THE END OF THE WORLD
Yikes! An asteroid is
heading for Earth, threatening to wipe out the entire planet Sounds like
METEOR, DEEP IMPACT, ARMAGEDDON and a host of other modern-day disaster pics,
but it’s actually THE END OF THE WORLD, filmmaker Abel Gance’s 1931 epic, albeit
in a bowdlerized version.
THE END OF THE WORLD (LA FIN DU MONDE) is often referred to as Abel Gance’s
greatest folly, an under-funded epic that was a critical and financial
cataclysm. Gance of course was the genius creator of the masterful 1927
NAPOLEON, as well as innovative works like BEETHOVEN and
J’ACCUSE! THE END OF
THE WORLD may have been poorly received, but it makes for a fascinating addition
to Gance’s oeuvre, being his premiere sound film. Also, as the first true
disaster movie the film’s historical value is undeniable.
However, THE END OF THE WORLD was taken away from Gance
by its producers before he was finished cutting. As if that weren’t enough, it
was considerably pared down in 1934 for release on the American road show
circuit, from its initial 105-minute running time to just 53 minutes, complete
with a ridiculous English language introduction by real-life astronomer Clyde
Fisher (who imparts nuggets like “It seems there is nothing changeable but
eternal unchangeableness”) and inexplicably retitled PARIS AFTER DARK. The
film in its original version still exists (and played on French television in
early 2006), but the most readily available form is the PARIS AFTER DARK
abridgement (available on VHS from Something Weird Video).
Some assorted trivia: Guy Maddin’s award-winning short
THE HEART OF THE WORLD was apparently inspired by the present film, although
Maddin admittedly hadn’t seen it. Also, LA FIN DU MONDE was initially supposed
to be the name of the film-within-a-film of John Carpenter’s MASTERS OF HORROR
segment “Cigarette Burns”, but was changed to LA FIN ABSOLUE DU MONDE so
it wouldn’t conflict with Gance’s title.
Novalic, a leading scientist, spies a comet through a high-powered
telescope. He convenes a meeting of delegates from various countries where he
airs the bad news: the comet will hit the Earth in 30 days and end life as we
The news quickly makes its way into newspapers around the world. People at
first poo-poo the info; an intertitle reads, “The luxury and lust of
humanity, its hysterical intoxications, go on and on, deaf to all warning”.
Police arrive at Novalic’s laboratory to arrest him on charges of
treason. Before they arrive, however, he orders his subordinates to save all
his precious documents and affects an escape. From there Novalic desperately
tries to radio his fellow scientists in order to avert the coming disaster.
But it’s already too late, as the deadly comet has become visible in the
skies. Widespread panic overtakes the Earth, from the big cities, where mass
prayer meetings and wild orgies break out, to the “savage” nations and animal
populations, who rightly sense an imminent cataclysm. In addition, hurricanes
and volcanoes occur with increasing frequency.
In the midst of the madness Novalic and his aides gather in his abandoned
laboratory, where they plot a new world order devoted to peace. Several of the
world’s delegates once again make their way to Novalic’s lab, where he fills
them in on the details of his plan.
It turns out they needn’t have bothered, as the comet passes by the Earth
without touching it. But its presence in the sky did wreak quite a bit of havoc
on the planet’s ecosystem and will forever serve as a stern reminder that our
time here is limited, so we might as well make the best of it!
As it stands THE END OF THE WORLD/PARIS AFTER DARK has snatches of
brilliance, particularly in the many layered images. This is to say that quite
a few shots are superimposed over one another (an unprecedented innovation back
in 1931) in an artful and poetic manner that can only be due to the genius of
Abel Gance, and not the slezemeisters who recut the film. There are also
some great moments in the final scenes, with rapid intercutting and distorted
lenses accentuating the insanity overtaking the Earth.
Then again, there are also moments of startling silliness that are probably
due to the recutters, but I can’t be sure. At times the film is downright Ed
Woodian, as when the effect of the approaching comet on the world’s aquatic life
is demonstrated by showing goldfish jostled around in a fishbowl! The whole
thing has a choppy, discordant flow, which I know is the fault of the
recutters, who’ve turned the material into a 53-minute montage that clumsily
incorporates silent movie intertitles to fill in the narrative gaps (a crucial
subplot involving Gance himself as the protagonist’s saintly brother has been
eliminated). I will admit the film in its abridged cut is an intriguing oddity,
but it makes me long to see THE END OF THE WORLD in its original and definitive
THE END OF THE WORLD (LA FIN
DU MONDE; PARIS AFTER DARK)
L’Ecran d’Art/Harold Auten
Director: Abel Gance
Producer: K. Ivanov
Screenplay: Abel Gance, Andre Lang, Camille Flammarion
Cinematography: Maurice Foster, Roger Hubert, Jules Kruger
Editing: Mme. Bruyere, Mme. Marguerite
Cast: Clyde Fisher, Victor Francen, Philippe Hersent, Collette Darfeuil, Sylvie
Grenade, Jeanne Brindeau, Jean d’Yd, Georges Colin, Abel Gance, Samson
Fainsilber, Vanda Greville