Beyond Strangelove: Five of the Best and Worst Nuclear Holocaust Films
Post-apocalyptic, dystopian films and novels use nuclear holocausts to reset and justify science fiction conditions, frequently after an amnesiac period of decades or centuries. Films that deploy the nuclear device as more than an arbitrary plot device, depicting nuclear conflict and conditions in its immediate aftermath are less common. The overwhelming morbidity of the few films to attempt this is so great that they barely exist beyond radical television experiments. They're downers. Even great films flinch. The Australian community in Stanley Kramer's 1959 adaptation of Nevil Shute's tragic and surreal novel On The Beach awaits fallout and radiation sickness, but they are collateral to a holocaust that occurs off-screen. Frederic Gadette's This Is Not A Test (1962) ends at the moment of the blast, with the film stock turning white and melting; similarly the excellent Fail Safe (1964/2000). We also have psychedelic use in A Boy And His Dog (1975) and nightmare use in Terminator 2 (1991) stories directly and indirectly derived from SF writer Harlan Ellison. Yet, concerning the hours, days and weeks beyond a nuclear exchange, I've been immersing myself in nuclear holocaust and survival films. Presenting five of the best and worst: 1. Panic In Year Zero (Dir. Ray Milland, 1962)
Watch it, if you must, for bongos, bastards, and carmageddon.
In 1962, Frankie Avalon distinguished himself as the only teen idol to survive both the Alamo (John Wayne's 1960 version, that is), and the nuclear holocaust in this dreadful film Ray Milland might have hallucinated still drunk from starring in The Lost Weekend. Panic In Year Zero is a WWIII film preoccupied with WWII moral panics: reckless driving, juvenile delinquents, beatniks and dope addicts, further undermined by its catastrophically incongruous swinging beach-movie jazz score. The story by Jay Simms of The Giant Gila Monster, and The Killer Shrews fame, presents a bubblegum, bucolic account of survival after nuclear war begins over Los Angeles (Simms' post-nuclear Creation Of The Humanoids was released almost simultaneously). Milland delivers a terse monologue of misanthropy and survivalist moxie, occasionally interrupted by Avalon, playing his eager son. Milland's dull wife Jean Hagen (The Asphalt Jungle) and insouciant teenage daughter, Mary Mitchel (Spiderbaby), deliver no lines of consequence, unless one counts Mitchel's complaint, "This whole thing is a bore, such a drag!" Well, that's the apocalypse for you. You have to dig it: even Frankie Avalon gets a hard-on by nearly blowing a delinquent's head off. Get hip. The gasoline crisis provides a hint of Mad Max, but it's the absence of end-of-the-road grief, and the sense that this is merely a camping holiday interrupted by dope fiends that render the film itself a disaster.
2. The War Game (Dir. Peter Watkins, 1965)
Watch it for a bit of the old ultra-violence.
Watkins' speculative documentary is a brutal antidote to the propaganda and disinformation of Cold War civil defense films, notably Duck and Cover (1951). For Watkins, this sanitization constituted censorship and silencing. The War Game is so unflinching in its depiction of babies with melted retinas, the blast wave, firestorms, newly-armed British police constables euthanizing the dying, wastelands of fallout, the impossibility of burying the dead, and the permanent psychological damage suffered by survivors, that the film scheduled to be broadcast on August 6, 1965, commemorating twenty years after the Hiroshima bombing, was banned and suppressed from British television for twenty years. Technically and intellectually, the film says, we are living in the atomic age. Emotionally, we are still living in the stone age. For Watkins, as for Orwell, the omission of facts by official channels constituted indefensible silence. The silencing was not absolute, however, and after a limited cinema run, Watkins received the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1966. There's also a nod to Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove in a statement from The Vatican: the church must tell the faithful that they should learn to live with, though need not love, the nuclear bomb, provided that it is clean and of a "good family."
3. The Day After (Dir. Nicholas Meyer, 1983)
Watch it for: Freudian kicks. Japanese-American character relatively unscathed: guilt, anyone?
Preoccupied with "good families," although this TV movie sometimes flinches under the censors gaze (notoriously, the atomic blasts turn people into flashing cartoon skeletons), considered against dross like By Dawn's Early Light (1990), The Day After looks like a snuff film. It blows half of its length on stolen moments of sex, a stolen contraceptive diaphragm, a shotgun wedding, and how damned virile and fertile the condemned folk of Kansas are. Dr. Russell Oakes (Jason Robards in his latest post-apocalyptic scenario after a supporting role in A Boy And His Dog) and his wife conceived their daughter during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and thus prevented war, you know? Robards survives the latest attack using the duck and cover method. Perhaps he heard about it from the Vatican? Don't worry, the protagonists are never seen to die of radiation sickness. Granted, Jim Dahlberg (John Callum) dies, but from the collapse of social order, not leukemia. Foxy Nurse Bauer dies from meningitis, but off-screen during Robard's guilty wet dream of his wife in her negligee, and their son playing high school football. Missiles, monuments, it's all very phallic. This penitent film insists that Hope, not thyroid cancer, be embodied in the unborn. Medical student Stephen Klein (Steve Guttenberg) transports Dahlberg's pregnant daughter, Denise (the boy who knocked her up, of course, perishes), and Dahlberg's blind son, Danny, to hospital in a chintzy covered wagon. After voicing reservations about the future, Denise gives birth, as several women wait in the wings of a maternity ward. Further penitence is shown in the form of Japanese-American Dr. Sam Hachiya, who endures without injury or symptoms. "Hiroshima was peanuts," they say.
4. Threads (Dir. Mick Jackson, 1984)
Watch it for unremitting horror, and lovable proles behaving like animals.
Rivaling The War Game in ferocity, and the most politically engaged of the genre, Threads also imports elements of its BBC predecessor The War Game, and The Day After. Both are visible behind the burning corpses and vomit. The speculative documentary style is retained, as is the shotgun wedding. Jackson's film relocates The War Game from southeastern England, "the home counties," to Sheffield and the North, adding the boozy camaraderie of working class blokes, "If the bomb drops ,I want to be pissed out of me mind and right underneath it." With its iconic blast scenes, the melting flesh and milk bottles, incontinence, puking, rioting, flesh eating and tea drinking, the question posed earlier by The War Game is answered repeatedly: yes, the survivors do envy the dead. Everything dies, from crops to the Queen's English. The grim realism of Threads is compounded by its direct engagement with Thatcher's Britain, the presence of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the trade unions, the American use of Royal Air Force bases, etc. Nuclear winter leads to evolutionary regression toward Stone Age conditions. In hopeless contrast to The Day After, where hope is embodied in the unborn, Ruth Beckett's (Karen Meagher) decision not to seek an abortion ultimately condemns her daughter Jane â€“ born in a stable at Christmas - to a tomb-world of gang rape and the birth of a grotesquely mutated grandchild.
5. When The Wind Blows (Dir. Jimmy T. Murakami, 1986)
Watch it if you like Roger Waters from Pink Floyd, I suppose.
The mawkish inanities of this animated version of Raymond Briggs' 1982 graphic novel have not aged well, particularly compared with Keiji Nakazawa's Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen) an explicit anime recollection complete with melting eyeballs and burning babies - of Nakazawa's experience of the bombing of Hiroshima. None of that here in the north of England: just a derailed train, and some broken windmills: Don Quixote, get it? Briggs' fable follows Jim and Hilda Bloggs through a Russian nuclear strike toward their eventual off-screen death from sentimentality and radiation sickness. These rosy-cheeked muckers, voiced by Sir John Mills and Dame Peggy Ashcroft, although apparently based on Briggs' own parents, resemble benign versions of Phil Collins (Genesis are also on the soundtrack album), and Hilda Ogden from British TV soap Coronation Street. The problem with When The Wind Blows is that the Bloggs' are imbued with such provincial stupidity and nostalgia, so many malapropisms, and such an anachronistic and reactionary relationship to the world that only the most emotionally unstable can mourn their death. There's not a real emotion in the film, hence its popularity.
- James Reich is the author of Bombshell: A Novel (Soft Skull Press, July, 2013) and I, Judas (Soft Skull Press, October, 2011). He is a contributing faculty member at Santa Fe University of Art and Design. James is working on his third novel.