Monday, 18 January 2016

Beginning of the End (1957)

An enjoyable limited budget "big bug" movie with a better than average cast


Directed by Bert I. Gordon
Produced by Bert I. Gordon
Written by Fred Freiberger, Lester Gorn
Music by Albert Glasser
Cinematography Jack A. Marta
Edited by Aaron Stell
Distributed by Republic Pictures, Peter Rodgers Organization
Running time: 76 minutes


Cast



Peter Graves as Dr Ed Wainwright
Peggie Castle as Audrey Aimes
Morris Ankrum as Gen. John Hanson
Than Wyenn as Frank Johnson
Thomas Browne Henry as Colonel Sturgeon
Richard Benedict as Corporal Mathias
James Seay as Captain James Barton


Beginning of the End is about an agricultural scientist and entomologist, Dr Ed Wainwright who is conducting research into the growth of gigantic vegetables. Somehow locusts have managed to come into contact with radioactive elements used in Wainwright’s research and as a consequence have grown to enormous size. The locusts are poised to attack the nearby city of Chicago unless some way is found to stop them.


Trailer



Spoilers follow…..

Just outside of the sleepy little American town of Ludlow Illinois, a young couple are necking in the front seat of a car, when suddenly some unknown force wrenches their eyes away from each other to stare skyward, transfixed by some unseen menace seemingly baring down towards them…….






Little are we surprized when shortly after …

  1. A couple of police officers receive a “984 – 2…. foul play suspected.” 
  2. McKenzie of the State police finds a girl’s blood-stained sweater. 
  3. An urgent call goes out stating that “The whole town’s destroyed…send help, lots of help, quick!!






Enter newspaper photojournalist Audrey Aimes who accidentally drives up to an army road block set up to prevent entry into Ludlow which, as she will learn later, has been inexplicably destroyed and where all 150 inhabitants of the town are now mysteriously missing. It also transpires that the local fields are barren, as if a swarm of locusts had descended and consumed all the crops.

Aimes, who works for the National Wire Service, is armed with her stock in trade – her camera – but finds that she has slammed into a wall of obstruction upon which the words, ‘No information forthcoming’ are plastered.






When Aimes attempts to take pictures a little later on, an army Sergeant suddenly swoops in from off-screen and confiscates her camera.


Could it be that the military is attempting to cover something up? If so, what? 

Why would it be necessary for all traffic to be “routed around the Ludlow area?” 

And what is “Special Order ‘Able 6’?


Aimes is not just some “dame” or “broad” who can be easily fobbed off. After all, she has worked in Korea during the Korean War and before that she was well acquainted with the German cities of Colon and Berlin in the aftermath of the Second World War. This is a woman who has had experience with “some things you never get used to.”

In the mind of the local military, Aimes’ credentials are quickly and firmly established and she is able to cut a deal with them whereby she’ll be provided with information as long as she agrees not to print it just yet. A bit like having the media being embedded with the military as a means of controlling the flow and nature of information which we’re unfortunately accustomed to these days.

Aimes is informed that “there was a town beyond that road block – a town that’s not there anymore.” In addition to the town’s demolition, she also learns that the entire population of 150 souls has vanished.

Testimony from a local by the name of “Dave” informs the investigators that the sound of something like thunder or a plane going overhead was heard at the time.

Next, a lady called “Edna” confirmed that the phone lines went dead sometime between 11.59 pm and 4.45am.

So far, the available evidence could almost be taken from the page of a book on mysterious UFO incidents. When confronted by such strange and inexplicable occurrences, what other course can our Western rationalist sails set us on except to head for the safe harbour of the “logical explanation.” After all, a “town of 150 people doesn’t just disappear,” does it? Well, “this one did!”




A possible explanation seems to be presenting itself when Aimes conducts a bit of independent investigative work using the resources of her National Wire Service. She soon establishes that a commercial airliner had flown over Ludlow at the time of the incident. She also leans that there are no atomic installations nearby. However, there is a Department of Agriculture Illinois Experimental Station in the area that conducts atomic research work. Ah Ha!

Aimes decides to pay a visit to the nearby United States Department of Agriculture Experimental Station to learn what might have caused the local agricultural devastation.

Upon entry to the facility, Aimes is confronted with unnaturally oversized tomatoes and strawberries, an assistant by the name of Frank who is a deaf mute and an off-screen entry from the Director Dr Ed Wainwright who scares the living daylights out of her. Wainwright’s comment that “working with radiation can be dangerous” serves to explain and tie all these elements together while confirming and playing on the fears the audience may have concerning the dangers of atomic power.

Dr Ed Wainwright is experimenting with radiation as a means of growing gigantic fruits and vegetables in order to end world hunger. He states, “this we hope is the future for the American farmer.” However, it turns out that it is proving difficult to keep snails and caterpillars from getting into the facility. If they can gain access, what else could? The scientists also have to contend with public perceptions of their research as being geared toward producing “just freaks of nature.”





The (stock footage) scenes of destruction that Aimes later witnesses and records are akin to the aftermath of an F5 tornado and seem to provide ample evidence of the negative consequences of humanity’s scientific and technical progress.

A number of mysterious incidents have occurred nearby, and locusts have also been eating all the radioactive wheat that was stored in a grain silo.

Aimes requests that Wainwright take her to the warehouse that had been previously demolished. When they, together with Wainwright’s assistant, Frank arrive, they are confronted by the sight of a series of overturned enormous grain silos. It was as if “some force had to push these walls out from the inside.” Not only that, but the ground in the vicinity appears to be “completely 
barren.”





Suddenly the explanation for these mysterious events announces itself in the form of a high-pitched rasping twittering sound, followed by the looming and menacing appearance of a giant locust which together with its brethren have managed to consume all the crops in the area.



The locusts have expanded their culinary preferences to include human beings and the giant locust accordingly dispatches the “Columbo” TV detective lookalike, Frank.

We now move from Wainwright’s scientific “cause and effect” approach to an aspect of the military mind that considers that if something looks and smells like horseshit, it probably is and whether it is or isn’t, it should be blown up anyway! So naturally National Guard Colonel Sturgeon disbelieves Wainwright’s explanation that locusts must have entered his facility which led to the current situation they are faced with. For the unimaginative colonel, this is just another incidence whereby people report having seen “flying saucers and weird little green men from Mars.”

In a scene reminiscent of the film, Alien2, the military boys traipse back to the warehouse location. In Alien 2, the grunts view their mission as being little more than a bug hunt and are not convinced by Ripley’s warnings. In this scene of Beginning of the End, the soldiers’ attitudes can be gauged from their banter:


“Give us nets instead of rifles.” 

“Grasshoppers are good eating” 
“Mustard or Ketchup?”




In a marvellous piece of irony, one of soldiers jokingly warns, “Watch your step or you’re liable to get eaten.” Right on cue the strange high-pitched sound is heard followed by rapid close up shots of individual soldier’s fear-riddled faces. The scene closes with the soldiers in full retreat futilely firing their rifles at an advancing enemy consisting of a host of six-legged merciless and ravenous locusts

It is clear that the Colonel has “never come up against an enemy like this before” and his only response to the situation is to “wipe out every last one” of the locusts by the application of even more of what has already proven to be ineffectual. It seems that we don’t learn very much as political and military leaders in our own era persist with such simplistic solutions to complex and intractable problems that require a measure of intelligence and imagination.

In Beginning of the End, it is apparent that “the country’s in danger if these locusts break out of the forest.” It is clear to Wainwright that what is at stake is complete……



“Annihilation – The beginning of the end.”



The first thing to do is to communicate the seriousness of the situation and present the facts as they are known. With this in mind, Wainwright and Aimes head off to Washington. At a meeting with the military brass, Wainwright shows a film as part of a presentation covering the known “facts” about Locusts and the part they have played in human history since biblical times, including the 1956 Australian locust plague and how the Massachusetts Bay colonists chased the locusts into the sea.





Gen. John T. Short: Dr. Wainright, you're a scientist, you know what grasshoppers can do. I'm a soldier, I know what guns can do.


Despite Wainwright’s efforts to persuade the top brass to act, it is felt that the “Illinois National Guard can handle the situation.” That is, until a call is received from Paxton Illinois informing them that the locusts have broken through the defence line……..

Later on, while on board a plane, General John Hanson, Wainwright and Aimes receive news that “giant locusts have overrun Paxton at 14.00.” The plane now heads for Chicago.




The locust threat is soon being tackled by the use of powerful insecticides but even this measure does not slow them down. The monsters are poised to invade Chicago.

Chicago Chronicle
Chicago Next?
Illinois Death Toll Mounts
As Locusts Advance

Eye-Witness Account
By Audrey Aimes


Machine guns – Ineffective!
Artillery fire – Useless!
Insecticides – Futile!
Enemy’s numbers – Overwhelming!

Has the time finally come when……

“The beasts shall inherit the Earth?”

Find out if you dare by watching;

BEGINNING OF THE END!








Points of Interest


Hot on the heels of the success of big monster films such as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and giant insect films like Them! Beginning of the End helped to firmly establish a clearly identifiable sub-genre of science fiction films in the 1950s.




Taking into account the average cost of the AB-PT (American Broadcast-Paramount Theatres) pictures at time being around $300,000, the budget for a film like Beginning of the End would seem to be ridiculously small when compared with films like, It Came from Outer Space $532,000, Them! (almost $1.000.000 and War of the Worlds $2.000.000.



Director Bert I. Gordon provided the special effects for the film and largely worked out of his home garage. The use of animated grasshoppers was rejected due to cost. Instead it was decided to employ split screen, static mattes, and rear projection effects for the film. Gordon also used live locusts which were placed on still photographs, and were encouraged to move by blowing air at them.

200 non-hopping, non-flying, live grasshoppers were purchased in Waco Texas and could only be imported into California for filming when state agricultural department officials had counted, inspected and determined the sex of each one. Only male locusts could be imported in order to prevent the possibility of breeding.

While the insects were kept in a box for a few days, they collectively decided it would be a good idea if they set about devouring their fellow inmates. Only 12 locusts were left when Gordon began shooting them!




Cost factors ruled out the construction of miniature buildings for the hoppers to climb on. Instead, still photographs of various Chicago landmarks were used upon which the hoppers crawled around. Whenever we see a locust being wounded or killed by gunfire, the photograph was simply tipped allowing the creature to slide down it. Occasionally a locust was filmed scuttling off a building and stepping onto apparently thin air!

You’ll notice that the good old informative film as was used in Beginning of the End was a device that became a staple of sci-fi films in the 1950s. It was used as a means of adding some credibility to the proposition being put forward in the film: Giving the term “science” a leg-up as opposed to the “fiction” element. Remember the Woody Woodpecker film in Destination Moon and the documentary-style film in Tarantula?

Beginning of the End uses a very simple dramatic and cost effective technique in which much of the action happens off screen. What we learn is conveyed by means of a telegram or via interviews with those involved. Shakespeare employed the same technique in his plays and often relied on the audience’s imaginations to fill in the details. How different to today’s cinema where every technicoloured, 3D’d and Hi-def. imagination-cleansing detail is thrust into our faces and merely awaits to be topped by the next big multiplex box office hit.






As mentioned earlier, the lead female role played by Peggy Castle largely portrays a strong woman who is (at least so for the era) respected as an equal by most of the male characters. Even when one of the military types sees a good opportunity to ask her out, she simply ignores his overtures and presses on with the matter at hand. There are no 21st Century-style politically correct social media cries of sexism and misogyny or calls for heartfelt, hand-wringing public apologies and immediate court-marshal / dismissal. Aimes is a strong professional woman whose extensive experiences allow her to be able to handle such situations with ease and without fuss. One amorous military man’s ego deflated without a word needed to be spoken!


End Thoughts

Beginning of the End revisits that recurring bogeyman of 1950s sci-fi movies called “atomic power.” Friendly atoms for future peace and plenty or evil mushroom cloud of darkness enshrouding an irradiated and mutated future destiny?

How similar does the Frankenstein-like scenario of Beginning of the End seem to be to our own modern era’s fears concerning scientific developments in areas such as genetic engineering of crops, animals and human beings, as well as research into viruses and bacteria. Both fields of research may provide benefits to humanity but they could also prove to be disastrous for humanity’s survival should the subject and by-products of such research escape our ability to contain and control them. Not to mention deliberate misuse!






This leads us to a consideration of an interesting dilemma faced by our civilization. In Beginning of the End, the locusts invade Chicago. As a last resort, General Hanson decides it is necessary to give the order to obliterate the threat posed by the locusts (along with Chicago) by use of an atom bomb. Ed Wainwright, however, discovers a way to use technology to reproduce the high-pitched noise of the giant insects in order to lure them into the water. Here we have a situation whereby our civilisation’s progress depends largely on scientific advancements, which in turn may create potentially disastrous consequences for our very survival which then necessitates further scientific advancements to remedy the situation! Science: Saviour or self-sustaining industry?

Be afraid....Be VERY afraid!




Locust Fact File





“Locust” is the name given to the "swarming" phase of short-horned grasshoppers.

Locusts;

  • Are generally between three to six inches in length
  • Breed rapidly under certain conditions
  • Can become migratory
  • Swarm as adults
  • Can fly for 15 hours at a time
  • Can travel great distances (They’ve been known to fly from Africa to England!)
  • Are able to rapidly strip fields and damage crops 
  • As individuals can eat their own weight in plants every day
  • As a swarm can eat up to 400 million pounds of plants each day!


The largest known swarm covered 1,036 sq km (400 sq miles) and was made up of 40 billion insects.

The swarming behaviour of locusts is a response to overcrowding and is triggered when their hind legs are increasingly stimulated. All it might take to induce swarming is just several contacts per minute over a four-hour period.

The humming sound made by locusts is produced when they rub their legs and wings against their body. They can hear this sound through ears located on their abdomens.

How can you distinguish between a male and a female locust? Males have a boat-shaped tip at the end of their abdomen, while females have two serrated valves that can be either together or apart and may be used when digging the hole in to which she will deposit her egg pods.









(The Real Threat)








©Chris Christopoulos 2016