Time Travel, Bond Rip-offs and the Fashion for Folksy Rural Themes in the 1960s

Blogging has been light over here for the past two weeks or so, but today I am over at Galactic Journey again, where I review the post-apocalyptic novel Davy by Edgar Pangborn in a double post together with Victoria Silverwolf, who reviews No Man on Earth by Walter Moudy, an author I’d never heard about before today. According to ISFDB, Moudy’s career was brief. In addition to his lone novel, he published a handful of short stories in the mid 1960s in the SFF magazines edited by Cele Goldsmith Lalli. After a promising start, he vanished from the SFF scene and died much too early at the age of only 43. And in fact, one thing I have noticed since I started reviewing for Galactic Journey is how many SFF authors died much too young.

Davy is the first novel that I ever read by Edgar Pangborn, though he had a respectable science fiction career lasting from the late 1950s to the 1970s and wrote mysteries and crime fiction for the pulp under a pen name (which no one seems to know) before that. Davy was a Hugo finalist in 1965, losing out to Fritz Leiber’s The Wanderer by only four votes in one of the more baffling Hugo races of all time. Now Fritz Leiber has written many stories and novels I love, but IMO The Wanderer is a lesser work (Jason Sacks, who reviewed it for Galactic Journey, was not impressed either) and I’ve never understood why it won the Hugo, since it’s not even the best Fritz Leiber work of 1964 (“The Lords of Quarmall” is better, though it’s a novella rather than a novel), so I found it hard to believe that The Wanderer was the best science fiction novel of 1964. I initially assumed that 1964 was simply a weak year for science fiction novels (it happens), but Davy – though not without flaws – is definitely better than The Wanderer and The Whole Man by John Brunner seems to be better, too. Not sure about the fourth finalist, The Planet Buyer by Cordwainer Smith, which is better known as the first half of Nostrilia these days.

Edgar Pangborn’s works are still in print, but nonetheless he seems to have fallen somewhat into obscurity. Part of the reason may be that post-apocalyptic nuclear war stories are no longer as popular as they once were. Older examples of the breed also suffer from having become obsolete futures, now that a) we know more about the effects a large scale nuclear war would have, and b) a large scale nuclear war is much less likely than it was pre-1989, though more likely than it was around approximately 1995. It’s also interesting that when I think of nuclear war stories, I usually think of the complete downers of the 1980s – stories like Threads or The Day After, where everybody dies horribly – and less of the earlier, slightly more optimistic stories of the 1950s and 1960s. But while other post nuclear war tales of the period such as A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, On the Beach by Nevil Shute (which is of course an “everybody dies” downer, as the entire population of Australia commits suicide), The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett or “That Only a Mother” by Judith Merril (or, for a filmic example, Dr. Strangelove by Stanley Kubrick) are all considered classics these days, Davy remains somewhat obscure, probably because even though it shares some themes with the others, it’s not really a typical nuclear war story at all. The fact that the sexual politics are badly dated doesn’t help either. And in fact, science fiction from the 1960s is often worse in terms of how sexual relationships are portrayed than earlier works. Because the earlier works usually didn’t have any sex at all or only highly euphemistic descriptions, whereas stories from 1960s do depict sex, but are often highly problematic with regard to issues like consent, gender and sexual orientation. Unlike many stories from the period, Davy is not offensive, but the novel does have some eye-roll worthy moments.

After reading Victoria’s review of No Man on Earth, I was struck by how there were certain similarities between the two books aside from the fact that they both happened to be science fiction novels published in 1964. Both novels are science fiction novels that don’t feel very science fictional, both are post-apocalyptic of sorts, even though nuclear war is but a distant memory, and both start out in low tech settings in the Eastern US, where superstition is strong. Victoria compares No Man on Earth to Manly Wade Wellman’s Silver John stories from the same period (and of course, Davy also spends a significant part of the novel as a wandering musician just like Silver John), while I compare Davy to 18th century (set) works such as Tristram Shandy, Tom Jones (which has a hugely successful film adaptation in 1963) and The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth.

It certainly seems as if there was a mini trend of folksy, rural SFF in the early to mid 1960s, as evidenced by Davy, No Man on Earth and the Silver John stories, which all date from this period. This trend may have been part of a larger cultural interest in folksy, rural settings and stories as well as modern reimaginings of 18th century works. After all, the Tom Jones movies came out in 1963 and The Sot-Weed Factor came out in 1960, based on an 18th century poem by Ebenezer Cooke. The early 1960s were also the heyday of rural set US TV shows such as The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction and Green Acres as well as the Tammy films and TV series. So yes, there’s definitely a general cultural trend there that spilled over into science fiction, though I’m not quite sure what it means. The popularity of rural set TV sitcoms in the US in the 1960s is usually considered a mental retreat to a highly idealised, simpler, more wholesome time as well as pandering to white rural audiences in the US, which is probably also why none of these shows ever made it to Germany (not that German viewers didn’t long for simpler, more wholesome times, but they preferred to see them in their own country), except for Tammy, which ironically wasn’t even a hit in the US, though it was seemingly perpetually rerun on German TV well into the 1980s.

But while the rural US sitcoms of the 1960s may have been wholesome – and grossly offensive, at least based on what little I have seen of them, since they make fun of the people they thought were their audience – the positively bawdy reimaginings of 18th century literature such as Tom Jones or The Sot-Weed Factor were anything but. Davy is not wholesome either – and neither are the Silver John stories, for that matter. So what’s going on here? Did SFF tap into the early to mid 1960s fashion for folksy stories old and new from the rural US and subvert it? Whatever the reason, it’s certainly interesting. I’m also very interested now whether more folksy SFF stories will pop up at Galactic Journey in the future.

Coincidentally, I just realised that I completely forgot to link to last month’s Galactic Journey article, where I go a bit into current events of 1964 (the one millionth migrant worker came to West Germany and Martin Luther King visited Berlin) and review two German movies which came out within three weeks of each other in the late summer and early fall of 1964, namely the Edgar Wallace movie The Ringer and The Death Ray of Dr. Mabuse. I already reviewed The Ringer from a contemporary POV on this blog a few years ago, but my Galactic Journey article offers a 1960s perspective.

These days, The Ringer is usually considered the high point of the Edgar Wallace series – a movie that has been much derided (like all the Edgar Wallace movies), but is still beloved and highly watchable and frequently rerun on TV. Meanwhile, The Death Ray of Dr. Mabuse marks the end of Artur Brauner’s Dr. Mabuse series of the early 1960s (there were four more filmic outings for Dr. Mabuse up to 1990, but none of them is considered part of the official series) and is generally considered one of the weakest films in the series.

The Death Ray of Dr. Mabuse is usually considered a James Bond rip-off. I had also wholly internalised the narrative that The Death Ray of Dr. Mabuse is a Mabuse film pretending to be a Bond film to the point that I never questioned it, especially since there are so many parallels to the Bond movies. After all, Death Ray has a dashing secret agent, a devious villain (and Mabuse is one of the most devious of them all), beautiful women, an “exotic” setting, a super weapon, underwater fights – all elements we know from the Bond movies. Besides, the 1960s were littered with Bond rip-offs, some great (The Avengers, The Prisoner, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), some okay (Death Ray falls into this category) and many forgettable (the Kommissar X movies or the Matt Helm movies, which recently got dragged up again, because Sharon Tate happened to be in one of them). In many ways, the spy novels, movies and TV shows of the 1960s are the anti-thesis to folksy rural stories discussed above.

However, when reviewing The Death Ray of Dr. Mabuse for Galactic Journey, I also happened to check the release dates for the Bond movies and realised to my suprise that there had only been two Bond movies – one of them the atypical From Russia With Love – shown in Germany by the time Death Ray came out, while Goldfinger had its UK premiere on the exact same day as Death Ray (as did Winnetou 2, which not only kept Karin Dor from appearing in either The Ringer or Death Ray and also likely contributed to Death Ray underperforming at the box office) and wouldn’t be shown in Germany until January 1965. So when Death Ray was made, there was no James Bond series. There were only a movie and its sequel with a third in production. And while many elements seen in Death Ray – the extensive underwater fights and scenes, the mysterious island, the superweapon that can eradicate whole cities – have popped up in the Bond movies lots of times, they all appeared later. Underwater fights are mainly associated with Thunderball, which came out more than a year after Death Ray, though The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only also have extensive underwater scenes. And while Dr. No‘s radio beam (and I had to look up what Dr. No’s weapon actually did, since I mainly remember the world’s most stylish nuclear reactor) is a bit similar to Dr. Mabuse’s death ray, the superweapons from Diamonds Are Forever, which came out in 1971 – seven years after Death Ray, and The Man With the Golden Gun, which came out in 1974, a full ten years after Death Ray, are much more similar, as is the killer satellite from Golden Eye (1995). So what’s going on here then? How – short of time travel – could The Death Ray of Dr. Mabuse borrow from Bond movies, which hadn’t even been made yet? And no, the Bond novels aren’t the answer, because the Bond movies in general are very loose adaptations and the ones in questions all have next to nothing in common with the source material apart from the titles.

The answer is that the influence wasn’t a one way street. Yes, The Death Ray of Dr. Mabuse was clearly influenced by the two Bond movies that had appeared to date. However, the Mabuse series – and the Edgar Wallace movies, for that matter – also influenced the Bond movies. Considering how many actors appeared in two or even all three series – Gert Fröbe and Karin Dor, most notably, but also Ilse Steppat, Christopher Lee and Ingrid Back – it’s clear that the Bond producers were familiar with the Mabuse and Wallace movies, for how else would they even have found Gert Fröbe, Karin Dor or Ilse Steppat? So it’s no surprise that themes and plot points from the Wallace and Mabuse movies would also show up in the Bond films and vice versa. And indeed, Death Ray didn’t invent the underwater fight scenes we now associate with the Bond movies either – they first show up in the 1962 Edgar Wallace film The Inn on the River, which has a remarkably similar plot to the 1988 Dutch thriller Amsterdamned, whose speedboat chases through the canals of Amsterdam borrow heavily from the Bond film Live and Let Die as well as from the Alistair MacLean adaptation Puppet on a Chain.

The Edgar Wallace movies and to a lesser degree the Dr. Mabuse movies of the 1960s are often dismissed as fluffy entertainment these days and glossed over even in histories of West German postwar cinema. This is a huge mistake, for not only were those films extremely popular and usually well made, they were also influential way beyond the limits of German cinema.

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2 Responses to Time Travel, Bond Rip-offs and the Fashion for Folksy Rural Themes in the 1960s

  1. Gene says:

    Just this weekend I found my old copy of Davy and remembered that I’ve been meaning to re-read it and write a “…more of why I love sf/f” pose for my blog about it.

    • Cora says:

      It’s a very good book, though it wasn’t at all what I had initially expected. Vastly superior to a certain other book about people called David, I’m sure.

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