When Worlds Collide (1951) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

Many people think Irwin Allen is the “Master of Disaster” but George Pal’s When Worlds Collide is a strong contender, which also serves itself up as the first planetary disaster film.

One of the original disaster films, paving the way for films like Armageddon, Deep Impact & The Day After Tomorrow, the film starts off with a comedic vein, but quickly turns itself into a dramatic thriller of global importance.

First Impressions

A scientist discovers a distant star hurtling towards Earth. As the United Nations debates what to do, other men build a rocket version of Noah‘s Ark, to shuttle survivors off the planet. Even another group decides to arm themselves in what appears to be an attempt to make sure they survive. The super-titles say that this disaster may not happen for a million years, but George Pal (who brought you Destination Moon) will tell you how it will happen.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Sci-Fi Saturdays

The Fiction of The Film

When Worlds Collide tells the story of a number of individuals, most scientists, and the last days of planet Earth. Dr. Emery Bronson (Hayden Rorke) makes a startling astronomical discovery and hires pilot David Randall (Richard Derr) to fly the results of his observations to Dr. Cole Hendron (Larry Keating) in America. After delivering the information about a rogue star hurtling towards the Earth, Randall meets and becomes enthralled with Joyce (Barbara Rush), Hendron’s daughter. He is also less than pleased to meet Dr. Tony Drake (Peter Hansen), Joyce’s fiancé.

When Worlds Collide

When Worlds Collide, Title Card.

Hendron and his staff, along with Dr. George Frye (Stephen Chase) check the calculations and report their findings to the United Nations. Several other scientists reject Hendron’s findings as lunacy causing the U.N. to ignore the warnings. With only about 8 months left before rogue star Bellus crashes into the planet, Hendron and Frye seek to make a space ark to launch a contingent of people, animals and technology at Zyra, a planet following Bellus.

A pair of philanthropists, Marsden and Spiro, pledge to provide large sums of money to help finance the rocket. But even that amount is not enough to complete the project without the help of the government. Enter crippled businessman Sydney Stanton (John Hoyt) who agrees to put up the remainder of the funds needed, if he can get a seat on the space ark. Hendron reluctantly agrees.

Workers are recruited to build and stock the space ark, with individuals knowing that the lucky 40 survivors will be picked from their ranks. During this time, Randall falls in love with Joyce, who seems to share his feelings, but doesn’t want to hurt Tony. As Zyra gets closer, earthquakes, storms, volcanoes and flooding destroy large cities. Few people survive by making their way to mountaintops.

As Bellus draws even nearer work is completed and the final 20 men and 20 women are chosen. Randall takes himself out of the lottery, arguing that he is unable to contribute the same way all the other people can. Tony, who realizes that Joyce is growing away from him, makes up a white lie about the fitness of Frye, so that Randall, the next most experienced pilot, will decide to make the trip. Stanton kills another man that was blackmailing the scientists to get onboard, and is more concerned with his ability to make the trip than those younger and fitter. In a final rush to the ark, as an angry mob bears down on them, Hendron pulls Stanton’s wheelchair away from the ramp, and waves the crew off – giving them what he hopes is enough weight removed so that they can make the trip to Zyra without mishap.

The ship blasts off moments before Bellus smashes into Earth destroying it. The ark is piloted into Zyra’s atmosphere, and makes a graceful, but powerless landing, as they run out of fuel. The survivors open the hatch and look at a beautiful sunrise on a new planet, noting some alien buildings in the distance.

Perhaps now, but the day may arrive when money won’t mean anything, not to you…nor anyone.” – Dr. Bronson

When Worlds Collide

David Randall meets Joyce’s boyfriend, Dr Tony Drake.

History in the Making

Like several of recent films Sci-Fi Saturdays has looked at, When Worlds Collide was also adapted from a previously published story. It was published in a 1933 book of the same name which was originally serialized in six-parts in Blue Book magazine, by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer. Destination Moon pulled parts of its from Heinlein’s 1947 novel Rocket Ship Galileo, who also re-adapted it as a new story. The Day The Earth Stood Still was from 1940 science fiction short story called “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates appearing in Astounding Science Fiction.

The use of pre-existing stories being adapted for science fiction films was not new, even in the 1950’s, and has been a staple of the genre ever since. Science fiction literature, whether pulpy (like John Carter of Mars) or “hard” (such as 2001: A Space Odyssey), provides directors and producers great fodder for visually stunning, thoughtful and timely films brought to an audience that may not read such works, or have even known of their existence.

One thing regarding science fiction films that is not commonplace is a nomination come awards time. Genre films may be nominated for purely technical achievements, but often lack recognition in the higher categories, such as acting or directing. When worlds Collide was nominated for two categories for the 25th Academy Awards, winning for Best Effects, Special Effects (the other being for Best Cinematography, Color by John F. Seitz  & W. Howard Greene). Granted sci-fi films and other popular genre fare are not created for the purpose of winning awards, and popularity or box-office gross does not translate to awards. But, as they say, it’s always nice to be recognized.

This film continues George Pal’s ascent to prominent sci-fi producer in the 50s and 60s. To date, his style appears to be molded on several criteria. The first and most obvious is the use of Technicolor to tell his tales. While other sci-fi films were still shooting cheaply on black & white film, Pal’s films were luxuriant and colorful stories. The topics of the two films of his reviewed here are about the enduring human spirit and man’s can-do attitude, overcoming insurmountable odds. They also seem to be replete with characters consumed with altruism, who want to better society for no other reason than it’s the right thing to do.

When Worlds Collide

Not everyone in the global community believes Dr Hendron’s predictions.


While there are strong ties to the science fiction genre the opening of the film feels a little goofy and awkward. The introduction of David Randall as the audience surrogate comes off a little glib for modern tastes as he hobnobs with the scientists and inserts himself into classified briefings. The remainder of the film, dealing with the imminent disaster and the escape of the shreds of humanity is a classic sci-fi plot which the scientists must try to solve earth-changing issues while the ‘normal’ people try to accept the radical upheaval of their society.

At the start of these articles I posed some questions that science fiction attempts to address, including ‘who are we?’ Looking at this question in the context of a film from the early 50s provides some interesting conclusions. I believe that the film is not necessarily looking at who the human race is, but more who the human race should be. Pal and director Rudolph Maté push for a more opened minded society, where characters look out for one another. Of course, characters like Stanton and his ulterior motives provide a counterpoint to the scientists, but Stanton is only one character, while the remaining characters all have a much higher morality.

When Worlds Collide

Sydney Stanton makes demands of the scientists he is contributing money to.

Societal Commentary

When Worlds Collide takes the stance that an ideal society is one where the majority of people are humanitarians and focus on altruism over selfishness. This theme is reinforced multiple times throughout the film. The first example is with the two scientists (Marsden and Spiro) giving money to Hendron’s project with no thought for themselves. Later, after the lottery of winners to take the trip have been chose, a young man returns his token, because his girlfriend Julie was not chosen. He would rather stay behind with her, in the last minutes of the planet, then move on without her.

The biggest event, and the one the audience should be paying the most attention to, is Randall’s refusal to take part in the evacuation. He feels he offers no material benefit to the survivors, other than being one of the scientists romantic interest. Other characters, such as Dr Hendron and Tony both go to bat for him, convincing (and tricking) him that he needs to come with them. They all argue, in different ways, that being purely logical about such things is not the best response. There needs to be room for emotion.

These elements all speak to standard Christian dogma – love thy neighbor. Thematically, christianity is also an important element of the film. The opening moments depict holy scripture in an ornate bible, while the story of Noah and the Flood is recounted. Coupled with the parallels of the world being destroyed, the number of survivors being 40 (as in, 40-days and 40-nights of rain from Noah’s story) and the survivors entering a prosperous new world all relate to biblical elements. I am not sure how jarring this appeared in 1952, but to a modern day viewer the overt religious iconography seems a little graphic. However the message presented is still clear: love one another, do the right thing and be a better person, even in the face of adversity.

When Worlds Collide

Joyce and David check out the spacecraft before launch.

The Science in The Fiction

For a film about scientists trying to save the planet, and the creation of an “ark” to shuttle humanity away from a doomed, the grasp of certain scientific principles is lacking. But then again, the 1950s were about weird fantastical things in comics and pulp magazines where ideas like this weren’t really possible.

The first question that occurred to me is, are 20 men and 20 women enough to repopulate society? Or did the survivors of Earth just trade dying on their home planet, to dying on another planet? I’m not going to get into Punnett squares or discuss inheritance or calculate how many babies could be had to provide the proper amount of diversity –  but suffice to say, it’s not enough!

Another error that stands out, in the enlightened 21st Century in which we live (and have had the luxury of seeing dozens of films about disasters threatening the Earth), is the lack of planetary forces Bellus causes on Earth. There is some flooding shown, and volcanos, due to the heat affecting Earth, but the tidal forces would pull the planet apart long before Bellus arrived. A countdown to the moment when the two “worlds collide” would not really be a thing. But that’s nitpicking in my opinion, as the remainder of the story supersedes these minor issues.

When Worlds Collide

Being an amazing pilot, David Randall manages to land the spacecraft on a new world.

The Final Frontier

It was fun seeing some character actors that I had not seen outside of other projects. For example, Hayden Rorke (Dr. Emery Bronson) is more famous for playing Dr. Bellows on I Dream of Jeannie, and John Hoyt (Sydney Stanton) may be more familiar to genre fans as Dr. Boyce, the original doctor for the USS Enterprise in the Star Trek pilot.

This film also seems to capture people’s imagination more than other disaster films. Maybe that’s due to it being an early film in the genre. Pop Culture has definitely embraced it. You know you’ve made a great film when it’s immortalized in song, as this one is by Powerman 5000.

What I think is most enduring about this film is the fact that Earth is actually permanently destroyed! At this moment I cannot think of any other disaster film where the actual planet we live on was destroyed. Season 5 of the ABC series Agents of SHIELD had the Earth “broken” into some chunks, in a possible future, but films like Armageddon or Deep Impact, the threats are always neutralized at the last moment. What a way to make sure your film is remembered!

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