In 1933, writers Edward Balmer and Philip Wylie wrote a pair of novels; “When Worlds Collide” and its sequel, “After Worlds Collide.” In the early 1950s, famed producer/director Cecil B. DeMille (“The Ten Commandments” 1923/1956 versions) sought to make them into a pair of movies, with only the former being made and released in 1951, under the stewardship of now-legendary fantasy film producer/director, George Pal ( “War of the Worlds” “The Time Machine”). Directed by former cinematographer Rudolph Maté, with a screenplay written by Sydney Boehm, some changes were made to the original novel, but the essentials of the story remained. “When Worlds Collide” was the first major Hollywood movie to deal with a celestial body impacting (and destroying) the Earth. Not exactly a lightweight “Flash Gordon” serial…
To appreciate the context of this movie, one has to understand that it was made in 1951; an era almost completely unrecognizable to those born in or shortly before the 21st century; there was no internet, no personal computers, no smartphones. Not even color television. Mass media consisted of radio, movies, and newspapers. Notions of gender equality and diverse representation in popular culture were practically nonexistent. Science fiction movies were still considered largely fodder for kids, though Robert Wise’s brilliant first-contact story “The Day the Earth Stood Still” proved to be a major exception. 1951 is further away from where we are now than 1977’s “Star Wars” was from the era of silent movies.
Similar-themed movies would follow “When Worlds Collide,” of course, including 1979’s “Meteor,” and 1998’s pair of killer-comet films “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon” (unpopular opinion; “Deep Impact” is, by far, the better movie of the two). However, none of these quasi-remakes would ever have the courage to completely obliterate the Earth (save for Netflix’s recent satire, “Don’t Look Up” ). Despite a few cringeworthy anachronisms for modern audiences, “When Worlds Collide” dealt squarely and boldly with a very heavy subject—the destruction of our planet. For that reason alone, George Pal’s seminal space disaster movie is a surprisingly brave film.
“When Worlds Collide” (1951)
Note: For this review, I screened the movie in a darkened room on a 7 ft./2 meter collapsible screen via an HD digital projector, in an attempt to create something resembling a theatrical experience, since I’ve only previously seen the film on smaller TV or computer screens.
The movie opens with a reading from the Book of Genesis (Noah), and the reasons behind God’s eradication of humanity. The movie then segues to the nighttime sky over a South African observatory, where a horrific discovery has been made. Cut to rogue South African flyboy/courier, David Randall (Richard Derr, making zero attempt to do an Afrikaans accent). David is in the middle of some heavy petting with a young female passenger (while flying the plane) before getting clearance to land near the observatory for a top-secret courier run.
Note: The film’s narration is provided by famed Wonderful World of Disney narrator Paul Frees, who was also a popular voice for the Rankin-Bass stop-motion animated films. The film’s opening passage concerning God’s intention to destroy the world is meant to frame the events to come, as if Bellus and Zyra are mere tools for God’s wrath.
Upon landing, David is led to the large telescope dome, where he meets Dr. Emory Bronson (Hayden Rorke). Bronson keeps the pilot in the dark about his mission, giving him part of his payment, with the other half awaiting him at his destination in New York. The pipe-smoking professor enigmatically tells David that money won’t mean much in the days ahead. With that cryptic bit of forecasting, courier David is then handcuffed to an attaché case to be delivered only to Dr. Cole Hendron (Larry Keating) in New York. Dr. Bronson gives David photographs with which to recognize Hendron upon arrival…
Note: Hayden Rorke most famously played the suspicious NASA psychiatrist Dr. Bellows in the TV sitcom “I Dream of Jeannie” (1965-1970). His role as the pipe-smoking Dr. Bronson in this film is dead-serious.
Arriving in New York, David—still handcuffed to the attaché case—is met by Joyce Hendron, the daughter of Dr. Hendron. During their taxi ride together, she seems despondent, since she already knows about the South African discovery to which David is still in the dark. At this point, all courier David is concerned with is getting the rest of his money and getting rid of the damned attaché case. That doesn’t prevent a bit of harmless flirting between them, of course, as it becomes clear that Joyce is attracted to David.
Note: A roguish pilot, only doing an important job for the money, meets a bright, intelligent woman who falls in love with him and changes the course of his life… sound familiar? There’s definitely a little it of David Russell DNA in Han Solo. Of course, the ‘lovable rogue’ is a classic archetype in myth, literature, movies, and TV.
Arriving at his destination in New York, David then meets Dr. Tony Drake (Peter Hansen), a medical doctor who’s also working on this mysterious, top-secret project to which David finds himself unwittingly involved. The amiable doctor is also smitten with Joyce, though he is unaware that David is his competition. Tony has even popped the question to Joyce, but she is reluctant to give him a firm answer, using the excuse of the imminent crisis as the reason, though Tony isn’t fully buying it.
Note: Upon meeting Tony, the ‘doctor’ offers David a cigarette. After decades of seeing smoking relegated to villainous or otherwise ‘edgy’ antihero characters, it’s a little jarring today to see otherwise ‘normal’ characters in a movie simply lighting up, let alone a healthcare professional. Of course, this was 18 years before Surgeon General warnings became standard on all cigarettes sold in the United States, where the bulk of the movie is set.
The case is then delivered to Dr. Hendron, who is verified by David using the photos given to him in South Africa. Working with Dr. George Frye (Stephen Chase), the somewhat brusque Hendron takes the contents of David’s case without removing it from his wrist first, promising that he will later, but time is of the essence. Soon Hendron and Frye examine photos from the observatory using a blink comparator to observe the movement of two new objects that have entered our solar system; a large planet (mislabeled as a star in the movie) named Bellus and its Earth-sized companion named Zyra. From the data, confirmed by other observatories around the world, it’s clear that within 8 months, Bellus will impact with Earth, as its smaller companion Zyra, injects itself into Earth’s orbit—theoretically. Soon, the news goes public and a meeting at the United Nations is held. While some countries are skeptical, the United States announces ambitious plans to build an evacuation rocketship to Zyra, carrying a few dozen passengers, along with livestock and other supplies.
Note: The ark spaceship is indeed an ambitious and audacious idea. Bear in mind, this movie was made some ten years before the first human being, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, ever flew into space. That’s like announcing the building of a commercial jetliner a few years before the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kittyhawk, North Carolina, in 1903.
With no time to waste, the ark spaceship project is seeking investors, and wheelchair-bound millionaire industrialist Sydney Stanton (John Hoyt) offers to fund most of the project—in exchange for guaranteed passage on the ship when it leaves Earth. He tries to negotiate for exclusive rights as to who will join him on the flight, but Hendron talks him down to just his seat, and nothing more; rightfully pointing out that Stanton isn’t qualified to select which talents and skillsets will be needed for the flight. Without leverage, a bitter Stanton reluctantly agrees to Hendron’s terms for his money. Once skepticism passes and the crisis becomes imminent, other nations announce their own plans for evacuation spaceships as well.
Note: The notion of other arks was an important point in both the 1933 novel and its sequel, “After Worlds Collide” (1934) as multiple ark spaceships left Earth for “Bronson Beta” (in the book Bellus and Zyra were called “Bronson Alpha” and “Bronson Beta,” respectively). Once settled on Bronson Beta, the various factions of colonists began their old East/West rivalries anew, with a Soviet-Sino faction spying on the US/UK faction. Glad we didn’t see that, as it would make the whole idea of a fresh start on a new world seem pointless. The movie, perhaps for budgetary reasons, focuses exclusively on the United States’ spaceship.
From concept to reality, we see project leader Stanton’s vision for the massive rocket taking shape. The ship will be launched on a long, gradually inclining track, using powerful boosters to push the craft into escape velocity. Once in space, the rockets will be turned off to conserve fuel, using momentum to carry the vehicle into Zyra’s gravitational pull, where the rockets will be reignited for a controlled landing on the planet. The rockets are individually test-fired, as well. Staying on with the spaceship team, former courier pilot David familiarizes himself with the craft’s controls and becomes an invaluable member of the project, as well; much to the jealousy of Joyce’s beau, Tony…
Note: Over the course of the movie’s middle act, we see the spaceship’s outer skin and other details being applied over the craft’s airframe. Some truly amazing miniature effects are employed to realize this massive construction project for the film. While dated by modern standards, there is a tactility to these admittedly antiquated effects that makes them more tangible, somehow. It’s no surprise that the movie won two Oscars in 1952 for Best Visual Effects and Best Cinematography.
While the love triangle between Joyce, David and Tony begins to heat up, Joyce confesses to her father that she’s fallen in love with David. While her own seat on the craft is reserved (as is the seat for medical doctor, Tony), she want her father to pull a few strings to ensure that David gets a seat as well. He tells her that he already has, since he’s aware of her growing feelings for the charming pilot.
Note: I realize that this is supposed to be a tender moment between father and daughter, where he acknowledges that, despite their emergency, he still wants what’s best for his little girl. However, all I see is blatant corruption and nepotism by a project manager to ensure that his daughter gets a nice cozy spot on the ship for her flyboy lover. Yes, the formerly shallow and self-centered David rises to the challenge during this crisis, but wow—this is a clear abuse of privilege by both Joyce and her father.
As Bellus draws closer, the scientists predict a severe earthquake from its gravitational influence at precisely 1 pm. 1 pm arrives, and Stanton grows increasingly skeptical, incensed that he may have blown his wealth on a massive false alarm. However, shortly after 1 pm, a massive earthquake rocks the entire complex. David and others rush to place metal support beams beneath the unfinished spaceship to keep it in its berth. During the effort, one of the scientists is crushed to death by a falling crane. Meanwhile, Stanton is made a firm believer. Later in the film, we see Stanton’s ‘loyal’ assistant, Herold Ferris (Frank Cody), growing sick and tired of pushing the wealthy older man around. To everyone’s surprise, Ferris then draws a gun and demands a seat on the rocket. His boss coolly pulls a small pistol from his coat pocket, and shoots the man dead.
Note: End of Ferris’s drama. Next?
As the red celestial body of Bellus looms larger and larger in the sky, its gravitational effects begin to wreak havoc upon Earth, with coastal cities like New York City being completely looded. We also see freshly activated volcanoes and fault lines, too. As the few remaining months turn to days, work on the rocket continues round the clock. Meanwhile, pilot David and medical doctor Tony team up for helicopter runs in order to drop aid packages for those people left stranded by natural disasters.
Note: The Oscar-winning miniatures of destroyed cities, earthquakes and volcanoes are truly spectacular, and would be used in other productions as well, including Pal’s later films of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” and “The Time Machine.”
During one such run, they spot an orphaned young boy on a roof, his house surrounded by flooding. As the chopper hovers over the rooftop to rescue the boy, the doctor takes the controls as David grabs the child and places him aboard. Once the child is safe, David looks on incredulously as Tony seems to be leaving without him (!). After a few seconds, Tony circles around and picks up David as well—later admitting that he was tempted to strand his rival for Joyce’s affections. With the death of the scientist earlier, the project coordinators realize they have enough room aboard the ship for their new evacuee “Mike” (Rudy Lee), as well as a pregnant dog Mike adopts at the base. David and Tony later resolve their triangle with Joyce, as Tony graciously concedes when he realizes that David’s feelings for Joyce are as genuine as hers are for him. The best man won.
Note: Nice to see a love triangle in a movie maturely resolved without a fistfight, or some other contrived melodrama—this is highly unusual for a movie made in the 1950s, or even today, for that matter. Tony’s decision to step aside is commendable, even if the characters and their love triangle aren’t very well-developed within the movie’s scant 82 minutes.
With only days left until Bellus collides with Earth, the final group of passengers for the ark spaceship are to be selected by lottery, with everyone receiving a single token. A couple at the base are heartbroken when they realize they’ll be separated, with the girlfriend of the engineer being left behind. Unwilling to go without her, the man returns his token as well. Somehow, someway, space is made and sentimental Dr. Hendron allows the young man to take his girlfriend with him. While pilot David assumed he would be left behind, his newfound best bud, Tony, informs him that the copilot of the spaceship has a previously undetected heart condition that may prove critical during the increased g-forces of their ascent. They need David to fly the ship, since he’s the only experienced pilot available, and since he’s familiar with the ship’s systems. David is grateful to his former rival, as he fully expected to sacrifice himself for the good of the others.
Note: I fully realize that this movie is a product of the 1950s, and that modern sensibilities for racial diversity and representation clearly didn’t apply to this movie’s all-white casting. However, it’s downright horrifying to think of all the culture, experience and history that Hendron and his team are killing off with their own shortsighted eugenics preferences. I think it’s foolish of Hendron’s team not to allow greater diversity into their shallow survivor gene pool. Diversity within a given ecosystem or genome is always healthier. End of rant.
It’s Day Zero. Bellus will collide with Earth and the spaceship must be launched. Provisions and livestock are hurriedly loaded onto the ship for immediate departure. The animals will be sedated to ensure that they don’t freak out during the violent forces at work during launch. With Bellus’s bright red coloring casting a crimson glow over the landscape, the passengers are hurried aboard the spaceship, as random earthquakes and windstorms continually rattle the launch rail complex. As the last of the passengers board, copilot Dr. Frye offers to wheel Stanton aboard the ship, per their original agreement. However, Dr. Hendron steps in and offers to take the old man aboard himself, while Frye and the others strap in for liftoff. The countdown is almost up, as the ship’s launching railway begins to buffet. With no time left, Hendron double-crosses Stanton, telling him that there’s no room in the new world of Zyra for old men like themselves. Adrenaline surging through his frail body, the atrophied Stanton attempts to stand up from his wheelchair, but it’s too late. The spaceship is pushed onto its launch track, and liftoff begins…
Note: I don’t disagree with Hendron’s decision to double-cross Stanton, since the lost weight of Stanton and his wheelchair affords a bit more fuel for the spaceship to ensure a safe landing at Zyra. However, once again, Hendron is playing god; deciding who lives and who dies. Sure, it’s arguably best not to waste fuel on two older men who aren’t long for this (or any) world, but it’s Hendron assuming that responsibility all by himself (with no oversight whatsoever) that bothers me. He’s already proven vulnerable to corruption by allowing his daughter’s boyfriend a seat (well before David proves his worth). I wish the movie showed Hendron partnering with others before making these draconian calls, such as condemning all persons of color in the United States to certain death. Okay, so I’m not over Hendron’s insane practice of eugenics—in many ways, the seemingly pragmatic Dr. Cole Hendron is also the movie’s greatest villain.
Once the railway gives the rocket enough momentum, the main engines are fired, and the craft achieves escape velocity. During the pressing g-forces of the ascent, the passengers and pilots lose consciousness, as expected. The ship’s automatic controls allow the craft to continue on course until the pilots revive. David and Frye awaken, and turn off the ship’s engines to save fuel. From this point on, they will be coasting towards Zyra, until they are caught in the planet’s gravity well.
Note: While the mass of a large rocketship being able to reach Earth escape velocity (25,000 mph/11.2 km per second) almost entirely on momentum from a track launch with boosters is questionable, I bear in mind that all spaceflight was theoretical at the time of this movie’s production. Even the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, was six years away. That said, the science of this 72 year-old movie is arguably more sound than a pile of hot garbage like Roland Emmerich’s recent “Moonfall” (2022).
On the spaceship’s main viewer, the passengers are witness to the sight of Earth’s final moments, as the monstrous gravity of cosmic interloper Bellus reduces our home planet to a mass of glowing embers. With Earth gone, Zyra is now the only chance left for the survival of the human race…
Note: While I admire the movie telling its epic story with such brevity and efficiency, I also wish that some scenes and moments in the film were allowed a bit more time to breathe, such as the destruction of Earth itself. This is a powerful moment that deserved a few mournful words from the mouths of our characters. Instead, the characters treat this as just one more incident along their one-way star trek to Zyra. Earth, the cradle of all life that we know of, deserves better.
As they start to feel the gravitational tug of the blue-white world of Zyra ahead, David and Dr. Frye turn on the engines to slow their descent into Zyra’s atmosphere. When fuel runs dry, David opts to glide the ship in for a manual landing on the rocky, snowy landscape below. Finding a smooth patch of snow in a valley between mountains, David and the others brace for impact. Friction with the snow slows the careening spacecraft, and they stop.
Note: The Oscar-winning effects shots of the spaceship crashing nose-first into the snows of Zyra would be homaged many times in various science fiction movies and TV shows, such as 1978’s Battlestar Galactica (“The Gun on Ice Planet Zero,” Part 1) and Star Trek: Voyager (“Timeless”).
With the human (and animals) alive and well, David wants to open the main hatch in the belly of their ship right away, and explore their new world. However, Dr. Frye and Tony want to take samples of Zyra’s atmosphere first, to ensure that it’ll support human life. David points out that whether the atmosphere is safe or not, it’s the only atmosphere they have. Point taken. The hatch on the ship’s underbelly is opened, and the crew (along with goats, and other animals) gingerly descend the ramp to face their first dawn on the new world. As the sun rises over a green and fertile landscape in the valley beyond, we see traces of former habitation as well, such as a grouping of perfect pyramids, and what appears to entranceways carved into a hillside structure. David and Joyce embrace, as they write a new chapter for the human race (a point reiterated by another passage from the Book of Genesis).
Note: Our view of Zyra’s green fertile valley beyond the snowy landing site is a rare, less-than-successful piece of matte artwork by famed astronomical artist Chesley Bonestell (1888-1986), whose work I greatly admire. Unfortunately, the painting is not one of the better examples of Bonestell’s illustrious movie production artwork. In the book “The Art of Chesley Bonestell” (2001, by Frederick Durant and Ron Miller), it’s revealed that the final shot of Zyra’s landscape was originally an unfinished color sketch that was mistakenly rushed into use as the final shot; either for lack of time, budget, or both. The ‘green valley’ artwork was painted in a wide aspect ratio, and then panned across by the camera to simulate the perspective of characters gazing across the landscape. Its simple lines give it an unfortunate cartoonish appearance that is not typical of Bonestell’s work.
Summing It Up
Granted, a lot of caveats have to be made for modern audiences watching “When Worlds Collide” today; the sexist, racist, and ethical standards of the time might easily turn off younger viewers who would be well-advised to think of the movie as a time capsule from a very different era. Things may not seem terribly evolved then, but nor are they today. I guarantee in twenty years (or less), we will see more than a few pop-culture historians addressing the unenlightened standards of this decade.
While the generally two-dimensional characters of the movie exist as little more than heroic game pieces, the actors generally fill their roles well enough, particularly the roguish, Danny Kaye-lookalike Richard Derr and the Scrooge-like John Hoyt, playing a younger prototype for The Simpsons’ “Mr. Burns.” Visual effects and miniature work still contain fleeting moments of grandeur, despite their antiquity, and the bright Technicolor cinematography is still quite vivid, if not as imaginatively executed as George Pal’s later films. The movie’s Oscars were deserved.
I prefer to think of 1951’s “When Worlds Collide” as a time capsule of how the post-World War 2, early Cold War generation believed they would stare down the end of the world itself—with unity and grit. In that sense, the humans resettling on Zyra are less a second Book of Genesis, and more a metaphor for post-war American optimism, as exhausted soldiers returned to rebuild their lives in what they imagined to be a postwar paradise waiting for them back in the States.
One wonders if the magnificent new paradise on Zyra would, in a few centuries, lead the colonists right back to the same sort of world (and excess baggage) they’d left behind…?
Where To Watch
“When Worlds Collide” is currently available to stream on PlutoTV, and can be digitally rented/purchased on PrimeVideo, YouTube and iTunes (prices vary). The movie has also been recently reissued on a Paramount Blu-Ray double-feature with 1953’s “War of the Worlds” and is available for purchase on Amazon.com.