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Beginning of the End

     "You can't drop an Atom Bomb on Chicago!"

-- Dr. Ed Wainwright    

 

     

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Buzzkillers!

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Familiar Faces, Unfamiliar Names:

Morris Ankrum

That's General Ankrum to you, pilgrim.

 
Sights &
Sounds:
Beginning
of the End
(1957)
 AB-PT Pictures Corp. /
 Republic Pictures

Brotherhood
of the
Traveling
Matte:
The Films of
Bert I. Gordon.

Beginning of the End

The Cyclops

Attack of the Puppet People

War of the Colossal Beast

Tormented

The Magic Sword

Empire of the Ants

Food of the Gods

 
Our feature opens somewhere near the mountain ranges of central Illinois (-- well, at least we never see any palm trees...), where the camera slowly pans, following the noise of a boisterous ballad bellowing out of a car radio, until it settles on a couple of teenagers parked in a secluded lover's lane -- who are also breaking a Cardinal B-movie Sin by engaging in some passionate, premarital necking. Lost in the heat of teenage hormones, the couple continues their mutual groping until they're distracted by a noise outside the car; and after they pause to look out, then up, they both scream at some horrible menace that's abruptly cut off by the opening credits.

When the wrecked car is found covered in blood, the authorities find no other trace of the bodies -- he typed ominously. Trying to find the owner, the car's registration leads the State Police to nearby Ludlow, where they make an even more startling discovery: the entire town has been leveled to the ground! But once again, after searching through the wreckage, there are no bodies to be found anywhere. This proves a little too weird for the local authorities, so the National Guard is brought in to investigate what appears to be some kind of natural disaster. Setting up camp in the neighboring town of Paxton, they cordon off what's left of Ludlow until some answers can be found as to what happened to its 150 residents ... Enter intrepid reporter, Audrey Aimes (Peggy Castle), stage left -- erk, make that highway left. On her way to cover a different story, she becomes intrigued when she canít get any straight answers as to whatís beyond the military roadblock. Heading on into Paxton, the reporter is stonewalled further by Col. Sturgeon (Thomas Henry Browne -- who is not Morris Ankrum), who will confirm nor deny anything. 

Playing a hunch, Aimes calls her editor to see if there are any atomic installations in the area. (Remember, this is the 1950's and radiation took the blame for damn near everything.) But the only thing even remotely close to what she's suggesting is a Department of Agriculture research lab. It's probably a dead-end, but Aimes investigates her only lead, and, while visiting the lab, she meets our square-jawed hero, Dr. Ed Wainwright (Peter Graves), and his partner, Dr. Frank Johnson (Than Wyenn), who has been rendered deaf and mute by an accidental dose of radiation. Obviously, judging by the embarrassing floor show that follows, these two don't get many visitors, but they do go on to explain that their experiments involve the use of radiation to speed up the photosynthesis process, resulting in giant mutations. (Tomatoes the size of basketballs etc.) Though impressed with their massive end-results, Aimes is curiously concerned about any possible side-effects. But Wainwright assures that they've had no problems -- except for some bugs, especially the locusts, who kept eating their experiments. Oh, and then there was that little problem with the storage bins for the mutant grain: seems they inexplicably collapsed, and all their irradiated contents disappeared under mysterious circumstances (-- but I'm sure it's nothing).

Returning to Paxton, after promising to hold her story until the mystery is solved, Aimes is finally allowed to go into Ludlow and is shocked by what she sees: the town is beyond devastated; it's been completely torn asunder and flattened. Putting two and two together (-- sheís a crack reporter, remember), Aimes decides to visit the destroyed grain bins for a little compare and contrast. (Dang sheís good.) Going back to the institute for directions, the doctors decide to tag along. Turns out the storage bins are in even worse shape than Ludlow, and while Wainwright and Aimes get to know one another, poor Dr. Frank discovers whatís been causing all the trouble -- and then promptly gets eaten by it at the same time! For it seems that after eating all the irradiated grain, Dr. Wainwright's harmless locusts aren't quite so harmless after all...

Friends, video-philes, and my loyal B-movie Brethren, lend me your ears. For I have come not to bury Bert I. Gordon, but to praise him ... Weeellll praise might be too strong of a word. Yeah, yeah, I know, this whole movie is just one big, cheapjack knock-off of THEM!, right? Well, yeah -- ya got me there. However, I think it is high time we take a step back, inhale deeply, and stop skewering his films because of the cut and paste matte-shots of real bugs crawling over picture postcards of famous locales to make them look ginormous. Let us try to forgive the use of iguanas and gators for dinosaurs, locked in bloody gladiatorial combat for cinematic eternity, and cut the guy a little slack. 

There. Now don't you feel better?

His films, while not epics, are nowhere near as bad as their dubious reputations. I mean, really, you bought/rented a movie about giant mutant grasshoppers invading Chicago -- What did you expect? And I can think of plenty of other films in the genre that are much worse than this, like ... uhm, like, uh -- gimme a second! Like King Dinosaur.

... What?

That was him? 

Uhm Ö god #*@% it, I LIKED TORMENTED! *sigh*

Oh, well...

Beginning of the End was Gordon's third feature and the last to bear the old Republic Pictures logo. Before directing his first film, Serpent Island, Gordon learned the tools of the trade producing commercials, and later working as an editor and production assistant on several TV shows. And after hammering out a few rear-projection kinks in the aforementioned King Dinosaur, he and his wife, Nora, who often served as his technical assistant, turned out a much more solid-effort in this actioneer. Granted, it's shoddy at first glance, but if you look a little closer and a little harder, you can see the time and effort it took to match and layer all that footage together. And as impressive as the giant ant mock-ups were in the THEM!, there is some kind of strange fusion when you watch the lightning quick, super-imposed locusts swarming all over the screen -- especially during the combat scenes. But, we're getting ahead of ourselves, so -- back to the review already in progress...

Barely escaping the deadly swarm, and after relating their fantastic tale to Sturgeon, Wainwright's claims of giant killer bugs are met with much skepticism. Luckily, through persistence, the survivors manage to at least convince the Colonel to investigate the wrecked storage site. Ordering Captain Barton (James Seay -- who is still not Morris Ankrum) and a squad of infantry to go with Wainwright back to the scene of the alleged attack, upon reaching the site, all seems quiet -- too quiet, but not for long! For suddenly, from out of nowhere, the locust start screeching at deafening levels and then attack! Then and thus, the crack-squad that thought it was on a snipe-hunt now finds themselves in a nasty firefight. Hopelessly outnumbered and on the verge of being overwhelmed and wiped-out, they beat a hasty retreat back to Paxton for some reinforcements. And while Sturgeon quickly mobilizes his entire unit for the Battle of Paxton, Wainwright tries to warn him that there are too many giant locusts and they wonít stand a chance unless the regular army is called in. (He can tell by the levels of chirping that the swarm has to be pretty big.)

To accomplish that we get an obligatory trip to Washington DC, where Wainwright pleads his case in front of a committee run by General Hanson (Morris Ankrum -- FINALLY! Heíll fix this.) But once again, the big brass doesnít understand the magnitude of the threat until they receive word that Paxton has been overrun and destroyed by the locust swarm. With that, Hanson takes command (-- thank god), and appoints Wainwright as his special advisor on giant mutant bugs and how to properly squash them.

But even though the army is mobilized and engages the enemy with everything they've got -- tanks, artillery, and napalm -- they have little effect in slowing the swarm down as it closes in on Chicago. Insecticides and smoke donít have any effect, either; and after a rousing battle sequence between the GIís and the giant bugs, the locusts breach the lines and are soon pouring into the Windy City's suburbs. With no other alternative, Hanson authorizes the use of an A-bomb to neutralize the threat. Thinking that action is a little too drastic, Wainwright, with a little help from Aimes, hits upon the idea to reproduce the bugís mating call, and then lure them all into Lake Michigan to drown them. All he needs is an oscillator, some copper wire, a loud speaker -- and one live giant grasshopper!

Hanson provides him everything he needs -- including a captured bug, but wonít postpone the bomb drop, leaving them only a few precious hours to try and mimic the mating call. And while Wainwright tinkers with the oscillator, Barton breaks another B-movie Cardinal Sin by waxing nostalgic about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; and then we really glean heís walking piece of bug-chow when he mentions his wife and kids for no real reason, and how he canít wait to get back to them. So it's no surprise, really, when Wainwright finally hits upon the right frequency that the captured bugs goes berserk and kills Barton. (The poor sap.)

Despite this tragedy, with the experiment a success, the bomb drop is successfully aborted in time. (And the sharp eye will spot Kirk Alyn, the original Superman, piloting the plane.) By now, though, the locusts are so spread out over the city they must first lure them to Wainwright's lab, and then into the lake. Remaining at the lab, once Hanson takes up position with more sound equipment out on the water, Wainwright tells Aimes to flip the switch. And as the signal is broadcasted all over the city, weíre then treated to several scenic postcards of Chicago being overrun by the locust swarm. Drawn along by the fake mating call, closer and closer they come, and things start to get a little hairy when a picture of the lab is about to be swarmed under before the signal is switched to Hanson's boat. Then, in the grips of a sexually-charged hysteria, the locusts plow into the lake and dry-hump each other until they all drown -- much to Hansonís delight.

The End

Over the years, I've always enjoyed Bert I. Gordon's films and eventually came to simply appreciate them for what they were and for what they were not. What they have is an old, pulp-novel noir thing going for them. No frills, acceptable special-effects for the era they were made, and a straight forward story barreling toward the climax -- with Albert Glasserís John Phillip Sousa-inspired riffs blaring and making our ears bleed the whole way! What they don't have is a lot of padding, nonsensical stock-footage abuse, or the usual bait-n-switch involved with these types of films, meaning you usually got what you paid to see.

I understand that while making Beginning of the End, Gordon had to use some really big grasshoppers from Texas since the little local ones couldnít hold the camera's focus very well. However, to prevent an ecological disaster, the California Department of Agriculture wouldnít allow this unless he could guarantee that all the imported bugs were males. He complied, and I ponder with pity the poor key grip who had to turn each one over and make them pull there pants down. And if you notice as the film progresses, there are fewer and fewer locusts left in the once mighty swarm. Why? Well, according to Gordon in Mark Thomas McGee's book, Fast and Furious: The Story of AIP, they had about 200 of the insects to start with, but they weren't fed or stored properly, and eventually turned cannibalistic, so he barely had a dozen left to finish the film. Luckily for us -- but not the grasshoppers, apparently, he made it. 

And though I believe it originated with Stephen King in his book Danse Macabre, I honestly can't remember exactly where the rumor/legend started that you can see one of the surviving grasshoppers defy gravity by running off into nothingness as it crawls up the photo of a building during the final assault, but after swinging through the climax over a dozen times I've yet to find the errant culprit, which, speaking frankly, is a bit of disappointment. A couple on the fringes came close, but I think that can be blamed on improper formatting and cropping on all those old VHS releases. And if you really want to see the film as intended, be sure to check out Image Entertainment's special-edition DVD that shows the film properly matted in its original 1.66:1 format.

Beginning of the End was the first of three films Bert I. Gordon produced and directed, and wrote, and edited, and lit, and special-effected, in 1957, and the last, The Amazing Colossal Man, began his tumultuous but profitable relationship with American International Pictures that cemented his reputation as Mr. BIG. Three pictures later, Gordon brought suit against the company for skimming profits, a rift that would last until the mid-70's, when he would make a brief but triumphant return with Food of the Gods and Empire of the Ants. In between, he had a moderately successful run for both Allied and United Artists, the pinnacle of which was probably The Magic Sword -- that really makes you wonder what he could have done with a real Hollywood budget. And when it's all said and done, I think Gary Westfahl, in The Biographical Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, summed up Gordon's career the best:

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While his early films were usually threadbare -- classic mom-and-pop operations, with Gordon and wife Flora chipping in for most of the off-screen labors -- they were not slapdash; within the confines of his circumstances, Gordon usually tried to do good work, and if blessed with capable performers and a decent story, he might succeed.

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And succeed he did, more often than not.

Beginning of the End (1957) AB-PT Pictures Corp. :: Republic Pictures / P: Bert I. Gordon/ D: Bert I. Gordon / W: Fred Freiberger, Lester Gorn / C: Jack A. Marta / E: Aaron Stell / M: Albert Glasser / S: Peter Graves, Peggie Castle, Morris Ankrum, Than Wyenn, Thomas Browne Henry, James Seay

Originally Posted: 02/22/01 :: Rehashed: 04/20/09

Knuckled-out by Chad Plambeck: misspeller of words, butcher of all things grammatical, and king of the run on sentence. Copy and paste at your own legal risk. Questions? Comments? Shoot us an e-mail.
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