This is an article that your editor prepared some years ago and which originally appeared in the print version of our magazine. The limitations of our printing process at the time couldn’t do full justice to this excellent film, so we’ve taken this opportunity to bring it back as we would like to have seen it done in 2004.
We were greatly helped at that time by the kind co-operation of one of the film’s directors, Freddie Francis, and one of its stars, the lovely Janina Faye. Sadly, Freddie is no longer with us, but Janina was more than happy to help us once again, these many years later, by generously agreeing to our reworking and expanding the article, for which we are extremely grateful.
The Day of the Triffids
In 1962, Allied Artists released a big-screen version of John Wyndham’s best-selling 1951 science fiction novel, The Day of the Triffids – a horrifying, dystopian tale of a world population blinded by a freak meteor shower, and rendered helpless in the path of millions of giant, mobile, man-eating plants.
The Day of the Triffids opened to a mixed reception on its initial UK release in July 1962. Opinions tended to polarize into love it or hate it, with fans of the book tending toward the latter, complaining, with some justification, that it didn’t stick close enough to the book. The film added a new sub-plot to the story with the introduction of the lighthouse sequences and the upbeat ending – for the humans, at least – in which the Triffids are found to be terminally allergic to sea water – shades of the Martians’ demise from the common cold in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. The plot of Triffids now goes like this:
Well, that’s the Phillip Yordan version of the story, which differs considerably from Wyndham’s book. In the film screenplay, many of the original characters are repurposed or omitted altogether, and the book’s plot is considerably simplified, and given an upbeat ending. The central character, Masen, for example, is not the seaman of the film, but is actually a biologist and triffid specialist who has accidentally been blinded by triffid poison. The tall, mobile – and poisonous - triffids are routinely cultivated around the world for the high quality oil that can be produced from them (Masen suspects that the triffids may have been bio-engineered in the U.S.S.R. and released into the wild by accident), and it is only the mass-blindness of humanity, caused by the meteor shower, that has made them vulnerable to the now-uncontrolled carnivorous plants.
The book has Masen and companions finding sanctuary on the Isle of Wight, and leaves them pondering on a way to defeat the triffid hordes. The screenplay actually contradicts itself right at the beginning of the film. The narration (voiced by an uncredited Peter Dyneley, an Anglo/Canadian actor, and familiar face in many fifties and sixties crime dramas – and as the voice of Jeff Tracy in Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds TV series and the two spin-off feature films that followed, Thunderbirds Are Go (1966) and Thunderbird 6 (1968), tells us that the triffids have arrived on Earth along with the meteor shower. However, the opening scene in Kew Gardens has the nervous night watchman looking down at some small triffid plants – complete with label, so they have obviously been there for some time – that have mysteriously begun to sway and twitch. As the night watchman returns to his supper, the little triffids begin to grow as well – the implication being that they are responding in some way to the meteor shower overhead.
Although the screenplay of Day of the Triffids is attributed to Philip Yordan, it was actually written by Bernard Gordon, one of several former blacklisted writers that Yordan sometimes ‘fronted’. An accomplished screenwriter himself, in the late 1940s Yordan had established Triffids’ production company, Security Pictures, after more than a decade in Hollywood, where had worked for William Dieterle and subsequently for Columbia Pictures.
Prior to the formation of his own company, Yordan had a long association with the King Brothers, for whom he wrote Suspense (1946), The Chase (1946) and Bad Men of Tombstone (1949), while continuing to write scripts for other production companies – sometimes uncredited. In 1949 he adapted the Jerome Weidman novel House of Strangers for Fox, although his original script was given an uncredited rewrite by the director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz. However, Yordan’s adaptation was used as the basis for the the 1954 film Broken Lance – essentially a remake of House of Strangers, but as a western - and won Yordan an Academy Award for Best Motion Picture Story, even though he did not write the actual Broken Lance script.
In 1950, he worked on Panic in the Streets and No Way Out for Fox, and in 1951, he penned the Oscar-nominated script for Detective Story for William Wyler at Paramount. Work on Houdini, also for Paramount, and Blowing Wild, for Warner Brothers, followed in 1953, while 1954 saw him working on The Naked Jungle and cult-classic Johnny Guitar – the latter for Republic Pictures. Going into 1955, Yordan entered on of his most productive years. In addition to his Security Pictures company and Cornel Wilde’s Theodora Productions’ co-producing deal on The Big Combo, he also wrote the script for that film. He then went on to write The Man from Laramie for James Stewart and Anthony Mann, Conquest of Space for Byron Haskin, The Last Frontier - also for Mann - as well as working on the script for Joe Macbeth.
Over the next few years he would be associated with several well-known and successful films, either writing, producing – or ‘fronting’: The Harder They Fall (1956), Men in War (1957), No Down Payment (1957), The Bravados (1958), The Fiend Who Walked the West (1958 – a remake of the 1947 film, Kiss of Death), Day of the Outlaw (1959) and The Bramble Bush (1960), before moving to Spain in 1961 to write Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings for Samuel Bronston. He remained with Bronston, receiving a writing credit for El Cid (1961), although most of the work on that film was done by the formerly black-listed writers Ben Barzman and Bernard Gordon. It was during this period that Yordan had Bernard Gordon produce a first-draft script for Day of the Triffids, which he then re-wrote in what you could describe as ‘the Yordan style’ – a method he had used regularly. After producing Triffids, he resumed his association with the Bronston Organisation, writing (with Bernard Gordon again), 55 Days at Peking (1963), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and Circus World (1964), after which the financially over-stretched Bronston Organisation collapsed.
As the Bronston Empire tottered on the brink, in 1963 Yordan’s Security Pictures announced a slate of ten pictures to be released through Allied Artists, although most of these would never see production. 1964 and 1965 would see Security Pictures produce The Thin Red Line and Crack in the World, respectively, after which they would join with Cinerama to produce The Battle of the Bulge (1965), which Yordan co-wrote and produced, Custer of the West (1967), and Krakatoa, East of Java (1968), both of which he produced. In 1969, he wrote and produced The Royal Hunt of the Sun for Security, followed by Captain Apache and Bad Man’s River in 1971.
After these films, Yordan’s association with high-profile productions began to fade. Some uncredited script contributions to Horror Express and The Mad Bomber in 1973, and Psychomania and Pancho Villa in 1974, were followed by writing and producing duties on several largely forgotten movies – his last script, in 1994, was for a film called Too Bad About Jack.
Philip Yordan died in La Jolla, California in 2003, aged 88.
After shooting of the original Triffids script was completed, it soon became apparent that the film was too short. Eventually, it was decided that a sort of parallel story would be created, completely separate from the main action but complementary to it, so the plot could then cut back and forth between the original Bill Masen story and what would be the new, besieged lighthouse sequences, in which a married couple of scientists are stranded on a triffid-infested island off the Cornish coast – and who will discover the triffids’ Achilles heel, so to speak – sea water – giving the film a more upbeat, audience-friendly ending. This, of course, is not unlike the startling demise of the poor old Martians succumbing to our Earthly germs in H.G. Wells’ classic science fiction tale, War of the Worlds.
To helm these additional scenes – which would be uncredited - the producers turned to veteran cinematographer turned director, Freddie Francis.
Freddie entered the film industry in 1936 as a clapper boy at British International Pictures, where he graduated to camera loader then focus puller, and then moved on to British Dominions Studios. In 1939 he joined the Army, and was soon assigned to the Army Kinematograph Unit, where he was involved in making training films with various production units. This period saw him undertaking various chores; sometimes cameraman, then director or editor – “...a general jack of all trades”, as he described himself during this period.
After leaving the Army, he worked as a camera operator for the next ten years. The films he worked on included The Elusive Pimpernel (1950), Tales of Hoffman (1951), Beat the Devil (1953) and Moby Dick (1956) – on the latter, he was second unit in charge of the special effects. After Moby Dick, he moved to the main unit and became director of photography on A Hill in Korea (1956). Many notable films followed, among which were Room at the Top (1959), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), Sons and Lovers (1960) – for which he won an Academy Award – and The Innocents (1961) – a film which he regarded as one the best films he’d shot.
Following his Academy Award, he was given an opportunity to move into directing, his first feature as director being Two and Two Make Six [a.k.a. The Girl Swappers] (1962), a romantic comedy starring George Chakiris and Janette Scott. Following that, in the same year he directed The Brain, with Anne Heywood and Peter Van Eyck, a horror/thriller that would launch Freddie into a twenty-year career as a director of horror and psycho/thriller films. But before that, the Triffids came calling...
A few years ago we were fortunate enough to be able to chat to Freddie, briefly, about his contribution to Day of the Triffids, with the kind help of his wife, Pamela.
Freddie’s subsequent identification with the horror/psycho thriller type of film – some twenty eight in number, which included many that are now regarded as classics of the genre, such as: Paranoiac (1963), The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), Torture Garden (1967), Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968) and Tales from the Crypt (1972) – was something he occasionally regretted, as he’d also directed episodes of popular 1960s/70s TV series such as Man in a Suitcase, The Adventures of Black Beauty, The Champions, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and The Saint.
In 1980, Freddie returned to his former career as a cinematographer, when David Lynch asked him to shoot The Elephant Man – to much critical acclaim. Following this, he went on to shoot The Executioner’s Song (1882), Dune (1984) – again for David Lynch, and Glory (1989), for which he won his second Academy Award. In 1991 , he shot The Man in the Moon and Martin Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear. He made his last film in 1999, reuniting with David Lynch for The Straight Story, which he shot in Iowa in just twenty three days.
Freddie Francis, a gifted cinematographer and greatly underestimated director, died on 17th March 2007, aged 89.
Some time ago, we had the great good fortune to talk to the lovely Janina Faye – once that little orphan schoolgirl, Susan – about her experiences with triffids, Howard Keel and...Professor Van Helsing!
Post Triffids, Janina has had a long and successful career, in film, TV and theatre – and indeed, for the last five years, has been running the musical theatre school she founded with her daughter. WSMM greatly appreciates her taking time out from her busy schedule to chat with us.
For more information on her long career, as well as personally inscribed photos from Dracula and Day of the Triffids for sale, visit Janina’s website at janinafaye.com
The movie version of Day of the Triffids has taken a lot of criticism over the years, apart from the complaints about deviations from Wyndham’s original story. Purists love to pick holes in the film’s plot – the most notable one, for example: How do the triffids manage to establish themselves on the lighthouse rock, which is obviously drenched with deadly (to them) sea water twenty four hours a day? Clearly a “Hang on a minute!” moment.
The special effects in particular have taken a wholly unjustified bashing. You have to remember that this film was made in 1962, and the great leap forward in film effects that would come with 2001: A Space Odyssey was still six years – and many millions of dollars – in the future. I guess a Stan Winston triffid might be truly terrifying – but so would his fee. In the early sixties, there were no big budgets for science fiction or horror movies, so Triffids is very much a film of its time, in that respect. It is to the credit of both of its directors, Steve Sekely and Freddie Francis, along with a resourceful effects crew, that they were able to create the impression of a bigger and more spectacular sci-fi/horror movie than its budgetary limitations might have allowed.
Another plus for the movie was its extremely effective cast of seasoned and popular professionals; from Janina Faye as Susan, through Howard Keel as Masen, Nicole Maurey as Christine, Kieron Moore and Janette Scott as Tom and Karen and Mervyn Johns (father of Glynis) as Mr. Coker.
Howard Keel, of course, had built a reputation as the singing star of such massively popular musicals as, Showboat (1951) Calamity Jane (1953), Kiss Me, Kate (1953) Rose Marie (1954), Jupiter’s Darling (1955), Kismet (1955) and the one with which he is probably most identified, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). But he was also a fine dramatic actor, as can be seen in such films as Ride Vaquero! (1953), Floods of Fear (1959), The Big Fisherman (1959 – see our article on this film elsewhere in WSMM) and Armoured Command (1961). In the 1980s, he would join the cast of the popular TV series Dallas in the role of Clayton Farlow.
Janette Scott had become one of Britain’s most popular stars after beginning her career – much like Janina – as a child actress in such films as Went the Day Well (1942), The Lamp Still Burns (1943), The Magic Box (1953) and with James Stewart in No Highway in the Sky (1951). In 1954, she was cast as Cassandra in Robert Wise’s epic production, Helen of Troy (which is featured elsewhere in WSMM). In the late fifties, she would go on to appear in several highly popular comedy films, beginning with Happy Is the Bride (1957) – singing and dancing in The Good Companions (1957) – comedy/drama with Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster and Laurence Olivier in The Devil’s Disciple (1959), The Lady is a Square (1959), followed by the classic, School for Scoundrels (1960), with her frequent co-star, Ian Carmichael. Her comedy roles continued in 1961 with Double Bunk and His and Hers and into 1962 with Two and Two Make Six. Day of the Triffids, in 1963, marked a return to more dramatic roles – and her busiest period - with Paranoiac, Siege of the Saxons and The Old Dark House (a brief return to comedy) all released in the same year. In 1964, Janette re-teamed with Janina for Val Guest’s, The Beauty Jungle and 1965 and 1967 would see her reunited with Kieron Moore for Crack in the World and Bikini Paradise, after which she retired from the screen to bring up her children.
Irish actor Kieron Moore was a familiar face – usually in British thrillers of the period, as well as many international productions. A former member of the Abbey Theatre Players, he was cast as an IRA man in his first film, The Voice Within (1945). An acclaimed West End stage performance in Sean O’Casey’s Red Roses For Me led to a long-term contract with Alexander Korda and two leading roles in 1947, when he appeared in Mine Own Executioner with Burgess Meredith, and Man About the House.
An invitation to Hollywood saw him cast alongside Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward in the epic David and Bathsheba (1951) and The Tall Men (1951), a Foreign Legion adventure starring Burt Lancaster. On his return to Britain, he seemed to spend the next few years alternating between leading and supporting roles: Mantrap, for Hammer Films and Recoil for Eros, both in 1953, followed by Conflict of Wings (1954) and The Blue Peter (1955), both for British Lion. He had the lead in a sci-fi drama, Satellite in the Sky (1956), and in 1957 returned to Hammer with a supporting role in The Steel Bayonet.
1960 was a busy year for Moore – playing criminals – with an important role as one of The League of Gentlemen, as one of the robbers in The Day They Robbed the Bank of England, and then again in The Siege of Sidney Street. A leading role followed in 1961 when he appeared opposite Hazel Court in Dr. Blood’s Coffin. In the same year, he had roles in several TV series, Sir Francis Drake, Danger Man and Zero One.
1962 saw a return to supporting roles with roles in I Thank a Fool, The 300 Spartans, The Main Attraction and, of course, Day of the Triffids – which marked the beginning of an association with Philip Yordan’s production company – The Thin Red Line (1964), Crack in The World and Son of a Gunfighter in 1965 – a brief break from the Yordan company in 1966 for Universal’s Arabesque, then a return for Bikini Paradise and an unlikely casting choice as Chief Dull Knife in Custer of the West , his last film, in 1967.
For the next few years, Moore confined his acting work to appearances in several TV series, before quitting the profession in 1974, when subsequently, he joined the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD).
Kieron Moore died on 15th July, 2007, aged 82.
Nicole Arlette Maurey was born in the Parisian suburb of Bois-Columbes in 1925, and appeared in the title role in her first film, Blondine in 1944. Regular appearances in many French films followed, including one American-produced, French-set film with Bing Crosby, Little Boy Lost (1953). She would soon become recognized as an international star with appearances in films such as The Weapon (1957), Me and the Colonel, with Danny Kaye (1958), The Scapegoat, with Alec Guineas, The Jayhawkers, with Fess Parker and The House of the Seven Hawks, with Robert Taylor, all in 1959. In 1961 and 1962, she would co-star with Richard Todd in the comedy Don’t Bother to Knock, and then in the Canadian hospital-based thriller, The Very Edge.
After Day of the Triffids, Nicole confined her screen appearances to essentially Franco-European productions and television work.
Nicole Maurey died on March 11th 2016, in Versailles, France, aged 90 years.
Steve Sekely: Mention should also be made of Triffids’ director, Steve Sekely, a former Hungarian journalist, turned film director, who had made many films in Hungarian, German and Polish, before fleeing to America to escape fascism. In the USA, he became known for working in a variety of genres, beginning with Miracle on Main Street (1939), Behind Prison Walls (1943), Revenge of The Zombies (1943), Women in Bondage (1943), The Fabulous Suzanne (1946) and Blonde Savage (1947), to name but a few.
After WWII, he returned to Europe, where he worked on several German, Italian and French co-productions throughout the 1950s and sixties, as well some episodic TV, during which period he was contracted to direct Day of the Triffids.
After Triffids, he returned to TV work, making only two more feature films, Kenner, in the USA (1969) and his last film, The Girl Who Liked Purple Flowers, in his native Hungary (1973).
Steve Sekely died in Palm Springs, California, on 9th March 1979, aged 80 years.
In 1963, Day of the Triffids was released in the UK by the Rank Organisation on the Odeon circuit, double-billed with an excellent B/W action thriller, The Legion’s Last Patrol (Commando in the USA), which starred Stewart Granger. (Last Patrol had a haunting theme tune by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino, which was recorded by Ken Thorne and his Orchestra. It spent 15 weeks in the charts, peaking at number 4, in 1963).
Halliwell’s Film Guide described Day of the Triffids as, “A rough and ready adaptation of a famous sci-fi novel, sometimes blunderingly effective and with moments of good trick work” As we said, very much a film of its time – but still as impressive and entertaining now as it was then.
Day of the Triffids would be remade twice more – by the BBC – in 1981 and again in 2009, with very little critical praise for either. So, for WSMM, the audience-friendly – and blunderingly effective - 1963 CinemaScope version will remain the definitive Triffids experience!
Technical FX Credits:
Cinematography (London/Spanish sequences): Ted Moore.
Special Effects: Pat Carr, Jimmy Harris, Fred heather, Garth Inns and Hugh Skillen (triffid effects) (all uncredited).
Visual Effects: Wally Veevers (photography), Bob Cuff and Doug Ferris (matte painters, uncredited)
John Mackey; special effects cameraman (uncredited).
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