This review originally appeared on the Classic Sci-Fi Movies blog.
The 70s appetite for post-apocalyptic tales rolled on with the American release of The Ultimate Warrior (TUW) in late June of 1976. The story is not really “science” fiction, as much as it belongs in the post-apocalyptic genre. Yet, this genre often included sci-fi stories, so the two are popularly associated. Yul Brynner stars as a freelance “warrior” amid the tribal societies of a post-apocalyptic New York City. Max von Sydow stars as “The Baron”, leader of one of the tribes. William Smith stars as “Carrot”, leader of a ruthless rival tribe. Robert Clouse, famous as the director of martial arts films such as, Enter The Dragon, wrote the story as well as directed. Taking place in far off 2012, Clouse imagined things could get really bad in 40 years.
Quick Plot Synopsis
Text on screen: New York, 2012 A.D. Still images paint a picture of ruin and desolation. In the city, there is a compound, fortified with junk ramparts, in which a remnant of civilized mankind lives. They call their leader: The Baron. They are puzzled by a man who just stands in front of the library, for days, in a meditative trance. Convinced that the man is the warrior he needs, The Baron makes him an offer of food, lodging, freedom and cigars. The cigars get Carson’s attention. They have a deal. The Baron’s son-in-law, Cal, has gardens on the rooftops. He is growing food plants that are immune to the plague that decimated the earth decades ago. The Baron’s real plan is not just to have Carson be their warrior. He wants Carson to take his pregnant daughter, Melinda and Cal out of the city via subway tunnels, to go live on an idyllic island off the North Carolina coast. Civility within the compound is breaking down. People accuse each other of secretly hoarding food and not sharing. One shrew of a woman ventures out beyond the gates, assuming that she knows where some powdered milk is hidden. Members of the rival (and criminal) gang, led by a read-headed man named Carrot, catch the couple in the bakery and kill them. They use the baby as bait to lure more out in attempted rescue. Carson goes out and kicks a lot of butt, but the baby was dead. Carson’s men sneak up to the roof gardens at night via ladders. In the fighting, Cal is killed, as are many of Carrot’s men. This attack moves up The Baron’s timetable. He sends Carson and Melinda off through the tunnels. The rest of the people see this and turn on the Baron, accused of hiding food. He is killed by his own people. Meanwhile, Carrot’s men also know that Carson and Melinda are on the run. They want the seeds, so track and follow them through the tunnels. Carson defeats a few, but Melinda goes into labor. He helps deliver the baby boy, just in time for Carrot and his gang to arrive. There is more fighting. Carson keeps an upper hand, so Carrot’s men all run away. Carrot and Carson go mano a mano. Carrot wields a steel ball on a cable, like a mace. Eventually, Carson grabs it and they struggle. Carrot falls down an access shaft and hangs by the cable twisted around Carson’s wrist. Carson tries to cut the cable with an axe, but cannot. So, he pulls it up a bit, and chops off his own hand. Carrot falls to his death. Carson sticks his stump into a torch flame to cauterize the wound. He and Melinda keep traveling, eventually seeing an island off the coast. Freeze frame, The End.
Why is this movie fun?
Seeing the civilized world we like to assume is permanent, in a state of abandon and decay, has a curious fascination. The trope isn’t new, by any means, but TUW presents it an understated stage. Yul Brynner does a good job as Carson, giving the usual stoic hero a bit more human depth. Max von Sydow does a good job as The Baron, the world-weary (yet resolutely hopeful) leader of a decaying society.
TEOTWAWKI — Exploring the notion of The End Of The World As We Know It, has shown up periodically in books since the early 1800s, and later in movies. Writers and audiences had a sinking feeling (every now and then) that the civilization to which people had grown accustomed to might fail. Then what would people do? In the industrializing era of the 19th century, teotwawki fiction did not get a lot of traction. Mankind just seemed to be solving problems left and right. How could civilization not just keep getting better and better (meliorism). Still, the occasional prophet in the wilderness asked the question: what if? With the advent of the nuclear era, the prospect of comfy civilization crumbling looked a lot more plausible. When the late 60s-early 70s added angst over pollution and overpopulation, people had even more reasons to picture teotwawki. The end of civilization was taking on more of a “when” than “if” quality.
A Tale of Two Tribes — Mankind is shown as reduced and polarized into two social groups. The Baron’s group represent the leftover civility, if not quite the “goodness”. Carrot’s group clearly represents the consortium of badness. To underscore this, Clouse has their headquarters be a prison block. Between the two tribal camps were the “street people” — unorganized feral humans who preyed on the weak or the stray.
BioHazard — Just what crashed civilization is not given much ink in the script. Clearly, why civilization fell was not crucial. That it did, is a given. Mankind must deal with it. A few lines of dialogue explain that there was a plague which not only affected people (in the subway tunnels are skeletons wearing gas masks), but more importantly, the plague killed the world’s food crops. Those who did not die of plague, or starved to death, were reduced to scavengers of whatever food existed before the plague. TUW shares this food-doom theme with No Blade of Grass (’70). This was a background them in Silent Running (’72) and Soylent Green (’73). The 70s was a time of food angst.
Taint of Doom — Within The Baron’s group, can be seen the legacy problems that plagued mankind since Cain slew Abel. They cling to hope, and try to maintain some semblance of order, but the fallen nature of humanity shows through the widening cracks. Shortages lead to jealousies and suspicions. Tempers are short. One man, a sort of Judas character, steals a tomato (forbidden fruit) and plants it in another man’s hut. The framed man gets no support from his neighbors, hinting at offstage tensions or rivalries. When The Baron arranges the escape of Carson and Melinda, the people turn on The Baron. They accuse him of taking food, or even simply the crime of having food he had not shared. In a jealous rage, the mob kills The Baron. Only The Baron’s lieutenant seems to realize afterward how they had suddenly decayed into a savage mob, ala The Lord of the Flies.
Symbolic Hope —The Baron saw the decay of his group growing. That is why he recruited Carson. It wasn’t to protect the group from Carrot’s gang, although he did do some of this. The Baron saw the only hope for the survival of civilized man, was to once again become producers of food, not scavengers. Symbolic of that hope is the bag of seeds which Cal had grown. Also symbolic is the unborn child within Melinda. The fabled island off North Carolina is a neo-Promised-Land where mankind can start over. Carson and Melinda, while never cast as a romantic pair, become a sort of Adam and Eve with their Garden sanctuary off the coast.
Why “Ultimate” Warrior? — In the usual melodrama formula, an “ultimate” warrior would be a Schwartzeneger type who defeats all enemies. Here, though, the “ultimate” describes Carson’s role as the archetypal heroic MAN. He cares for and protects the maternal figure (Melinda). With the seeds, he prefigures his role as homesteader/provider. He delivers a baby! He was even willing to sacrifice his own hand to insure the micro-family would be safe from evil. Yes, he battles all the baddies, but all that in protection of the micro-family. This is ultra-manhood, not mere machismo.
Which Wrist? — A viewer might ask (and has) why Carson did not cut off Carrot’s hand instead of his own. There are a few problems with this “obviously” better plan. One, Carson may not have had the strength left, after all those fights, to pull heavy Carrot up high enough. Second, is that Carrot would not have simply held still enough for Carson to make the chop, which leads to: Third, to have his cable-gripped hand within range of the axe, would put the axe within range of Carrot’s free hand. To swing at Carrot’s wrist was to risk Carrot grabbing the axe and pulling Carson down too. Fourth, is that pulling Carrot up high enough to chop his wrist, would put Carrot’s free hand within grabbing distance of the edge of the hole. No, it was no sloppy mistake by the scriptwriter. Carson had to sacrifice his own wrist to avoid the risk of Carrot getting out.
We’re Not in New York Anymore, Toto — Even though the story takes place in the ruins of New York City, the filming was actually done in California, mostly on sound stages and back lot generic “city” sets. The only visuals to place the action in New York, are still photos at the beginning and end. It interesting to see in the beginning montage, that the Twin Towers were still standing in “2012”. Of course, who in 1975 would have guessed what 2001 would bring?
Bottom line? TUW is an interesting post-apocalyptic tale that predates the more famous Mad Max series. There are several tangents to muse upon. The acting is convincing, the sets bleak and the cinematography reasonably good. Fans of Clouse for his martial arts and fight scenes may be disappointed, as fighting is not the focal point. Fans of post-apocalyptic tales can enjoy the usual stories of bravery and survivorship. TUW is not well known, but worth the time to watch.
For more reviews of science fiction movies from the early days of film through the 1970’s, visit Classic Sci-Fi Movies at http://classicscifi.blogspot.com.