On the 26th of September in 1983, Soviet Air Defense Officer Stanislav Petrov decided that the Soviet Early Warning Systems had malfunctioned and that the US had not just launched a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Consequently, the Soviets did not launch a retaliatory attack on the West. As a result of that, billions of people did not die in late 1983.
Those of you with kids may find it hard to convey to them the delicious thrill of waking each morning during the Cold War without having been reduced to a shadow on the wall OR (much more likely) being slow broiled under burning debris OR waiting in an inadequate improvised shelter for the fallout to arrive, secure in the knowledge the architects of apocalypse made certain of their own safety. It’s up to you to teach the lessons of history to the young and impressionable. Here are five atomic war movies suitable for kiddos of all ages.
Stanley Kramer’s adaptation of the 1957 Nevil Shute’s novel of the same title, 1959’s On the Beach features an all star cast (Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, and Anthony Perkins). Nuclear proliferation put an end to all conflict in the northern hemisphere: those spared immediate death by nuclear blast were treated to death by enhanced fallout, courtesy of cobalt bombs. Australia and the other nations of the Southern Hemisphere were too insignificant to die in the exchange. Unfortunately, fallout is spreading slowly, inexorably south. The question is not how can the characters survive but rather how they will face their inevitable demise in a world without hope.
This movie has curiously few Australians in it for a movie set in Australia. Fallout does not work the way the plot needs it to work. It’s also curious that absolutely everyone has given up (unless the suicide pill program is a ruse and the Australian government is quietly moving Top People into grand bunkers to wait out the fallout). And nobody needs to hear Waltzing Matilda that many times. Nevertheless, there are some fine performances in what would be the classic atomic war film if the British weren’t even better at creating their own.
1962’s Panic in the Year Zero was directed by Ray Milland, who also acted in the film. Co-stars: Jean Hagen, Frankie Avalon, Mary Mitchel, and Joan Freeman. The Baldwin family is on their way to a camping holiday when their home and the rest of Los Angeles is annihilated by atomic bombs. Milland’s Harry Baldwin utterly rejects On the Beach’s defeatism. The nation may be at war but that’s not Baldwin’s problem. Determined to keep his family alive regardless of the cost to others, Baldwin goes on a rampage of armed robbery and wilful sabotage in his quest to survive.
If you’ve ever wondered how narrative worlds end up like those of The Postman or Mad Max, it’s thanks to the efforts of hardworking people like Baldwin. Baldwin is convinced he is surrounded by mobs barely kept in line by civilization. Once disaster strikes, all rules are off. It’s not clear to me if Milland noticed the subtext of his film but what reached the silver screen was the story of a man whose decisions create the violent anarchy he’s trying to survive.
Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb featured Peter Sellers, George C. Scott and Slim Pickens (and James Earl Jones, in his first film role). When United States Air Force Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper launches an unauthorized attack on the Soviet Union, America’s top officials do their pitiful best to prevent an unnecessary apocalypse. Unfortunately for the world, not only is the US Air Force, as represented by Major Kong and the rest of his aircrew, competent enough to evade efforts by the Soviets and the US to stop them from delivering their nuclear payload, the Russians have their own unstoppable response ready. Everything works exactly as it should, unless for some reason you don’t want the Earth sterilized.
Kubrick rejects the solemnity of his source material (Peter George’s Red Alert) in favour of political satire that embraces the essential absurdity of preparing for nuclear war while pretending the goal is to avoid it. The result may be bleakly nihilistic, but it’s also very, very funny.
James B. Harris’ 1966 The Bedford Incident, is based on Mark Rascovich’s novel of the same title. Starring Richard Widmark, Sidney Poitier, James MacArthur, Donald Sutherland, and Martin Balsam, the film focuses on Eric Finlander, captain of the USS Bedford, and his relentless pursuit of a Soviet submarine. Embittered over lack of promotion, Finlander does not allow himself to be deterred from his hunt either by the fact it is peacetime or by the potential consequences if he pushes his nuclear-armed quarry too far.
Although there were indeed real-world confrontations somewhat like the Bedford Incident, the novel and film draw on another, more classic, inspiration. Similarities between Widmark’s Finlander and Moby Dick’s Ahab are not entirely coincidental. Viewers aware of the source material can make an educated guess as the form Finlander’s final triumph will take but how he manages it may come as a surprise. Even to Finlander.
Jack Sholder’s 1990 By Dawn’s Early Light (based on Prochnau’s Trinity’s Child) starred Powers Boothe, Rebecca De Mornay, James Earl Jones, Martin Landau, Rip Torn, Jeffrey DeMunn, Darren McGavin, and Ken Jenkins. The end of the Cold War is in sight, alarming high ranking Soviet extremists and spurring them to launch a false flag attack on the Soviet Union. By the time the US has enough information to realize what’s going on, millions of Americans have died in the misguided Soviet retaliation and the American response. Worse, the senior surviving administration official known to be alive is the Secretary of the Interior and he is determined to escalate the conflict. Ending the war before a full exchange depends on the decisions of the aircrew of the B52 bomber Polar Bear 1.
This is about as late an example of this genre as there could be, since the Soviet Union disappeared in a puff of logic nineteen months after By Dawn’s Early Light was released. Although this was a made-for-TV film, this HBO effort is a surprisingly slick thriller, driven far more by the interactions between the characters than the (largely off-screen) deaths of a hundred million people.
The decline of a genre is a melancholic affair. The circumstances that inspired the works above and others like them are decades past. What a relief, therefore, to see the end of creatively stultifying nuclear weapons treaties! People now living may get to see a second golden age of nuclear war films. If they are very lucky, they may even get to experience the Live Action Roleplaying Game.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He was a finalist for the 2019 Best Fan Writer Hugo Award, and is surprisingly flammable.