Saturday, July 8, 2017

Classics Revisited: Quatermass and the Pit

(1967) Directed by Roy Ward Baker; Written by Nigel Kneale; Original story by Nigel Kneale; Starring: Andrew Keir, Barbara Shelley, James Donald and Julian Glover; Available on Blu-ray (Region B) and DVD (Region 2).

Rating: *****

“I wanted a scientist who was on the edge of terrible investigations, and having to face the mindset of the military, yet again, who would use space exploration for their own purposes.” – Nigel Kneale (on his character Bernard Quatermass, from DVD commentary)

Quatermass: “Roney, if we found that our earth was doomed, say by climactic changes, what would we do about it?”

Dr. Roney: “Nothing. Just go on squabbling as usual.”

For many folks on both sides of the pond, the Hammer Films brand is synonymous with horror, having created some of the most distinctive films in the genre. Hammer was no slouch in other genres, however, particularly in the science fiction department. Long before Hammer entered my conscious memory, the film company had already left an indelible impression in my developing mind with one of their best examples of speculative fiction.

Hammer produced two very good films, chronicling the adventures of Professor Bernard Quatermass, in the 1950s: The Quatermass Xperiment (aka: The Creeping Unknown) (1955) and Quatermass 2 (aka: Enemy from Space) (1957). A third installment was planned, but didn’t make it into theaters (all three stories were produced as BBC television dramas in the ‘50s) until a decade later. Writer Nigel Kneale was never satisfied with the casting of American actor Brian Donlevy in the first two films as the title character, due to his brash temperament, but was much more enthused about Scottish actor Andrew Keir as Quatermass.* Due to the lack of available space at Elstree Studios, shooting took place at nearby MGM studios instead. This proved to be fortuitous for all concerned, on account of MGM’s much larger backlot and superior resources. The change in location improved on Hammer’s already solid reputation for excellent production values. As the American film distributors had done with its two cinematic predecessors, Quatermass and the Pit was changed to Five Million Years to Earth.

* Fun fact: Many actors were considered for the third movie, including Peter Finch, Van Heflin, Trevor Howard and Andre Morell (Source: The Hammer Story, by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes).

In the opening scene, workers discover proto-human skeletons during their excavation of an abandoned London Underground station* at Hobbs End. Just as Dr. Roney (James Donald) is coming to terms with the significance of this archaeological find, something cold and metallic is uncovered. Fearing that it’s an unexploded German bomb from World War II, the British Military takes over the dig site. Enter Professor Bernard Quatermass, who suspects the metallic object is much more than it seems. Quatermass probes the object’s secrets, discovering its true, extraterrestrial origins, and awakening long dormant mechanisms.   

* Fun Fact: According to Kneale, the original setting was a building site, but producer Anthony Hinds suggested London’s tube station.

As Professor Quatermass,* Keir displays much greater range and depth than his predecessor. In his unending quest to discover the truth, and his thinly veiled contempt for authority figures, he’s the spiritual predecessor for such characters as Carl Kolchak and Fox Mulder. Quatermass butts heads with Colonel Breen (Julian Glover), who oversees the excavation site. Breen is officious to a fault. He has no sense of imagination or time for idle speculation, refusing to entertain Quatermass’ theories about the unidentified object in the tube station. The always reliable Barbara Shelley is also good as Quatermass’ assistant Barbara Judd, who possesses an uncanny sensitivity for the psychic emanations from the spacecraft. Roney (James Donald) is the unsung hero of the film, as the one human who seems unaffected, as everyone takes leave of their senses.

* Another Fun Fact: The title character’s first name “Bernard” was derived from Bernard Lovell director of a British space telescope program, while “Quatermass” came out of a telephone book.

 One quibble that’s often lobbed at the film is that the effects are uneven. Considering the meager budgets that Hammer had to work with, many of the effects shots are more than adequate, including a shattering wall inside the spacecraft, as well as the alien apparition that appears at the film’s climax. One sequence that’s not so effective is a mass Martian exodus, channeled through Barbara’s brain, depicting a bunch of stick puppets hopping about. Given the proper time and money, perhaps with stop motion animation, the scene would have provided a sense of perspective and scope. But in the grander sense, the scene’s failings don’t amount to much, given the concepts behind it. Ultimately, it’s the performances and story that sell the film.

(SOME SPOILERS AHEAD) Kneale wove mythology and superstition into his tale, to give Quatermass and the Pit a link to humanity’s troubled history. It’s heady stuff, suggesting the origin of the human species and a source for our demons. Five million years ago, the dying race of Martians implanted their impulses, prejudices and memories in an early form of human, influencing our development. In effect, we are the new Martians. In his 1996 DVD commentary, Kneale opined there were three kinds of people: the Martian intellect (Col. Breen), a more evolved human, who’s outgrown its Martian origins (Dr. Roney), and something in-between (Quatermass). Most of humanity seems to fall into the first and third categories, judging by the mob scene during the climax.

 Director Roy Ward Baker’s first and best film with Hammer is serious science fiction, with story taking precedence over spectacle. The enduring themes and concepts have influenced many films and filmmakers over the years, especially John Carpenter, who included references in such films as Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness (with Carpenter adopting the screenwriting credit Martin Quatermass). Hammer’s small budget film with big ideas is a cerebral treat that’s stuck with me for decades. From a production company distinguished by many fine genre films, it’s among their very best.

Note: Try to get your hands on the Region B Blu-ray. As someone used to seeing the film on broadcast TV for ages, the remastered image was nothing short of a revelation.


  1. I have heard of but have never seen a Quatermass film.
    I know they occasionally turn up on TCM, so I'll have to watch next time.

    1. You should. They're all fascinating in their own way, but this one's the best. I saw the third film many years before I watched the other two, so it doesn't really matter which order you see them in.