This blog post is the fourteenth in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.
The 1971 Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo ballot was filled to the brim with mediocrity. Despite having the benefit of hindsight and an internet to help us learn about films eligible in that year, our cinema club couldn’t have produced a better list of nominees.
|Despite Joan Crawford's performance, Trog is not|
up to the standards we might look for in a Hugo finalist.
(Image via IMDB)
It was the first year that audio recordings made it on the ballot, and as much as we are fans of being format agnostic, we wish that the distinction of being the first comedy album to get a Hugo nod had gone to a more worthy entry than Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers.
Expressing a sentiment that was common at the time, John Baxter wrote: “Written SF is usually radical in politics and philosophy; SF cinema, like the comic strips, endorses the political and moral climate of its day.” While we’d suggest that Baxter was a little too generous towards prose SF, having watched and listened to the 1971 shortlist, it’s clear that there’s some merit in his indictment of screen offerings.
The shortlist was an eclectic one in some ways. It had one theatrically released American movie (Colossus: The Forbin Project), one television movie (Hauser’s Memory), one British movie (No Blade of Grass) one spoken-word comedy album (Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers) and one prog rock concept album (Blows Against the Empire).
While this relative diversity of formats could be praised for a willingness to consider various forms of storytelling, to our eyes it looks like Hugo voters were scraping the bottom of the barrel. Writing in Science Fiction Review, Fred Patten suggested that the entire shortlist “is not worthy of consideration.”
|Paul Kantner's Blows Against the Empire has|
a relatively simple premise that hasn't aged well.
(Image via Futurama)
Ever so slightly less perplexing a choice for a finalist is Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, the third album from Los Angeles comedy troupe Firesign Theater. Although it seems fairly scattershot at the beginning, it slowly becomes clear that the album is telling the life story of a single character named George Leroy Tirebiter, through flashbacks and television. The comedic style has aged poorly, and we wonder how it ever could have been appreciated. The degree to which the work counts as science fiction or fantasy was also perplexing.
Hauser’s Memory, a made-for-television adaptation of Curt Siodmak’s novel of the same name, is a competent if boring spy adventure in which scientist Hillel Mondoro (played by NCIS-regular David McCallum) injects himself with evil brain juice in an attempt to recover secrets that are vital to national security. As the cerebral spinal fluid infects his mind with the memories of a Nazi scientist, Mondoro is compelled to commit a series of crimes, and finally dies. It’s slow-moving, uses excessive crossfades to depict the disorientation of the protagonist, and treads many similar plot points of the author’s previous and much superior novel, Donovan’s Brain.
|Sharp-eyed Canadian political|
buffs may recognize that the role
of Joseph Slaughter in Hauser's
Memory is played by the younger
brother of Deputy Prime Minister
(Image via IMDB)
Viewers of the era were somewhat more generous, with Hank Davis writing in Yandro that Hauser’s Memory was “The next best thing I have seen this year.” Of course, this assessment needs to be taken in context.
Tying into the nascent environmental movement, No Blade of Grass updated the John Cristopher novel The Death of Grass to make it clear that the demise of all plants from the Gramineae family is caused in part by pollution. There are some interesting scenes that foreshadow later post apocalyptic films like Mad Max, and the bleak premise is followed through to a logical conclusion. It’s an uneven effort that has some high points — such as the sadly realistic depiction of an incompetent British government sacrificing millions of people — but it is bogged down by brutal misogyny and clumsy foreshadowing.
Given the distasteful treatment of women in the movie, it’s hard to recommend No Blade of Grass to a modern (or truth be told any) audience.
The most redeemable work on the Hugo Best Dramatic Presentation ballot in 1971 was certainly Colossus: The Forbin Project. From opening scenes exploring a mountain-sized computer, the movie draws in the viewer to a world that becomes quickly dominated by an artificial intelligence designed to bring peace. It’s a great concept that’s mostly followed through on. Eric Braeden is excellent in the lead role of Dr. Charles Forbin, though the supporting cast is mostly merely filling space.
Contemporaneous reviewers generally agreed with this assessment. Richard E. Geis, writing in Science Fiction Review, named Colossus as the only noteworthy science fiction film of the year. Kay Anderson was somewhat more effusive with her praise, writing in Yandro “For my money, The Forbin Project is better than 2001 … Reviews around here are calling it a masterpiece, and I’ll drink to that.”
The pickings were slim, but in some places you could see the seeds of better things to come, though it might take years — even decades — for these themes to flourish. No Blade of Grass was not in the same league as the environmental parables that would be released later in the decade, but with the benefit of hindsight we can see how it was a stepping stone in the evolution of SFF cinema. Likewise, the concept of a science fiction rock opera concept album may be old hat now, but in 1971, Blows Against The Empire was doing something new. These films — and albums — may be mediocre, but they were pushing the medium forward.
By this point, the Hugos had attempted to recognize works of stage and screen on a dozen occasions, and for a third time in that span Worldcon attendees decided not to present a trophy. Not for the first time, the audience laughed and cheered in approval at the announcement of no award. Thankfully, we can find no record of any representatives of any of the five finalists being in attendance for the ceremony, so they were spared this indignity.
Several members of our cinema club may have ended up voting for no award (though others dislike no award on a matter of principle). Either way the consensus was clear: this was a terrible year for science fiction told by screen or sound.