The Omega Man strays far enough away from its source, Richard Matheson’s seminal novel I Am Legend, as to only need to give the author a perfunctory credit. While the film does not work as adaptation, it is nonetheless a valuable window into Hollywood filmmaking in the early 1970s. What we have is an American action film, and a Charlton Heston vehicle at that. It goes without saying that a gun is fired wildly within the opening minutes. It is the star-driven nature of the industry that ultimately characterises the latter two adaptations of Matheson’s novel (2007’s I Am Legend is every bit a Will Smith feature). Despite this, The Omega Man holds a fascinating mirror up to the culture for which it was produced. The starting point of this adaption, in typical industry fashion, is to tell us we need a hero.
Robert Neville (Charlton Heston) is the last man on earth. He drives through a deserted Los Angeles, discarded newspapers thrown like tumbleweed by the wind. The opening minutes shows us everything the film has on offer, for better and worse. The atmosphere of these sections is generally well maintained, though eagle-eyed spectators may well spot pedestrians and cars in the background. That Neville is alone is initially evoked with care. He rips a pin-up calendar off the wall, hinting at the sexual frustration central to Matheson’s conception of the character. Shortly thereafter he is tormented by a phantom chorus of ringing pay phones. Loneliness weighs on the character, who experiences paranoid fantasies. This is the good: the bad is altogether noisier. Shortly after the credits, a shadowy figure moves past a window. Neville stops his convertible and, astride the driver-side door, lets loose a burst of machine gun fire. It is not long after this that the car crashes, the first of many vehicular stunts featuring an amusingly wigged stunt driver.
With these early bursts of action, it should come as no surprise that the film is devoid of tension. Director Boris Sagal trades on the image of Heston as saviour. By now, the actor has already played Moses and Ben-Hur, as well as having recently survived a trip to the Planet of the Apes. Neither the actor nor the director can resist closing the film with Neville slumped into an impromptu Jesus Christ pose. What precedes this is a series of challenges the character is uniquely equipped to overcome.
A flashback by way of news bulletin informs us of an escalation in the Sino-Soviet conflict resulting in a detonation that released weaponised bacilli into the atmosphere. This biological agent spreads around the world, infecting everyone with an unknown plague. Well, almost everyone. Colonel Robert Neville is fortunate enough to be in possession of an experimental vaccine which renders him immune. Heroism secured through convenience. He uses his military skills to survive and his medical training to search for a cure. Working against him is the cult known as the Family, led by Matthias (Anthony Zerbe).
Where Matheson presents a spin on the classic vampire, The Omega Man gives us plague victims depicted as albino mutants. They are susceptible to light, yes, but beyond this they are entirely human. Pale, scabrous skin under dark sunglasses and black robes, they scan as something like Luddite Monks. They seek to punish Neville as a member of the technological society that destroyed life as we know it. The film then becomes a fascinating artefact of a United States in transition from hope to paranoia.
Near the start of the film, Neville drops into a cinema. The final – though ongoing – screening at the movie house is the documentary Woodstock. Neville can recite the film as it plays and overall looks bored with the proceedings. When a concert-goer states that the important thing is for everyone to feel safe walking down the street, Neville retorts condescendingly: “They sure don’t make pictures like that anymore.” This is first a pithy one-liner about our extinction, but also a strikingly prescient comment on the road American cinema travelled in the early to middle 1970s.
The Omega Man comes just before the series of paranoid thrillers associated with the era. Films like The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, 1974) present a country full of secret political organisations and covert assassinations. While this is not what The Omega Man is concerned with, it is nonetheless telling that the cause of the plague is made more explicit than in Matheson’s novel. In the book, it is suggested that the virus is closely linked to the historical legends about vampires. The events of the narrative are then an extension and expansion on what we generally attribute to myth. The film makes it clear that the plague is the result of human, technological conflict. Open warfare rather than invasive biology.
The film does not, however, give itself over to the cynicism central to the cycle of paranoid political thrillers. There is an optimism in how Heston plays Neville. This isn’t a countercultural optimism, such as we saw in the Woodstock clip, but rather a cultural one. The generation that came of age between 1967-1969 acted on the assumption that new types of public action could lead to new types of social organisation. This is the optimism we generally associate with the Summer of Love and the original Woodstock Festival – that is, the optimism organised against the culture that produced The Archies and Green Acres, as well as the war in Vietnam.
By cultural optimism, I mean an acceptance of traditional mores. Neville doesn’t bemoan the ashes of bio-technological society so much as seek bio-technological solutions to the travesty in which he finds himself. He accepts the conditions of his contemporaries and seeks to secure these processes for future generations. The cult-like Family sees through this optimism and aims to chart a return to pre-technological society. However, the Family are not hippies, and the film doesn’t resolve itself into a counter-cultural/cultural skirmish. Rather, the Family tries to kill Neville but fail comically until dramatic structure demands a change of fortune. The very structure of the film communicates the desired status quo.
Within this dramatic structure, Neville discovers that he is not the only human left alive. Raiding a department store for new running clothes, he spots a human figure hiding among the mannequins. He chases the figure outside, but soon chalks the encounter up to paranoia. As with the phantom ringing from the phone booths in the opening, Neville cannot fully trust his senses. His paranoia soon dissipates when he is rescued from the Family by Lisa (Rosalind Cash) and Dutch (Paul Koslo). What follows is another of those charmingly dated vehicular stunts, complete with the obviously wigged stunt driver and telegraphed pyrotechnics. Lisa and Dutch are part of a small commune living together on the outskirts of town. They are infected with the plague, yes, but it acts on them all differently.
When a young member of the group falls ill, Neville experiments with a cure. In this way, Neville can become the hero humanity needs. His experiment succeeds, resulting in antibodies that can fight off the plague.It is through these sections that the film most deviates from the source and for which its legacy is generally assured. The plan, as it develops, is for Neville to leave Los Angeles with the commune. Romance, of the action film variety, blooms between Lisa and Neville.
That this is entirely beyond belief does not matter. Remember that this is a Hollywood picture. It is, however, evidence of an industry aware of the rising Black Power movement and the burgeoning Blaxploitation cinema. The sex scene between Heston and Cash is generally taken as among the first interracial kisses to appear in a major – by which I mean mass market – motion picture.
That this is played and presented naturally is admirable. It has undoubtedly aged much better than, say, Live and Let Die (1973), which, in commercially exploiting Blaxploitation, circles back around to racist caricature. Furthermore, the obvious age difference between Heston and the members of the commune is like watching a dinosaur run around with the agents of its obsolescence. Let us not confuse this with radicality, as this remains a Hollywood production. Despite the mercenary nature of the casting, the portrayal of an interracial relationship in a star vehicle secures the legacy of an otherwise forgettable feature.