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The Confluence of ‘Soylent Green’: Bruce Markusen Discusses Richard Fleischer’s 1973 Film

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The Confluence of 'Soylent Green': Bruce Markusen Discusses Richard Fleischer's 1973 Film

We are fast approaching the confluence of Soylent Green.

And what exactly is that? First off, the anniversary of Soylent Green’s nationwide debut in 1973 is coming up on May 9. More significantly, the events of the film take place in the future—in the year 2022 to be exact. And that, of course, is where we are now.

While our real-life society has its share of problems, including a global pandemic that first hit in 2020, the situation is not quite as awful as depicted in Soylent Green, which is loosely based on the novel written by Harry Harrison. As laid out in the film, the United States (along with the rest of the world) has become affected by massive pollution and global warming conditions, leaving people in oppressive heat waves that seem to last for weeks. To make matters worse, cities in 2022 have become so wildly overpopulated that there is simply not enough food or water for everyone. The shortage of food has prompted a government-sponsored corporation to come up with a product called Soylent Green, a strange wafer-like substance. (In the novel, the word “soylent” refers to a mix of soybeans and lentils.) Given its green color and processed look, the food is not particularly appetizing in appearance, but has enough taste that it seems to satisfy the hunger pangs of the population, particularly the lower classes and the outright poor.

Soylent Green 1973 Still

Still, there is an overriding mystery with regard to the food known as Soylent Green. What exactly is it made of? No one seems to know, except for a few high-ranking officials within the Soylent Corporation. For some reason, the corporation refuses to say, leading some to wonder if something nefarious is at work in the production of this strange foodstuff.

Soylent Green is set in New York City, which is now home to 40 million people, as opposed to the eight million that normally populate the area. Most people are confined to poverty, except for a few elites who have enough wealth to live in spacious apartments equipped with security guards and female concubines who are essentially sex slaves. These women are treated with such disdain that they are referred to as “the furniture.”

A New York City police officer, Detective Thorn, does his best to survive the horrific conditions of the world in 2022. He soon stumbles upon the mystery of Soylent Green, but only after he becomes involved in the investigation of the death of William Simonson, one of the Soylent Corporation’s top executives. Played brilliantly by legendary actor Charlton Heston in what amounts to one of his finest portrayals, Detective Thorn initially treats the investigation with apathy, but soon begins to believe that Simonson was targeted and assassinated. Thorn becomes so consumed by the investigation that he discovers a government conspiracy that appears to be connected to the mysterious nature of Soylent Green. Thorn’s discovery will put him in great peril.

Soylent Green Chuck Connors

Heston headlines a great cast that includes Chuck Connors, the former major league first baseman who would take on a number of horror roles in the 1970s. Connors plays Simonson’s security guard, Tab Fielding, who comes into direct conflict with Thorn, leading to a memorable physical confrontation between the two actors.

Other key players in Soylent Green are Joseph Cotten as Simonson. It was Cotten who did such wonderful work in The Abominable Dr. Phibes, which starred Vincent Price. Then there is Brock Peters, the excellent African-American actor who only occasionally ventured into the world of science fiction but seems quite at home in Soylent Green as an old school police captain. Another key player is Leigh Taylor-Young, who portrays Shirl, Simonson’s sex slave and a key witness for Thorn. (As of 2022, Taylor-Young is one of only two surviving members of the film’s main cast. The other is character actor Stephen Young, no relation to Leigh Taylor-Young.)

All of the aforementioned actors play their parts well, but in some ways they are upstaged by the great Edward G. Robinson, who plays Thorn’s retired and ailing police partner, Sol Roth. Despite being gravely ill in real life, his body racked with cancer, Robinson delivers a great performance as the wise and well-reasoned Roth, who becomes the first person to discover the secrets behind Soylent Green. Shortly after he completed filming his part, and just before the production on the set came to a close, Robinson died, succumbing to the cancer at the age of 79. Given the degree of pain that Robinson must have been suffering, along with his almost complete lack of hearing (which only made filming more difficult), his effort in completing the role ranks as one of the most heroic in film history.

Soylent Green Sol Roth

Like most great films from the genres of sci-fi and horror, Soylent Green has its share of memorable scenes. For that we can thank the late director, Richard Fleischer, who brilliantly creates a landscape of dystopian despair. One of my favorite sequences is the infamous street scene, where a riot has broken out in response to a sudden shortage of the Soylent Green wafers. When some of the citizens realize that the local supply of the government food product has run out, they begin to storm the tables where the food is being distributed. A police officer, attempting to bring the mob to order, issues a warning that disobedient citizens will soon be detained. The officer shouts repeatedly into his megaphone, “The scoops are on their way! The scoops are on their way!” The “scoops” that he refers to are large construction trucks featuring shovels that literally pick people up off the ground and throw them into the backs of the vehicles, without regard to their physical safety. There is an element of humor to the scene, given the frenetic, slapstick way that the citizens are manhandled by the truck operators, but there is also a pathetic quality that speaks to just how cruel the government has become in treating its suffering citizens.

The street scene also represents an eerie foreshadowing of society’s real-life future. As the riot breaks out, some of the people can clearly be seen wearing face masks that cover their mouths (but usually not their noses). For anyone who has lived through the last two-plus years, be it in America or elsewhere, those masks are reminiscent of the face coverings that have become so commonplace—along with being such a source of controversy.

As powerful as the street scene is, the final scene of Soylent Green is the most memorable. That is when Detective Thorn makes the gruesome discovers regarding the main ingredient in the strange government foodstuff. For those who have not seen the film, a spoiler alert is necessary. But for those who have seen the movie, they will always remember how Heston delivers his closing line with the horrifying wail, “Soylent Green is people!” Indeed it is, Detective Thorn, indeed it is.

In presenting one of the great endings in film history, director Fleischer puts the finishing touches to his dire outlook of what the future could bring. Curiously, Soylent Green received only mixed reviews upon its release in 1973, with some of the harshest assessments coming from Gene Siskel, who called it a “silly detective yarn,” and The New Yorker, which claimed the film “hasn’t a brain in its beanbag.” All these years later, these reviews seem so off-base as to be almost laughable. Soylent Green is a classic film from the realm of sci-fi, one that is tinged with horror and overridden with mystery and feelings of paranoia. If anything, it is a film that somehow becomes better and more powerful with each passing decade.


If you enjoyed reading this article, you can let Bruce know via his Twitter account here.

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