❉ David Geldard’s viewers guide on how to stop worrying and love films about the bomb…
“Well, for a start, I’m going to sit here and get smashed out of my mind. And I also have it on very good authority that the world is coming to an end. I thought I’d go home and watch it on television.” – Jerry Cornelius (Jon Finch) in ‘The Final Programme’ (Director: Robert Fuest, 1974).
With Oppenheimer doing great business at the box office, here’s a look at some classics of Nuclear War Cinema, just in case you fancy exploring the topic further. This is by no means a definitive list but a look at some of the most extraordinary films in the genre from the previous century, in order of release…
1. On the Beach (1959, Dir. Stanley Kramer)
A star-studded cast of Hollywood A-Listers including Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire (in a rare dramatic role) and Anthony Perkins feature in this haunting post apocalyptic classic based on the 1957 novel of the same name by Nevil Shute (A Town Like Alice).
The Earth has been devastated by a nuclear war and air currents are carrying deadly clouds of radioactive fallout to the Southern Hemisphere. The residents of the city of Melbourne in Australia will be the last to succumb to the effects of the nuclear exchange. As the end of humanity draws closer, we follow the characters as they confront their fears, their own mortality and try to find meaning and hope in the situation. It is a sombre and sobering look at the consequences of human conflict.
Gregory Peck gives a wonderful performance here and despite some critics labelling the movie as ‘too talkie’, it is an emotional, intense, thought provoking, cautionary tale.
2. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964, Dir. Stanley Kubrick).
Stanley Kubrick’s Academy Award-winning political satire stars the legendary Peter Sellers in three different roles; Group captain Lionel Mandrake, a British RAF exchange officer, The President of the United States Merkin Muffley and the title role, Dr. Strangelove, an ex-Nazi scientist and nuclear weapons expert who has become an advisor to the United States government.
Dr. Strangelove brilliantly sends up the absurdity of the Cold War, as it follows the chaotic chain of events when an mentally unstable U.S. Air Force general orders an unauthorised nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. The dark humour runs parallel with the movie’s anti-war/anti-nuclear message which exhibits the importance of diplomacy, sanity and warns against the sheer lunacy of mutally assured destruction.
Many cite Dr. Strangelove as both Kubrick’s and Sellers’ finest achievement. It has acheived a 98% score on Rotten Tomatoes and was voted #26 in Empire’s 500 Greatest Movies of All Time.
3. Fail-Safe (1964, Dir. Sidney Lumet)
In Fail-Safe, the USA experiences a tense crisis when there’s a technical glitch in its nuclear defence system. This malfunction causes a squadron of American Bombers to be mistakenly sent to Moscow. As tensions escalate between the Americans and the Soviets, there is a race to avert the impending disaster. The film highlighted the delicate balance of power and the dangers of technology in the Cold War era. It still stands up as a superior political thriller and with a cast that includes Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau and Larry Hagman, it is highly recommended viewing.
Perversely, considering this movie’s deadly serious tone, it has much in common with Dr. Strangelove. Fail-Safe‘s poor performance at the box office was blamed at the time on the similarity between the two films. It’s worth noting that although the film was considered a flop, critics have always regarded it as a classic of the genre.
Both films were released at a time when the world was still reeling from the near-miss of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Perhaps it was a little too near the mark for cinema goers in 1964?
In 2000, CBS broadcast a live play of Fail-Safe in black and white, starring George Clooney, Don Cheadle, Richard Dreyfuss and Harvey Keitel.
4. The War Game (1965, Dir. Peter Watkins)
The War Game is a BBC psuedo-documentary, directed by Peter Watkins and narrated by Michael Aspel. The film depicts a nuclear strike on the city of Rochester in Kent, England. It shows the visceral horror of the attack, the extent of human suffering and the crippling effect on the emergency services. The War Game is very much a precursor to Threads (see blow) and like its 1980’s successor, it focuses in on how the government would try in vain to maintain order, ration supplies and use emergency measures.
The film was extremely well realised and shocking. Due to its disturbing nature, it upset people at the BBC and within the government. As a result The War Game was not broadcast on British television for 20 years, although it premiered at the National Film Theatre in April 1966 and went on to win the 1967 Academy Award for best Documentary Feature.
Paul McCartney saw The War Game and was shaken by it, telling Disc and Music Echo in 1966; “Does this world really want to blow itself up?. There are hundreds of films about which people say to you ‘You’ve got to see it!’ , Often it’s just a passing comment. But if anybody ever says this to you about The War Game, take them seriously. It’s not just important. It’s terrifying and urgent”.
The War Game has lost none of its power and remains essential viewing to this day.
5. The Bed Sitting Room (1969, Dir. Richard Lester.)
An absurdly surreal, all-star dark comedy, based on Spike Milligan and John Antrobus’ stage play of the same name, The Bed Sitting Room has often been described as ‘the missing link between The Goons and Threads’.
The story is set in a post-apocalyptic London, devastated by a nuclear war some four years previous. The survivors try and navigate the bizarre challenges in their decimated world, clinging on to now meaningless traditions. The BBC is now basically one man, the only survivor of the organisation (played by Are You Being Served?‘s Frank Thornton).
The movie’s characters go through strange physical mutations, an effect of the nuclear fallout. Michael Horden stars as Captain Bules Martin, a man who fears he is turning into a bed sitting room. Other characters also experience these mutations, one turning in a parrot and another into a wardrobe.
There isn’t an awful lot to the plot to be fair but this film is a must for those who enjoy the humour of Spike Milligan’s Q series or Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and as bananas as it is, The Bed Sitting Room still manages to be thought provoking and shine a spotlight on the absolute madness of nuclear war.
6. Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970, Dir. Joseph Sargent)
I first came across this gem when it was broadcast on BBC2 back in 1983, as part of their Sci Fi Film Festival. It is adapted from the 1966 novel Colossus by Dennis Feltham Jones. It stars Eric Braeden, Susan Clark, Gordon Pinsent , William Schallert and Marion Ross.
Set in the United States during the Cold War, the film focuses on Dr. Charles A. Forbin, the chief designer of a super computer, Colossus, which will control the USA’s nuclear defences. Unexpectedly, Colossus becomes sentient and forms a relationship with its Soviet equivalent, Guardian. The two computers become hellbent on world domination and enslaving humanity. Dr. Forbin must lead a resistance and save mankind from Colossus’ draconian rule.
The movie’s theme of man vs. machine makes it something of a forerunner to the Terminator franchise and with the current zeitgeist of A.I. paranoia, it is perhaps worth a timely revisit. It’s an intelligent, engaging, underrated classic of speculative fiction and is a must for those with an interest in Cold War cinema.
7. War Games (1983, Dir. John Badham)
Not to be confused with The War Game (1965), War Games is a fondly-remembered Hollywood mid-’80s sci-fi thriller that manage to nail the zeitgeist of both home computer ownership and nuclear paranoia, with its premise of a high school computer nerd (Matthew Broderick) almost causing WWIII when, while trying to hack into a video games company’s computer system, he accidentally accesses a military supercomputer which control’s the USA’s nuclear weapons.
Renting War Games on VHS was the catalyst for thousands of British schoolboys to try and bullshit their mates into thinking they had also tried to hack supercomputers. In reality, almost no one back then owned a modem and they were really playing Horace Goes Ski-ing on the ZX Spectrum but watching it at the time of its release was quite a tense experience.
8. The Day After (1983, Dir. Nicholas Meyer)
The most watched American TV movie of all time, viewed by an audience of approximately 100 million in the United States, The Day After depicts the effects of a full on nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union on ordinary American citizens in Lawrence, Kansas City. Directed by Nicholas Meyer (Time After Time, Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan) and starring Jason Robards, JoBeth Williams, John Lithgow and Steve Guttenberg, The Day After follows the lives of its characters before, during and after the attack, portraying the effects of radiation sickness, nuclear winter and ever dwindling resources.
The Day After is often criticised these days for being too tame, which is somewhat churlish when you consider the political climate at the time and the fact this was shown on mainstream American television. The attack sequence was particularly well realised (the film won an Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Special Visual Effects) and must surely been an influence on the similar sequence in Terminator 2?
The then-current U.S. President, Ronald Reagan was deeply affected by the film, writing in his diary that it was “very effective and left me greatly depressed”. On 8 December 1987, both Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which culminated in the banning and reducing of their nuclear weapons. You cannot overestimate the importance of The Day After.
9. Threads (1984, Dir. Mick Jackson)
Perhaps, the Daddy of them all.
Such was the chilling effect of this film, that reading the title alone will send shivers down the back of those of you old enough to have watched it when it was broadcast. Written by Barry Hines (author of Kes), TV movie Threads depicts a Soviet attack on the city of Sheffield. The night it was broadcast on the BBC has been dubbed ‘The night Britain didn’t sleep’. So effective, shocking and disturbing, many claim it is the most terrifying thing the BBC has ever broadcast (even beating Eldorado).
Director Mick Jackson, who had previously worked on the Q.E.D. Guide to Armageddon for the BBC, spent a year researching for Threads, speaking to over 50 experts. As a result, there is a gritty realism to Threads which makes it arguably a more disturbing and powerful film than any of the others on this list.
Considering the budget for Threads, the special effects seemed staggeringly realistic at the time and the attack sequence is permanently burned into the memory of anyone who watched it. There was no Hollywood gloss. The actors looked just like our families and the people we knew. We saw iconic UK retailers Woolworths and British Home Stores blown to smithereens. A women in the Moor shopping centre looks up at the mushroom cloud, covers her mouth in horror and wets herself in fear. I was 11 years old at the time and in my mind’s eye, it wasn’t difficult transferring these events from Sheffield to my home town of Stockport. Rarely had anything on TV felt so plausible. This was a very real threat hanging over our heads on a daily basis. Watching Threads felt like a punch in the stomach.
There is no ray of hope in Threads. We follow the character of Ruth (Karen Meagher) through the aftermath, where we see the true devastation and cost of nuclear warfare. People walking around burned and dazed. A woman looking at the screen cradling a dead baby. The iconic image of the armed Traffic Warden with the bandaged face, upholding martial law.
Nothing can prepare you for Threads, it’s truly bleak and harrowing but also brilliant. I have a strange obsession with it. It’s not a film I would put on for pleasure but I am in awe of the way it raised awareness at a time when politicians were talking as if a nuclear war could be won. Director Mick Jackson claimed that he had it on good authority that Ronald Reagan viewed it. Like Cathy Come Home (which did a similar job of shocking its audience into raised awareness, in that case of homelessness) Threads is one of the most important dramas ever to air on British television.
Certainly, it seems as though the likes of Edgar Wright, Russell T. Davies and Charlie Brooker were taking notes…
10. When the Wind Blows (1986, Dir. Jimmy Murakami ).
When the Wind Blows is an animated film,adapted from Raymond Briggs’ graphic novel of the same name.
Briggs of course was famous for his 1978 book The Snowman. Whilst there are some visual similarities, the subject matter could not be more contrasting.
The story centres on two pensioners, Jim and Hilda Bloggs (voiced by John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft) who live in rural England. As international tensions rise, they make preparations for the survival of a nuclear strike. It becomes apparent that they both have no real idea of what a nuclear war entails, they rather naively imagine it to be exactly the same as the Blitz.
We see the elderly couple preparing for the worst, heeding the advice from the UK Goverment’s infamous Protect and Survive leaflets. Of course, once the bomb drops, we see how ridiculous this advice was.
When the unthinkable happens, Jim and Peggy struggle to cope and to understand. The situation becomes heartbreaking as we witness their inevitable deterioration.
Whilst obviously not as graphic as Threads or The Day After, When the Wind Blows tugs on your heart strings and hammers home the effects of a nuclear war on billions of innocent people across the world.
It really is a remarkable film, so beautifully made and also includes a superb soundtrack featuring David Bowie, Roger Waters, Squeeze, Genesis, Hugh Cornwell and Paul Hardcastle.
All of these films are well worth your time but proceed with caution, some are not for those of a nervous disposition and if you choose to watch something else, well, it’s not the end of the world is it?
❉ David Geldard is a regular contributor to We Are Cult and co-editor (with Jay Gent) of In the Lap of the Gods: Queen & Freddie Mercury: Music and Memories, due to be published by Cult Ink later this year with all profits to be donated to The Mercury Phoenix Trust. David hosts the Classic Rock Hub on http://fabradiointernational.com and tweets as @DaveOfAndrozani