The 1959 film, The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, opens with a mine cave-in in Pennsylvania. Trapped in the cave-in is a mine inspector named Ralph Burton (Harry Belafonte). Despite being trapped underground, Ralph remains in surprisingly good spirits. (In fact, as the movie progresses, Ralph’s tendency to joke when faced with bleak reality will become a recurring theme.) Ralph sings to himself. Ralph tells jokes. Ralph listens to the sound of the men who are digging a tunnel to rescue him. Except, one day, Ralph can no longer hear anyone digging. Realizing that he’s going to have to save himself, Ralph manages to dig his way out of the cave. Once again above ground, Ralph discovers that he’s alone.
The world has changed. Cars and buildings sit deserted. Everything that was made by mankind is still there but it’s all now empty. Confused but understanding that something huge has happened, Ralph makes his way from Pennsylvania to New York. During his journey, he comes across old newspapers and a recording in a radio station and he’s able to piece together what’s happened. Some country — no one was ever sure which one — released a radioactive isotope into the atmosphere. For five days, the air was poisoned. Everyone who didn’t get to shelter died. The only reason Ralph survived was because he was trapped underground.
At first, New York appears to be as deserted as Pennsylvania. (The film was shot on location in Manhattan, reportedly in the early morning hours before rush hour, when there was no one on the streets. The visuals of the empty city are often hauntingly bleak.) Struggling to maintain his own sanity, Ralph steals two mannequins and spends his days talking to them. He comes up with projects to pass the time. He’s able to get the power flowing in Times Square. And he even meets another survivor!
Sarah Crandall (Inger Stevens) was one of three friends who hid in a bunker when the world started to end. Sarah’s two friends left the bunker after two days and were killed by the radioactive cloud. Sarah waited the entire five days and survived. Though we don’t learn much about her background, it’s heavily suggested that Sarah was rich and didn’t have a care in the world before society collapsed. Now, she and Ralph are just happy to have found each other.
Sarah and Ralph quickly become friends. Sarah has obvious romantic feelings towards Ralph but, to her frustration, he keeps his distance. When Sarah asks why they don’t just live together instead of maintaining separate apartments, Ralph nervously jokes that if they got a place together, people would talk. Sarah is white and Ralph is black. When Sarah says that doesn’t matter anymore, Ralph tells her that it does matter and that she has no idea what his life was like before the world ended. When a frustrated Sarah says that she can move in with Ralph because she’s “free, white, and 21 and I can do whatever I want,” Ralph looks like she’s just slapped him. Later, Ralph tells her that, because she’s white, she will never be able to understand the pain that her words caused him. I can only imagine how audiences in 1959 reacted to this scene.
Eventually, Ralph discovers that there are scattered survivors across the world. One of them, Benson Thacker (Mel Ferrer), even comes to New York and joins Ralph and Sarah. With the arrival of the white Thacker, Ralph suddenly finds himself being treated like a servant. Thacker not only attempts to take over the group but he also tells Ralph that Sarah belongs to him. When Thacker, a self-described “former idealist,” tells Ralph, “I have nothing against Negroes,” Ralph coldly replies, “That’s mighty white of you,” and again, the modern viewer cannot help but wonder how audiences in 1959 reacted to hearing those words uttered on a movie screen.
The World, the Flesh, and the Devil is a frequently fascinating film. Belafonte brings a lot of charm and wit to the role of Ralph but he also doesn’t shy away from portraying Ralph’s anger at still being limited by the conventions of a society that, for all intents and purposes, has destroyed itself. Ralph brings New York back to life, just to watch as Thacker moves in and claims it for himself. Significantly, Thacker doesn’t view himself as being a racist. Instead, in his mind, he’s simply living the way that he’s always lived. By treating Ralph like a second class citizen, he’s keeping society alive. Sarah, meanwhile, is torn between her desire to create a new world and the temptation to return to her spoiled and privileged upbringing. While the film is dominated by Belafonte’s performance, both Inger Stevens and Mel Ferrer bring some shadings to characters that, in lesser hands, could have been extremely flat and predictable.
The film falls apart a bit during the third act. The World, the Flesh, and the Devil spends a good deal of time building up to a rather downbeat climax just to suddenly reverse itself. The film ends on a hopeful note that just doesn’t feel realistic after everything that we’ve just seen. The film’s conclusion brings a promise of renewal that feels like it was tacked on at the last moment. Still, up until that moment, it’s a compelling and intelligent film and one that’s feels ever more relevant today than it probably did in 1959.