THE FINAL PROGRAMME (1973). Screenplay and Direction by Robert Fuest. Based on the novel “The Final Programme” by Michael Moorcock. Starring Jon Finch, Jenny Runacre, Harry Andrews, Patrick Magee, Hugh Griffith, Sterling Hayden, Ronald Lacey. Distributed by Anglo-EMI and New World Pictures.
A long time ago the CineFiles had started a blog to gain exposure beyond our usual video content at the time. It still exists to this day (as fellow CineFile and UNFINISHED BUSINESS host Jeff Gallashaw is doing a bang up job keeping it alive). During the earlier days of its existence, I attempted to maintain a regular column praising films that deserve more exposure. This may involve obscure titles. This may involve classics or well known titles that everyone has heard of but a majority may not have actually seen. It’s sort of my way of trying to expand the discourse on film with film fans. To ease the stepping away from one’s comfort zone when it comes to his or her cinematic tastes and try something new.
I thought it might be fun to continue the tradition here on This Is Infamous. And hopefully the response will be positive enough that you’ll want to suffer through more of my proselytizing when it comes to the titles I’ve selected. So without further ado, I would like to direct your attention to an obscure little gem from the early 1970s that almost defies description.
1967 saw the publication of what would be the first novel of a series written by scifi/fantasy writer and professional mind effer Michael Moorcock. The series would focus on the adventures surrounding an iconoclastic “protagonist” named Jerry Cornelius. This series was unique for two reasons. One: each consecutive novel and short story was not a sequel or prequel or just another installment in an ongoing story. Instead they were alternate reality takes on the same theme. For example, characters in one story might be killed off only to return in another and be killed off again. A male character in one title might turn out be female in another. The second aspect that made this series unique rested in its existence as a sort of prototypical open source form of literature. In other words, the adventures and characters of Jerry Cornelius’ universe were copyright free. Therefore anybody could contribute to and write their own Jerry Cornelius story (the most famous variation on this might be the Moebius contribution to HeavyMetal Magazine “The Airtight Garage”).
To further deepen the post modern structure of the series, each character and the adventures they would face parallel those of characters from other Moorcock series, specifically those involving Elric of Melnibone, an albino Sword & Sorcery anti hero who is a representation of Moorcock’s “Eternal Champion” concept. That is, Moorcock created a sort of “Multiverse” with different storylines and heroes but they were all variations on the same concept. Or, if you’d rather, “alternate universe” takes on the same characters and adventures. Ergo, Jerry Cornelius may or may not be an alternate universe version of Elric.
But who the hell is Jerry Cornelius anyway?
Well, he’s a secret agent. He’s an adventurer. He’s also a Nobel Prize winning scientist. He’s also incredibly wealthy and an incredibly evolved human being both mentally and physically. Now, before you start responding with “basically he’s Doc Savage meets James Bond” – and to be honest, you wouldn’t be too far off with that guess – he’s also bisexual, has incestuous feelings towards his sister (one of the characters who constantly dies, then returns in consecutive stories only to be killed off again), absolutely hates his brother (who is sort of the recurring villain in the series), can be incredibly neurotic, alcoholic and drug addicted but most importantly he is the late 60s/early 70s poster child for hipster dom, mod culture and rock n’ roll. He’s really groovy, baby. And, yeah, Austin Powers owes as much to Jerry Cornelius as he does to Bond, Matt Helm or Harry Palmer for that matter. Not only that, I refer you to BUCKAROO BONZAI as that lead character is a more blatant homage to Moorcock’s creation. But without the f—ed up psychological issues. And without the explicit sex.
The Final Programme, that first Cornelius novel, was completed in 1965 but it took Moorcock two years to find a publisher as the industry at the time thought it was just too damn weird. However, it turned out to be a great success. Thus enabling the opportunity for an inevitable film adaption. Released in 1973 and directed by cult filmmaker Robert Fuest (he of the awesome DR. PHIBES flicks), the film itself failed miserably. Initially distributed as the first of a double bill with an Asian martial arts film titled CONFESSIONS OF A CHINESE CONCUBINE, it wound up being demoted as the second of that double bill, then disappeared into obscurity altogether.
The production itself had its fair share of issues. Most notably Fuest and Moorcock did not get along at all. Moorcock absolutely hated this adaption and thought Fuest had missed the point of his novel. Whereas the series more or less depicted a post Armageddon, alternate reality on politics and late 1960s underground cultures that in a lot of ways presaged the Cyberpunk movement of the late 70s and beyond, according to Moorcock all Fuest seemed to be interested in was creating his “hip” take on a 007 movie. That Fuest not only seemed to be tone deaf to what the series was all about, but also to the parallel trends the series represented. For example, Moorcock had envisioned the Heavy Metal band Hawkwind supplying the film’s soundtrack (Hawkwind was the early permutation for what would later become Motorhead). In fact, both Moorcock and Hawkwind appear briefly in the same scene. But Fuest insisted he wanted a jazz soundtrack which went against the counter cultural feel Moorcock insisted on. And there was confusion as to the tone of the script. Was it camp? Was it comedy? Was it altogether symbolic of something else and, ergo, needed to be taken seriously?
But the film itself appears to have survived all of that. Although Moorcock is still apparently not a fan to this day, it’s actually a really fun, really imaginative little adventure. There are moments that are not just reminiscent of something like Stanley Kubrick’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, but Ken Russell’s TOMMY as well. You only wish the film went the distance with Moorcock’s heady themes. At the end of the day it amounts to nothing more than a burlesque of… something. But it still defies description. It starts off with Cornelius attending the funeral of his father in Lapland of all places. It’s not explained why in Lapland. It just is. And not only does Cornelius stand to inherit his father’s estate but also a secret formula that could save the human race. Because the end of the world is truly approaching. Yet Cornelius doesn’t seem to care about that. All he’s interested in doing is getting back to his beloved sister before his brother gets his hands on her and it takes a group of scientists and a mysterious woman named Miss Brunner to convince Jerry there’s a much bigger picture here at stake.
That’s the basic plot. But it’s the concepts that push this film into Cult and Midnight Movie territory. For example, it does appear that everything exists in a post war/post Armageddon society. Cornelius steps out of a building in London and is greeted with a pile of abandoned cars stacked up alongside the Nelson memorial in Trafalgar Square. Amsterdam has been reduced to ash. Restaurants serve cocktails mixed with toxic waste and polluted water.
And it gets better (or stranger. Depending on your personal taste with this kind of thing): Jerry dresses in the dandyish fashion of a Portabello Road enthusiast, wears black nail polish and is sort of a glam-rock, Ziggy Stardust type. Miss Brunner has the almost throw away aspect of literally consuming her lovers (male and female) after sex. Again, Cornelius has an absolutely unhealthy obsession with his sister. Again, their brother Frank is the villain. Not only that, Frank is a heroin addict. Nightclubs feature life size pinball machines and are inhabited by a mix of hippies, government assassins and the local clergy. And then there is the Cornelius estate. The house itself could almost be viewed as a tesseract of sorts: a constantly shifting, booby-trapped structure that cannot exist within three-dimensional space (much like the DOCTOR WHO Tardis. You know, smaller on the outside. Much bigger on the inside. Ever changing interiors, etc. Thus it would seem fitting that Jerry Cornelius makes an appearance in the WHO novel The Coming Of The Terraphiles. Also written by Moorcock, natch).
And trust me on this: I am not making this sound better than it actually is. Fuest stretched what must have been a considerably low budget to great effect. All the imagination is up there as described. So, yeah, if what I just described intrigues you well enough then you will not be disappointed. But if there is a drawback it does feel nonsensical, as there doesn’t seem to be any point to it except to display a series of set pieces establishing this strange and surreal world. And Fuest changes Moorcock’s original, rather eyebrow-raising ending and settles for a punch line instead.
The performances, however, are uniformly excellent. The late Jon Finch is camera perfect as Cornelius. He gets the character (he was apparently public school buddies with Moorcock and was a fan of the novels) and it is kind of cool to see him take on a role like this considering he had just starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s FRENZY and was gearing up to take the lead in Roman Polanski’s MACBETH (I should also mention that Finch was possibly up for taking on 007 in LIVE AND LET DIE. But it seems that any reasonably good-looking actor with an English accent was being linked with Bond at the time). Jenny Runacre (HUSBANDS, THE PASSENGER, THE WITCHES, etc.) is incredibly sexy and imposing as Miss Brunner. There are great, barely larger-than-a-cameo contributions from Kubrick veterans Patrick Magee and Sterling Hayden and a pre-Raiders appearance by Toht himself Ronald Lacey. Moorcock’s issues with the completed film aside, he has always acknowledged that the actors are excellent.
The art direction is also a lot of fun. Fuest directed some of the more memorable episodes of the great 60s super spy TV show THE AVENGERS and you do see the influence here in the interiors and design. And the humor hits more often than it misses.
Although the movie was released with the novel’s title oversees, on our shores it was renamed THE LAST DAYS OF MAN ON EARTH. Not that the title change helped it much. It wasn’t too well received by critics. And, as mentioned earlier, it bombed at the box office. It just never found its audience. It has, however, developed a cult following due to revival screenings and a DVD/BluRay release last year, specifically within the UK. In fact, that growing interest was rewarded with a recent BFI screening of THE FINAL PROGRAMME followed by a Q&A session with Michael Moorcock. It’s pretty fascinating considering that Moorcock still doesn’t like the film regardless of the renewed appreciation. But you can view his thoughts here.
Chances are most of you have not even heard of this film, yet. Or if you have, it might exist as a mere blip outside of your radar. But I encourage you to give it a look. It moves pretty efficiently, is never boring and has enough left field, “wtf just happened?!” moments to keep you glued through out. Visually, it’s a combo of CLOCKWORK ORANGE, TOMMY and Steranko era AGENTS OF SHIELD. Sure, most of the film doesn’t make sense. But that is part of its charm. Just drop it into a media player of your choice, kick back and enjoy the ride, maaaaaan.