Directors: Walon Green and Ed Spiegel
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Poor Marcel Ophüls. A man ahead of his time, his masterpiece, The Sorrow and the Pity, which discusses the nature, details, and reasons for the cooperation of France’s Vichy government with Nazi Germany, would have been a shoo-in for an Oscar any time over the last decade or so. Unluckily, he made the film in 1971, in an era not yet ready for Hitler, and had to compete against The Ra Expedition, which documents Thor Heyerdahl’s Atlantic crossing in a papyrus boat; Alaska Wilderness Lake, a film about which I can find nothing except that it was produced by Alan Landsburg, the man behind many of the National Geographic specials, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and Porkys II: The Next Day; and On Any Sunday, a documentary about motorcycle racing featuring stars of the sport, including Steve McQueen.
And then there’s the film that won the Oscar, The Hellstrom Chronicle, a film that strictly speaking isn’t what I’d call a real documentary, even given today’s tolerance for reenactment. The narrator of the film, Dr. Hellstrom, a maverick scientist drummed out of teaching posts and polite science circles, is a fictional character played by prolific actor Lawrence Pressman. And a farmer he interviews isn’t a real farmer either; he’s actually played by a TV actor named Conlan Carter. So what was all the fuss about?
I’ll start off by saying that I saw this film on its initial release, and the impression it made on me was indelible. Over the years, I’ve wanted to get my hands on it, but it’s another one of those rarities that’s difficult to track down. So imagine my joy yesterday when the hubby opened up a shipment of Beta cassettes he ordered to go with his recent acquisition of a Beta machine and found among the detritus The Hellstrom Chronicle. “We’re watching this tonight,” I commanded, and we did.
The film posits a theory any science fiction buff would glom onto in a second—that dominion over the world will come down to a battle between two classes of Kingdom Animalia, Man and insects, and that insects will win. The way Pressman plays Hellstrom is reminiscent of Jeffrey Combs’ unforgettable creation Herbert West in Re-Animator, lending a comic, incredulous air to the “evidence” the good doctor presents. It is that evidence, however, that makes this film truly amazing.
You’ll be hard pressed to find better microcinematography than what Walon Green and Helmuth Barth put up on screen—or any that is more gag-inducing. We get up close and personal with a wide variety of insects and their homes. In one instance, Hellstrom zooms in on the hierarchy of the average honey bee at a field of hives. The sterile female workers go out to collect nectar, build honeycombs and fill them with food, feed the drones that are so specialized as studs for the queen that they can’t feed themselves, and tend to the larval and young bees and the queen herself. Hellstrom removes the queen so we can see what happens next. The workers convert several larval bees into potential queens by feeding them royal jelly. When the first two queens emerge, the worker bees surround them and force them to fight to the death. After a victor emerges, the larval queens are eaten. Drones are sent out of the hive to chase the new queen and impregnate her. After she is able to reproduce, the worker bees drive all of the drones out of the hive, dooming them to starve to death. The hives themselves are attacked by bee-killer wasps, and we get to witness the entire, desperate battle and the dismemberment of legions of bees and wasps whose strewn body parts continue to twitch.
The Hellstrom Chronicle shows us many large-scale battles, for example, locusts rising up in giant clouds to attack and consume a crop that could feed a million people, a crop-dusting plane made blind and grotesque by the smashed bodies of locusts on its windows; ants at home in their tunnels and at war with another species over the delectable morsel of a dead bee; a broken termite mound—a truly spectacular construction—that must be defended from predators while workers furiously rebuild the damaged area using secretions from their bodies.
The film also shows us domestic battles, for example, the throbbing body of a female black widow spider, made more titillating by Hellstrom’s description, attracting a tiny male that approaches with both desire and fear. After mating, of course, the female quickly wraps him up for a tasty meal later on.
The film takes care to show us some of the beauty and wonder of the insect world, from the metamorphosis of a Monarch butterfly to a shimmering spider’s web woven in high-speed, time-lapse photography in a matter of moments. The clever camouflage of some insects is particularly emphasized as a snake looking for a meal crawls right over an insect that resembles a branch. Stuff like this is pretty amazing.
Hellstrom likes to zero in on how defenseless human beings will be against insects. Humans will not sacrifice themselves mindlessly the way insects will for the good of the whole. Humans, in trying to poison crop-eating insects, end up making their fields unsustainable, while a few generations of mutations make the insects invulnerable to their sprays. This is the part in which the fake farmer talks about having to burn his fields because they are hopelessly contaminated with DDT.
The final sequence—the one Hellstrom has been saving as a sobering look at the destructive might of insects—is the relentless march of the driver ants. The ants make bridges of their bodies over water, the bottom layer drowning in the process. They find a hideout and prepare for an assault on all living things. They take down large lizards on the ground and in the trees, overrun everything edible, and carry it home for the entire colony to feed on. The music by Lalo Schifrin punctuates the battle sequences with drums and frantic violins that seem to be made to sound like insects.
As I watched this film, I was both fascinated and horrified. Watching the termite queens—throbbing white masses laying eggs—seemed as otherworldly as any scifi movie I’ve ever seen. Indeed, The Hellstrom Chronicle samples from Them! to continue its theme of Man vs. Insect. Oh, and this film is very un-PC in that use of the term “Man” for humanity; it drove me just a little crazy listening to it for the duration of the film. Dr. Hellstrom hasn’t proven his thesis (although the film shows a title card at the end that says his theories have a basis in the scientific literature—this was, after all, the heyday of sociobiology), but we have been given a thorough nature lesson. The last shot is of a rhinoceros beetle raising it menacing claw against a setting sun. If, after all that has gone before, that doesn’t scare the hell out of you, nothing in this movie will.