Concerned about the genuine possibility of global thermonuclear war? Maybe if we could get the 45th President of the USA to sit down and watch the following films, he'd remove his small finger from the doomsday button
A new phantom stalks the land. Missile tests in North Korea are matched by submarines and aircraft carriers steaming full speed towards (or away from) the Korean peninsula. A face-off with a mad egotistical baby king with no conscience on one side and Kim Jong-un on the other. The threat of thermonuclear war is but a Twitter rant and a beautiful slice of chocolate cake away.
It’s been what historians term 'yonks' since this kind of madness was in the air. In the 80s, a nuclear conflict was a palpable fear, a nightmare that overshadowed our days and infected our fantasies. In 1984, the BBC's Threads showed us what a nuclear bomb would do to Sheffield of all places and the vision of milk bottles melting on steps and Woolworths blowing up brought home the reality of nuclear destruction.
A year before ABC had screened The Day After, which showed Jason Robards and Steve Guttenberg in the aftermath of an all-out attack on Kansas (essentially the American Sheffield). Meanwhile, Mad Max went Beyond the Thunderdome and Frankie Goes to Hollywood sang about two tribes going to war; the women of Greenham Common climbed the fences of American airbases and the CND staged protests where everyone would lie in the streets pretending to be dead, at once powerful and embarrassing at exactly the same time.
This cultural reaction wasn’t just the rehearsing of nightmarish fantasies, it was also a form of conscious political education. The Day After was screened for Ronald Reagan a week prior to its transmission. Reagan was, reportedly, greatly depressed, later crediting the TV movie with changing his view on nuclear weapons and forever securing Steve Guttenberg’s place in history. Threads had a similar impact in Britain and inspired debate for weeks after.
In the last few decades, nuclear weapons have disappeared from our movies and our collective imagination. Our apocalypse is more likely to come from a virus or a climatic event than from warheads. The existential threat worrying filmmakers for the last decade has been the imminent zombie invasion. You could argue zombies are a metaphor, but we all know they’re just zombies. If there has been a mushroom cloud on screen in recent years, you can be assured Indiana Jones was safe and sound in a fridge close by.
But now, with Donald Trump’s tiny finger on the button, we need to get up to speed. We need to remember the horror, the nuclear winter, the fallout, the mega kills. If anyone in the White House is reading, these are the films you need to get the commander-in-chief to sit down and study.
Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe (1964)
1964 was a hell of a year for nuclear war. With the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis still fresh in everyone’s mind, Fail-Safe went into production but Stanley Kubrick managed to get the film bumped so Dr. Strangelove, his comic take on a very similar narrative, would appear in theatres first, effectively dooming Sidney Lumet’s earnest adaptation at the box office.
In both films, a US bomber is mistakenly heading to drop a nuke on Russia. In Kubrick’s, General Jack D. Ripper’s Cold War paranoia blows up into full-scale madness. With Lumet, a technical glitch – one which an end title insists could never actually happen – has the same effect. Henry Fonda plays the President who must make an increasingly murderous series of decisions in order to avert an all-out nuclear conflict. Walter Matthau appears as the Kissinger/Strangelove-esque theorist who sees the accident as an opportunity to destroy Russia. It’s a non-comedic role (Dom DeLuise and Larry Hagman also have straight roles), and almost every scene is gripped with a solemnity Strangelove would fatally prick.
The telephone conversations between a squawking Russian Premier and Fonda are impossible to watch without imagining Peter Sellers’ President Merkin Muffley saying, “I’m upset too Dimitri.” And yet, Lumet’s film retains an exhausted tension, and its humourless, musicless march to a shocking denouement is powerfully bleak. Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, on the other hand, is a satirical masterpiece, with its brilliant monsters such as George C. Scott’s General Buck Turgidson – “I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed,” Turgidson says, glibly referring to the millions of casualties that will result from his actions – all too recognisable even today.
“Fail-Safe for the Pac-Man Generation” was how Leonard Maltin referred to WarGames. Directed by John Badham, the drama linked the first home computer craze with the height of the Cold War threat. About as '80s as you can get without being called Weird Science, the film stars Ally Sheedy and Matthew Broderick as a young girl and her proto-hacker boyfriend who accidentally set off NORAD’s supercomputer on a World War III simulation that could see real missiles leaving the silos.
Although there’s a lot of fun to be had, with running and jumping, helicopters and the nostalgia of seeing people gasp at the idea of computers being connected via phone lines, the film keeps some of the darkness that saw the original director, Martin Brest, booted off the project. The opening scene sees The West Wing’s John Spencer and an incredibly young Michael Madsen as the two soldiers who must turn the keys and launch the missiles. Ronald Reagan was actually a friend of co-screenwriter Lawrence Lasker and, on seeing the film, showed an increased interest in computer security.
The Sacrifice (Offret) (1986)
Genius Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s final film is a kind of Swedish King Lear set in World War III. Erland Josephson plays Alexander, a former actor and retired theatre critic and director who lives on a Swedish island with his family. He pontificates about the shallowness of modern man and his own alienation from God. But when WWIII breaks out, he is haunted by visions of total destruction and offers to sacrifice everything – including his family – if the nuclear war can somehow be averted.
Obviously, Alexander must sleep with the maid – who is rumoured to be a witch – in order to seal the deal. This being Tarkovsky, the tryst takes place hovering a few metres above the bed, and a slippery and well-hidden humour pervades the film. The liberating hopefulness of the finale posits a kind of holy madness against the genuine, everyday madness of mutually assured destruction.
When the Wind Blows (1986)
In the 80s, even cartoons and children's books were affected by the impending mushroom cloud. Graphic novelist Raymond Briggs had reimagined Father Christmas sitting on the bog and a pre-Shrek Fungus the Bogeyman picking his nose and eating it, but his true masterpiece was a fable of an old couple, James and Hilda Bloggs. When The Wind Blows sees the Bloggs prepare for the arrival of the ICBMs armed only with a nostalgic spirit gleaned from WWII and a government pamphlet entitled Protect and Survive.
Faithfully filmed in 1986 by Jimmy Murakami, John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft voiced the OAPs. Their optimism and later stoicism are wholly inadequate to the crisis and although they survive the immediate attack, radiation sickness soon sets in and their optimism begins to fail. A disproportionate number of nuclear war films concentrate on the angst of those in power, but Murakami’s animation is a moving portrait of ordinary people caught in the maelstrom and the suffering that would result.
Follow John Bleasdale on Twitter at @drjonty