‘ … for the time being, the giant powers in this mushroom cloud remain firmly in the hands of a peace-loving people, but the United Nations building can be blown to bits, blood can wash away the ink on peace signatures. This we must remember, and therefore we who control the weapons of peace must be on guard to assure the world that the forces for good will never be turned into forces for evil. If we relax, lose our strength, lose our preparedness, what you are about to see is what might happen, for this is a picture which shows a world without law and order. A dim distant future world, yes … an imaginary and fictional world, yes … but possible the world of 3000 AD, a world we must not let happen.’
In the early 1950s, science fiction cinema was busy devising sub-genres which would proliferate and persist – alien invasion, voyages to other worlds, rampaging atomic mutations, runaway robots, etc. This pioneering, modest, cheapskate 1952 after-the-nuclear apocalypse effort was written and produced by Aubrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen, who’d just scored with The Man From Planet X but oddly didn’t retain distinctive director Edgar G. Ulmer and instead hired no-name Stuart Gilmore (who has better credits as an editor, from Sullivan’s Travels to The Andromeda Strain). Atomic war itself featured in Invasion USA and Arch Oboler’s Five covered the immediate aftermath, but– perhaps taking a cue from The Shape of Things to Come or plague novels like Earth Abides and The Scarlet Plague – Captive Women imagines what human society might be like a millennium on from ‘the dark century’ when tribes who wear studded skins or shortie nighties live in the shattered ruins of New York (an okay matte painting) and skirmish, mostly over who gets to have children with whom. Many later movies picked up the Norms vs Mutates theme (cf: World Without End, Beyond the Time Barrier), but this is a little subtler than most: the Mutates, who aren’t that hideous (some have blotches pasted to their face and others are hooded like lepers), are not actually the villains, though they adopt the Seven Brides for Seven Brothers tactic of kidnapping womenfolk (hence the title imposed by Howard Hughes on something originally called 3000 AD) in the hope of breeding out their infirmities.
The Mutates are outcasts from Norm society, and the big conflict is between two Norm tribes – the Satan-worshipping, scheming, brutal barbarian Upriver People (whose idea of curing a Mutate is cutting off his extra fingers) and a more co-operative gang who live in what used to be the subways and still know their Bible (they even recognise that a climax set under the Manhattan River parallels the Parting of the Red Sea). The plot motor is stereotype baddie Gordon (Stuart Randall), an Upriver chief who uses treachery and brute force to take over the city, but is opposed by an alliance between Mutate boss Riddon (Ron Randell) and the son of a murdered Norm chief (Robert Clarke). Pollexfen and Wisberg always display a mix of real imagination and terrible writing, and despite carving out new genre territory most of what goes on here could have been lifted from any ancient world quickie – Gordon fulfils a promise to a traitor that he will sit on a throne then has him strangled just as he gets comfortable. There’s a good Norm girl (Margaret Field) who willingly marries Riddon at the climax, a trampy minx (Gloria Saunders) who throws in with Gordon, and a scurvy Mutate betrayer (William Schallert) who gets killed during a montage after he’s served his plot function by revealing to Gordon that the Mutates have been using secret tunnels under the river.
The long, pompous opening narration, laid over the usual bomb test footage, makes it clear that it’s not the existence of nuclear weapons which threatens the world but the possibility some nation not as peace-loving as the US might get hold of them – it was often necessary in nuke films made during the pre-proliferation days to harp on this theme, but it became fashionable from about The World, the Flesh and the Devil and On the Beach in 1959 to indict the rottenness of human nature rather than specific ideology for the end of civilisation. It feels even cheaper than Planet X, which at least had Ulmer’s imaginative staging and lots of fog to stretch a buck, and furthermore leaves fantastic visual or thematic material just lying there – later, everything from Teen Age Caveman through Beneath the Planet of the Apes to Mad Max 2 would pick up the leavings of Captive Woman and make much more of post-apocalypse societies scrabbling amid the ruins and resorting to ritual heresies to get beyond the trauma of the Last War.