Civil unrest as a deadly virus spreads across the planet. Citizens fleeing large cities in panic as travel restrictions are enacted. Rationing enforced as society begins to crumble. Governments not to be trusted. One may think this is a routine news update in 2020 amidst COVID-19, but it’s actually the basis for No Blade of Grass. Released fifty years ago on October 23, 1970 (U.S. release date), No Blade of Grass was uncompromising in its harsh assessment of where humanity is heading.
The title song at the beginning of No Blade of Grass, sung by Roger Whittaker, grimly sets the tone:
“No Blade of Grass grows and birds sing no more. No joy or laughter where waves wash the shore. Gone are the answers, lost all we’ve won. Gone is the hope that life will go on. No fragrant springtime and no autumn gold. Summer and winter, the heart now grows cold. Dreams that we lived for all have to go, gone with the dawn that we’ll never know.“
No Blade of Grass is a British-American film depicting an upper middle class family on the run for survival. While firmly rooted in English sentiments, the film was produced and directed by an American, Cornel Wilde. Debuting on Broadway in 1935 and subsequently achieving fame in Hollywood as an actor during the 1940s, Wilde later made his mark as a director. Cornel Wilde may best be remembered for producing, directing, and starring in The Naked Prey (1965). No Blade of Grass, based on the 1956 novel The Death of Grass, by John Christopher, is an ambitious adaptation addressing both ecological catastrophe and personal morality in the midst of societal breakdown.
The plot of No Blade of Grass deals with a deadly new virus which affects all types of grass and grains, thus depleting the world’s food supply. The disease originates in Asia, and folks in London quickly realize the extreme measures governments are taking overseas will inevitably be employed in England. Martial law ensues and anarchy follows. There are rumors cities with starving masses will soon be nerve gassed. Architect John Custance (Nigel Davenport), and his spouse Ann (portrayed by Cornel Wilde’s wife and frequent collaborator, actress Jean Wallace) gather their family and escape London as hungry rioting mobs take over the streets.
No Blade of Grass is as relevant today as when it first premiered fifty years ago. The film challenges viewers on two levels, morally and environmentally. The first Earth Day occurred worldwide on April 22, 1970. No Blade of Grass arrived that same year. Severe environmental issues, still being dealt with today, were on the forefront of debate at the dawn of the seventies. Cornel Wilde threw everything into the apocalyptic stew, extending beyond the boundaries of the novel. Stock images of overpopulation, urban sprawl, and factories spewing contamination are starkly presented for viewers to digest. The virus, which is decimating wheat and grazing fields, is determined to be a result of pollutants and pesticides. Dead livestock and wildlife are witnessed along the way, a result of being infected by diseased grass. Prophetically, even global warming is mentioned by one of the two young children on the journey, reflecting upon Earth’s grim future, “The Earth’s climate is getting warmer because all the pollution in the air keeps the heat in, and the polar ice cap will melt and everybody will be drowned. And then that’s enough of the Sun’s rays will get through now so everything will die anyway.”
Bleak is a word which accurately describes No Blade of Grass. Unrelenting bleakness. John Custance, subtly yet intensely played by Nigel Davenport, is determined to get his family to his brother David’s (Patrick Holt) farm in the Lake District. David has shifted crop production to potatoes, which are currently unaffected by the virus, and has offered his land as a safe haven for John’s family. This is the only sense of hope within the film. Location filming in rural England (Cumberland, Westmorland, and Yorkshire) provides a perfect backdrop, as the urban travelers are quickly fending for themselves far from the immediate chaos of London.
No Blade of Grass was a precursor of ecologically dark and dystopian cinema that helped define the decade of the seventies and beyond. It’s not perfect and critics will certainly call out exploitative elements. This argument is debatable, however, as a similar scenario in the real world most certainly could produce the same horrific results. The film, as with the novel, takes itself very serious. Unfortunately, the erratic soundtrack, composed by Burnell Whibley, doesn’t always rise to the same level.
No Blade of Grass contains an extremely graphic multiple rape in which Ann Custance and her teenaged daughter, Mary (Lynne Frederick), are victimized by a biker gang. Portions of the controversial rape scene were cut in various versions throughout the years. In addition, the gun becomes the new law of the land as quickly as society’s laws disintegrate into chaos. Viewers will find it difficult to catch their breath, as the film exudes a sense of playing out in real time.
If society’s rules would indeed break down under extreme conditions in a fight for survival…each of us would have to make moral choices. The character of John Custance is portrayed as a military veteran with a strong will to persevere. He loathes killing, but is resigned to it in order to protect his own family. Along the way they encounter Pirrie, expertly played by Anthony May. This is a man of questionable morals who offers his services to the family on their quest across the Lake District. Pirrie has no qualms about killing for survival. In former times, he’d likely be avoided as a loose cannon…but in a fight for life, he becomes an asset to the group. The family soon realizes it’s kill or be killed, with no time to contemplate morality. John Custance and Pirrie, maintaining different philosophies in the old world, now find themselves allies in the new world.
This writer will share a personal reflection from the perspective of the worldwide pandemic in 2020. Soon after news began reporting the fast spread of the COVID-19 virus, I found myself in a local hardware store in the United States which sells firearms. There was a line of first-time buyers, awaiting gun permits. The motivation, presumably, was fear mixed with the natural instinct of self-defense. This is neither an endorsement nor a condemnation. It is simply an observation of human behavior. I shall never forget overhearing locals discussing the need to stock up and protect their properties and food supplies due to the uncertainty of the impending virus. Eerily similar scenes unfold in No Blade of Grass, with tragic results. Each viewer is left to reflect upon their own level of conscience in comparison to the characters within the story. This is an important ingredient which helps define a well-made film.
The survival of the strongest plays out as a central theme. The power structure of the old world swiftly crumbles as law is abandoned and anarchy rises. Our small family core, led by John Custance, eventually grows into a large group of travelers as they meet others along the way. Initially, Custance doesn’t seek to lead, but it’s been naturally thrusted upon him in light of his strong willpower. In contrast, a telling scene depicts a British Army officer ordering his troops to obey, alas, to no avail. His authority stems from the old world’s rules, which have vastly disappeared and are now unenforceable. His troops realize their own survival now takes precedence over obeying meaningless orders. The result is a bloody one.
There’s basically a checklist within No Blade of Grass presenting scenarios of where societal thinking was headed in the early seventies. Director Cornel Wilde includes flashback footage of live childbirth, interspersed with a married couple whose child arrives stillborn (the father being actor Christopher Neame, who would go on to portray Johnny Alucard in Hammer Film’s Dracula A.D. 1972.) The film briefly confronts racial prejudice and the class system. Rusty remains of autos are shown polluting a river bank, and an audio commercial advertising a Rolls-Royce suggests rampant capitalism helped create the nightmare. No stone is left unturned. There is a scene involving a young couple, as the mother breastfeeds her infant, who are left to fend for themselves, so as not to inhibit progress for the group. Others experience a similar fate when they can’t keep pace, including a man whose lungs were damaged working in a polluted factory. Throughout all this, distrust of government reigns supreme. The film forces us to look equally inwards besides solely critiquing the morals of the group. Some viewers may find this heavy-handed, while others will think it is spot-on.
The climax of this tale occurs when the travelers finally arrive at the farm of John Custance’s brother, David. Our small family from London has morphed along the way into a sizeable group of men, women, and children. This situation was not envisioned as part of the original agreement between the brothers and tension immediately erupts. Without discussing spoilers, it is apparent things will not end well. A lesson learned within the film, as in life, is that alliances can shift when crisis is at hand. Our protagonist, John Custance, must now choose allegiance between his own brother and the group of strangers that have bravely fought alongside him. There are hints that a similar situation has occurred off-camera at his brother’s farm, likely justifying the ensuing actions of both men.
Director Cornel Wilde co-wrote the screenplay of No Blade of Grass with Sean Forestal. It certainly seems, as the old saying suggests, that everything was thrown into the mix except the kitchen sink. A half-hearted acknowledgement of religion eventually enters the fray at the end of the story. It simply arrives as a ritualistic afterthought in the form of prayer during burial. The film’s matter-of-fact approach has no time for religion when survival and self-preservation are at stake. Our survivors are facing overwhelming odds and an uncertain future, thus actions will likely take precedence over faith.
No Blade of Grass never attained popular status as an essential entry in the post-apocalyptic catalog of seventies science fiction cinema. Nevertheless, it has stood the test of time. It hasn’t been an easy film to locate throughout the years and it was soon overshadowed by similar (albeit less realistic) themed releases throughout that decade. Its overtly downbeat aura strikes a haunting chord, as viewers realize most everything depicted within could actually happen. Fifty years later, it’s definitely ripe for rediscovery, as the only things slightly dating it are some fashions and dialogue of that era. The meat of the story is as relevant and timely as ever. Off-screen, at the end of No Blade of Grass, a pessimistic narrator points out, “This motion picture is not a documentary, but it could be.”
Nigel Davenport enjoyed a good working relationship alongside newcomer Lynne Frederick on No Blade of Grass. He later recommended the young actress for a role in the 1974 Saul Bass directed science fiction film, Phase: IV, where the two were reunited.
An important statement revealing the sincerity and heart of the film’s philosophy is shown on screen during the end credits, as it was simultaneously pointing a finger at humankind’s indifference and disregard towards nature: “No living creature was killed or mistreated in the making of this film.”