1967 | England, United States
Director: Montgomery Tully
The wonderful thing about Battle Beneath the Earth is that it allows even an underachiever like myself with no college education to feel that he has a breadth of scientific knowledge superior to that of its makers. On more than one occasion while watching it I could point at the screen and exclaim, “That cannnot happen! Ha!” For instance, I don’t know anything about geology, but I know that molten lava is hot and that you can’t just daintily step over a stream of it as if it were a crack in the sidewalk. Also, if digging a tunnel between China and the U.S. were as easy as this film makes it out to be, China’s biggest problem would be the steady influx of six-to-eight-year-old American boys constantly emerging from holes hither and yon to excitedly wave their shovels at people.
Battle Beneath the Earth strikes me as being what a movie conceived by one of that six-to-eight-year-old boys might be like. It’s a film that is clearly targeted directly at the kiddie matinee market. As such, it seems to bypass all adult sensibilities and mainline directly into the brain patterns of a prepubescent sixties-era male jacked up on war comics, high sugar cereals, and violent Saturday morning cartoons. I mean, listen to this premise: The Red Chinese dig a subterranean tunnel from China to the U.S. with the intent of detonating nuclear bombs under our major cities, only to be engaged by the U.S. armed forces in all-out warfare…beneath the surface of the Earth! Seriously, fellows, if that doesn’t stir the kid inside, I don’t know what would.
Unfortunately, in execution, Battle Beneath the Earth confronts a discrepancy between ambition and means similar to what an eight-year-old likely would. As a result, it ends up being a classic example of the type of movie that marries a grandiose concept to modest intentions. “The Chinese” end up being more like some Chinese (and not even real ones, in most cases) and the “battle” ends up being more like a skirmish. Still, the movie has to be given some points at the get-go for its dopey concept and total disregard for maintaining credulity among anyone whose age breaks the double digits. Then again, given that this is a British production pretending to be an American one, with Caucasian actors pretending to be Chinese, it could just be an instance of some smarty-pants English people making fun of us Yanks by dumbing themselves down in imitation. (Executive #1: “So how do we make it seem authentically American?” Executive #2: “Well, first of all, we should make it really stupid.”)
In line with its moderate level of spectacle, Battle Beneath the Earth is the work of a group of professionals who shared a more or less equally moderate level of accomplishment. Before helming the picture, director Montgomery Tully churned out, seemingly at monthly intervals, a large number of competent but unremarkable B-grade crime thrillers and worked in British television. Writer Charles F. Vetter (here credited as L.Z. Hargreaves) was responsible for writing enjoyable genre entries like First Man Into Space and Devil Doll that, while certainly not without their well-deserved fans, are far from considered classics. Star Kerwin Matthews was known primarily for playing support to stop-motion monsters in films like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, and Jack the Giant Killer, though it was likely his work in Eurospy films like the OSS 117 series that put him in mind for his role here. Leading lady Vivienne Ventura had a healthy resume of TV work. All in all, a perfectly respectable line-up of talent, but nowhere near a guarantee that what you’re going to be seeing will rise above mediocrity.
Our action begins on a British soundstage dressed up to resemble, at least to a grade schooler’s exacting standards of verisimilitude, a street in downtown Las Vegas. As a crowd of British extras doing their best to exude American-ness looks on, over-stressed scientist Arnold Kramer (Peter Arne) kneels with his ear to the sidewalk, exclaiming excitedly about some kind of suspicious goings-on “down there”. Of course, since the movie is called Battle Beneath the Earth, we know that Kramer is on to something, but the Las Vegas authorities, not being afforded such insight, just think he’s a nutter and cart him off to the bin. Kramer, of course, protests to the contrary and insures them that the threat he perceives is real. However, like most supposedly sane people in movies who are assumed to be crazy by everyone else, he steadfastly refuses to state his case in clear, simple terms, and instead resorts to vague, metaphorical language that is as close to incoherent raving as possible.
Enter Naval Commander John Shore, played by Kerwin Matthews. Since an undersea lab project he helmed ended in disaster thanks to a mysterious underwater earthquake, Shore has been relegated to a test lab where he spends his days hitting brightly colored pipes with a rubber mallet. Fortunately, one of his assistants happens to be over-stressed scientist Arnold Kramer’s sister, and she asks Shore to visit her brother. Kramer is not much more transparent in his statements to Shore but does show him a “seismographic drawing” made as a byproduct of some earthquake prediction research he was conducting–that, according to him, shows man-made tunnels under the U.S.that he believes are entering the country somewhere along the Oregon coast. Later, when news breaks of an unexplained mine collapse in an Oregon coastal town, Shore decides that Kramer’s claims merit further looking into.
Shore visits his buddy, Lieutenant Commander Vance Cassidy, at the very clearly labeled “Los Alamos (Underground) Atomic Detection Center”. Despite the name, the center appears to be some kind of global listening post. They’ve got “the entire world bugged”, Cassidy tells Shore, and if “a champagne cork pops in the Kremlin”, they hear it. That this arrangement is unironically presented as being merely sort of neat is in keeping with Battle Beyond the Earth’s kid-like perspective, exemplified in this case by a purely “gee-whiz” conception of both the benevolence of military authority and the sleek efficiency of American bureaucracy. This is, after all, a movie where the sight of a uniformed official puffing out his chest and barking gravely into a bright red phone while standing in front of a wall-sized map is treated as being on an equal level of spectacle to any of the action set pieces, and in which, during the cast listing at the end, each of the characters are listed by full name and military ranking, even though some of them weren’t even referred to by name in the film and none of them are real people (seriously, you feel like you’re supposed to stand up as they roll by).
The barking of terse commands into red phones also results in important things getting done, and often in remarkable time. At one point, when silence is required in order for the Navy’s detecting equipment to identify the locations of the Chinese underground tunnels, Admiral Felix Hillebrand (Robert Ayres) simply picks up the phone and makes a couple of calls, resulting, within just a few hours, in the entire United States going completely silent. All transportation has been shut down, traffic stopped, broadcast signals ceased, and all heavy machinery of every kind brought to a halt in every single region of every state in the union. One by one, each of the states checks in with the central command center, letting the brass know that “condition silent” is in effect, at which point, of course, that state lights up on a giant wall map. These few uniformed men in this room are not just important, Battle Beneath the Earth is saying, but super-duper important, so much so that they can toggle the entire country on and off like a light switch.
It’s kind of hard to believe that those behind Battle Beneath the Earth meant for any of this to be taken seriously, even by the attention-deficient rugrats at the core of their target audience. This was 1967, after all, and characters such as these were already commonly being presented as either villains or figures of ridicule throughout mainstream entertainment. Most of the military men on display here, with their implied mania for control and obsession with commies, are, in fact, just a few tweaks away from becoming Dr. Strangelove‘s General Jack D. Ripper.
Lieutenant Commander Vance Cassidy, by the way, is portrayed by Ed Bishop. Though he was born in Brooklyn, there was something about Bishop, perhaps his weathered farmboy good looks or unaccented TV announcer’s voice, that seems to have struck British casting agents as being quintessentially middle-American, because his early career consisted largely of bit parts as token American astronauts, low-level military functionaries and mission control operators in a number of British productions. Around the time of making Battle Beneath the Earth, he was providing the voice of Captain Blue in Gerry Anderson’s puppet series Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. That would lead, a couple of years later, to him donning a platinum wig and taking the lead role of Commander Ed Straker in Anderson’s first live-action series, UFO — if not the best, then certainly one of the most stylish science fiction programs of the 1960s.
Shore’s initial visit to the (Underground) Atomic Detection Center proves unfruitful, as Cassidy’s equipment is more attuned to picking up champaign corks popping in the Kremlin than it is hundreds of Chinese burrowing away right beneath our feet. Undaunted, Shore heads to the collapsed mine in Oregon where he stumbles upon a freshly made tunnel, the walls of which apparently having been hewn via the application of extraordinary heat. He also finds a medallion that someone has left behind that has a Chinese dragon on it. This discovery leads to Shore being authorized to return to the mine with a small group of combat soldiers.
This second time around, Shore and the soldiers happen upon a big yellow tank thing bearing the same dragon insignia as the medallion, which is in the process of carving a tunnel through the rock using high-intensity lasers. These lasers are portrayed by a couple of extra-bright headlamps–but have no fear; the use of drawn-on cartoon laser beams will be used at later points as dramatic effect requires. They follow the laser tank to an underground chamber in which a number of Asians in lab coats, as well as a few soldiers, are tending to some large, black, lozenge-shaped things which also bear the same dragon insignia. “Chinese!”, exclaims one of the soldiers. “With atom bombs!”, exclaims Kerwin Matthew in reply.
At this, Shore and company leap from hiding and waste the whole group in a hail of machinegun fire. This tactic, while effective in a very limited sense, leaves quite a few questions with little hope of being answered, such as just who all of these freshly dead Chinese people are working for. As we will soon learn, the answer to that is General Chan Lu, a rogue Chinese officer who has seized his country’s plutonium stores and held his government hostage while pursuing his own personal plan to nuke the U.S. to rubble using a system of world-spanning tunnels dug by his private troops over the course of three years. Serving loyally at his side are the evil scientific genius, Dr. Kengh Lee, and his key military aid, Major Chai, both of whom have to compete for attention with his ever-present pet falcon.
As far as I could tell, all of those Chinese military personnel gunned down by Shore and his men, like most of the non-speaking Asian roles in Battle Beneath the Earth, were played by actual Asians, but the door slams pretty hard on race-appropriate casting once we get to the speaking roles. Chan Lu and Kengh Lee, for instance, are played by veteran character actors and British TV stalwarts Martin Benson and Peter Elliott, and they do so in a dispiriting display of the most egregious putty-eyed Orientalism you could imagine. In all seriousness, if there was just one of them it might be easier to get around, but between the two of them, they’re like a tag team of Fu Manchus trying to out “ah so” one another in a taxing display of excruciatingly racist inscrutability. Major Chai is played by a British actor David Spenser, though in a comparably lower key. It is only Paula Li Shiu, out of all the Asian actors on screen, who gets a speaking role, playing Dr. Arnn, a functionary of Chan Lu’s who shows up in one scene to hypnotize a captive Peter Arne using a handheld electric fan.
Out of all the actors in Battle Beneath the Earth, Peter Arne is definitely the one most worth watching. For one thing, he’s perfect for a comic book movie like this, because he looks like he was drawn by Steve Ditko; his face is a collection of anxious lines that looks like just one more stressor could cause it to collapse in upon itself. Furthermore, in a field of stubbornly one-layered characters, his is the one that strives the most toward three-dimensionality. Kramer is conflicted, resentful of his earlier treatment by the military establishment, but driven by a sense of duty once he is called upon to rejoin the cause, and Arne brings twitchy irascibility to his portrayal that makes him the focus of every scene he’s in. Arne was yet another fixture of 1960s British TV (I swear, I don’t think there’s a single member of the cast of Battle Beneath the Earth who didn’t make a guest appearance on Danger Man). I was sad to learn that he left this world under violent circumstances, the victim of murder in 1983. I wish I could pay him better tribute than simply saying that he was the best actor in Battle Beneath the Earth, but there you go. At least I mean it sincerely.
I have descibed things in Battle Beneath the Earth that sound much more exciting or colorful than they actually appear on screen. To counter this, I suggest that you apply to every mental image conjured by these descriptions a sort of down-sizing formula, reducing the scale of what you see in your mind by a factor of about, oh, eighty percent or so. For instance, when I describe a clash between Chinese and American soldiers, you might think of it as involving actual armies, when in reality there will be no more than a dozen people on either side. This was done, I imagine, not only to save on the cost of employing extras, but also because that is about as many people as the small sets could accommodate.
To give some idea, also, of the level of art direction and set design on display, I call your attention to the command headquarters of General Chan Lu. It appears to have been staged on a single cave set that was redressed and used for the majority of the film’s subterranean locations and is pretty lazily decorated with whatever could be purchased cheaply and easily from a Chinatown gift shop. There are a couple of Oriental rugs slung on the wall, one of those folding screens, some Chinese lanterns, a couple of dragon statues, etc. Pretty shoddy, really, and fully in keeping with the laziness of the stereotypes portrayed by Benson and Elliott—which is the true source of their offensiveness, really: that they’re less the result of racism than they are of the filmmakers just not giving a shit.
Similarly, the high-tech headquarters of the Los Alamos (Underground) Atomic Detection Center is comprised of a surprising amount of exposed aluminum sheeting and, if not for all of those colorful wall maps with all their flashing lights to distract us, might look more like the kitchen in a run-down elementary school cafeteria. Finally, on the prop front, the Chinese laser tank is appealing in a life-sized toy kind of way but looks like it was probably made out of wood, and when the U.S. makes their own version of the tank, it appears to be just the same prop painted blue. (See, theirs is yellow and ours is blue. Blue vs. yellow. Get it?)
After successfully defusing all of those atomic bombs (Matthews’ Shore is one of those old-fashioned omni-abled sci-fi movie heroes that we here love so much: not just good with the science, but also with using his fists and, if the plot requires, dismantling nuclear weapons), Shore and his small team of soldiers are sent back for another foray into the tunnel. This time Chan Lu’s men lead them into a trap which is comprised of a bucket of steam-emitting nuclear waste that one of the Chinese soldiers appears to detonate using a Roadrunner-style plunger. What follows is just one of the movie’s instances of people running away from a nuclear blast–though, in this case, with only varied success, as many of Shore’s men end up getting killed. This is cold realism in action, of course, because everyone knows that you need at least ten minutes to make egress on foot from the effects of an atomic explosion, which is the reason why Shore and his crew are later able to jog to safety after detonating several full-sized nukes. You can’t overemphasize the importance of lead time.
Admiral Hillebrand determines that the General’s main supply tunnel under the Pacific can be accessed by way of an inactive Hawaiian volcano and assigns Shore and his men the task of destroying it, while at the same time bringing Kramer back onto the team to create the blue version of the laser tank. It is at this point that we see the eleventh-hour introduction of a sexy lady scientist (hey, who let that thirteen-year-old into the writing session?), Tila Yung, portrayed by Vivienne Ventura. Ventura ends up being a fairly innocuous presence and provides someone for Shore to mack on during his downtime from saving the world, but she is disconcertingly orange in color and has a strange vocal inflection.
It is in the bowels of the Earth beneath that Hawaiian volcano that Battle Beneath the Earth‘s final battle beneath the Earth finally takes place. Of course, the way things work out, it ends up being just Shore, Tila Yung, and Sergeant Mulberry (played by Al Mulock, who is sadly probably most famous for committing suicide while in costume during location shooting for Once Upon a Time in the West) holding up our end of the battle. Numbers aren’t important, however. What is important is that this battle affords the opportunity for Martin Benson to strut around and make pronouncements like “Our enemies stand naked before us!” and “Logic is the American’s god!”, and for Shore, Yung and Mulberry to steal some of Chang Lu’s soldiers’ uniforms and try to imitate Chinese people by speaking English in robot voices, and, finally, for the three of them to stand on a cliff, confusingly looking straight ahead at what is revealed to be an aerial view of a nuclear explosion.
For all its failings and vile but wholly predictable yellow peril racism, Battle Beneath the Earth is a difficult movie to hate, partly due to it having the disarming quality of seeming like it was the result of someone watching me play army men on my bedroom floor when I was six and then making a movie out of it—though, of course, with much lower production values. In fact, it’s difficult to even call it a bad movie. What it is, in reality, is a solidly mediocre movie, though one whose mere adequacy is rendered bad when viewed in comparison to its over-reaching concept. Star Kerwin Matthews, director Tully and scenarist Vetter all contribute valiantly to maintaining that level of mediocrity, insuring that our hero will never diverge from a stubborn, slate-like blandness, that no camera composition will be inventive enough to call attention to itself, and that no situation will be novel enough to deliver any kind of actual surprise. Against that backdrop, the pulse-raising moral offense incited by the Asian minstrelsy of Martin Benson and Peter Elliott actually comes as some kind of gift, as does the genuine quirkiness of Peter Arne’s performance.
The way it cagily intertwines itself with childhood nostalgia also makes Battle Beneath the Earth one of those infuriating films that always seems better in recollection than when actually viewed. There’s no harm in that, of course, other than that it encourages repeat viewings, which, believe me, the actual film really doesn’t hold up to. It’s a pleasant enough diversion on the first pass, but once it’s done, it’s time to close the toy box and move on.