Many forms of art consider what it means to be part of civilization. They wrestle with deep
questions like: What are our obligations to one another within the societies we have constructed?
One film that contemplated such a question and imagined an answer to it was the 1951 Lippert
Pictures production Unknown World.
Fittingly, this movie begins with a newsreel explaining the dynamics of “Civilization versus the
Atom.” In this newsreel, several gifted individuals join to form the (soon formally defunct) “Society
to Save Civilization.” They are proposing an expedition into the center of the Earth to find a
habitable shelter from inevitable nuclear war.
This movie is not without its problems. By excluding people of color from their expedition (and
the rest of the film), for instance, Unknown World implies that the only people concerned with
saving us from total devastation are white people who are likely concerned only with saving white
people. However, it’s hard to find a sci-fi film from the early 1950s that doesn’t carry a similar
message. The special effects, particularly those involving the Cyclotram vehicle that carries these
explorers, leave much to be desired. Yet, they are kept wisely brief. There is a woman (portrayed
by Marilyn Nash) involved in the expedition, but she ultimately becomes part of a love triangle
instead of contributing significantly to more useful aspects of saving civilization. This says plenty
about the attitude toward women’s role in this society. Couple that with her general frailty and
emotionality, and you’ve got a pretty typical 1950’s interpretation of womanhood (that hopefully we
are finding contemporarily repugnant).
With its flaws, however, Unknown World stands out as an answer to the fears raised by the
Cold War. When annihilation is imminent and likely, it is comforting to know that people with
scientific expertise could gladly undertake a mission to preserve all human life. In Unknown World,
that mission is not without loss and disappointment, but still the film speaks to human determination
to survive against mounting odds.
Watch Unknown World and keep an eye out for actress Marilyn Nash’s flawless (perhaps
Sci-Fi Rewind: Unknown World (1951)
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Director: Terry O. Morse
Starring: Marylin Nash, Otto Waldis, Jim Bannon, Victor Killan