The Quatermass Xperiment
Americans, eh? What are they up to?
Now there’s a question that would have been on the lips of many a man in the pub in the 1950’s. I mean, there’s England after the end of the Second World War, completely broke, shell-shocked, and getting used to the idea that even though they went to war to protect their Empire, they’ve somehow managed to win the war but lose the bloody Empire. And on top of that, they seem to be stuck in between some impossible new war being waged between two competing ideologies, so fervent in their self-righteousness it borders on religious. But they were going to have to throw their lot in with one of them…
And so many an Englishman would have looked around at their country in the 1950’s and noticed a bunch of Americans knocking about, locked up in their secretive bases, perfecting ways to fight a war where one wrong move could result in wiping out the species. It’s not difficult to imagine that there would have been a feeling of being taken for granted, of being nothing more than a windy beach-head against the Soviet Union, of being the sort of ultimately unimportant bit of an Empire that’d be thrown to the wolves when the right time came, a slightly troubling bit of reflection that would have been like looking in the mirror after a drunken night and vaguely remembering something very, very bad. So, wearily, they would have looked around, and thought - what the hell are the Americans up to?
And that’s why there are films like The Quatermass Xperiment. It’s pretty rare that the people who should be the two leads of the movie - the head scientist and the astronaut’s wife - are nothing more than callous agents of destruction. Neither of them are likeable, neither of them do anything except cause misery to others, and neither of them seem concerned with anything except what’s best for them. And they have something else in common - they’re American. It really is quite something watching the lead of a movie behaving exactly like the sort of b-character that the hero is supposed to stop before his mad quest for knowledge destroys us all. He is even played by the sort of actor you’d get to be that b-character. He’s short, gruff, shouty and impatient. He has absolutely no charm or charisma, just ruthlessness and the unshakeable certainty that everyone will do as he says; which they do, by the way, for no reason I can see either, except that he’s an American. And there’s no plucky young Brit to reign in the scientist, destroy the creature, get the girl and save the day. There’s just creaking British infrastructure - ancient fire engines, over-worked policeman - called upon to to do the American’s bidding. And what is causing all this chaos? What is it that’s sowing death and destruction across the land? What is it that’s dangerously close to being an unstoppable armageddon? An American.
More specifically, an American astronaut who’s the unfortunate victim of the American scientist’s experiment, but it’s difficult not to see that what eventually becomes a hideous monster crawling across England is supposed to be a metaphor for something…
It’s the individualism that seems to scare the hell out of the Brits more than anything. The scientist just launches his incredibly dangerous mission without proper approval (a fact that I’m sure caused a few “I say!”s in Whitehall), the astronauts’ wife sneaks him out of quarantine with no plan, ignoring Doctors and Nurses who have said he needs to stay for the good of everyone, and the creature itself, stealing other people's life-force so that it may survive and reproduce to threaten the whole planet. All of this is eventually only thwarted by a large group of organised people working together, co-ordinated by what I can only assume is a slightly mickey-taking view of a BBC camera crew who are broadcasting a live programme - live! - of an academic talking about bits of a cathedral. It literally takes all of London’s power to halt one dangerous American. It could almost be a hopeful blueprint for the future, if it weren’t for the ending.
Because what does the American scientist learn from this hideous experiment that nearly destroyed the world? Nothing. Sweet F.A. Or, bupkis, as the Americans say. It really is an amazing ending. He doesn’t even care he has learned nothing. He only cares about getting into space before the Russkies. Of course, he really cares about being the man, the single man, who gets there first.
Yup, it would have been a scary movie to watch as an English person in the 1950’s. And maybe you would only have been scared because it’s a really well made Hammer horror movie where they’re chasing around a slowly transforming monster as it moves closer and closer towards a birth that will put the world in its grave. And the documentary-like footage of frightened crowds, ‘more than my jobsworth’ response teams, and rocket ships crashed and towering over the English countryside would have been pretty terrifying in the realism surrounding such an out-of-this-world story. But next time they found themselves in the pub, they would have turned to one another and said ‘Americans, eh? What are they up to?’ And wondered about the new world they found themselves helpless observers of, as they nursed their slowly disappearing drinks. Speaking of which…