I stumbled upon The World, the Flesh and the Devil several years ago on TCM in the middle of the airing. What I saw was a man arguing with a mannequin named Snotgrass. You can imagine I was intrigued and endured the remainder of a movie that eventually boils down to which of two men gets to mate with the one remaining woman on the earth, whether she likes it or not.
The story is a post-apocalyptic one. We start the picture with Ralph Burton (Harry Belafonte) who is in a mine when a rumble causes a cave in and traps him underground. For five days he is trapped, communicating with the surface using a radio that transmits his messages but fails to send any back. Eventually, the digging sounds he has been hearing die away. The man escapes on his own means and reaches the surface to find the town utterly deserted. A newspaper indicates a nuclear attack from the United Nations has wiped out the entire world’s population.
Ralph travels to New York City where he sets up a lonely life in a posh high rise and uses his engineering know-how to set up generators. He installs a couple mannequins as his companions. When he gets fed up with Snotgrass, he launches the inanimate man over his balcony. The fake man’s impact with the ground launches a scream from a young woman who has been watching Ralph for weeks. She is glad to find Ralph has not killed himself but is still leery of him.
The two become fast friends and set up an apartment for the woman, Sarah (Inger Stevens), in a separate building. Over time, Sarah grows fond of Ralph, but he is all to aware of the difference in their skin color and his lingering concerns with propriety prevent him from acting on his own feelings.
But when a man arrives via a boat on the East River, the dynamics of the last men on earth’s relationship changes. Benson’s (Mel Ferrer) health is poor on arrival and Sarah nurses him back to health. He is instantly keen on the lovely young woman, but she doesn’t really want anything to do with him romantically, given her feelings for Ralph. The black man nevertheless pushes the two together and avoids them until Benson confronts him about a desire to get with Sarah.
The conflict between the men grows and becomes a shootout around the city. Benson hunts Ralph until the latter gives up the fight. In the end, all three walk arm in arm off into the sunset.
The World, the Flesh and the Devil might be an adequate inquiry into racial issues in the late 50s when contrasted with a brave new world, but as a last-man-on-earth-type story, it is quite absurd. Ralph takes many opportunities to remind us he is black, which is a plot line that fails to hold up today. We cannot help but think him utterly stupid for pushing the issue, especially when Sarah clearly is not concerned with the racial divide. It is rather disappointing to think that when all other humans are deceased that the remaining races will still fail to mingle.
Ferrer makes a wonderful ass and totally hateable character. It is also disappointing that the plot drives our characters to try to kill one another rather than realize the value of another helping hand in a world gone to hell.
Perhaps because of the year it was released, the movie depicts no dead bodies. Although the human race was allegedly wiped out by the radiation cloud that crawled across the earth –think On the Beach– all of humanity had apparently fled the city as a means of escape, leaving the viewer no corpses to view. Cars are left crashed into posts or clogged on bridges and highways, but no one apparently opted to stay put.
Stories about bleak futures have always intrigued me, but The World, the Flesh and the Devil is far from the best of them. The characters are difficult to relate to because of their racial hangups and ugly motives. The plot takes us nowhere profound and offers quite an absurd ending. Oh, and I should note on that point that as our characters walk off into an unknown future, the screen fills with the words “The Beginning”. Too bad all the story has taught us is that another duel is likely around the corner.