Chalk this up as another one of those troublesomely hard-to-find examples of early science fiction cinema. RKO’s 1933 disaster drama Deluge, loosely adapted from Englishman S. Fowler Wright’s 1928 novel of the same name, led a post-release life so muddled that it’s a minor miracle that it can be seen at all. It would seem that over the course of the last 80 years nearly every film element for Deluge has evaporated into thin air, and despite suggestions that a print may reside with the author Wright’s estate, the only one to surface from murky oblivion thus far is a dubbed Italian export print unearthed in Rome in the early ’80s. First released to tape by Wade Williams in 1998, the Italian Deluge has itself become needlessly difficult to see since, a long-standing victim of the curse of OOP.
With original tapes selling for $200 or worse and no domestic DVD on the horizon, the best alternative for the moment is, appropriately enough, Italian. Sourced from the same video master as the Williams release (hardcoded English subtitles included) but with the original Italian titles intact, La Distruzione del Mondo arrived last year from Fantacult in a limited edition of 999. Response appears to have been tepid at best – the release is still readily available and plenty cheap besides.
And what of the film? For my money it’s just not very good, and most of the genuinely interesting bits are out of the way in the first twenty minutes. Beginning with a globe-spanning disaster that wipes out all but a few scant handfuls of humanity, Deluge soon devolves into a dull survival romance that pits family man Sidney Blackmer (Rosemary’s Baby) against a band of rape-happy thugs and later finds him in a romantic tangle between marathon swimmer Peggy Shannon (Night Life of the Gods) and his long-lost wife, a presumed victim of the disaster. Those keen on post-apocalyptic social rebirth may find some value in seeing Roosevelt’s America reduced to a pre-industrial state, but even at a scant 70 minutes Deluge‘s dramatics are slow-going.
Any genuine interest the film generates these days is due wholly to the special effects that dominate the first third of its running time, which were ruthlessly copied and pasted into a number of Republic serials thereafter. For Deluge pioneering effects man Ned Mann (Things to Come) concocted a spectacle of city-destruction literally unlike anything that had been seen up to that point, and the likes of which wouldn’t be seen again until Roland Emmerich’s delirious end-of-the-world bonanza 2012. Here the sprawling metropolis of New York is rocked to its very foundations by an earthquake of unprecedented scope, and its remnants swept away in a massive tidal surge. Most of what’s on display here is of excellent stuff, with tremendous miniature design and some process work that’s well ahead of its time. Only a few composite shots of cartoonishly sped-up crowds fleeing through the toppling city blocks underwhelm, and even they aren’t without their impact. You’ll find the full thrilling sequence below.
Even if I don’t particularly care for Deluge‘s drama, its landmark effects design is enough to make me wish better copies were available. For now the Fantacult DVD is about as good as things get. While quality leaves a lot to be desired (this is an NTSC-to-PAL conversion, and there’s plenty of ghosting and artifacts to go around) it makes for a passable watch under present circumstances – that the only other option is a grotesquely overpriced tape from fifteen years ago makes Fantacult’s inexpensive disc tough not to recommend. La Distruzione del Mondo is a PAL-format limited edition of 999, and is readily available through Amazon.it and elsewhere.