History Makes Movies Better

There are 365 days in a normal non-freaky-leap year. Each of those days marks the anniversary of all sorts of crazy shit. Some of that crazy shit has been made into movies.

November 16

189 years ago today, trader William Becknell arrived in Santa Fe, New Mexico with a load of freight from Missouri. The route he took would  become known as the Santa Fe Trail, and remained the most important (and only) international trade route between the United States and Mexico until trains found their way to the area nearly sixty years later. The Santa Fe Trail was a vital part of America’s expansion westward, but I think we need to broaden our relevance past our own boarders.

121 years after Becknell arrived in Santa Fe, two very different men also arrived in New Mexico and made a decision that would have an impact not just on America, but all of humanity. On November 16, 1942, Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and Col. Leslie Groves designated Los Alamos, New Mexico as the ideal location for “Site Y,” the new home for the Manhattan Project.

Despite sounding a lot like a code name, the Manhattan Project acquired its ambiguous title rather uncreatively – initial research began in several different locations on Manhattan Island in New York City. In 1939 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the “The Uranium Committee” to begin nuclear research, after receiving the famous letter from Albert Einstein (penned mostly by Hungarian physicist Leó Szilárd), in which Einstein urged the president to pursue nuclear weapons to combat the research being undertaken by the Nazis. When America officially entered World War II in 1941, this research dramatically ramped up.

With experiments being conducted in secret at universities all across the country, the project’s head, Oppenheimer, determined it would be beneficial – for both secrecy and efficiency – if the Manhattan Project had a single centralized laboratory where all the various specialists could work as a team. So Site Y was born. I don’t think I need to tell you if the project was successful or not.

Let’s just say the Japanese are still working out their collective emotional trauma through Kaiju cinema.

After WWII, America was chillin’ like a villain, happy with our terrible freaky new weapon, until August 29, 1949 when the Soviet Union tested Joe 1, their first nuclear bomb. Then shit got real and it got real fast. Now the USA was in a Mexican standoff with Russia (if a Mexican standoff generally results in the horrible death of anyone within several miles of the two guys in a Mexican standoff). Mostly awful things came from our decades-long staring contest with the Soviet Union, but there were a few good things too. We landed on the moon. That wasn’t so bad. Some people also decided to make some movies fueled by A-bomb paranoia.

There are many, many directions we could take from here. Nuclear bombs have figured heavily in the past half-century of cinema, in a multitude of different ways, in a multitude of different genres. We will forgo films about The Manhattan Project itself, like Fat Man and Little Boy (1989), as well as films about the actual bombings, like Hadashi no Gen (1983), and documentaries, like the William Shatner narrated stoner classic, Trinity and Beyond (1995). I also want to forgo films with monsters, mutants, or anything that leans too far into science fiction or is set well past the nuclear apocalypse, because the spectrum is simply too broad. Instead of looking at films that imagined fantastical or metaphorical outcomes from dropping the “big one,” let us take a look at films that stayed grounded (mostly) in reality.

Further narrowing the field, let us look at films not merely about nuclear brinksmanship, but ones in which nukes actually hit the ground. To stay within the theme, I am also limiting the selection to only films produced during the Cold War.

Invasion U.S.A. (1952)
This little doozie starring RoboCop’s Dan O’Herlihy has no relation to the Chuck Norris 80’s film of the same name. Made up largely of poorly used stock footage (such as shots of American planes standing in for Soviet bombers), Invasion U.S.A. is essentially a PSA for the military complex. The film opens with characters drinking in a bar, talking about how they don’t think their tax dollars should go to supporting an ever-increasing military. They are forced to eat a bit of crow when the Russians attack and A-bomb the hell out of the west coast. In the end all our surviving characters lament that they wish they could go back in time and support the military more. Deservedly forgotten, the film was given an appropriate second life in the mid-1990’s when Mystery Science Theater 3000 selected it for mocking.

On the Beach (1959)
This Stanley Kramer directed adaptation of Nevil Shute’s novel is set in the “near future” of 1964, where World War III has left the northern hemisphere completely annihilated by nuclear war. Air currents carried the nuclear fallout to the southern hemisphere, wiping out most of the Earth’s population except for extremely remote southern locations, like plucky Australia. When an American submarine, commanded by Gregory Peck and stationed in Melbourne, receives a mysterious distress call seemingly originating from San Diego, Peck must leave to investigate. Of course, Australia’s remoteness can only keep it safe for so long. Eventually the radiation poisoning will arrive. To prepare its citizens for certain doom, the Australian government gives every citizen a suicide pill so they can die before the radiation kills them. “Waltzing Matilda” becomes the saddest song ever. Anthony Perkins (who teaches his wife how to murder their baby when the time comes), Fred Astaire, and Ava Garder costar.

Panic in Year Zero! (1962)
Ray Milland took on both directing and acting duties in this American International Pictures film about a family of four who leave Los Angeles for a camping trip mere hours before the city is leveled by a nuke. Upon witnessing the frantic and frenzied nature of refugees fleeing LA, Milland decides his family must continue on to their secluded camping spot, where they can wait in safety until order is restored. Unfortunately for them, a group of murdering and raping thugs are also staying in the same area, and shit gets nasty. Thrown back into uncivilized chaos, Milland must get a bit savage to defend his family.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)    
Stanley Kubrick’s geniusly unfaithful adaptation of Peter George’s serious thriller novel, Red Alert, takes George’s story and plays it for pitch black laughs. The script by Terry Southern and Kubrick, tells the story of a deranged American general (Sterling Hayden), driven mad by impotence, who orders the bombing of Russia because he thinks fluoride is a communist conspiracy. When the rest of the government finds out what is going on, an escalating series of futile attempts to recall the bomber are attempted. Famous for many things, the film is often best remembered for Peter Sellers’ amazing turn(s) as three very different characters in the film – the US President, the British Captain Lionel Mandrake, and the titular German scientist, Dr. Strangelove. Sellers was also originally playing the role of the bomber captain, Major T. J. “King” Kong, but when Sellers injured his ankle during production he was forced to drop the part – which ended up going to western character actor, Slim Pickens (completely altering Pickens career afterward). George C. Scott and Keenan Wynn also co-star.

Fail-Safe (1964)
Dan O’Herlihy was given a classier shot at nuclear Armageddon here in Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler’s novel of the same name. What is as much an anti-computer-technology film as it is an anti-nuclear-weapons film, Fail-Safe tells the story of a computer glitch that sends a group of bombers on a mission to nuke Moscow. When the powers that be find out what’s going on, the President (Henry Fonda) and his advisers frantically get on the phone with Moscow as they try to explain what’s happening, while also trying and failing to recall their bombers. The film had the misfortune of coming out the year after Dr. Strangelove, and telling the exact same story, only not played for laughs. How similar is the story? Well, Red Alert author, Peter George, sued Burdick and Wheeler, claiming that their book was plagiarism. Viewed out of context, the film – which also stars Walter Matthau being badass, Creepshow’s Fritz Weaver freaking out, and a younger, less fat Dom DeLuise – is quite effective, and features an extremely iconic ending.

The War Game (1965)
Peter Watkins originally created this 48 minute film for the BBC’s The Wednesday Play anthology series to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, but the BBC decided it was too disturbing to air. In fact, attitudes did not change for another twenty years, when it was finally shown in 1985. Shot in the stark black and white vérité style of a news magazine program, the film depicts the prelude and immediate aftermath of a Soviet nuclear attack on Britain. Beginning unpleasantly as the government forces refugees from the big cities into the homes of those living in less populated areas, things become even less pleasant when the bombs fall and people go blind from the light of the blast, and then the Army starts burning corpses and shooting looters looking for food.

Testament (1983)
Originally produced for the PBS series American Playhouse, the finished product was deemed good enough that Paramount Pictures picked it up for theatrical release. Jane Alexander stars as a mother of three whose husband (Rolling Thunder’s William Devane) is in San Francisco when the big one suddenly comes. Alexander is now left alone with her kids. Their suburb was spared from the initial blast, but soon the fallout and looters and radiation sickness comes. Alexander was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance. The film also features a pre-fame Kevin Costner, as well as Rebecca DeMornay and Lukas Haas.  

The Day After (1983)
This ABC TV movie, directed by Wrath of Khan’s Nicholas Meyer, which depicts the awful devastation a nuke has on a small Kansas town and it inhabitants, may very well be the most important TV movie ever made, considering that Ronald Reagan credited it with drastically altering his thoughts on the then prevailing policy on nuclear war. Reagan screened the film for his Joint Chiefs of Staff, and soon followed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed by Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, which radically scaled down both countries’ offensive nuclear capabilities. Purportedly, after the Treaty was signed, Reagan sent Meyer a telegram that read, “Don’t think your movie didn’t have any part of this, because it did.” The film’s most effective aspect is warmly establishing the lives of several different families and getting you to care about their loves and problems, then droppin’ a big ol’ bomb in the mix and ruining everything. The film stars Jason Robards, Steve Guttenberg, John Lithgow, and Amy Madigan.

Special Bulletin (1983)
This early collaboration between director (and Tarzan-complex fetishist) Edward Zwick and writer Marshall Herskovitz – who would go on to create two generation-defining programs, thirtysomething and My So-Called Life – this NBC TV movie is done entirely in the style of a special report newscast. Shot on videotape for authenticity, the special bulletin is concerning a homemade nuclear bomb brought into a harbor in Charleston, South Carolina by domestic terrorists demanding that the US government change their nuclear policies. Things don’t go well for anyone. Interestingly, at the time, nearly two decades prior to 9/11, the idea that mere terrorists could pull off such a devastating attack on American soil seemed incredibly far-fetched. It’s also interesting to point out that at this time Hollywood was giving us nuclear feature films featuring happy endings, like WarGames (1983), while TV was the one producing the ballsy and depressing material.

Threads (1984)
The UK’s answer to The Day After, this BBC film comes from Mick Jackson, who co-created the fantastic James Burke’s documentary series Connections (1978). Jackson brings his docu stylings to Threads, which realistically follows the residual effects of a nuclear war between the US and the USSR on two Sheffield families, the Kemps and the Becketts. Incredibly grimy and bleak, Threads makes The Day After seem almost cheery at times. Extra spooky are the instructional videos that air on TV during the early stages of the film, advising citizens what to do in case nuclear war comes, which were in fact actual broadcasts that the BBC shot in the 70’s but never aired. Jackson goes for even further authenticity by periodically including captions on screen that give scientific explanations for many things we witness.

When The Wind Blows (1986)
One of the most depressing animated films of all time, this adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ novel comes from animator and Battle Beyond the Stars director, Jimmy T. Murakami. The film focuses entirely on the story of an elderly man (Swiss Family Robinson’s John Mills) and his wife (A Passage to India’s Peggy Ashcroft). What makes the film so remarkably depressing is that it begins as a quaint and charming British comedy, as the man is busying himself preparing their cottage for a nuclear assault as though he were storm-proofing the windows, and his wife (who is borderline retarded, she’s so clueless) is more worried about cooking dinner and cleaning the house; she can’t be bothered by a silly bomb. This attitude continues even after the blast, but as the man (and the audience) slowly realizes what his ditzy wife does not – that they’re both dying of radiation poisoning – the film begins to stab you in the heart slower than Adam Goldberg gets it in Saving Private Ryan. Then it starts twisting the knife just as slowly. The film notably features original music by Roger Waters and David Bowie, among others.

Miracle Mile (1988)
Tangerine Dream scores this classic tale of boy (Anthony Edwards) meets girl (Mare Winningham), boy and girl get separated, boy receives mysterious wrong number phone call informing him a nuke is about to drop, boy finds girl, boy and girl plan to fly to Antarctica, boy and girl get sucked into the La Brea Tar Pits. Despite being critically well received, TV director Steve De Jarnatt’s disaster-romance lived up to its concept by devastatingly bombing at the box office, but has since garnered some love from those who discovered it on video or television, making it a somewhat beloved classic of the nuclear-annihilation subgenre.

By Dawn’s Early Light (1990)
This HBO movie, based on William Prochnau’s novel, Trinity’s Child, is one of the last films that was able to enjoy using the Soviet Union as a bad guy before the ailing behemoth collapsed under its own weight. The film is sort of an inversion of Fail-Safe. After a stolen nuclear missile is launched into Russia from Turkey by a group of renegade Soviet officers, Russia believes the attack came from NATO and launches some missiles towards the US of A. Moments later when Russia discovers the truth of the matter, they send a teletype to the US President (Martin Laudau) trying to explain things. The president and his military advisers clash over whether or not they should believe Russia and whether or not a counterstrike should take place. Matters become complicated when the president’s helicopter goes down in the initial blast and he is presumed dead, replaced by some doommongers. All-star cast includes – Powers Boothe, Rebecca De Mornay, James Earl Jones, Rip Torn, Jeffrey DeMunn, and the late-great Darren McGavin.

Well, that’s it folks. See you next time. Still plenty of history and plenty of films left.