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Fantasia Obscura: ‘The 27th Day’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, you find out that no, the book was not better than the film…

The 27th Day (1957)
Distributed by: Columbia Pictures
Directed by: William Asher

You’ve maybe seen this in team building exercises, where five individuals out of the pool of available talent are brought together at random. Each team member is given a task, and is expected to work out the details with their cohorts on how best to accomplish their goals.

Imagine if they did that with the fate of humanity on the line…

Please note that there will be spoilers herein for both the film and its source material.

We open on the rocky shore of Cornwall, where Evelyn Wingate (Valerie French) is coming out of the surf after a swim. She talks with her friend about his effort to paint the scene on her way to go pick up seashells on the beach, where a menacing shadow appears over her and request that she come with him, following by the screen whiting out.

We see this replayed in Los Angeles, where the visitor “requests” the same of newspaperman Jonathan Clark (Gene Barry). Our shadow does the same to eminent German physicist Klaus Bechner (George Voskovec) as he’s on his way to the States, Chinese peasant Su Tan (an uncredited Marie Tsien) in the middle of her village being pillaged, and soldier from beyond “the Iron Curtain” Ivan Godofsky (Azemat Janti) who fires on the shadow to no effect.

The five find themselves being whisked away in a flying saucer (a very familiar one, as they re-used VFX shots from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers) where we see their “host” who for the sake of keeping simple just calls himself “the Alien” (Arnold Moss). The Alien explains that in 35 days, his home will be destroyed when its sun goes nova, and they need a new place to move to.

He then asks if he can surf on our couch hands out goodies to all five humans, small boxes that can only be opened by the person assigned to the box. Inside each box are three capsules that, when commanded, will kill all humans (and only humans) within a 3,000-mile radius of wherever the capsule is commanded to go off. Only the owner of the box can open the box, but can hand over the capsules so that someone else can set them off, giving each person more destructive power than both superpowers had during the height of the Cold War. He lets them know that should a box holder die, the capsules inside become inert, so there’s nothing to be gained by trying to just take the capsules from them.

He goes on to explain the objective of the team building exercise why he’s doing this: The Alien’s race need our world, but their moral code keeps them from just rolling in and killing us all. He’s given all of this destructive energy to them to decide how best to make room on our planet for them. They must act fast, though, as after 27 days the capsules go inert.

It’s a lot to deal with, putting the fate of two planets in their hands. Do the humans let their fear of their traditional enemies lead them to mass murder on an undreamt scale? Can they trust their own governments with such power? Can their governments trust them with it? And as there is representation in the group from both sides of the Cold War, can any of these humans trust each other…?

We get some answers right away; Evelyn throws her capsules as far as she can into the English Channel to sink to the bottom, while Su Tan (without being given a single line in this picture) commits suicide before the Buddha in her ruined home. Evelyn makes her way to Los Angeles, not sure how to handle the responsibility even though she just flung the capsules out of her life, where Jonathan wants to just think about what he’s gone through without distraction…

Or he’d like to, except that the Alien commandeers the airwaves all across the planet. The Alien not only explains what he did, he gives the names and last known locations for all five of the humans handed the capsules. Evelyn gets to LA just as her name is revealed, and she and Jonathan hide out at the closed-for-the-season Hollywood Park racetrack.

Bechner’s in New York for a conference where he gets hit by a car as he crosses the street, making it easy for the G-men and Communist spies to get to him. As for Godofsky, he’s interrogated/tortured by his government to get him to cough up the goods.

 

The general in charge of the operation (Stefan Schnabel), through force and persuasion, gets Godofsky to give him the capsules, which he then uses to blackmail the US to withdraw all its forces or face annihilation. By this time, Jonathan and Bechner have decided to work with the Americans. And Bechner uses one of his capsules to test their potency out in the middle of the Atlantic, with a human volunteer who demonstrates just how well these things work…

The United States, knowing that these things work, pull back as demanded. But with the 27th day since the Alien showed up coming, the we-call-them-Iron-Curtian-instead-of-Soviets-for-some-reason get ready to use the capsules anyway to depopulate all of North America. Before they can do that, though, Bechner figures out a way to alter the capsules’ abilities, and uses them to bombard the world with radiation to kill “every confirmed enemy of human freedom.”

Say WHAA…???

This throwaway line in the script by John Mantley, bleated without context in the film, is better detailed in his novel from 1956, which he adapted himself. In the book, Mantley gives us a clearer picture of what Bechner did: The capsules killed “tyrants and evildoers in high places… every leader known to have been a confirmed enemy of human freedom.” The gift from space also affected “gossip columnists, thieves, preachers, psychiatrists, senators, plumbers, [and] merchants.”

The cosmic happening didn’t stop with just killing bad folks, though. Everyone on Earth got a spiritual reawakening, with wide ranging effects: 2/3rds of all divorces being arbitrated in Las Vegas are withdrawn by couples having second thoughts, clemency is granted to some death row inmates in California, a prison riot in New Mexico ends on its own, and combatants in Indochina and South America have fallen into truces and started mingling with former foes.

In other words, for the sake of explanation, the capsules were made to kinda-sorta do this…

 

These were details that gave Bechner’s objectives more context, but got lost for the sake of the sparse 74-minute runtime of the film, shot over a single month in September of 1956. Production was so fast that no one seemed to have tried to find a way to make this scene work better for a film.

There was a silver lining, though, in that a lot more of the book also didn’t make it into the screenplay. All the pointless plot diversions and purple phrasing that saddled the novel were left off the Columbia soundstage, which highlights the central ideas of the work.

Stripped down, the story makes for an interesting thought piece that gets presented in a well-paced, no-frills direct manner. Director Asher brought to bear the discipline he’d show throughout his career directing for network television, which kept the cast focused and on point, to give us for the most part a strong thought piece that encapsulates the main themes of the Cold War at its most perilous.

That ending, though, probably prevented the film from being more memorable. It’s quick adaptation from book to film and fast production schedule were followed by the film’s short theatrical window. Not able to wrap things up satisfactorily the way the similarly themed The Day the Earth Stood Still ended, this movie wasn’t long for this world, or for that matter any world.

Especially a world that offered us capsules and thought we’d do them a favor and kill ourselves…

 

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