Every so often, a contribution gets spiked or falls into limbo, and the text hangs around not being read on the harddrive. I ended up writing about The Man Who Fell to Earth in Solar Flares, “Unimportant Failures: The Fall and Rise of The Man Who Fell to Earth”, Science Fiction Across Media: Adaptation/Novelisation and “The Man Who Fell To Earth: The Messiah and the Amphicatastrophe”, Heroes, Monsters and Values: Science Fiction Films of the 1970s. I review the 1987 TV movie remake here [You’ll have to wait a few hours].
The Man Who Fell To Earth (British Lion, 1976)
Adapted from Walter Tevis, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963)
(Dir. Nicolas Roeg; Scr. Paul Mayersberg; Pr. Michael Deeley and Barry Spikings; P.D. Brian Eatings; Cin. Anthony Richmond; SFX Harrison Ellenshaw; Starring David Bowie (Thomas Jerome Newton), Rip Torn (Nathan Bryce), Candy Clark (Mary Lou), Buck Henry (Oliver Farnsworth), Bernie Casie (Peters))
Few directors have exploited the aesthetic possibilities of editing as much as the British film maker Nicolas Roeg. An assistant cameraman on Calling Bulldog Drummond (Victor Saville, 1951), cameraman on films such as The Trials of Oscar Wilde (Ken Hughes, 1960) and The Sundowners (Fred Zinnemann, 1960) and cinematographer on films including The Masque of the Red Death (Roger Corman, 1964) and Fahrenheit 451 (François Truffaut, 1964), he codirected his first feature, Performance, with Donald Cammell. Juxtaposing the relatively distinct demimondes of London gangsters and late 1960s counterculture (Rolling Stone singer Mick Jagger had a starring role), the film’s editing made its images collide as much as its mixture of genres did, the overall impact seeming to recreate disconnectedness of the drug trips experienced by its major characters. As the distinction between acting and actually getting stoned blurred, visions and reality intermingle. The distributors sat on the film for a couple of years, and co-star Edward Fox, who played the hip yet strait-laced gangster, was not to act in films again for a decade.
Despite these difficulties, the film set the tone of Roeg’s vision as a filmmaker: his structural techniques, his thematic palettes and his approach to casting. His first solo feature, Walkabout (1971), put child star Jenny Agutter and Lucien John, his own son, into a survivalist scenario in the Australian Outback, contrasting the contemporary world with ageless wilderness of a landscape that had in fact been occupied for millennia before the arrival of the west. The closing shots, of Agutter as domestic wife and as playmate or more to an Aboriginal man, offers two possibilities of the end of the narrative, without absolute certainty as to what is the true one. Finally, and most effectively, prior to The Man Who Fell to Earth, an adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now (1973) interweaves the natural and the supernatural, and apparitions of the future and memories of the past into an all-encompassing now. Each of the films offers a representation with something beyond the quotidian, whether spiritual, chemical or cultural, and The Man Who Fell to Earth continues this trend with the depiction of a first contact with the alien. Thanks to Roeg’s techniques, what could have been a straightforward adaptation of a novel, becomes much more complex in its attitudes towards its own materials and the interpretations it can bear for the viewer.
The central character of the novel, who adopts the name Thomas Jerome Newton, travels from Anthea to the Earth, where he crash lands. His mission is to seek out a planet where his dying species can live again, and his plan is to build a large, ark-like spaceship to ferry his people to Earth. In order to do this, he has to raise vast sums of money, which he does via setting up a corporation named World Enterprises to exploit patents for new camera technology. Dr Nathan Bryce, a science-fiction reader and one of the experts recruited for the project, is convinced from the first that Newton is an alien, and attempts to get closer to his secretive employer to penetrate the secret. Meanwhile Newton has acquired Betty Jo as a companion and protector, and she has introduced him to the joys of alcohol. Newton’s confession to Bryce of his true identity causes the authorities to act, and the Anthean is arrested and subjected to a series of tests, one of which blinds him. In time Newton is released, believed to be nothing more than a harmless eccentric, and he releases a number of books of poetry in an attempt to get a message home to his people.
Newton is a failed messiah, in a world which does not want to be saved – not only will his space project save his own species, but the technology he brings will help humanity to avoid destroying itself. “I came to save you,” he announces towards the end of the book, “I came to save you all” (Tevis 180). Even more pointedly, he has already come across “a large painting of a religious figure who Newton recognized as Jesus, nailed to a wooden cross. The face in the picture startled him for a moment – with its thinness and large piercing eyes it could have been the face of an Anthean” (Tevis 15). In addition, he is compared to Rumpelstiltskin, the dwarf able to spin straw into gold and equally reluctant to confess his true identity, and to Icarus, the son of inventor Dedalus, who flew too close to the sun and plummeted to his death. Icarus is a strong symbol of the potential for humanity to overreach, and the limitations of technology in the face of a hostile environment – a more ambiguous attitude to technology than the rest of the book might suggest.
The film retains much of the story in its adaptation by Paul Mayersberg, with some details enhanced, but others erased. It is not clear, for example, what Newton’s mission is, although it is clear that his planet is desertified and dying, and various shots of Newton associate him with water, as if he hopes to revive his home. It is never absolutely clear whether these shots of home are meant to contemporaneous with the action, are flashbacks to the time before he came to Earth, or are what he imagines is going on in his absence. Newton’s motives remain inscrutable, adding to the sense of the alienness of his character. It might almost be that he has come for a visit, and now wants to go home – because we are here.
In many ways, the film’s success depends on the reaction to its central performance by rock star David Bowie. Even John Brosnan, who concedes the film has some positive qualities but labelled it pretentious, long and self-indulgent, admits that, “the film’s main asset is the central performance by David Bowie” (Brosnan 242). As a rock star, Bowie was not content merely to sing the same set of songs, but reinvented himself through a number of personae, such as Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke, over the decades. A sympathy to science fiction ideas and imagery may be found in his early work, most famously in the song “Space Oddity”, which draws on the Apollo missions of the period, and the suggestive album title The Man Who Sold the World, which plays on a Heinlein title. Indeed this was to continue in subsequent albums, with a still from the film being used on the cover of Low (1977) and copies of Young Americans (1975) appearing in a shot of a record shop towards the end of the movie. The film’s producers negotiated with Bowie to provide a soundtrack for The Man Who Fell to Earth, but they failed to reach terms both parties could agree on.
Roeg had worked with non-professional actors before and would again – he had used Mick Jagger’s persona from the Rolling Stones to different ends in Performance, and his casting of Art Garfunkel – best known as half of folk duo Simon and Garfunkel – in Bad Timing (1980) was also in search of a certain frisson. The rock star – especially the lead singer – has to exude a certain degree of charisma to the audience, and to hold their attention whist communicating some kind of message. The gaze of the audience may be an identificatory one, or desirous. In the glam days of pre-punk rock music – especially in the realm of progressive rock – the musician would be different from ordinary mortals, sometimes presenting as some kind of mystic, in part a leader and an icon to be worshipped. Their lives were perceived as one of excess – in prodigious drugs usage and sexual conquests.
Bowie’s personae challenged heteronormativity – he came out as bisexual in 1976 – in an era when Britain and a few of the states in the USA had decriminalised homosexuality and the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association had only just removed homosexuality from their register of mental disorders. In other states, laws against sodomy ultimately derived from sixteenth century Henrician statutes, were still on the books. Activists, such as Anita Bryant, attempted to promote legislation designed to ban homosexuals from working in schools or holding public office, lest they corrupt society. In a pre-punk era where male rebellion was signalled by long hair, Bowie’s dyed red hair would have discomfited both the hip and the square. Bowie, like many British and, indeed, some American rock stars, touring the USA in the early 1970s would have seemed like an alien, a stranger in a strange land. Adam Roberts has gone so far as to suggest that the film offers “a commentary upon the strange cultural explosion of pop music and the status of pop stars of the late 1960s and early 1970s” (Roberts 2007 158). As the British director of a British-financed film with a British lead actor in a number of small American towns, Roeg may well have felt some empathy with the alien as a fish out of water.
The original book questions Newton’s sexuality on at least two occasions, in a tone that is rather pre-gay liberation. Bryce notes that “there was an indefinable strangeness about his way of walking, a quality that reminded Bryce of the first homosexual he had ever seen, back when he had been too young to know what a homosexual was. Newton did not walk like that” (Tevis 79). It is a queer walk, to be both like and not like that of a homosexual. The film, however, allows Newton to be unfaithful to his wife, by engaging in a number of acts of sexual intercourse with Mary Lou – Mayersberg’s version of Betty Jo. Roeg’s films would have been notorious for their explicitness at the time – having put intercourse between John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura (Julie Christie) at the emotional centre of Don’t Look Now. Roeg is unafraid to have full frontal nudity of his actors, whether female or male, and Bowie is especially exposed in the acts of intimacy that are part of the narrative. Nudity in itself would be pushing at the taboos of cinema – but note that the film is depicting sex between different species. With typical ambiguity, it is not clear whether the film is preparing us for this transgression by depicting other non-normative sexual relationships, or works to normalise these relationships by showing an alien-human encounter.
Bryce, for example, is developed in the film as an academic in a mid-life crisis, bedding students young enough to be his daughter. An extended scene of rather vigorous and almost violent intercourse is intercut with shots of the student taking photographs of her teacher and mentor. Such an encounter (which in some ways risks becoming a fantasy for and of a middle aged man) breaks the taboo of sexuality within the same generation, and questions the notion of power and its abuses in the teacher-student relationship. The way that the sequence is framed links Bryce to Newton before the two have met in narrative time, one of the many instances of the film using non-linear time in its plot. Bryce will still become fascinated by Newton, and be part of his eventual betrayal to the authorities, but more significantly he will become the lover of Mary Lou. The three of them form a virtual triangle within the scheme of the book and even more in the film.
Betty Jo/Mary Lou is somewhat of a thankless role in both the novel and the film, despite being the only significant speaking role for a woman. In the book she is identified strongly with the underclass, with “her gin, her boredom, her cats and her used furniture” (Tevis 51). She is cast in the stereotypical role of maternal carer, first nurse then housekeeper then (in the film, at least) lover. Her reduction of Thomas to Tommy diminishes him, as does her corruption of him with gin. She is clearly alcohol dependent, and needs salvation through someone else’s dependency on her. Her reaction to Newton’s striptease of his alien (that is, human) identity in the film is one of hysteria, settled by sex, and once she has been separated from Newton she can seek solace in the arms of Bryce, one of the few other characters to have successfully penetrated Newton’s true identity.
Another sexually significant figure within the film is Oliver Farnsworth, the patents lawyer to whom Newton turns for assistance in making money. His aging through the long duration of the film’s narrative time is defined by the increasing thickness of his glasses, as well as his hair colour and hair line. Farnsworth is provided by Mayersberg with a character who is both a lover and a confidante, and without criticism nor is voyeurism characterised as gay (although this does not extend to a sex scene). It is possible, of course, that Farnsworth’s sexual identity means that he is skilled in keeping secrets, although arguably if he is closeted at the start of the film when Newton approaches him, this would have made him open to blackmail. However, both Farnsworth and his lover are punished for their involvement in making money for Newton, being killed by the shadowy forces – perhaps governmental, perhaps mafia – who put a stop to the alien space mission. Their falling bodies offer images of further men falling to Earth.
Their literal fall is intercut with a voluntary dive, into a swimming pool, of Newton’s African American nemesis, Peters. It is notable that Peters has a white lover, which pushes at taboos of miscegenation in a society that was still coming to terms with the scars of the Civil War, Jim Crow laws and where civil rights were still being fought for. The tryst places the scene in the future from the film’s release, along with the greying of the Peters’s hair. Even in a world where there is clearly a very active secret service and surveillance systems, there is a sense of social optimism.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the normalising of once tabooed sexual relationships between different ages, ethnicities and species, and within sexes, the film struggled to find an audience. Despite having employed Roeg to direct it, the distributors were not expecting such a non-linear film, and twenty-three minutes were cut from the initial American release and some scenes were reordered; this does not seem like an act calculated to make the film make any more sense. In the context of 1970s films – both in and out the sf genre – it would not be unusual to have a film that offered social commentary rather than action adventure (compare the Planet of the Apes sequence (1968-73), Silent Running (Douglas Trumbull, 1972), Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer, 1973) and even THX 1138 (George Lucas, 1971)), and films of the period were prone to the ambiguous ending. The Man Who Fell to Earth failed – or was not allowed – to reach a popular audience, and has joined the long list of cult films which would repay more attention. The film was remade for television in 1987, with the intention of being a pilot for a series, but the more conventional directing leaves it feeling rather mundane. A further remake has been announced.
- Craig W. Anderson, Science Fiction Films of the Seventies, (Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland, 1985).
- John Brosnan, Future Tense: The Cinema of Science Fiction, (New York: St Martin’s, 1978).
- Adam Roberts, “The Man Who Fell to Earth [Review]”, Science Fiction Film and Television, 1.1, (2009)
- Walter Tevis, The Man Who Fell to Earth, (London: Bloomsbury, 1999).