a bridge from the pulp science fiction before it to the cynical science fiction to come in the 70s. You can see John Carpenter, Doctor Who, Stephen King, and The X-Files in here. Any work of science fiction and horror that mixes the speculative with skepticism owes a debt to this film. In this film lies not just our fears of the past but also a warning to our present and future.
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