Friday, May 18, 2012

The Edgar G. Ulmer Week: Journey Beneath the Desert (1961)

Five days, five movies directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. I hope to do this again sooner or later, but I have no idea if it was appreciated or not. I guess not to many care about old semi-mainstream movies by a poverty row director nowadays. But the most important thing is that I do, and I'm gonna end this week with a highly recommended movie, Journey Beneath the Desert, one of many adaptations  of Pierre Benoît's story L'Atlantide. I haven't read the book or seen any of the other film versions, but I highly doubt they come up in same class as this one. Yeah, maybe they are more arty and pretentious - yeah, even with bigger and fancier set-pieces or better actors. But I never cared about stuff like that, because it all becomes crap if the director has no idea what he's doing. And it's very easy to see that Ulmer, taking over after the sick Frank Borzage, really knew what he was doing here.

A team of hunks crashes in the desert during a storm and when they hide in a cave they notice that a strange-dressed man is fighting for his life in nearby ravine. They help him inside the cave. Soon they discover a rare mineral, or stone, or something, and the man seem upset that they want to take the stuff with them. He leaves and come back with soldiers. Soon they are trapped in the underground city of Atlantis, sunken thousands of years ago into the desert - now ruled by a young queen. It all beings well, but our heroes aren't allow to leave the city and soon find themselves prisoners! There's just one problem, the city lies exactly where they gonna try out a nuclear bomb! They don't know exactly when, it depends on when the wind changes direction...

Journey Beneath the Desert begins like a normal European adventure movie, not far from the typical peplums of the time. But soon it's clear that Ulmer wants to do something more serious with the story than just another mindless adventure romp. Slowly the atmosphere is getting darker and nastier and the true politics of Atlantis comes forward - with slavery, fascism, capitalism. The slaves are literary working under the bourgeois, who lives luxury lives while the workers are tortured and mistreated like never before. The cult is based around one leader, a symbolic queen starts to understand that what she does is not really important - it's the men around her. I guess an American critic would see this as anti-communist, but for me it's very clearly anti-capitalistic, or at least on the left-wing of politics. I don't know about Ulmer's own stance in politics, but without speculating to much I think it's quite easy to see where he stands.

I don't want to reveal to much about the story and how the characters evolve, but for being a commercial adventure movie it sure takes a lot of unexpected character-trips. It's one of those where people die in the "wrong" order, which was a nice surprise - and the interesting theme of "manly love" between two of our main characters was also very interesting and unique. Another great thing with this movie is that the set designer was Ulmer himself and the movie looks sensational. Like Mario Bava, but more realistic and gritty. Every effect shot are either perfect or cartoonish in a very conscious way - like a fairy tale book, a comic strip.

Don't worry, it also has it's fair share of action scenes and violence and everything is very well done. But like always with the movies of Ulmer it's often the story itself that takes over the interest from us, the audience, and all the "fun" stuff comes as a welcome bonus to spice things up a little bit.

Another fine movie from Ulmer. See it or be a wimp!


Phantom of Pulp said...

Thanks for the Ulmer posts, Ninja. I love 'em.

Anonymous said...

"Five days, five movies directed by Edgar G. Ulmer."

Couldn´t you make it Ulmer month...?

Maybe next tme there will be a month instead of week?

vwstieber said...

So were you able to see a widescreen print of this ? And if so, please help a fellow cineaste find a copy of it :)

I HIGHLY recommend the Pabst version with Brigitte Helm. It is a dreamlike film and it filled me with melancholy.

Ninja Dixon said...

Yep, widescreen - but not the official legal way! If you're interested, send my an email:

And I need to check the Pabst version soon!