Some films are forgotten for good reason, and that may well be the case with No Blade of Grass (1970). Despite an ahead-of-its-time focus on environmental catastrophe, this one is marred by the dated attitudes and techniques of its era. Based on a science fiction novel by John Christopher, the film takes place in a bleak future in which an agricultural plague leads to slowly spreading worldwide famine and food riots. While initially isolated from the crisis, the British isles eventually succumbs to panic as the plague spreads to its shores. Architect John Custance (Nigel Davenport) receives advance warning of a coming escalation in the crisis from his friend Roger Burnham (John Hamill), a government scientist working on the problem. With Roger joining them, Custance quickly evacuates his family from London with the goal of escaping to his brother’s remote potato farm in the country. But as their journey continues, the normal rules of civilization inexorably break down around them, forcing Custance and his family to compromise their moral and ethical principles in the name of survival.
Considering it was made over fifty year ago, No Blade of Grass does a decent (if unsubtle) job of illustrating the impacts of human society on the climate, opening with a montage of contemporary stock footage of environmental damage and pollution. The fact that copious footage was readily available for this goes a long way to explaining where we are today with global warming — a topic which two schoolboys discuss with reasonable facility during the arduous journey. Director Cornel Wilde orchestrates the collapse of social mores fairly well, although he occasionally wields a hammer when a finer tool might do. (For example, a television mounted above the ostentatious buffet of a posh London restaurant bemoans the famine in Asia, while oblivious British diners blithely stuff their faces.) Unfortunately, there are scads of clunky, outdated elements to the sociopolitical furniture that mar the science fictional messaging. The gender politics are abysmal; women are on hand to be weak, pregnant, promiscuous, or raped. Custance’s sixteen-year-old daughter Mary (Lynne Frederick) throws over her too-old-for-her boyfriend Roger for the disreputable, also too-old-for-her asshole Pirrie (Anthony May), whose ruthless survivalism makes her feel “safe.” Meanwhile, Pirrie’s wife Clara (Wendy Richard) throws herself inexplicably at the disinterested Custance, with decidedly icky results. It feels a little nitpicky to critique the sexism and misogyny of No Blade of Grass in the context of an apocalyptic scenario like this, but the ugliness is a byproduct of the film-making rather than the scenario, dating it irreparably. Similarly outmoded are the choppy, low-rent New Wave flash-forwards that “spoil” upcoming plot turns; while they add flourishes of style, they also lock the film awkwardly in the past. “This motion picture is not a documentary, but it could be,” the film intones portentously following an anticlimactic ending. Alas, that’s a lofty assertion only partially justified by what has come before it.