World War II changed a lot of things, most significant of which was the nature of war. Prior to 1939 war was something that happened in far away countries involving moustachioed men who were specially trained in the art of giving Johnny-foreigner a ruddy good hiding. Those of us at home had little to fear. But all this changed during the course of World War II as the conflict was brought directly to the doorsteps of civilians. Bombing of the enemies home territory was now the strategy of choice for Presidents and Generals. In the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki this meant bombing on a previously unimaginable scale. The nuclear age was upon us. And as the USSR seized power in Eastern Europe the minute Germany waved the white flag, the Cold War took hold. This was a mysterious, new conflict, one that wouldn’t be fought by men on horseback or in tanks; we’d just lob a few mega bombs at each other and stand back to see whose side of the world was the least charcoaled. Despite having tremendous dramatic potential, nuclear war was a threat so terrifyingly final Hollywood clapped its hands over its easy and hollered "la, la, la”. Audiences liked a scare but they couldn’t be told that their lives might come to a fiery end the moment they stepped outside the theatre. Movies that deal with the threat of nuclear war are few and far between and those that do deal with the subject are hidden away in dark corners; the Academy bestowed the Best Documentary Oscar on The War Game (1965)
before the BBC, who commissioned the project, banned it for fear of countrywide pant wetting. Even after the Cold War defrosted into an historic puddle, writers and directors were still reluctant to tackle the mushroom cloud menace. So rare is a cinematic nuclear outing, I’ve had to resort to trawling the made-for-TV archives to dig up the goods. Here are ten of the darkest movies you’ll ever have the "pleasure” of viewing.
- ON THE BEACH (1959)
In 1957 celebrated novelist Nevil Shute set about writing one of his finest works, the novel On The Beach. Foreseeing that the arrival of the atomic bomb meant more than giant ants, fifty foot women and renewable energy, Shute cast his mind forward to a time when Earth would be flattened man’s ultimate doomsday device. His work was adapted for the big screen two years later by Stanley Kramer, On The Beach (1959). World War III has come and gone, and the northern hemisphere has all but wiped itself out. One of the few remaining safe havens is Australia, floating down in the southern hemisphere. But with clouds of radioactive fallout blowing their way it won’t long before the Aussies join the rest of the world and head to the big barbeque in the sky. There is a glimmer of hope, a strange morse code message detected in San Diego. The last remaining US submarine, stationed in Melbourne, is ordered to check out the signal. Shute’s story and Kramer’s film were both uncharacteristically bleak for their time of release. The atomic age had its feet well and truly under the table by the late fifties but most people hadn’t even thought about the realities of this new Cold War and the escalating arms race. On The Beach went the whole hog though. The Australian government distributes suicide pills to its citizens once the country realises its fate of a slow death via radiation poisoning. The desperate crewmen of the USS Sawfish carry a similar fatalistic attitude even before they discover the true nature of the San Diego message. The whole film feels like the last days of Earth with the last remaining survivors working out how they’d like to kick the bucket. Among those left, Kramer cast the eminently watchable Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, and Anthony Perkins.
Tasty Morsel – An even bleaker version of Shute’s story was released as a made for television remake in 2000.
- FAIL SAFE (1964)
It’s not much comfort to know that the majority of nuclear launch facilities are computer controlled. What if it malfunctions? Just look how often your laptop decides to die on its arse for no apparent reason. I wouldn’t trust the fate of eternity to something as unreliable as a man made machine, especially when most of them have "Made in China” stamped on the underside. That having been said, humans aren’t much more dependable, especially when they have a shiny red button in front of them aching to be pressed. This in-built fallibility was the springboard for Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler’s 1962 novel Fail Safe. It was one of the first works of fiction to paint a convincing nuclear nightmare scenario and two years later Sidney Lumet brought it to the big screen. In Fail Safe (1964) a combination of defence system fault and human error sends a fleet of bombers towards Moscow with the intention of raising it to the ground. When the President realises what has happened he contacts the Russian Premier and offers assistance in bringing down the American planes. They are only partly successful, and with Moscow now facing annihilation all the President can do is to offer up one of America’s biggest cities in exchange. New York is placed in the tit-for-tat firing line, but will the President be able to order the destruction of his countries biggest metropolis? The plot is a humdinger, its sacrificial logic offering another cold hard truth of the nuclear age. Lumet was also able to gather together a classy group of performers to tell the tale, with Henry Fonda becoming President and the always wonderful Walter Matthau on the sidelines.
Tasty Morsel – In 2000 CBS released a remake, a televised play shot in black and white with a shorter running time, starring Richard Dreyfus, Harvey Keitel, Don Cheadle, and George Clooney.
- THE WAR GAME (1965)
Us Brits have done more than most to turn the nuclear menace into great art. Not only did we have the spirit shattering Threads (1984), we had Frankie Goes To Hollywood belting out Two Tribes, Kate Bush's Breathing, Roger Waters and his Radio K.A.O.S, and the superb Raymond Briggs animated short When The Wind Blows (1986). But long before the nuclear threat was fully realised the BBC allowed Peter Watkins to produce a fake documentary called The War Game (1965) for its The Wednesday Play television series. What the BBC expected him to produce I have no idea, but the resulting film was deemed too accurate to be aired. Watkins had deduced that if nuclear war was to ever occur we would all be inexorably screwed. Originally intended to be shown on 6th August 1965, the twentieth anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, the BBC withdrew the program stating "the effect of the film has been judged by the BBC to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting”. That’s publicity you can’t buy. It remained banned until 1985, a year after Mick Jackson had scared the country shitless with Threads. Watkins film still packed a punch though. Filmed documentary style, The War Game follows the Soviet bombing of the UK, and Kent in particular, after the escalation of a Chinese invasion of South Vietnam. We see the immediate effect of the bomb, Kentish locals blinded by the initial flash and charred by the incoming firestorm, before witnessing the collapse of normal society as the boundaries of human existence unravel. Scone and cider riots ensue, looters are executed by the police, victims dying of radiation poisoning are shot in the street to preserve supplies, piles of corpses are burnt. Harrowing stuff indeed.
Tasty Morsel – When the film was finally aired by the BBC it was part of a series of films and programs entitled After The Bomb; this was the working title Watkins originally chose for his film.
- BAREFOOT GEN (1983)
It took something terrifyingly monumental to end the Second World War. The dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan to force them to surrender was controversial at the time and remains so today. It was a show of force that no one was prepared for and the world struggled to comprehend the enormity of what occurred for some time after. It wasn’t until John Hersey’s 1946 New Yorker magazine article (later turned into the book Hiroshima) that people were told in graphic detail exactly what had happened at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Twenty eight years later writer Keiji Nakazawa retold Hiroshima’s fate in typical Japanese style, publishing the manga serial Barefoot Gen in 1973. The story was made into three live action films between 1976 and 1980 but it was the Mori Masaki directed Barefoot Gen (1983) that was the most definitive. The animated feature stayed true to Nakazawa’s original work and the medium allowed for a much more effective presentation of events. The slow motion animation used to depict the atomic bomb detonating is as disturbing a presentation of the effects of a nuclear blast as you could wish to see. Eyeballs melt, flesh is charred from bone, glass debris peppers the face of a child, a dog is turned to dust, the shredded, burnt victims stagger through the post explosion smoke like zombies, their skin falling away in sheets. The aftermath isn’t much better with victims poking at maggot ridden wounds, and a baby sucking at the breast of its already dead and greying mother. You might think that such a harsh portrayal borders on sensationalism until you realise that Nakazawa was an actual survivor and eye witness to the horror of Hiroshima. The films emotional pinnacle will leave many a viewer heartbroken, with Gen forced to leave his father and two siblings to burn alive in the fiery wreckage of their home. The celebrated animation feature Grave of the Fireflies (1988) took many cues from Gen five years later.
Tasty Morsel – A sequel to Masaki’s original Barefoot Gen 2 (1986) followed events three years after the bomb was dropped. An effective two part television drama was also released in 2007.
- THE ATOMIC CAFE (1982)
Even though the United States had demonstrated just how monstrous the atomic bomb was by unloading it on Japan, many people still had very little idea what the nuclear age was all about. Hollywood certainly used this naivety to its advantage, peppering fifties cinema with silos full of radiation induced sci-fi, Day The World Ended (1955), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), The Day The Sky Exploded (1958). It was only as time went by that people started to realise that the atomic and nuclear ages weren’t the shiny Jetson-esque futures they were being led to believe. Fearing for the very existence of Mother Earth protest groups such as the CND were formed. Artists also became more aware of the dangers and in 1982 three filmmakers collated together some of the eras greatest government sanctioned nuclear hogwash. The Atomic Café (1982) is a collage of nuclear titbits built upon a canvas of black humour and genuine foreboding. Jayne Loader and brothers Kevin and Pierce Rafferty trawled through mountains of government footage, newsreel and propaganda to create ninety minutes of mind blowing zaniness. And it’s all the more shocking for having existed so recently in our history. The Protect and Survive booklets are perhaps the most well known examples here in the UK but there were many more baffling American representations, such as the infamous Duck and Cover films that scared a generation of school children half to death. The footage advises our American cousins in all manner of pointless post-explosion endeavours to the point where you rather begin to look forward to your first nuclear experience. One Army film proudly boasts "When not close enough to be killed, the atomic bomb is one of the most beautiful sights in the world”. You can imagine it now, "Oh look Ethel, its one of those lovely mushroom cloud thingies, how delightful. That’s strange…my eyeballs appear to have melted down my cheeks”. Absolute bloody madness.
Tasty Morsel – Director Kevin Rafferty went onto to mentor another aspiring American documentary maker, Michael Moore.
- THE DAY AFTER (1983)
Being the only nation to have launched atomic weapons at another country, the United States probably felt a bit sensitive about using nuclear war as a platform for storytelling. By the early eighties though people were getting tired of feeling the pressure, even in America. The spectre of nuclear war was like an elastic band continually being stretched. People were expecting it to snap at anytime and the anticipation had become as painful as the actual event. Writers and artists started to speak out. In 1982 ABC Motion Picture president Brandon Stoddard decided that a movie depicting a nuclear attack on mainland USA would make a gripping film. Convincing others that this was a worthwhile project was not an easy task, particularly at a time when the Cold War was still decidedly chilly. He eventually persuaded director Nicholas Meyer, hot off the success of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), to take the helm. With some solid acting talent on board to fill Edward Hume’s sizable script (Jason Robards, JoBeth Williams, Steve Guttenberg, John Lithgow), Meyer delivered the staggering movie The Day After (1983). The Soviets invade East Berlin and NATO takes countermeasures in order to prevent a full scale European invasion. Events escalate and the USA and USSR end up trading a few hundred nukes. We follow residents in Kansas during the build-up, explosion and aftermath. The film aired on November 20th 1983 on the ABC network and had a profound effect. 1-800 phonelines were set up immediately after the broadcast to counsel those affected by the harrowing scenes, while viewers in the Kansas City area held a candlelight peace vigil. More telling still was the impression it made on the then President, Ronald Reagan. Having viewed the film the former actor wrote in his diary that it had "depressed him greatly” and had changed his mind on his growing nuclear weapons policy. So is this the film that saved the world?
Tasty Morsel – Right after the movie’s original broadcast Ted Koppel hosted a special edition of Nightline to debate the arms race and nuclear war. It was during this program that scientist Carl Sagan made his infamous "Imagine a room awash in gasoline…” nuclear war analogy.
- TESTAMENT (1983)
The early eighties was the high point of nuclear war fiction and 1983 was a hot year for mushroom clouded chaos in the United States. Following on from Nicholas Meyer’s two hour plus epic The Day After was this PBS produced side dish. Originally intended as a made-for-television movie Lynne Littman’s Testament (1983) was deemed strong enough for a full theatrical release. It landed in cinemas in December 1983, and although it failed to burn down the box office it received a hefty pat on the back from critics. Based upon the novel The Last Testament by Carol Amen, the story could well have been written as a companion piece to Meyer’s American nuking thanks to the ambiguity of the exposition. Meyer showed us Kansas, Littman shows us California. Nuclear war has broken out, but we don’t know where or why. The setting is the quite town of Hamlin, ninety minutes outside of San Francisco and as we meet the cast a cosy Sesame Street viewing is interrupted by an emergency news broadcast. Contact has been lost with the eastern seaboard of the United States with unconfirmed reports of nuclear explosions. Before any further information can be relayed the flash of a mushroom cloud engulfs the town. Fortunately, Hamlin is outside the blast radius, but the world that supports the small town is no more. Rather than focus on the fiery destruction of the bomb itself Littman centres her film on those outside of the immediate attack but who struggle to cope in the new isolation of a decimated America. Jane Alexander carries the film as mum and wife Carol, left husbandless and carrying the emotional weight of a town slowly dying of radiation sickness. And all backed by one of composer James Horner’s first great soundtracks.
Tasty Morsel – Among the cast of relative unknowns were a fresh faced Kevin Costner and Rebecca De Mornay, a young couple who flee Hamlin.
- THREADS (1984)
The granddaddy of British nuclear war fiction is the harrowing Mick Jackson directed Threads (1984). Written by Barry Hines and filmed for television it was the first live action film to show the true, horrid, grubby, hopeless reality of nuclear war. As a marker think of the most depressing episode of Casualty you’ve ever seen, multiply it by a factor of infinity, and add one for luck. Filmed authentically as possible without straying into faux documentary territory (stern voiceover and onscreen fact cards aside), we follow two families in Sheffield trying to go about their business as the world trembles at the prospect of impending war between the NATO countries and the Warsaw Pact (look it up). The growing sense of panic on the home front is stomach churning. Shops are looted, rickety fallout shelters hastily constructed, unprepared Council workers dispatched to prepare for the unthinkable. You hold a glimmer of hope that Jackson might hold back from submitting us to the Soviet bombs. And then it happens. A towering mushroom cloud looms over Sheffield city centre and the world’s biggest lump of shit smashes into its largest fan. All one woman can do is stand and piss herself with fright; the rest of the cast come off a lot worse. Through the ensuing chaos we follow heroine Ruth (Karen Meagher). A visit to the local hospital not long after detonation is a messy hell, puke and pus covered floors, crispy victims and one man having a leg removed minus anaesthetic. It gets worse still as Jackson follows events months and even years into the future, Ruth having to live off dead rats as the country crumbles into a grim wasteland and population numbers return to medieval levels. You’ll be about ready to top yourself by the time the last act plays out; the Earth is knackered, its delicate eco system destroyed, high levels of ultraviolet radiation spilling through grey skies. The radiation causes Ruth to go blind and eventually die of premature aging. Her daughter Jane lives on but the final scene sees her give birth to a mutated and still born baby. Pass me the noose please.
Tasty Morsel – The film became much talked about but due to a limited VHS release it was very hard to come by. That was until it finally received a dvd release in 2000 and a further re-release in 2005.
- BY DAWNS EARLY LIGHT (1990)
Nuclear war can pep up even the most dire of films. Take Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003). Ninety five minutes in and it looks like Jonathon Mostow has made a piss poor remake of James Cameron’s ass-kicking part two. But Mostow had an ace in the hole; the nuclear destruction of Judgment Day was inevitable after all. The film’s final scene is a terrifying jolt back to reality as the machines begin their takeover, the worldwide nuking juxtaposed by a tearfully poignant Marco Beltrami’s soundtrack cue. As last minute reprieves go its one of cinema’s greatest acquittals. A bomb blast in Baltimore also helped to invigorate Phil Robinson’s The Sum Of All Fears (2002) one year prior. Nuclear war was on hand once again to transform Jack Sholder’s By Dawns Early Light (1990) from run-of-the-mill filler to edge of the seat thriller. Another made for television movie, the unofficial home field of nuclear war action, By Dawns was an adaptation of William Prochnau’s 1983 novel Trinity’s Child. Rather than teasing the viewer with the potential for nuclear war, the first warhead is launched early in the story. A group of renegade Russian militarists launch a stolen nuke from Turkey destroying the Russian city of Donetsk. Believing it to be a NATO attack the USSR launches a full counterstrike against the USA. With the bombs en-route both the Russian Premier and the President discover that the initial bomb was launched by rogue Russian agents. In a Fail Safe-eqsue plot twist the Premier agrees to accept an American counterstrike no bigger than the size that Russia has launched at the US; but is the Premier telling the truth or is it just a ruse to leave America vulnerable to an all-out Russian onslaught? The story is an ultra tense one involving some realistic portrayals of the chain of command the likes of which we rarely get to see in mainstream cinema. What elevates the movie still is the all star cast that Sholder managed to assemble; James Earl Jones, Powers Boothe, Rebecca De Mornay, Martin Landau and Rip Torn all jostle for screen time.
Tasty Morsel – Nuclear war and planes, two combinations James Earl Jones likes to keep, being that he spent the whole of Dr. Strangelove (1964) on board a B-52 bomber.
- MIRACLE MILE (1988)
To date some 2,000 odd nuclear and atomic bombs have been detonated on our planet. That being the case you’re probably wondering how it is you’re still here. Only two of these were dropped in anger; the rest have been ignited for test purposes. Still, you have to speculate what sort of damage has been wrought by all this pointless testing. What if one of them went awry? We’d probably never know. But if you did get the heads up what would you do with your remaining time? This very question was asked by Steve De Jarnatt’s underrated movie Miracle Mile (1988). We follow Harry (Anthony Edwards), a man who has just met Julie (Mare Winningham) the woman of his dreams. Harry sets a date for later in the evening with Julie, but fate steps in and Harry receives a phonecall from a mystery man who reveals that nuclear war is about to kick off in approximately seventy minutes. With Soviet nukes on their way to Los Angeles Harry makes a desperate dash to find Julie and a way out of LA before it’s too late. De Jarnatt, who never made another film after Miracle Mile, not only directed this tense thriller but wrote the story as well. He was wise enough to include some sprinkles of dark humour, "LA’s going to be a desert again very soon” and touching moment of pathos. When rumours spread round LA and the town descends into panic induced bedlam, Harry worries that he has caused an unnecessary hysteria. But the explosive finale and the poignant final exchange between Harry and Julie prove that De Jarnatt had no intention of short changing the mushroom cloud fanatics.
Tasty Morsel – Despite the films ten year struggle to make it onto the big screen (it was named by American Film magazine as one of the best unmade scripts of 1983) and glowing reviews, it bombed at the box office.