Pathfinder // 1975 // 107 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // July 14th, 2006
A meltdown more mental than nuclear.
After the other four members of his company die from nuclear fallout, Noah (Robert Strauss, Stalag 17) finds himself adrift on the ocean, then stranded on a deserted island. From the signage and symbols, we see it was obviously once a Red Chinese base of operations, but now Noah simply calls it home. As the days pass, our sole survivor tries to maintain a strict routine. He takes inventory of the supplies, awakes at "O-six hundred," and closes each evening by lowering the flag of the People's Republic. One day Noah snaps. He starts to hear the voice of Friday, a well-spoken native who wants to be bwana's new friend. Soon the sultry sounds of a female, Anne, join the mix. It's not long before jealously rears its ugly head and Noah eventually banishes the "couple" to a vehicle graveyard behind the camp. Soon Noah has a new calling. He takes to educating the "children" whose mental questions fill his waking hours. Walking them through the basics of math, science, ethics, and discipline, he "sees" them develop and graduate. Naturally, once they have the pretend sheepskins in their hands, they, too, head off to the scrap heap. Finally Noah decides to impart a little law and order into his chaotic imaginary community. After delivering his commandments, war breaks out and Noah must defend his position. During a drenching rainstorm, Noah tries to muster his troops, but soon learns that his efforts in defense are all in vain. As he slips into silence, we discover a stunning secret about our hero's fate, something The Noah has anticipated for many months.
Part propaganda piece, part cruel character study, The Noah is a difficult film to figure out. At its core is the same old story we've seen in dozens of post-Bay of Pigs allegories. Nuclear war destroys most of humanity and the last man on Earth is left to contemplate his future -- and go a little nutty in the process. Told in a triptych of specific sequences (which will be labeled "emotions," "education," and "enemies" for future clarity) and centering on a one-man tour-de-force by stage and screen actor Robert Strauss, we are supposed to see the foolishness of our atomic age reflected in the irrational efforts of our lost and lonely soldier. Like that creepy Gahan Wilson cartoon featuring a harried G.I., standing amongst a barren, battle-weary wasteland wondering aloud "I think I won," The Noah is clearly a critique of the notion that a mutual exchange of nukes could result in a winnable war. It's a message delivered in far more menacing, and more entertaining, terms in John Badham's WarGames. This is not to say that The Noah lacks in artistry or effectiveness. It's just that it works much better as a stunning psychological portrait of an isolated man slowly going insane than as a statement about proliferation and/or disarmament. There's just not enough political clarity to make the missive stand out or make much sense. In fact, the last 30 minutes are more or less an oral history of American's combat situations and, even then, the mishmash of elements employed tends to uphold, not upend, our participation in world conflicts.
In keeping with writer/director Daniel Bourla's central conceit, Strauss is always alone. Any other people we hear are "present" offscreen and any interaction our hero has with said "voices" is always kept as solo sequences. It's interesting to note that famous faces Geoffrey Holder (Live and Let Die) and Sally Kirkland (Anna) supply the companion personalities during the "emotions" aspect of the film, while actual World War II radio broadcasts are used during the climatic "enemies" section. Such a sonic stunt works for a while, since Bourla's keeps us guessing as to whether these are auditory hallucinations or actual unseen individuals. While it's soon fairly obvious that they are nothing but figments, this ruse keeps the first part of the film intriguing. Once they've been banished and the "education" section kicks in, The Noah starts to go astray. First of all, the segment lacks a strong focal point, since the whole teaching-and-preaching process Strauss goes through is similar to the "emotions" section of the film. In addition, the purpose is never made plain. We think our lead longs to be a voice of justice and reason amongst his fellow fallible human beings, but Bourla can't make his position pronounced enough. Instead, the short scene meanders by, delivering occasional instances of entertainment but otherwise throwing The Noah off course. It's no surprising then that the "enemies" installment comes up incredibly short. God complex or not, Noah is not defined by his solidering stances and to see him suddenly sink into crackpot combat mode is meaningless.
It is this final flaw, combined with the endless soundtrack stance of playing overlapping reports of old American war wounds (we move from WWII to Korea, Vietnam, and then this storyline's supposed showdown with Communism), that finally sinks The Noah. Where once we followed the decline and fall of a seemingly sane man, we are locked in a lunatic attempt at a critical collage. The use of aural elements is obvious -- this is a low-budget film and stock footage would have probably bankrupted the production. Beyond the financial stake, though, The Noah needs to stay inside its lead character's head. Viewing visuals of war could only weaken Bourla's cinematic strategy. If everything Noah is experiencing is purely mental, it is only real to him. To us, it's the lunatic listening to the varying voices in his head. Sadly, this overlong sequence (it runs for nearly 30 minutes) ruins the final scene's shattering discovery. Since Bourla set it up well beforehand, the visuals are striking, but because we have just been through the auditory mill with our hero, we just don't connect to the connotation. It's part of The Noah's narrative problem. Everything here feels and plays real. We can imagine a lonely man crumbling under the isolation and severity of his situation. But the way Bourla's envisions it, we get nothing but sound and fury...and you remember what one William Shakespeare said that signified, right?
A true lost movie, The Noah was made in 1968, but never saw a major theatrical release. While it did play a few dates in 1975, it remained virtually unknown until this new DVD presentation. On the plus side, Pathfinder offers up a wonderfully evocative 1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The monochrome image is magnificent, full of carefully-controlled contrasts and artistically-styled shadows and light. Yes, there is a minor bit of solarizing in some scenes, and there are some jittery frames near the beginning of the film. Still, for such a rarity, the tech specs are stellar. Equally effective is the Dolby Digital Mono, which captures all the conversations with discernible clarity. It even delivers the dense, decibel-testing ending without any major overmodulation. Where this disc comes up short is in the extras department. A movie like this must have a great story surrounding its creation and it would have been nice for Pathfinder to provide at least some context. Instead, we get a few text biographies and a collection of stills. Not quite the mandatory Making-Of that something this scarce deserves.
The Noah does take a certain kind of cinephile to appreciate its unique blending of freak-out and future shock. While its anti A-bomb statements are a little pat, it's the psychological stuff that will linger long after the political rants have subsided. It's just too bad there's not more here to enjoy. Instead of celebrating this rarities release, this DVD argues for the film's continued fate as forgotten.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 1975
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Text Biographies
* Photo Gallery