Ever since 1945, humanity has had to come to terms with the realisation that we have the tools to destroy our planet and end human life as we know it. During the 1950’s that was something film barely touched upon as after all, this was the height of the Cold War and American films were more focused on the paranoia of the time. After skirting away from global nuclear war after the Cuban Missile Crisis, film began to touch upon the actual effects of what such a war would do, but with the exception of On the Beach (1959), no film had really dealt with the actual end of the world.
Of course there was post-apocalyptic films, such as A Boy and His Dog (1975), or the brilliantly cheesy Damnation Alley (1977) which helped carve a new genre of film. Recently, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) showed that the genre was still going strong, as it featured survivors of a nuclear war piecing things back together in a harsh, but clearly fantastical context.
As someone who lived through the 1980’s, the prospect of a real nuclear war was something that well we all lived with throughout the decade. The socio-political reasons behind this are complex, but in short, there are two things that made people think like this: The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the election of Ronald Reagan as President of the United States. Film reacted to the heightened tension by pumping out warnings; but rather than go through all of them I’m going to focus on just four: two from the UK and two from the USA.
The Day After (1983) is an American film made for television direction by Nicholas Meyer, who the previous year had directed the now-classic Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan. The film features some very good actors including JoBeth Williams, John Lithgow and the always superb Jason Robards. Steve Guttenberg is also in it, but let’s not dwell upon that for long…
The film deals with the effects of a conflict between NATO and The Warsaw Pact that’s devoid of any actual politics, or indeed, responsibility. In fact, there’s virtually no mention of how the people of the Kansas town the film is set in think of their own government bar one or two throwaway lines as the film chooses instead to act like the ultimate disaster movie. For about the first hour leading up to the attack the film goes through the motions of introducing us to one-dimensional characters, which makes us not care about their plight when the bombs start dropping.
And it’s when the attack happens that Meyer makes the film work. His nuclear war is a surrealistic nightmare of bright colours and skeletal shadows. Meyer outlines the massive amount of death, destruction and mayhem resulting from a direct nuclear blast (or two in this case) that decimates our cast, setting up the second half where the survivors try to make a life out of the wreckage. Here Meyer manages to outline the end of civilisation as we know it, but there’s an inkling of hope as it’s revealed the US and Soviets have agreed a ceasefire so there’s no more destruction. But those affected already by the radiation and fallout are doomed to death.
As a film it’s not great. The acting is often dismal, with Robards and Lithgow doing some serious heavy lifting to pull the film forward. Moreover, the film’s politics seem conflicted, which Meyer has since explained to be the fault of the ABC network. However, how many directors that can say their film changed the course of history? President Ronald Reagan saw the film at a private screening and changed his ideas on a winnable nuclear war. In his diary, he wrote “[The film was] very effective and left me greatly depressed,’’ before stating how it made him rethink his policy. For that we should be grateful to Meyer, even if the film holds up very badly when seen in the year 2016.
The same can’t be said about the BBC film Threads (1984). Even 32 years later the film is terrifying, shocking and bleak as it paints the aftermath of a nuclear war in the coldest, most harrowing way you’ll probably ever see in a film.
Threads is set in Sheffield and focuses on the young couple Ruth (Karen Meagher) and Jimmy (Reece Dinsdale) as they plan to get married. Meanwhile, a Soviet build up in Iran after an American backed coup in the country has intensified the hostilities between both superpowers in the Middle East, then Eastern Europe and finally in a full blown nuclear war. The film chooses to play all of this detail out in snippets of TV and radio reports, as it instead focuses on how the people of Sheffield prepare for war. There are scenes chronicling council meetings where they discuss what to do with the bodies, and how to act to take once order has broken down. Jimmy’s parents also build themselves a shelter based upon the UK government’s Protect and Survive campaign it ran at the time, which was essentially their guide on how act in the event of a nuclear attack.
Imbued throughout the film is a feeling of complete helplessness as there’s nothing anyone can do. The council realise that their plans could come to nothing, but Ruth and Jimmy are focused only on their wedding when the war starts and Sheffield is hit. From here on, director Mick Jackson and writer Barry Hines pour layer upon layer of grim misery on our surviving characters as they all suffer horrible fates. Indeed, it’s the scenes of the nuclear attack that still live with me as much as what comes after it. What comes after is of course speculation, but Hines was basing his work upon the then new theory of a nuclear winter and how it’d affect the planet; so we see Ruth (Jimmy’s death is never shown) manage to survive for years after the blast after giving birth to her and Jimmy’s child; a daughter named Jane
10 years later, Jane sees her mother die as both work in basic agriculture. It is not until a decade after the blast we some semblance of civilisation has return, along with some level of government. However, the UK’s population is at medieval lows, while basic literacy has declined as humanity returns to the Dark Ages. The film ends with Jane giving birth to her child as the result of her rape and her silent scream as she sees her baby for the first time. The suggestion is that humanity can’t produce healthy children anymore and we’ll eventually die out as a species.
To harken back to an earlier point, Threads is beyond bleak. Its documentary style is highly effective as it coldly, calmly explains narrative points through the occasional use of title cards, and unlike The Day After, there’s nothing glossy or polished here. The acting is excellent with Meagher managing to portray so much through how she holds herself, as can be seen in the scene where she leaves her parents to what ends up being a depressingly grim fate. All throughout Threads the human cost is made perfectly clear and there’s no hope of someone coming to save the day. Humanity is dead. It’ll take a bit of time to get there, but there’s no hope in sight as the end credits roll. Kyle Reece isn’t going to come from the future and Max Rockatansky isn’t going to come out of the desert to save us.
I’ve never seen such an effective anti-war film as Threads, nor one that holds up so well. There are faults in that the breakdown of language happens a bit too fast, but that’s clearly to help the storytelling – not to mention it’s there to scare us as after all. If we can’t make ourselves understood, then we’re nothing more than animals scraping in the dirt to survive.
Testament (1983) is like The Day After, made for American television, but unlike that film, is a far more satisfying and stands up far better today. Based in a fictional suburb of San Francisco, the drama revolves primarily around one family, the Wetherly’s, led by father Tom (William Devane) and the mother Carol (a brilliant performance from Jane Alexander). The family live a typical suburban early 1980’s American lifestyle, until one day everything changes as a nuclear war breaks out.
Carol is forced to survive on her own as Tom is presumed dead following in the blast. Carol’s quiet suburb is far enough from the big city to escape the full impact of the damage, so she sets about trying to comfort her children along with a few orphaned ones. Trying to make things carry on as normal in order to help them survive, she is thwarted by fallout and radiation sickness that’s picking townsfolk.
Things descend quickly as Carol and her new nuclear family have to come to terms with the fact that they’ll too be dead thanks to radiation poisoning; so she decides to take her family into their car and die by carbon monoxide poisoning as that’s preferable to the long, slow painful death she’s seen in others. However, her plans change when she decides to have a birthday party for one of the children and pay one last tribute to her dead husband, Tom.
On first glance, Testament starts out like any family drama that Channel Five broadcasts on a Monday afternoon. But once the nuclear blast happens all our preconceptions are blown away. The fact that the entire film takes place in just a few streets and houses gives it a claustrophobic feeling as the world collapses around Carol, who – in a quite fantastic performance by Jane Alexander – sells everything perfectly. There’s not anything political here, but unlike The Day After this isn’t a problem as the story isn’t about who started the conflict: It’s about one woman trying to live what may be her final days on this planet. It could fall into melodrama (and sometimes does) badly, but Alexander’s performance holds this together.
Watched before the 1986 adaptation of the splendid Raymond Briggs comic When the Wind Blows, Testament seems almost cheery and upbeat. This isn’t like the previous Briggs adaptation, The Snowman, which still charms people every Christmas on TV, When the Wind Blows has gone on to become seemingly forgotten.
Centring on a pair of pensioners, James (voiced by John Mills) and Hilda (voiced by Peggy Ashcroft) who live in the countryside of Sussex, When the Wind Blows is a sometimes darkly comedic account of how the pair prepare for, and then live after, a nuclear war. From the outset, the film lays its politics right on the table as it opens with news footage of American cruise missiles arriving at Greenham Common. The first part of the film details the build-up to war via snippets from the radio that James and Hilda have playing in their kitchen, not to mention small stop-motion animated scenes of submarines and planes (neither have markings on them to identify them as NATO or Warsaw Pact thus making both side complicit in what’s to come) getting into position.
As their only frame of reference for this impending war is World War 2, they follow their council leaflets, and the UK governments Protect and Survive leaflets to build a shelter in their little cottage. Thinking that the war will be like the one they experienced as children, they prepare themselves for an Allied victory and a Soviet defeat. Upon hearing the warning of an attack on the radio, the pair make for their shelter and somehow survive the blast which as the film shows, manages to destroy London and most of the infrastructure around it. This leaves James and Hilda isolated, but James’ natural optimism believes that someone will be around to help and he manages to help Hilda (who only wants to tidy up the mess their home has become).
Both have been made unprepared of the effects of this war. The government leaflets were useless there is nobody coming to save them. So when we see this nice old couple that we’ve laughed with in the first half of the film start to become sick as they die painfully from radiation sickness, When the Wind Blows becomes a sometimes hard film to watch. Like the other films I’ve discussed, there’s no escape for the characters here, but unlike the others there’s a screaming rage at those responsible that’s made clear if you listen to Roger Waters excellent soundtrack (though there is a mostly forgotten David Bowie title song) assuming you’ve not picked it up in the film’s narrative.
There is no hope to be found in When the Wind Blows, so by the end as James and Hilda try to cheerily climb into paper sacks in order to prepare for death and you’d have to have a heart made of stone not to be moved by it – and that’s the point. Briggs is trying to shock us, because at the time people were conditioned by the government to believe a nuclear war as ‘winnable’ instead of something that’d leave the planet decimated and billions of people dead.
Thankfully though, the world pulled back from the brink of nuclear destruction. The Soviet Union collapsed and America turned its gaze onto other threats. However, in 2016 we face another possible recession, unrest and proxy wars in the Middle East; the UK debates Trident as ‘essential’ while the use of food banks grow, and there’s a serious chance that Donald Trump could be president of the largest nuclear power on the planet.
If these films have taught us anything it’s that we need to address the fact we’re not going to survive a nuclear war. Art has shown us a possible set of realities based upon the available science of the day, but I can’t see anything like these four films being made today. The Day After and Testament would be attacked for not being patriotic enough, while the BBC wouldn’t have the bollocks to make Threads. As for When the Wind Blows, it’d be laughed out of a producer’s office. Hence why we need to look back at the culture of a time when human destruction was seemingly just within reach so we don’t go back to that time where we as a culture rejected the concept of nuclear war. These films, if anything, should serve as cautionary tales.