The Mole People (1956)
Hello, everybody, Pam here again. It's time for another review, and today's offering is 1956's The Mole People. What's it about? I'm not sure, I haven't seen it before. Then how do I know it's worthy of MMT's attention? Two words: John Agar. He's the star of this movie. He got his start as an actor when he married Shirley Temple in 1945, and at first his career seemed promising, but after Shirley divorced him in 1950, the quality of his movies went downhill fast. Of course, by 1950, Shirley Temple wasn't getting much in the way of movie offers, either. Anyway, by the time this movie was made, you could be pretty sure that any movie John Agar starred in would be considerably less than Oscar material. We saw him before in Journey to the Seventh Planet, a reasonably stinky movie. Besides, Nate and I reviewed The Alligator People not long ago, and we're curious to see what Mole People are like. So here we go, and you can learn about Mole People alongside us.
The movie begins a little oddly. An elderly man, who a caption tells us is Dr. Frank C. Baxter, Professor of English at the University of Southern California, gives a brief talk about stories of people living underground. At first I thought he was a character in the movie, but a quick check of Wikipedia showed that there really was a Dr. Frank C. Baxter, who was in fact a Professor of English at the University of Southern California. It seems that he had a minor career in movies and television, explaining scientific concepts in a way easy for most viewers to grasp. There's no explanation as to way an English professor was picked to discuss underground civilizations, and he's not quite up to professional acting standards, so you won't miss much if you decide to fast-forward through the first six minutes of this movie to get to the good stuff.
This is a pizza.
We switch to an archaeological dig, somewhere in “Asia” as a caption helpfully informs us. This of course doesn't narrow the location down much, but judging from the desert conditions and the costumes of the native helpers, it's someplace in the Middle East. And guess what, I find out I'm right, as the archaeologists uncover a tablet covered with cuneiform. Dr. Bentley, the head archaeologist who's played by our hero John Agar, translates the inscription and learns that anyone who removes the tablet is in big trouble with Ishtar. Laugh if you will, but no sooner has he stopped talking than an earthquake hits. Proof enough for anyone, I'd say, but as is usual in the movies, the high-and-mighty scientists scoff at this superstitious nonsense and keep on going.
Bentley in hoodie.
The earthquake collapsed their trenches and set their work back considerably, which just shows what you get if you mess with Ishtar, but it wasn't all bad. It also uncovered an ancient oil lamp, which was found by a shepherd boy who brought it to the archaeologists. The original owner must have wanted entertainment along with illumination, because the lamp is adorned with the Sumerian version of the Great Flood. Seriously, who writes a story on a lamp? Are there any specialists in Sumerian archaeology who can tell me if this was standard practice among the Sumerians?
The shepherd boy found the lamp on an uninhabited mountain (and what was a shepherd boy doing on a mountain? What were his sheep supposed to be eating?). You'll recall that the earthquake messed up the dig considerably, and the Western archaeologists decide that while the natives are laboring to clean things up enough so excavation can be resumed, they'll go to the mountain and see if they can find anything else. This is not going to be a minor undertaking: it involves many days and multiple camps, which makes it even more incredible that a shepherd boy just happened to be up there and stumble across a 5,000-year-old lamp. Fortunately they have many native bearers to lug along the enormous amount of supplies necessary for such a trek. Ah, the good old days!
Pack up your microscopes.
The archaeologists are dauntless and manage to make their way up many a snow-covered slope and though a couple of avalanches, finally reaching a plateau and leaving me with no desire at all to take up mountain-climbing. Unless you're a real fan of snow, you can safely fast-forward through this part. The only thing of interest is them finding an arm from a statue buried in a pile of snow. The way it was filmed made it look at first as though a human being was under there, waving his arm for help, which would have been more interesting but sadly was not the case. However, the plateau itself doesn't disappoint, since they find well-preserved ruins of a Sumerian temple there. Really? Did Sumerians actually take the trouble to make long difficult climbs up snow-covered mountains to build temples on them? Did they expect the worshipers to climb up there, too? I could use some information here, if anybody reading this knows anything about ancient Sumerian religious practices.
Nice mannequin arm.
Even the archaeologists are a little puzzled about what the temple is doing there, but before they can investigate, the expedition gets much more exciting when the ground gives way beneath one of the archaeologists and he vanishes from sight. Fortunately they have all that climbing gear, and Dr. Bentley and the other archaeologists bravely rappel down to try to find their comrade. This is another part you can fast-forward through, but they do finally find him after a long climb down. Not surprisingly, considering the length of his fall, he's dead. As what may be more of Ishtar's revenge, the last man climbing hammers a piton more firmly into a rock and causes a rockfall, killing himself and blocking the shaft through which they climbed down, leaving them trapped with no food or water. I'm telling you, do not fool around with Ishtar!
No harnesses, not safe.
Dedicated scientist that he is, Dr. Bentley shrugs off this little setback and, after taking time to note that the cavern appears to have been excavated, follows a draft of fresh air. They walk through a tunnel that's high enough so they don't have to stoop, and has a level floor so walking is easy, but I suppose both of these are reasonable enough if humans (?) have made it. Unlike most movie caves, it doesn't have any klieg lights. Fortunately they have flashlights. As was the case with their climb up the mountain and their rappel down the shaft, they have a long old walk through the cave, but our boredom, if not theirs, is broken when we see a hand digging a hole through the tunnel wall, then the silhouette of a humanoid figure looking through it. This happens just after the archaeologists walk by, so they don't know about it. Finally, after a little too much rock, they emerge from the tunnel to see – Okay, this movie is showing distinct signs of being not horrid. The first part is slow going, but suspense is beginning to pick up. Did I choose a movie that's above MMT standards? We'll see as Nate continues.
Artfully lit cavern.
Thanks, Pam! Well, I’ll enter the review at the film’s moneyshot, as the first awe-inspiring view of the lost civilization of Sumer appears before them. Sure, it’s just a hazy matte painting poorly back-projected to a stirring music cue, but it sets up the rest of the movie beautifully in just a few seconds. We know now that Bentley and his men have stumbled upon the Fabled Lost Sumerian City Beneath the Mountain, and delights both wondrous and dangerous await them. This “lost world” plot is as old as cinema, and the basic framework of modern day explorers discovering strange new people works across the full spectrum of locations and plot hooks, from the jungles of the Amazon to the surface of the moon, so I have high hopes it will be exciting.
So it’s just dashing young Doctors Bentley and Bellamin left alive to stare agape at the city (well, there’s some geezer, but he’s pointless to the plot and he’s unattractive so let’s ignore him). It’s not long before they are captured by the Bronze Age Sumerians and their mutant worker drones who inhabit this cavern and are taken before the King. These pale white people wear robes with funny hats and carry cardboard swords, exactly as you’d imagine if you were 10-years old and thinking about ancient civilizations for your 5th grade history test, and nothing stands out as unique or noteworthy about the costuming. The set dressing is no better, everything in the city is clinically clean and sterile, with little in the way of ornamentation or decoration other than the oddly placed lamp bracket or two, though that‘s a common look in historical period movies where nothing has that “lived in“ look to it. And make no mistake, starting right about here, The Mole People becomes a peplum-style historical epic as this city seems to have been stuck in the 23rd century BC for this entire time, with virtually zero advancement in technology or artistic style or personal grooming habits since the day they were sealed off from the outside world. Sure.
Nice open floor plan.
Also, major kudos for using a known ancient civilization instead of just pulling ten letters out of a hat and stringing them together to make the Lets Not Offend Anybody Long Lost Kingdom of Xyskheoqzc. The 1950s was an era of great discovery and exploration of ancient archaeological sites across the Near and Middle East, the Sumerian’s stomping grounds, helped by the opening up of the region following the end of WWII, and audience members in 1956 who had subscriptions to the Paper of Record would have at least known what they were talking about. While the scriptwriters missed the mark on the Sumerian worship of Ishtar and many/most elements of their architecture and weaponry, our movie does do a surprisingly good job on a limited budget at portraying the Sumerians as they knew them in the 1950s. At least they didn’t raid the studio costume department for Roman togas and Pan flutes.
Slim Jims hat!
Things are going badly until Bentley whips out his handydandy flashlight and the dudes freak the hell out. There’s a dodgy physiological reason and a real religious one for why the light scares them. Due to the lack of natural sunlight and such, the Sumerians are albinos (sorta) and their eyes cannot handle the brightness of artificial light (ok). More to the movie’s point, though, is the religious significance attached to “the light of the gods”, as such powerful and amazing eyeball-burning light only comes with Ishtar’s grace and surely these foreigners are lieutenants of their Creator. Having never heard of the Prime Directive, Bentley and Bellamin play along and suddenly they are in like Flint with the King. However, while they are treated as emissaries of the gods by the King, the oily High Priest mistrusts them and thinks they are just mortal outsiders. Our heroes realize this quickly, so the race is on to find a way out before the High Priest gets his way and they end up dead.
Hope he has extra batteries.
Why are the leaders not as worried about the fact that other humans are here from a new world when their entire religion is based on believing that they are alone in the universe? It’s like if a UFO full of aliens landed in Georgetown and a couple of Klingons strolled into the White House for dinner, you’d think we’d be a bit more concerned. Well, that’s never really explained, but there are hints that this might have happened before. One of the slave girls we’ll meet later is said to have “the mark”, meaning she is not albino and not overly sensitive to sunlight/flashlight, suggesting that she, or her recent ancestors, also came from “above“. I’m actually shocked they’ve been isolated for this long, you’d think that over the last few thousand years or so, the occasional goatherd or native boy would have scaled that mountain and found a way into the underground Sumerian city. Perhaps such things have happened and the ruling elite just kept it secret to keep the populace under their sway (I’m over-thinking this movie).
The secret must be preserved.
Because I love a tangent or two, there’s a noble attempt made at “world building” beyond what you would expect in a derivative b-movie. Most of this is seen through the Doctors’ eyes as they are led around on a tour of the city. What do they eat? Mushrooms and roots mostly. What are their robes made of? Canvas, huh? Where do they get metal cooking utensils from? The mutants mine it by hand, I guess. How do they get any decent wi-fi service down here inside a mountain? I suppose that’s a tough one, they might have to go with a Dish Network satellite package if they’re going to stream Netflix.
They should sauté those with some butter.
The King says that the city’s population is “twice and a half times sixty”, which I’m guessing is some garbly Lincolnesque way of saying their gene pool is pretty damn shallow and just about everyone has been sleeping with their sisters and cousins for the last 5,000 years (way past the point where it becomes icky). Why is the population artificially kept at this relatively small number? Because that’s the max their food supply can maintain, so any excess is culled by sacrificing them to the Gods by tossing them into a room that’s bathed in deadly “Ishtar’s Light” (more on that as the movie climaxes). The reasoning seems sound, if draconian, but the oh-so-clichéd use of young female victims is insane (later on we see three crazyhot babes consigned to death in the Light Room). You’d think that consistently eliminating potential fertile females out of an already extremely limited breeding stock would be the surest way to self-inflicted extinction, but what do I know.
Why are all the girls in this city so pretty?
The world building, while welcome, takes up a lot of running time, so you have to rush the other subplots to get them all in before the credits. Two subplots in particular are worth mentioning. The first is with what might as well be the enslaved Morlocks and their sledgehammer slavery analogy. Said to be the descendents of humans who were not worthy of Ishtar’s grace, these bug-eyed and clawed brutes do all the mining and heavy lifting for the Sumerian leadership and are treated like dogs in return. Lamentably little time is given to these mute creatures, who seem to possess a fairly high level of social interaction and intelligence, and we are left to wonder if they see Bentley and crew as their saviors as much as Bentley and crew see themselves as the breakers of their chains. Hey, remember in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine when the Morlocks rose up in rebellion against the elite? Suppose something like that will happen in our movie?
Morlock, coming out of the sandy ground.
The other subplot is the absolutely worst with the shoehorning in of the aforementioned slave girl. Sadly, this movie dies on the vine for me when the clichéd meek, submissive girl is introduced as a Bentley’s love interest. Not that I have anything against having romance in a movie, even a vaguely sci-if b-movie such as this, but it almost always ends up being a terrible anchor on the course of the plot. Because we are required to have scenes of the girl and Bentley together, talking about nothing, exchanging googly eyes and winkwinks, and (sigh) eventually kissing and clutching, sizable chunks of valuable time are wasted. Time that should be devoted to dangerous deeds and the wonderment of a lost civilization, things that moviegoers really want to see. Yeah, yeah, we do want to see two people meet and fall in love, but that’s what Cary Grant and Fellini films are for, not a two-week shoot b-movie about square-jawed scientists and cave-dwelling mutants.
It doesn’t help any that that girl, a tall leggy blonde bombshell played by some woman I’ve never heard of, comes across entirely as an actress playing a role and not anything close to a put-upon abused slave girl in an underground empire. Her skin is porcelain and flawless and her hair is just amazing, perfectly coiffed and styled in every shot, like there was a team of hairdressers always hovering just off-camera, ready to swoop in and tuck in loose strands and reapply fixative like a NASCAR pit crew changing tires. She’s said to be a humble slave girl/concubine, but her cover-of-Vogue appearance and her surprisingly regal and intelligent manner of speaking would come across better if her character were a Sumerian princess or the King’s second-most favorite wife or something. Not sure why they felt the need to make her the cleanest indentured servant in the world, but there you go.
Never going to work out.
Despite this, Bentley is all over her like white on rice, proving once again that every leading man in every b-movie comes into the show as an affirmed horny bachelor who is always ready for love/bootknocking no matter what the situation is. And, as with virtually all movies, it’s impossible to see any chemistry between the two of them and their on-screen interactions are painful to watch (I’m sure they just met ten hours before the first day on set). There’s also this weird feeling you get when you try and reconcile Doctor Bentley’s raging horndog routine with John Agar’s silky smooth baby face and puppy eyes. He seems more like the kind of guy who would make the girl a sandwich and then listen to NPR with her for a few hours before kissing her grandmother’s hand goodnight.
And why him? Why not poor Doctor Bellamin, Bentley’s loyal sidekick through all this mess? Why does the sexy slave girl take a shine to smarmy Bentley and not him? Surely it’s because Bentley has the flashlight and is nominally in charge of the pre-falling down the well expedition, but Bellamin seems to be just as, if not more, a ruggedly upstanding man with perfectly greased hair (he‘s literally Ward Cleaver!). Heck, he and Bentley even dress exactly alike, same high-waist Dockers, same City Comptroller buttondown shirt, same improbably flimsy loafers, other than a few inches in height they are essentially the same person. Now that I type that, and as I went back to cut out screen caps, it occurs to me that the Bellamin character is completely extraneous to the movie’s plot. Everything that Bellamin does (and it ain’t much…) could easily have been done by Bentley, and any of Bellamin’s spoken lines are pretty much filler or if they have anything important to add they could easily have been given to someone else in the same scene. Bentley the Lone Explorer could have worked just fine, the plot wouldn’t have missed a beat, and then I wouldn’t have to be writing this, right?
From a distance impossible to tell apart.
Anyway, I’ve rambled enough for now. Pam, after using it all movie long to terrify the Morlocks and intimidate the locals, the moment comes when Bentley’s flashlight batteries finally give out. Is it lights out (harharhar) for our heroes?
It just might be, Nate. The King believes that our heroes are gods, although the High Priest is aware that the archaeologists are no more powerful than the locals, they just have a weapon that hardly anybody can withstand. Drs. Bentley and Bellamin (and they really do look almost exactly alike, which I'd call a poor casting decision) have already made enemies of the King and the High Priest because they won't use their flashlight to keep the Morlocks under control. The Morlocks, in turn, are getting very disgruntled, and it's far from clear that they have any gratitude for the archaeologists' help, which seems meager in comparison to the whipping, starving, and brutal forced labor the locals are putting the Morlocks through. It seems only too likely that the locals and the Morlocks are headed for a battle soon, and without their flashlight, the archaeologists are going to get caught in the middle, with survival unlikely, since they haven't been able to find a way to the outer world.
It‘s a sham!
But hey, this is a B-movie! How can the hero die? For that reason, I'm sure that at least Dr. Bentley will survive. Possibly Dr. Bellamin and Adad, the preternaturally-well-groomed slave girl, will too, but it's also possible that one or both will have to make a noble sacrifice so that the hero can live. We'll just have to wait and see. And I spot a literal ray of hope: "Ishtar's Light" that Nate mentioned earlier, what is that? Do these people, who seemingly have no technology more advanced than that their ancestors had 5,000 years ago, in fact have a mysterious deadly weapon of their own? Or is it, could it be...our own sun?
Ishtar symbol…of death!
We'll have to wait on that one. An elderly archaeologist accompanied our heroes underground, but he contributed little to the action except to slow the heroes down, and he expired of a heart attack early on. Unfortunately the locals found his body (which doesn't look decomposed in any way, for which I'm grateful even though it's not possible it could still be so fresh), so now even the King believes that the new arrivals are just mere mortals and gives the High Priest the go-ahead to put an end to them. The High Priest, it seems, is not the kind of guy who lets grass grow under his feet.
The bosses talk strategy.
The food Adad brings to the two archaeologists has been, unbeknownst to her (maybe), drugged, and only a couple of bites put them under. Are they dead? Poisoning them would seem to be the easiest way to get rid of them, because none of the locals know yet that the flashlight doesn't work anymore. I was wondering if Adad was really completely innocent, or if she agreed to help poison them in return for better treatment, but her reaction shows that she really didn't know what was going on. As the High Priest and the guards tie up the two unconscious archaeologists (which suggests that they aren't dead), and the High Priest helps himself to the flashlight, Adad dashes out of the room and runs through the underground tunnels, waving her hands prettily and not disarranging her hair in the slightest.
A wig, perhaps?
Out of the frying pan, into the fire, possibly. She ends up in the cave where the guards are beating the Morlocks to keep them working, and one of the Morlocks grabs her and drags her into his pit and underground. For some reason the other Morlocks follow suit and also disappear. But we must leave Adad to her fate for now and get back to the archaeologists, who aren't dead after all (yet). It seems that Ishtar is always up for a sacrifice or two, and our two heroes revive just in time to be shoved into the room in which shines "Ishtar's Light."
The movie wants to build up a little more suspense, so it's back to the Morlocks, who seem to be in the mood for a few sacrifices of their own. Just as the High Priest has pulled off his black hood, worn to protect against Ishtar's Light, and is basking in the satisfaction of a job well done, the Morlocks appear out of the ground in front of him, the King, and the Royal Guard. (The floor of the throne room ends abruptly in loose sand, and the throne room itself isn't completely enclosed but opens into a raw cave, which seems odd but was probably done by the set designers to make it easy for the Morlocks to get to the throne room.) The guards don't seem to be able to handle the Morlocks very well, and the Morlocks are able to get the guards' swords away from them with no trouble. The Morlocks are taking the guards down, but the High Priest isn't worried. After all, he still has the ultimate weapon, the flashlight. Except that oops, he finds out he doesn't, and he and the King both go down, too.
Just then, who should appear but Adad. There's no explanation as to how she got out from the Morlock pit, and she seems as afraid of the Morlocks as any of the other locals, so it doesn't appear that she's some special pal of theirs and they helped her. She and her dress both emerged spotless from her little trip beneath the ground, too, and her hair's immaculately coiffed. Those Sumerians could make a fortune selling hair care products! I guess Adad knew that standard procedure was to expose intruders to Ishtar's light, and love-struck still, she crouches sadly in front of the doors that lead to the fatal room. However, a few of the Morlocks, probably by accident, manage to get the doors open. They recoil in pain, but Adad, who as you'll recall is not sensitive to sunlight, walks through to encounter her beloved Dr. Bentley, and the superfluous Dr. Bellamin, as well. The rocks of the shaft conveniently prove easy to climb, and the shaft isn't that long, so they're able to get out easily.
Try the handle.
Sadly, though, happiness is not to be theirs. They're barely on the surface when the ground starts to shake, knocking over a pillar from the temple and crushing poor Adad under it. Not only that, but the shaft through which they climbed out collapses, so the archaeologists won't even be able to return with more flashlights and study the underground civilization, thus becoming the most famous archaeologists ever.
Crushed legs = instant death.
Come to think of it, when that archaeologist fell into the underground tunnel and started all of this, somebody said that he fell about a hundred feet. A hundred feet? And there's an easily climbable shaft available? How is it these people stayed underground so long? It was mentioned that the underground city started out on the surface and was connected to the temple on the mountain, but the ground collapsed beneath it, trapping the people in a large underground cave. If they had such a short distance to climb and a convenient shaft to climb up, why did they stay underground? They weren't light- sensitive when they first fell underground. And did every single inhabitant of the city end up underground, or weren't there some left on the surface who could help them out? That temple didn't look as though it had been abandoned for 5,000 years, a lot of it was still in decent shape, suggesting that there were people taking care of it until fairly recently. And the biggest question of all - who are the Morlocks?
Doesn’t seem that bad.
This wasn't a half-bad movie. Actually, it was half-bad, I mean. The bad parts: They wasted over a third of the movie just getting to the underground city, and they wasted more time on the clichéd romance. As Nate pointed out, it didn't help the plot along at all. And Adad and Dr. Bentley didn't even live happily ever after! The costumes and sets seemed to have been whipped up out of a lot of cardboard and old sheets. Somebody was either lazy or ignorant when decorating the palace walls, since I saw Egyptian hieroglyphs a couple of times. But on the good side, the underground civilization was interesting, and the acting was good. I want to single out Alan Napier for special praise in his role as the High Priest. He did a lot more than Batman's butler during his career, and most of the movies he was in were better than this one, but he did right by his part here. It would have been so easy to make the High Priest into a figure of fun, and that costume he was given was a joke in itself, but Alan Napier managed to give the High Priest dignity and credibility. He was the best actor in the movie, and if everyone else involved, especially the writers, costumers, and set designers, had been as conscientious about doing the best possible job with the resources available, this could have been an excellent movie.
And there was one really good moment, when Adad opened the doors and walked into the sunlight for the first time. But they really should have explained who the Morlocks were and how they came to be enslaved. Were they humans who had mutated, an unknown humanoid species who lived underground, invaders from outer space, or what? All in all, a not-too-bad movie that could have been so much better with a little more imagination and effort.
And what did you think of this movie, Nate?
Well, Pam, it was just as expected, a quickly-shot and poorly-scripted attempt to cash in on “Lost Civilization” craze of the 1950s. It did have some nice design elements, though, and a couple of great acting performances (I second her praise for Alan Napier) help lift this one a tad bit above where it should have been buried. Watch this back/back with 1951‘s Unknown World for a nice double-feature of black and white “Deep beneath the crust” adventure.
Another nice promo pic.
Written in November 2013 by Nathan Decker and Pam Burda.
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