Noah in the Underworld

I recently was subjected to the 1940 sci-fi/western film Radio Ranch (a compilation of the series Phantom Empire). This happy-go-lucky story with Gene Autry in his first starring role is a romp through the unbelievable in just about any sense of the word. Based on the premise that there is an underground world called Murania, the film pits Autry against evil scientists who want to get a “bushel load” of radium from Murania, the “Thunder Riders,” or national guard of Murania, and indeed, against his corporate sponsors who will cancel his contract if he ever fails to get to Radio Ranch by 2 p.m. for his singing broadcast! This creative approach to early science fiction will be reincarnated more successfully in The Mole People, a movie that I wrote about a few weeks back.

The connections between the two films do not stop at an underground world with humanoids wearing Egyptian costumes (there is an unmistakable uraeus on the helmet of Argo in Radio Ranch), but go as far as the associations with the Flood Myth. I pointed out the flood connections in my post on The Mole People, and it was startling to note that Radio Ranch begins (and ends) with Gene Autry singing “Uncle Noah’s Ark.” That coincidence is, in itself, barely worth noticing. When the evil scientists invade Radio Ranch, however, they are shown an artifact from the Thunder Riders (whose thunder-producing horses are, admittedly, pretty cool) and they immediately identify it as an “antediluvian” idol. At this point it became clear how deeply embedded the biblical flood story has been in our culture, and how freely it was used in early science fiction films.

At a guest lecture in the Middle East Studies Program at Rutgers on Friday, I mentioned that the flood story goes all the way back to Sumer, making it among the earliest religious stories in the world. Several students had difficulty with this and began asking, “but when was Noah actually alive?” These college students, well educated in science, engineering, or political science, can’t get beyond the biblical literalism they were raised with. It is no wonder that America is falling behind much of the world in science education: we haven’t moved beyond Gene Autry’s overly cheerful belief in a deluge that never occurred.