When Worlds Collide (1951 film)

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When Worlds Collide
Directed by Rudolph Maté
Produced by George Pal
Written by Sydney Boehm
Based on the novel When Worlds Collide 
by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie
Starring Richard Derr
Barbara Rush
Peter Hansen
John Hoyt
Music by Leith Stevens
Cinematography W. Howard Greene
John F. Seitz
Edited by Arthur P. Schmidt
Paramount Pictures Corp.
Distributed by Paramount Pictures Corp.
Release dates
  • November 22, 1951 (1951-11-22) (Los Angeles)[1]
Running time
83 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $1.6 million (US rentals)[2]

When Worlds Collide is a 1951 American Technicolor science fiction film from Paramount Pictures, produced by George Pal, directed by Rudolph Maté, and starring Richard Derr, Barbara Rush, Peter Hansen and John Hoyt. The film is based on the 1933 science fiction novel of the same name, co-written by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer.

When Worlds Collide concerns the coming destruction of the Earth by the rogue star Bellus and the desperate efforts to build a space ark that will save and transport a small portion of humanity to the star's single orbiting planet, Zyra.


Pilot David Randall is paid to fly top-secret photographs from South African astronomer Dr. Emery Bronson to Dr. Cole Hendron in the United States. Hendron, with the assistance of his daughter Joyce, confirms their worst fears: Bronson has discovered a rogue star named Bellus that is on a collision course with Earth.

Hendron warns the delegates of the United Nations that the end of the world is little more than eight months away. He pleads for the construction of spaceships to transport a lucky few to Zyra, the sole planet in orbit around Bellus, in the faint hope that it can sustain life and save the human race from extinction. However, other equally distinguished scientists scoff at his claims, and he is not believed by the UN delegates.

Hendron receives help from wealthy humanitarian friends, who arrange a lease on a former proving ground to construct an ark spaceship. To finance the construction, Hendron is forced to accept money from the self-centered, wheelchair-bound industrialist Sidney Stanton. Stanton demands the right to select the passengers, but Hendron insists that he is not qualified to make those choices; all he can buy with his wealth is a single seat aboard the ark.

Joyce becomes attracted to Randall and prods her father into finding reasons to keep him around, much to the annoyance of her boyfriend, medical doctor Tony Drake. The ship's construction is a race against time. As Bellus nears, former skeptics admit that Hendron was right and governments prepare for the inevitable. Groups in other nations also begin building spaceships. Martial law is declared, and residents in coastal regions are moved to inland cities.

When Zyra makes a close approach, its gravitational attraction causes massive earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tidal waves that wreak havoc around the world. Several people are killed at the ark's construction camp, including Dr. Bronson. In the aftermath, Drake and Randall travel by helicopter to provide assistance to survivors. When Randall leaves the helicopter to rescue a little boy stranded on a rooftop surrounded by water, Drake must resist a strong temptation to strand his rival.

As the day of doom approaches, the spaceship is loaded with food, medicine, microfiche copies of books, equipment, and animals. Finally, the lucky passengers are selected by a lottery, though Hendron reserves seats for a handful of people: himself, Stanton, Joyce, Drake, pilot Dr. George Frey, the young boy who was rescued, and Randall, for his daughter's sake. When a young man turns in his winning ticket because his sweetheart was not selected, Hendron arranges for both to go. Randall refuses his seat and only pretends to participate in the lottery, believing he has no skills needed for settling on Zyra. For Joyce's sake, Drake fabricates a "heart condition" for Frey, making a co-pilot necessary; Randall is the only choice.

The cynical Stanton becomes increasingly anxious as time passes. Knowing human nature, he fears what the desperate lottery losers might do, so as a precaution, he has stockpiled weapons; Stanton's suspicions prove to be well-founded. His much-abused assistant, Ferris, tries to add himself at gunpoint to the passenger manifest, only to be shot dead by Stanton. During their final night on Earth, the selected passengers and animals are quietly moved to the launch pad to protect them from more violence.

Shortly before takeoff, many of the lottery losers riot, taking up Stanton's weapons to try to force their way aboard the space ark. Hendron surprises everyone by staying behind at the last moment and forcibly keeps Stanton with him in order to conserve fuel for the flight. With an effort born of ultimate desperation, Stanton stands up and starts to walk in a futile attempt to board the departing spaceship.

The crew are rendered unconscious by the g-force of acceleration and do not witness the Earth's collision with Bellus, displayed on the forward television monitor. When Randall comes to and sees Dr. Frey already awake and piloting the ship, he realizes he has been deceived.

As the space ark enters Zyra's atmosphere, the fuel finally runs out; Randall takes control, gliding the ship to a rough but safe landing. Earth's survivors begin to disembark, finding Zyra to be habitable. David Randall and Joyce Hendron follow, walking hand-in-hand down the ramp to explore an unknown but hopeful future.



A feature film, based on the original novels When Worlds Collide and After Worlds Collide, first serialized in Blue Book magazine in 1932, was considered by producer-director Cecil B. Demille. When George Pal began his version years later, he initially wanted a more lavish production with a larger budget, but he wound up being forced to scale back his plans.[3]

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was first considered for the role of Dave Randall, but Richard Derr was finally hired for the part.[4]

Chesley Bonestell is credited with the artwork used for the film; he created the design for the space ark that was constructed. The final scene in the film, the sunrise landscape on Zyra, was taken from a Bonestell sketch. Because of budget constraints, the director was forced to use this color sketch rather than a finished matte painting, drawing criticism.[citation needed] When Earth's survivors gaze out over Bonestell's vista, three unusual rectangular shadows or shapes are clearly visible to the left of the scene. These cannot have been made by anything other than an intelligent species. This leaves the audience to speculate whether intelligent life once existed or still exists on Zyra.[citation needed]

The additional poor quality still image showing a drowned New York City is often attributed to Bonestell, but it was not actually drawn by him.[5]

The Differential analyzer at UCLA is shown briefly near the beginning of the film; it verifies the initial hand-made calculations confirming the coming destruction of the Earth. "There is no error."[3]

Producer George Pal considered making a sequel based on the second novel, After Worlds Collide, but the box office failure of his 1955 Conquest of Space made that impossible.[3]


When Worlds Collide was reviewed by Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, who noted that George Pal had followed up on his other prophetic epic, Destination Moon: "... this time the science soothsayer, whose forecasts have the virtue, at least, of being represented in provocative visual terms, offers rather cold comfort for those scholars who would string along with him. One of the worlds which he arranged to have collide is ours."[6]

Freelance writer Melvin E. Matthews calls the film a "doomsday parable for the nuclear age of the '50s."[7] Emory University physics professor Sidney Perkowitz notes that this film is the first in a long list of movies where "science wielded by a heroic scientist confronts a catastrophe." He calls the special effects exceptional.[8]

Librarian and filmographer Charles P. Mitchell was critical of the "... scientific gaffes that dilute the storyline," as well as a "failure to provide consistent first-class effects." He pointed out that there were inconsistencies in the script, such as the disappearance of Dr. Bronson in the second half of the film.[Note 1] In his flawed analysis, Mitchell also does not recognize that sister spacecraft are being built by other nations and their ultimate fate. He summarizes by saying, "the large number of plot defects are annoying and prevent this admirable effort from achieving top-drawer status."[4]


When Worlds Collide won the 1951 Academy Award for special effects. It was also nominated for Best Cinematography-Color.[9]

Cultural references[edit]

When Worlds Collide is one of the many classic films referenced in the opening theme ("Science Fiction/Double Feature") of both the stage musical The Rocky Horror Show (1973) and its cinematic counterpart, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1976).[10] In the feature film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), two cargo containers can be seen labeled "Bellus" and "Zyra" in the Genesis Cave.[11]

In the film adaptation of L.A. Confidential (1997), tabloid writer Sid Hudgens arranges for the publicity-loving Jack Vincennes to arrest a young actor on the night of this film's premiere, resulting in photos of the arrest with the theatre holding the premiere in the background accompanied by the headline "Movie Premiere Pot Bust" (the scene is shown taking place in 1953, long after the 1951 premiere of When Worlds Collide).[12]

When Worlds Collide is the title of a 1975 album (the related single is "Did Worlds Collide?") by Richard Hudson and John Ford, their third release after leaving Strawbs.[13] "When Worlds Collide" is the title of a single by the heavy metal band Powerman 5000 from the 1999 album Tonight the Stars Revolt!.[14]


Paramount Pictures began pre-production on a When Worlds Collide remake circa 2013. As of August 25, 2015, no release date had been announced.[15]



  1. ^ Dr. Bronson was mentioned as arriving at Hendron's camp in dialog and later depicted as being killed when a construction crane fell on him during the devastating passage of Zyra.


  1. ^ ""When Worlds Collide"." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: July 20, 2013
  2. ^ "The Top Box Office Hits of 1951." Variety, January 2, 1952.
  3. ^ a b c Warren 1982, pp. 151–163.
  4. ^ a b Mitchell 2001, pp. 252–254.
  5. ^ Miller et al. 2001, p. 65.
  6. ^ Crowther, Bosley. "Movie Review: When Worlds Collide (1951); The screen in review;George Pal's new film adventure into outer space, 'When Worlds Collide,' opens at the Globe." The New York Times, February 7, 1952.
  7. ^ "1950s Science Fiction Films and 9/11". google.com. 
  8. ^ Perkowitz 2007, p. 9.
  9. ^ Sullivan et al. 2011, p. 21.
  10. ^ Miller 2011, p. 127.
  11. ^ "Star Trek cast and crew (August 6, 2002)." Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Directors Edition: Special Features (DVD; Disc 2/2): Paramount Pictures.
  12. ^ Veniere, James. "Director of L.A. Confidential hits stride. Boston Herald. September 14, 1997.
  13. ^ "Hudson-Ford – Worlds Collide." discogs.com. Retrieved: January 9, 2015.
  14. ^ "Tonight the Stars Revolt!" allmusic.com. Retrieved: January 9, 2015.
  15. ^ retrieved December 16, 2015


  • Hickman, Gail Morgan. The Films of George Pal. South Brunswick, New Jersey: A. S. Barnes and Company, Inc., 1977. ISBN 978-0-49801-960-9.
  • Matthews, Melvin E. Hostile Aliens, Hollywood, and Today's News: 1950s Science Fiction Films and 9/11. New York: Algora Publishing, 2007. ISBN 978-0-87586-498-3.
  • Miller, Ron, Chesley Bonestell, Frederick C. Durant and Melvin H. Schuetz. The Art of Chesley Bonestell. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. ISBN 978-1-85585-884-8.
  • Miller, Scott. Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals. Lebanon, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 2011. ISBN 978-1-55553-761-6.
  • Mitchell, Charles P. A Guide to Apocalyptic Cinema. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2001. ISBN 978-0-31331-527-5.
  • Perkowitz, S. Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, and the End of the World. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-23114-281-6.
  • Reginald, R. and Douglas Menville. Things to Come: An Illustrated History of Science Fiction Film. New York: Times Books, 1977. ISBN 978-0-81290-710-0.
  • Sullivan, III, C. W., Tobias Hochscherf, James Leggott, Donald E. Palumbo, et al., eds. British Science Fiction Film and Television: Critical Essays, Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy 29. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2011. ISBN 978-0-78644-621-6.
  • Warren, Bill. Keep Watching The Skies Vol. I: 1950 - 1957. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 1982. ISBN 0-89950-032-3.

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