Time Magazine review: The World, The Flesh and The Devil (1959)

Monday, Jun. 01, 1959

The World, The Flesh and The Devil (MGM) is a passionately sincere, pictorially brilliant, monumentally silly example of how people who are obsessed with the race question tend to see everything in Black and White. In this instance, the audience is asked to believe that when most of humanity has been wiped out by a cloud of radioactive sodium, the three people who have managed to save their skins will spend most of their time worrying about the color of them.

The start of the film is striking. The hero, a young Negro (Harry Belafonte), is trapped by a mine cave-in. Five days later he digs his way back to the surface. "I made it!" he shouts in triumph, but nobody replies. The pit head is deserted. The town is deserted. The highways are deserted as the hero, panic-stricken, goes speeding off toward Manhattan, the nearest big city, in the first car he finds. At the Hudson River he is stopped short. The George Washington Bridge is jammed to the rails with abandoned automobiles, all arrested in a desperate plunge toward the suburbs of no return; the Lincoln Tunnel is the same.

The hero crosses to Manhattan in a rowboat with an outboard motor, wanders half insane with loneliness and terror through the enormous canceled city. "I'm alive!" he screams, "I'm alive!" But by this time he has lost all hope that anybody else is. He takes up residence in a pleasant apartment on lower Fifth Avenue, begins to make the best of his mournful immense inheritance of culture and convenience.

So far so good. But then the moviemakers feel obliged to give their black Adam a white Eve (Inger Stevens), and all at once the grand drama of humanity's survival collapses into an irrelevant wrangle about racial discrimination that has no more real significance, under the circumstances of the story, than a hotfoot in hell. Adam and Eve fall in love, but Adam refuses to accept the fact. He cannot begin a new world because he cannot forget the old; he cannot let social injustice die with the society that fostered it. At this point the moviemakers introduce a particularly amiable snake into their unedifying Eden. A cultivated white man (Mel Ferrer) wanders into town; and of course he too falls in love with the heroine.

The story falls into the predictable triangular pattern, which soon resolves into the predictable eternal question: Which boy will get the girl? In this instance, the answer is intended to answer the race question, but since Actor Belafonte's skin seems just about as light as Actor Ferrer's, the audience may justifiably wonder if the question itself is not almost academic. Anyway, black boy gets white girl—or seems to. But then in the confusing finish (which was reshot after a big front-office foofaraw), all three wander off together hand in hand—with the girl in the middle.

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