Ralph Burton (Harry Belafonte) is working in a mine when he reaches an unstable part of the underground network and radios his bosses to tell them not to explore here any further - but suddenly there is a strong tremor and part of the cave collapses on him. He manages to free himself, but soon discovers he is trapped in this place, and with no way of reaching the outside world he is stuck until someone frees him. Patiently he waits for five days, but with his rations getting low he makes a spirited attempt to get out alone - and has a nasty surprise awaiting him.
The idea of being the last man on Earth was not a new one, and in films the most iconic shots of the genre, the scenes of your star wandering deserted city streets, had made a mark with Arch Oboler's Five in 1951, but the one people tended to recall as kicking off the trend for such post-apocalypse settings was either this, or its contemporary On The Beach. As it turned out, the latter caught the public mood more than the Belafonte movie, probably because the notion of being left to fend for yourself with nobody around was blunted by the fact Ralph is not alone at all.
One classic of science fiction literature is George R. Stewart's Earth Abides, which oddly has never been adapted into a film, or even a television series no matter how influential it was. The World, the Flesh and the Devil had been drawn from an earlier work than that, but there were similarities which suggested writer and director Ranald MacDougall was aware of that novel, especially in the first half hour where Belafonte was the sole actor onscreen, echoing the Stewart book where his protagonist wanders the deserted streets in the hope of finding others.
Yet that work proved to be far more progressive than this film, for there the hero joins with another survivor, a woman, and they end up starting a family. Why is that more progressive? Because his partner is a black woman and he is white, and that fact is barely remarked upon as the primary goal for them is to get by with what little human life there is left: any racial issues have been elminated by the unimaginable tragedy. Here, on the other hand, it was all the characters could think about as what had begun as a visually fascinating study of a man struggling with loneliness swiftly turned into a lot of didactic lesson-learning thanks to Belafonte being black and his co-star Inger Stevens being white.
The tragically short-lived Stevens was actually having an affair with Belafonte when they were making this film, which renders its concerns even more artificial, but after a while it's all Ralph and her character Sarah can talk about as they dutifully weigh up the issues of miscegenation. Just as they are beginning to come around to the idea there's nothing wrong with it, who should sail up to the harbour but Mel Ferrer as Ben, who is often described as a racist character, though thankfully that's a simplification of the situation: basically he wants a woman, and Sarah is the only one available. Soon, however well-meaning this was (Belafonte was a committed campaigner for civil rights at the time and for long afterwards) you begin to tire of these people who have reduced the end of civilisation to a soap opera plot. It's a shame, because for a while this film is truly absorbing, and you could argue it was better to tackle its topics than ignore them, but this would have been better if the trio had got on with surviving and allow them to emerge from the drama, rather than lead it. Music by Miklos Rozsa.