Sunday, July 11, 2021

Richard Lyford’s As the Earth Turns

Pax is a lot like Superman in The Quest for Peace, except he is actually the super-villain. He intends to force the warring nations of the world to beat their arms into plowshares through his ability to unleash terrorizing storms and earthquakes. If he succeeds, they could call it Pax Pax, but the old European warmongers are skeptical. Intrepid reporter Julie Weston believes his powers are real and she intends to get the scoop in Richard Lyford’s long-lost silent film As the Earth Turns, which releases Thursday on DVD.

In the early 1930s, synch-sound was standard for Hollywood studio productions, but silent films were still widely produced internationally. By 1938, silent movies were pretty rare, but for twenty-year-old Lyford went soundless for his 45-minute ultra-indie-DIY adaptation of Arthur Train & Robert Williams Wood’s H.G. Wellsian novel,
The Man Who Rocked the Earth. Before winning an Oscar for re-cutting an Italian Michelangelo documentary, Lyford had a successful career as a Disney animator, but it is really a shame he didn’t work for Toho, because he had a precocious talent for destroying scale models.

Needing s big break, Weston starts haunting an American intelligence listening station, where she overhears Pax’s initial threats. Shockingly, he then makes good on them, but all the political insiders insist it must be a coincidence. As Pax continues to batter the world with super-storms, Weston and her potential love-interest crony enlist the help of Prof. Lionel Banks, who shares Pax’s scientific mind and, as a veteran of WWI, his revulsion for war.

Eventually, the daring trio follow Pax’s sleek scifi-style airship to his Fortress of Solitude-like lair. Technically, Lyford’s film has been compared to
Flash Gordon serials, which is actually quite apt. It is pretty amazing what he was able to render in his backyard and at the locations around his Seattle home. Frankly, ATET looks better than most sci-fi monster movies from the late 1950s and early 1960s. (I hate to say it, but he really makes Ed Wood look bad in comparison.)

All things considered, the unknown cast is pretty much okay too. Barbara Berger is likably and realistically upbeat and resourceful as Weston. Edwin C. Frost projects a learned and philosophical temperament as Prof. Banks, while Lyford himself provides an intriguing portrait of unhinged radicalism as Pax.

Indeed, Lyford’s film is probably more interesting than the book that inspired it. While Lyford’s adaptation and performance reflect empathy for Pax’s post-traumatic stress, they still vividly depict how extreme ideology (in this case pacificism) can degenerate into full-blown psychosis. It is not exactly a lost masterpiece, but
ATET is definitely impressively inventive. It is great to now have it available as an early forerunner of genre indie filmmaking and a last-gasp of silent cinema. Highly recommended for classic film buffs, As the Earth Turns releases Thursday (7/15) on DVD and it currently streams on Tubi.