1967 in Film Blogathon – Quatermass and the Pit

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Greetings, and welcome to the 1967 in Film Blogathon, hosted by Silver Screenings. All it took was a virtual whispering in the ear from Christianne Benedict of Krell Laboratories: “Quatermass and the Pit is still on the table, too…nudge, nudge…” and here we go. I had a sense that this blogathon would likely be focused on US cinema, as there were indeed a great many cultural and aesthetic shifts in and around 1967, so the idea of talking a little about a film outside of those parameters sounded like a bit of fun. That’s not to mention the whole idea of tossing a Hammer-produced science fiction / horror film into the mix — too delicious an opportunity to pass.

First, a wee bit of backstory: Professor Bernard Quatermass was already a largely popular character in the 1950s, due to a collection of BBC serials created by Nigel Kneale. Of these three original serials, the third, “Quatermass and the Pit,” proved to be the most successful. The other two — “The Quatermass Experiment” and “Quatermass II” — were quickly adapted by Hammer Studios into feature films. However, due to financing issues and a lack of interest from distribution partner Columbia Pictures, the film adaptation of the third series did not go into production for close a decade. Despite that, Quatermass and the Pit (a.k.a. Five Million Years to Earth in the US) has enjoyed probably the most longevity of these original stories, due to a fantastic cast and a cracking good story that bristles with some very alarming implications regarding the origin of the human race.

QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1967)
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Stars: Andrew Keir, James Donald, Barbara Shelley, Julian Glover
Country of Origin: England
Studio: Hammer Film Productions

Spoilers below.

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The film starts with a group of workers building an expansion for the London Underground in Hobbs’ End. They uncover human-like remains in the clay as they are digging, and so Dr. Roney (James Donald, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Escape) and his assistant Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley, The Gorgon, Dracula: Prince of Darkness) are called in to investigate. Roney, a paleontologist, deduces that the remains are from a prehistoric class of dwarf-like Neanderthals that lived over five million years previous to modern time. During further excavation of the site, a large metallic object is also discovered. Fearing that it could be an unexploded bomb from World War II, Colonel Breen (Julian Glover, For Your Eyes Only, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) is contacted for assistance. Tagging along is Professor Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Keir, A Night to Remember, Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb), a rocket scientist who has recently learned that his plans for colonizing the Moon have been taken over by the British military. When a second set of skeletal remains are discovered within the metallic object, Roney and Quatermass come to the conclusion that it must also be five million years old.

From this point on, the film is almost relentless in pace, ultimately concluding that the metallic object is a spacecraft from Mars, sent by an insectoid race of aliens who visited Earth millions of years ago in an attempt to preserve their dying breed by giving prehistoric man far superior intelligence and insight. For the unbelievable nature of this conclusion, clues placed along the way point to this shocking end: Hobbs’ End has long been plagued with rumors and stories of supernatural happenings, from ghostly apparitions to poltergeist activity. Indeed, the very name of the town seems derived from an old nickname given to the Devil himself. In addition, the grasshopper-like appearance of the alien lifeforms include a set of strange horns. The implication is that what have long been perceived as supernatural or psychic ongoings are in fact unconscious tendrils of ancient wisdom, passed along from generation to generation. It’s a stunning conclusion to reach.

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Aside from that, Quatermass and the Pit gives us a subtle commentary on our own self-destruction. At one point, Barbara falls under a kind of psychic influence; later, Quatermass and Roney use a machine that taps into the psyche to record her thoughts. What they see is almost like a demented Nazi propaganda film: the Martian attempt at preservation originated from what appeared to be the mass destruction of the weakest of the colony. This solidifies Quatermass’ theory that a group of Martians bestowed their knowledge on prehistoric man — human life was essentially an attempt to create a proxy colony. Heady stuff indeed.

Aside from a few bits of ephemera here and there, Quatermass and the Pit has aged magnificently, thanks in large part to a solid script and a cast that plays the film with nothing but the utmost sincerity. Keir is especially wonderful in the title role, playing Quatermass with a grand balance of kindness and curmudgeonly bravado. Even some of the film’s more ridiculous moments are leveled with a sense of gravitas from his delivery. Donald is also just as brilliant, playing off Keir particularly well near the end of the film when Quatermass also falls under the psychic influence.

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Once the film reaches its conclusion, we are left as shell-shocked as the characters who have witnessed the most unbelievable events. Quatermass and the Pit hardly lets up on the tension from the start, and even though there’s a bit of relief that the horror in Hobbs’ End may be over, there is always the possibility that there wasn’t just one spacecraft sent to Earth from Mars five million years ago. The pit opens again…

Please be sure to check out the rest of the posts in the 1967 in Film Blogathon, compiled over at Silver Screenings.

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4 thoughts on “1967 in Film Blogathon – Quatermass and the Pit

  1. I was wondering how well the film might/might not have aged, but I’m glad to hear it’s held up well. I suppose films that make us look at ourselves have a timeless quality, no?
    Thanks for joining our blogathon!

    1. Thank you for hosting! It was a lot of fun to write about this film, and yes, most films that hold a mirror, even briefly, to ourselves are indeed timeless. Cheers!

  2. I watched all the Quatermass movies recently and found them all fun with very different things to like about each one; you’re so right about the tension and the lasting/modern quality of this one. great choice

    1. Hey, thanks! I have yet to see the other Quatermass films, although I really want to get around to them as well as the original “Quatermass and the Pit” tv series. I’m most interested in seeing how Brian Donlevy compares to Andrew Keir.

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