The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971)

Directors: Walon Green and Ed Spiegel

Hellstrom%204.jpg

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.

Hellstrom.jpg

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.

Hellstrom%203.jpg

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%20farmer.jpg

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.

Hellstrom%20driver%20ants.jpg

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.

Hellstrom%20termite.jpg

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.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    9th/12/2008 to 3:45 pm

    What an incredible coincidence! In almost two years of blogging the scientific classifications for the animal world have never come up on my blog. Then today Arbo and I make jokes about it and this is the review you’ve got waiting in the wings. Incredible.
    And it sounds like an incredible movie! Let’s petition Criterion for a DVD transfer. And I’m probably not the only one who thought of Starship Troopers while reading this. And guess what! In Starship Troopers, a movie about a fascist human society fighting an insect one for survival, the main transport ship is named…

    The Rodger Young! I kid you not.
    I’ve gone from Carly Simon’s Anticipation to the Police’s Synchronicity.
    Let’s all bet on the lottery today!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/12/2008 to 3:57 pm

    The whole premise of a great Canadian TV series, Lexx, is the insect basis for humanity AND I blogged about it. Another sensational coincidence!

  • ARBOGAST spoke:
    9th/12/2008 to 11:00 pm

    I like the way you boss your husband. It’s hot.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/12/2008 to 11:04 pm

    Who told you you could comment on my marriage? Stop it immediately!

  • fox spoke:
    9th/12/2008 to 11:28 pm

    Marilyn-
    Have you ever seen Phase IV? It’s been awhile for me, but it has some great microcinematography in it as well. After reading this I want to revisit it… as well as this film itself, though you make it sound like a DVD is way, way far away.
    Do you know why this was allowed in the documentary section if it was a work of fiction?

  • ARBOGAST spoke:
    9th/12/2008 to 11:42 pm

    Ooh.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    10th/12/2008 to 5:37 am

    I’ve never heard of Phase IV. Is that an insect movie, too? As for the DVD, I doubt we’ll ever seen one, but I do think that a VHS tape might be available. It’s possible the hubby could make some discs; this tape is in exceptionally good condition, very clear images. I’ll ask him if you’re interested. Let me know.
    As for why it was allowed in the doc competition, I really don’t know. That part of the Oscars has always been kind of hinky, and I hate to say this and it’s only a guess, but I think they might have wanted to favor American product. How this one won over The Sorrow and the Pity, I’ll never know.

  • ARBOGAST spoke:
    10th/12/2008 to 10:06 am

    Damnit, Fox’s comment separated my orgasmic “ooh” from Marilyn’s reprimand. Damn Fox all to hell!
    You have to see Phase IV. It’s the bee’s knees and the ant’s antennae.

  • Ed Howard spoke:
    10th/12/2008 to 10:38 am

    Wow, this sounds fascinating Marilyn. I’ll have to track it down — it looks like my usual online source has a good AVI copy.
    I was mostly coming here to bring up the amazing Phase IV, but I see that Fox already mentioned it. You should definitely give that one a look, it’s out on DVD. It was the only directorial feature from famed credits designer Saul Bass, a really creepy sci-fi film about super-intelligent ants. The micro-cinematography in it is stunning, really investing the ant antagonists with personalities of their own. The ants in the film are much more interesting than any of the human actors.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    10th/12/2008 to 12:14 pm

    Well, all right then. A mere handful of film fans can’t be wrong… 🙂

  • MovieMan0283 spoke:
    10th/12/2008 to 8:43 pm

    We all have our Achilles’ heel and mine is an incredible squeamishness about bugs (especially, sigh, yes I know they’re not really bugs, worms – there aren’t any in this film are there?). I’d love to see this movie but I have a feeling I’d be watching it through barely parted fingers.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    10th/12/2008 to 10:20 pm

    MovieMan – Spare yourself. This is not for the squeamish.

  • Kimberly spoke:
    12th/12/2008 to 7:00 pm

    I have to confess, right along with MovieMan0283, that my Achilles’ heel is probably my aversion to insects as well. I’ve tried getting over it for years and my fears have mellowed a tiny bit, but I don’t think I’d watch this movie anytime soon. If I saw it playing on TV I’d turn the channel.
    Give me attacking reptiles, brutal killers with blunt instruments, monster sharks and every movie monster imaginable, but spare me the BUGS!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/12/2008 to 8:28 pm

    Ha, ha! This really is a horror film for you two, then.The film actually addressed that aversion. The good doctor pulls a hidden camera on some unsuspecting humans who are deliberately given food or food utensils with bugs on them. The reaction is what you’d imagine. It’s really kind of a strange part of the film.

  • billgerat spoke:
    29th/12/2008 to 8:21 pm

    Hellstrom’s Hive by Frank Herbert. Read it. It was inspired by The Hellstrom Chronicles.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    29th/12/2008 to 9:48 pm

    How interesting! Thanks for the recommendation. I’ve always been a fan of Herbert. And thanks for stopping by.

  • bill r. spoke:
    30th/12/2008 to 10:30 am

    I second Arbo’s recommendation of Phase IV. It’s utterly strange and unique and mesmerizing. And, even though you can get it on Netflix, it’s apparently so hard to come by that some guy on another blog told me that I hadn’t actually seen it, and that I must be thinking of something else.

Leave your comment






(*)mandatory fields.

What others say about us

"You put a lot of love into your blog." – Roger Ebert, Roger Ebert's Journal
"Marilyn and Roderick … always raising the tone." – Farran Smith Nehme, The Self-Styled Siren
"Honestly, you both have made me aware of films I've never seen, from every era. Mega enriching." – Donna Hill, Strictly Vintage Hollywood




Subscribe to Ferdy on Films

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Recent Comments

Recent Posts

Blogs

Chicago Resources

General Film Resources

Categories

Archives