Friday A/V Club: Orson Welles' Apocalyptic Trilogy

One man, three doomsdays


Black is slimming.
Warner Bros.

Wednesday was Orson Welles' 100th birthday, and that's as good an excuse as any to look back at his work. But this post won't be highlighting any of the man's masterpieces. In keeping with the Friday A/V Club's interest in pop detritus and paranoia, we'll watch a trio of crazy documentaries he narrated near the end of his life, when he was basically taking any job he could to help fund his independent pictures. All three of these quick-payday projects shine a light on the apocalyptic mindscape of the 1970s, each from a different angle.

The first is Alexander Grasshoff's Future Shock, a 1972 film based on Alvin and Heidi Toffler's book of the same name. (Heidi's name does not appear on the cover, but Alvin later acknowledged her role as his collaborator.) I've never read Future Shock, so I don't know whether the book is as terrified of tomorrow as the movie is. The two Toffler tomes that I have read are rather welcoming of the future, but those were written later and the authors' thinking may have evolved. The documentary, at any rate, strikes a rather reactionary tone: It's a movie for people who panic over seeing so many supermarket choices, who think a heart transplant is a sign of the "disposable" society, and who react to body modification by asking the question, "What happens to race?"

If nothing else, check out the beginning. Welles recites a portentous intro on an airport's moving sidewalk, and then we see him in the back seat of a car, where he looks through his briefcase and smokes a cigar while cop-show music plays on the soundtrack.

Welles followed the secular Future Shock with a Christian film, Robert Amram's The Late Great Planet Earth. Based on Hal Lindsey's bestseller—published, like the Tofflers' book, in 1970—the 1979 movie presents Lindsey's belief that the Biblical endtimes are upon us, and it works hard to connect events in the Middle East to the prophecies in the Book of Revelation. "As the world staggers from one crisis to another," Lindsey tells the camera, "I believe that we're racing on a countdown to the end of history as we know it."

But that's not all that's in the movie. Welles raises all kinds of apocalyptic subjects, from famine to nuclear war, from cults to killer bees. A fellow from the Club of Rome shows up. Paul Ehrlich talks about overpopulation. Several scientists, including Norman Borlaug, discuss the idea of civilization ending—or just point out, as Desmond Morris does, that humanity is going to go extinct someday. None of them mention the New Testament, and I doubt that any of them knew what sort of movie they were being interviewed for.

The high point comes a little after the hour mark, when the talk turns to the Antichrist. The film cuts between Lindsey citing the Bible to say a world dictator is coming and poor Robert Nisbet (!) discussing fascism, while the camera shows a sequence of political leaders, from Ted Kennedy to Ronald Reagan. If you watch just one part of the picture, make it that one:

The author of the film's press kit later claimed that the documentary had been tongue-in-cheek and that his PR materials had been "equally facetious." It's extremely unlikely that Welles took the film seriously, and it's certainly possible that Amram saw the project as a camouflagued mockumentary, something comparable to Luis Buñuel's Land without Bread or Les Blanc's Chicken Real. But commercially speaking, the movie was aimed at an audience of potential believers. More than 35 million people have bought Lindsey's book, and most of them took it very seriously.

From the secular Future Shock and the Christian Late Great Planet Earth we move to a '70s apocalypse from the New Age sector, Robert Guenette's The Man Who Saw Tomorrow. Released in the first month of 1981—hey, it's the Long Seventies—this is a picture about the prophecies of Nostradamus. It's the one movie of the three that I saw not long after its release; it kept turning up on TV, and it inspired a lot of playground conversations back in the day. I highly recommend the dramatization of a nuclear war that begins at the 1:10:23 mark, especially the part when Welles' voice takes on an oh-so-serious tone and identifies the Islamo-Russian missiles' target: "Experts agree that that could only mean…New York."

Readers who love a good continuity debate are invited to try to reconcile the Antichrist scenario in this movie with the Antichrist scenario in The Late Great Planet Earth. Maybe The Man Who Saw Tomorrow is set on Earth-2.

The world hasn't ended for everyone yet, but for Orson Welles the apocalypse really was nigh: He passed away in 1985. As a cineaste in good standing, I love most of his arthouse pictures. But I have to admit I adore some of his trashy throwaway jobs too.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. For the tale of the time Welles wanted to make a conspiracy thriller about the RFK assassination, go here and here. For a much earlier Wellesian apocalypse, listen to his "War of the Worlds" adaptation here. For a debunker's guide to the legend that "The War of the Worlds" set off a mass panic, go here.)

NEXT: Jim Pagels on Bureaucratic Meddling and the Mayweather-Pacquiao Fight

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  1. My Aunty Kayla recently got a stunning green Dodge Caliber Wagon just by working online with a pc.
    look at this site ????????????? http://www.jobsfish.com

    1. Mike Or’s son Will is making online movies and earned enough to buy an All Terrain Vehicle that shoots heat rays.

      Tell that to your Aunty Kayla.

    2. This was predicted:

      The canned ham will drop into the discussion
      Its promises will be difficult to verify
      Yea, do not explore the link it provides
      Lest a plague of viruses desolate your counting machine

      1. There you go, bringing Revelation into things.

        1. You think you’re funny, but you’re not.

          1. Some people think they’re *so* clever
            But lo, there is a commenter who is way funnier
            When the great Edward lets loose his jokes
            You shall quake with mirth

          2. No, that **was** funny.

            1. The thunder as of a mighty wind
              Breaking forth with a stench from thine fundament
              Is much more funny
              Than any of your so-called jokes.

              1. I pray you, be not offended
                I am merely busting your balls
                For behold, doing fake Nostradamus versus
                Is strangely addictive

                1. Why make them up? Just take the real ones and make them your own:

                  The King and his court in the place of cunning tongue,
                  Within the temple facing the palace:
                  In the garden the Duke of Mantua and Alba,
                  Alba and Mantua dagger tongue and palace.

                  1. So he predicted Jessica Alba?

                    1. It’s better to ask what he didn’t predict.

                    2. The Spanish Inquisition!


                    1. Is that what kids are calling it these days?

                  1. ^^THIS^^ is fucking funny.

                    1. @ Xeones, btw.

          3. It’s Shit-fon?

  2. God, I loved that Nostradamus documentary. It simultaneously fascinated and scared shitless a young HM.

    1. Ditto, although not too scared. But I think I’m a bit older than you.

      I have no idea how many times I watched that.

        1. Yeah, Ive got 8 years on you.

          1. Well, I have the soul of a curmudgeonly 70-year old and that’s what matters.

    2. It got a lot of air time. And there’s no question that for a kid, having Robin Masters narrate lent it a weird credibility.

    3. Ditto squared – if my messed up memory is correct, we watched that in a junior high school history class. WTF?

      1. It’s amazing what meaning you can squeeze out of nothing if you try hard enough. And lie hard enough. We did it at Urkobold with some rock songs years ago.

        1. Did you play them backwards?

          1. We randomized the letters in the songs and ran them through a renormalization process to come out with the predictions we wanted.

        2. There are no coincidences, there are only meaningful acausal connections.

          1. Indeed. The one fundamental truth in the universe is post hoc ergo propter hoc.

    4. The bearded fat one will arise
      And fight to keep the wolf from his door
      By narrating some shitty documentaries
      Oops, I mean becoming the Voice of false prophets

      1. Sugar Free?

    5. I will admit to thinking of this documentary as I watched the news on 9/11

  3. Say Jesse, if that’s your real name, how do you know we aren’t living in the end times? Why does the end have to happen in a day or even a year? Maybe we’re really in for a long, slow slog to a pathetic death whimper. Did you ever think of that Mx Smartypants?

    1. Yeah. Check the wikipedia entries for kaliyuga and kaliyama. It’s an apocolypse spread over a couple million years.

    2. End times will be like liquid water vanishing into invisible vapor. Society will evolve as it always does, gradually becoming something that those who are unaware of the transition will be unable to see. We could time travel into that future and think the earth depopulated. As entropy increases, technology will adapt — wormholes will seem quaint science fiction — old solid state Einsteinian societies would not be able to detect the result — end times are relative.

    1. It was a simpler time. People named everything back then. What else was there to do?

    2. Someone who wants to be able to order his servant to “Fetch me the Jack Horner. This snow hill looks too risky for the Marie Antoinette. Wouldn’t want to lose my head. Ahahaha.”

  4. Uggh. Future Shock was an assigned book in my 8th grade polysci class back in 1986.

    Or, was it Megatrends?

    Cannot….quite…remember…too many wine coolers.

    1. Back when they were made from wine and not beer.

      1. Could have been made from solent green for all I cared – as long as it got me drunk.

      2. Was that ever the case? I thought they were malt beverages from the begonning?.

        1. It was something, something alcoholic and sugar, basically.

          So, Kool-Aid with a shot of vodka.

          1. 1991 was the switch. Feds quintupled the wine tax.

            1. I remember when I first noticed that wine coolers were beer. It was a moment of epiphany, when I realized that truth could be destroyed by lies. Then again, wine-wine coolers are an abomination, too.

              1. Let’s be fair to their makers. The store may have stuck up a handmade sign saying “wine coolers”, but the makers of the products did not label them as containing wine when they were malt beverages. I liked the one made by, IIRC, Seagram’s that was pina colada flavored. My friend Howard Shafran on tasting it remarked that it was insidiously good, allowing drunkenness to quite sneak up on you. “Like candy” is what I think he said.

                I don’t think wine would’ve made such products any better.

          2. It was Mad Dog, back in my day. Although usually just Bud, because teenagers don’t have money. Which explains my teenaged sobriety. I never liked beer. Beer is an ingredient, and I keep it in my cupboard next to the potatoes.

            1. Just admit that you liked to get hammered on Cisco and then would scream anti-Semitic obscenities from your window while nude. Come on. We all did that. Everyone does.

              1. SO close. College and Everclear. And the memories are strangely fuzzy, but it was something about shitty Hollywood remakes and people who go to Pilates classes. I only make anti-Semitic comments when my electronics are being contrary just to spite me.

                1. They reduced the legal potency of Everclear from 191 to something much less when I was in college. It was on this day that America ceased to be a republic.

                2. That’s the only time you make anti-Semitic comments? Uh huh. Look, you can be honest. We’re all bigots here. Especially ProL.

                  Everclear? Did you spike the punch at the semi-formal too?

                  1. That’s why I like you, Episiarch. You really understand me.

                    1. Whoa, I got nervous there for a second. Most of the time when someone says “I like you, Episiarch”, it’s followed with “that’s why I’m going to kill you last”.

                      Of course, they always lie.

                      (You put Spanish Fly in the punch too, didn’t you.)

                    2. A combination of vodka and some orange wine cooler from a 2 liter my father kept in the fridge for “lady friends”. I thought it would be less detectable.

                      And ProL just reminded me of spodis. Remember spodis? You remember. We had two versions, the rough-and-tumble black trash sack full of whatever cheap fruit and canned cocktail we could find, or the swank, posh “watermelon with a hole cut in it”.

                      Ha. Ha ha. Sorority girls and spodi. Oh, man… memories.

                  2. The last time I had the full-powered version, it was made (and served from) a bathtub at some frat. Jello was a major flavor-aid, along with other dubious substances, I’m sure.

                    1. The last time I had the full-powered version, it was made (and served from) a bathtub at some frat. Jello was a major flavor-aid, along with other dubious substances, I’m sure.

                      The last time I had Everclear was prom. Some friends and I did shots in the girl’s bathroom, got completely shit-faced, vomited up a storm, and passed out.

                      Good times, good times.

              2. “Most Cisco flavors are named by the fruit flavor that they are trying to emulate, but the one picture is simply called ‘RED.’ This chemical disaster will get your head spinning in no time….

                The sticky, sickingly sweet taste with a hint of antifreeze really comes through in the repellant taste of Cisco.”

                “Often, people on a Cisco binge end up curled into a fetal ball, shuddering and muttering paranoid rants. Nudity and violence may well be involved too.”

                I see.

                1. I had a friend in high school that loved Mad Dog 20/20. He called it “getting hobo drunk.”

  5. the Nostradamus one accurately predicted the rise of Khan Noonien Singh as I remember.

    1. And that there would be strife in the middle east. No one could have predicted that.

      1. I don’t think it counts as a prediction if it is already happening. Then its a news report.

    2. This one was eerily accurate, and experts generally agree it applies to George Lucas:

      The voice of the great minstrel is silenced by madness
      As his mighty songs are ruined
      By a bunch of bad sequels
      Until for gold he gives his rights to a mouse

      1. +1 Han shot first

      2. “Experts”???? The only expert I listen to regarding Nostradamus is the Amazing Randi.

        1. Nah, go read the quatrains yourself and make up your own predictions! Randi is just hoarding the foreknowledge for his own purposes.

      3. Many good ones this thread, NGKC.

    3. Was he wearing blue when he entered the New City like Nausicaa of the valley of the wind?


  6. In the house of the translator of Bourg,
    The letters will be found on the table,
    One-eyed, red-haired, white, hoary-headed will hold the course,
    Which will change for the new Constable.

    In this quatrain, Nostradamus refers to Young Trekkers in Love. “[T]ranslator of Bourg” clearly refers to the writers and creators of Star Trek, who came up with the Borg. “The letters” refer to Red Letter Media’s take down of the rebooted franchise, and the “[o]ne-eyed, red-haired, white, hoary-headed” refers to J.J. Abrams. The phrase is Old Norman and refers to an engorged penis.

    The “new Constable” refers to a the showrunner of a new series that tosses out the reboot and even doesn’t suck.

      1. This one is for you:

        The year 1999, seventh month,
        From the sky will come a great King of Terror:
        To bring back to life the great King of the Mongols,
        Before and after Mars to reign by good luck.

        Here’s a hint for interpreting the quatrain: What’s another word for “great King of the Mongols?”

        1. What’s another word for “great King of the Mongols?”


          1. Precisely! Who ruled parts of Asia in the 1990s! Thawed = “bring back to life”, and Kirk (obviously the great King of Terror) wins through good luck.


    1. Anything in there about Firefly or Half Life?

      1. Of course! Here’s one on Firefly:

        Feet and hands bound between two boats,
        Face anointed with honey, and sustained with milk:
        Wasps and flies, paternal love vexed,
        Cup-bearer to falsify, Chalice tried.

  7. In a better world Welles would have had funding to make more movies and Robert Altman would have had less money and made fewer.

    1. I’d visit such a world.

    1. Predicted by Nostradamus:

      From the vain enterprise honor and undue complaint,
      Boats tossed about among the Latins, cold, hunger, waves
      Not far from the Tiber the land stained with blood,
      And diverse plagues will be upon mankind.

      1. Can you please make this theme of today? I want to see what Nostradamus had to say about whatever nut punch Reason is lining up, UK elections or Bok’s cartoon.
        Disclaimer: there is no sarcasm in above post.

    2. And when shippers no longer want to take the risk of doing business in Seattle because they don’t know when the mayor will revoke their permits in a blatant attempt to court votes with the environmentalists, who will be to blame for all the dockworkers losing their jobs?

      Oh, that’s right: capitalism. Of course.

  8. the fang of wisdom
    lost in the snow
    the great white wolf will not howl
    the moon will not rise

  9. This will always be my favorite ….aaaahhhh! the French!

  10. Jesse, Future Shock did not express terror of the future. When the book was new, a HS teacher of mine recommended it to us. I did eventually read it, but as I told him, by the time I did, it was Past Shock. I found it rather ho-hum. All I can remember of it was Toffler’s trying to convey that people had better get used to things changing rapidly, because things change rapidly. Whoopee.

    1. Oh, all right, your description of the movie reminded me of one detail about the book: Toffler picked up on the trend by which custom production of stuff to order was becoming economic again, & therefore pointed out that people would have a lot of choices. He wasn’t trying to say most or even many people would become paralyzed by inability to choose from among the many features available, but that people would use many strategies to channel their own choices, which would tend to cluster in certain unpredictable ways, and that that would lead people to form tiny demographic clusters according to their tastes?lifestyle clustering, basically. He didn’t say this would be good or bad.

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  12. The cankled one returns anew
    To seize that to which she claims entitlement
    Crushing those who would stop her
    Crushing those who remain upon ascendance

    1. This is about the anti-christ no? That or Hillary. Same-same as they say in some circles…

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