Created by Nigel Kneale, Professor Bernard Quatermass came to symbolise across print, radio, television and cinema the forces of rationalism in the face of catastrophe. Quatermass provided a steadfast voice of reason amidst the delicate balance of terror that characterised cold war strategy. He propounded an “atoms for peace” policy at odds with the prevailing bellicosity, seeking scientific solutions to social problems; his was a post-war optimism that was already beginning to dissipate in a miasma of antagonism. The cinematic adventures of Quatermass hinge on a recurring conceit: the world order Quatermass and his ilk have striven to create by initiating the atomic age is disrupted by an outside force which shakes the assumptions that underlie their worldview, and science finds itself grappling for answers.
The opening shot of The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) offers a brief glimpse of the world that is about to be irrevocably altered, as a young couple gambol across a field before a mysterious craft lights up the sky and crash-lands. The craft is identified as part of the Rocket Group Quatermass is leading, with the objective of lunar colonisation. Quatermass dreams of forging a new empire in the stars, of restoring British prestige by exploring “a whole world out there, a wilderness, uncharted.” In order to give the Quatermass films more international appeal, this quintessentially British character was played by an American, Brian Donlevy, a strange decision which caused considerable consternation. Donlevy makes for an oddly incongruous presence, trading his hard-boiled delivery with various mannered British government mandarins. But his presence does lend an intriguing subtext to such interactions, with Quatermass coming to stand for an ascendant American empire that sees beyond the provincial concerns of timid Whitehall bureaucrats who stand in the way of his ambitions.
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When the doors of the crash-landed craft are opened, only one member of the three-man crew emerges, Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth); the other members have disappeared, only their spacesuits remain. It is clear that something dramatic is happening to Carroon; his skin and bone structure are mutating, taking on an almost reptilian aspect. Carroon’s body has become a vector for an alien constituency that will “destroy, possess and multiply at will.” Yet those closest to Carroon cannot see the transformation that is occurring before them. The Quatermass Xperiment is a tale of human emotion at odds with biological reality: it is Carroon’s wife, Judith (Margia Dean), who unleashes the creature by sneaking Carroon out of the hospital, while a pharmacist (Toke Townley) tries to alleviate Carroon’s pain, and pays for his concern with his life. Quatermass resides at the other end of the emotional spectrum: he tells Judith “there are no personal feelings in science,” that “some people have a mission” and their death represents a form of secular martyrdom to the cause of scientific endeavour.
Quatermass is an eccentric antihero who presages Doctor Who in his singular disregard for established mores and the niceties of procedure; he refused to wait for “official sanction” before launching the rocket, reasoning that “every experiment is a gamble.” Quatermass is protective of scientific ideals to the exclusion of all else, operating at a curious distance which permits him to observe “what a way to invade the Earth,” almost in admiration of the creature’s ingenuity. But he is equal parts Victor Frankenstein; there is an allusion to such in a scene involving Carroon’s encounter with a young girl (Jane Asher); and Judith blasts Quatermass for his heartless focus when she tells him: “You destroyed him like you destroy everything you touch.” There is an ongoing colloquy in The Quatermass Xperiment about the bounds of science and the place of faith; this largely occurs via Quatermass’s collaboration with Inspector Lomax (Jack Warner), who describes himself as “a plain, simple Bible man” and regards Quatermass and his “world of knowledge” as a dangerous challenge to the comfort of his beliefs. It is no coincidence that the creature is vanquished in Westminster Abbey.
But Quatermass has no time for penitence; he is as relentless in his objectives as the alien forces he combats; he vows to “start again,” nothing will to stand in the way of progress, further sacrifices will have to be made on the altar of science. His ambition to create a British moon colony is once more being stymied by Whitehall bureaucrats in Quatermass 2 (1957), which takes the first film’s uniquely British amalgam of Ealing comedy and Universal horror and twists it into a conspiracy thriller. Following a string of meteor showers, Quatermass stumbles upon a “secret project” to create “synthetic food” at a mysterious plant that has suddenly sprung up in the wilds of Winnerden Flats. The “meteors” are found to be “some sort of container” for “a corrosive compound of ammonia” which leaves “the mark” on all those who come into contact with them. Quatermass uncovers an alien plot to bring about “the mass destruction of men’s minds” through the invasion of the nervous system, which has “infected people in high places.” The disease becomes the distinguishing mark, the carriers are the vanguard for the next assault, and the “rocket man” must confront what he has set in motion.
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Where the characterisation of officialdom had been relatively benign in the first film — with Lionel Jefferies providing comic respite as a harassed Ministry official — this view has darkened considerably in Quatermass 2. There is a small but revealing moment where the camera pans across the Thames, beginning with a brief shot of the MI6 building (though it was not officially recognised as such); it is a sort of Easter egg which points towards the backdrop of cold war escalation in which Quatermass finds himself. Science has become subservient to the demands of the military-industrial complex, his dream of peaceful exploration has been trampled under the wheels of geopolitical exigency. The film’s denouement exhibits a burgeoning class-consciousness, when the residents of the housing development who work at the plant rise up against their paymasters and occupy the controls. It is not a singular scientific mind but mass action which sets the conspiracy’s demise in motion; science once again becomes tied to the common good, freed from the machinations of competing blocs; the force of the rocket has been redirected, and redeemed. It is an acknowledgement that mere expertise is not enough; a lasting progress requires a unified front, a collective effort. The rocket becomes a monument to science’s restorative capacity.
In line with the Hammer house style of the era, Quatermass and the Pit (1967) is a more lurid take on Kneale’s television serial. Quatermass 2 ended on an optimistic note, with a hard-won solidarity between experts and workers, but the old divisions have resurfaced in Quatermass and the Pit. This version of Quatermass (now played to ornery perfection by Andrew Keir) has a more pacifist bent, lamenting his “early career” and reflecting a growing anti-war consciousness; he hopes that we may “leave our vices behind, war first of all.” Yet he is still entrenched within the system, at odds with the military brass in the form of Colonel Breen (Julian Glover). The crisis of Quatermass and the Pit is one of self-perception. The discovery of “the thing in the pit,” the apelike fossils and the seemingly indestructible craft exhumed from the mud, strikes at a fundamental understanding of ourselves. There are fresh, unconscious territories to be explored, it is a moment for reflection and humility, yet the military immediately seeks to find a terrestrial enemy, to place it within their tactical imperatives. Quatermass is engaged in a quest for Occam’s razor; he must separate myth from fact, when either eventuality has cataclysmic implications; the scientific credo Quatermass holds dear finds itself brought into uneasy alignment with “myth, magic, even witchcraft.”
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Quatermass and the Pit sought to strike a chord with the questioning spirit of the 1960s (there is even some broad critique of the media spectacle, with one viewer of the craft’s public unveiling commenting that “people don’t believe nothing unless they’ve seen it on the telly”). But for all his avowed iconoclasm, Quatermass remains a firm proponent of technocratic hierarchy; the film seeks to position scientists as cosmic dissidents, breaking with millennia of clan brutality. It falls upon the great minds of science to stand above the rabble and save it from itself. The military and academia are merely competing branches in the campaign to contain “public alarm”; their quarrel is over methods rather than objectives. The population are overdeveloped apes at the mercy of a superior extraterrestrial intelligence, but “some are immune, some few.” It is one of the denizens of this “ivory fortress,” the palaeontologist Roney (James Donald), who crosses the Rubicon and blends recondite knowledge with folk myth; “the compulsion to save the colony” takes hold, and he sacrifices himself in order to destroy the ancient “imps and demons” whose malign spirit has haunted us for thousands of years. Quatermass and the Pit posits that there are certain dark quarters into which science cannot stray, that a degree of “phenomena badly observed” must be tolerated to keep hysteria at bay.
Quatermass has averted manifold disasters, but the opening narration of the 1979 television serial The Quatermass Conclusion informs us that “In the last quarter of the 20th century, the whole world seemed to sicken. Civilised institutions, whether old or new, fell… as if some primal disorder was reasserting itself. And men asked themselves, ‘Why should this be?'”
D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.
Categories: 2020 Film Essays, Featured, Film Essays
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