Ever since the first use of atomic weapons on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the idea of the effects of a nuclear war and its post-apocalyptic aftermath has been the subject of numerous film treatments. From giants ants, mutated by radiation fallout in the deserts of the American south-west in Them! (1954), to the grim battle for survival in a nuclear ravaged future in The Road (2009), almost every aspect of this chilling scenario has been played out on film.
I have seen many, if not all of these films, and though some have impressed, others have been little more than an excuse for a different type of film, dressed up with this reliable storyline. Some that spring to mind are Mad Max (1979), The Postman (1985) and Steel Dawn (1987).
In this article, I would like to recommend some films that take the subject more seriously, and perhaps bring home the reality of this situation so we can imagine just how we would feel.
On The Beach (1959)
In 1959, Stanley Kramer directed this adaptation of Neville Shute’s novel. Set in a world after a global nuclear war, only the countries in the southern hemisphere are still inhabitable. All those in the nations further north are believed to have died, and the action begins and ends in Australia with the crew of a stranded US Submarine, commanded by a captain played by Gregory Peck. This is the last remaining US vessel, and is also a nuclear submarine. The radiation from the north is being carried towards Australia by the prevailing winds, and the outlook is bleak. Citizens are issued with suicide medication and advised to end their own lives when the time comes, so as not to suffer death from the radiation.
An Australian scientist (played by Fred Astaire) theorises that hope might lie in the Arctic, and then a Morse code signal is received from San Diego in the USA. Although the signal is meaningless, it brings hope that there may be survivors remaining in America. Peck’s submarine is charged with the task of investigating the Arctic region, and then going to San Diego, to find who is sending the signal. The mission proves fruitless. Radiation levels in Alaska are higher than expected, and a later inspection of San Francisco, seen through the periscope, shows no signs of life. When they find the source of the code signal in San Diego, it turns out to be a trapped Coca-Cola bottle, tapping randomly on a telegraph key.
They return to Australia, where the situation is getting very bad and time is running out. People with no future still try to enjoy life in the present. The motor racing is still going ahead, and the fishing season brought forward. Many who could not countenance the prospect of suicide, are now coming to terms with the inevitable. When the end is almost upon them, the submarine crew decide that they want to end their days back home in America. Despite a love interest, (the sultry Ava Gardner) Peck decides that he must accompany the crew on their final mission.
This film shows how people might choose to deal with this situation with dignity, and at the time it was made, gave a stark warning to the participants in the Cold War.
This is a BBC TV production, but has been released on DVD, so like another selection here, I am including it as a film. I do so because it is undoubtedly one of the most impressive films ever made about the effects and outcomes of a nuclear war. Made in a documentary style with a tiny budget, it centres around the lives of two young people, Ruth and Jimmy, in the English city of Sheffield. We are introduced to the stories of these families, as increasing East-West tension plays out in the background, on TV and radio news reports.
When the war finally happens, the city of Sheffield is devastated by a nuclear bomb. This attack is well-portrayed, despite the low budget, and has an uncomfortably realistic feel. We then follow Ruth around a city with no water, power, or support. Hospitals have no drugs left, and the civil authorities have been trapped in the bunker under their offices. Bodies cannot be buried, or even burned, and every system breaks down, with a return to a barter economy, lawlessness, and the introduction of summary execution. Lack of sunlight makes food production difficult, and the story moves forward, to a time when language has changed, and life is not much different to that in medieval times. Children are born deformed, and despite some return to a very basic industry, the future is never less than bleak.
Lack of sensationalism, and a focus on the everyday travails of ordinary people make this a timeless drama, and the lessening of tension in recent years has not diminished the warnings it gives us.
I was 22 years old when I saw this for the first time, and almost every scene remains in my mind to this day.
When The Wind Blows (1986)
It may seem perverse to have an animated film about the effects of an atomic war, but this film from the creator of The Snowman (1982), Raymond Briggs, and directed by Jimmy Murakami, is perhaps all the more powerful for its graphic novel origins and simple style.
James and Hilda Bloggs (voiced by Sir John Mills and Dame Peggy Ashcroft) are an elderly couple who survived the Second World War, and live in retirement in a cottage in rural Sussex. James hears the news on the radio that war is threatened. Although he doesn’t fully understand the situation, he listens avidly to the government broadcasts, and reads the pamphlets delivered to the house telling citizens how to cope, should the worst happen.
These laughable preparations include painting the windows white, and building a pathetic shelter inside the house, to use in the event of a bomb blast. After a nearby attack all but destroys the house, they continue as if rescue is imminent, making lists of things to do, and using camping equipment to prepare meals. When Hilda’s hair falls out and they both become very ill, they crawl into paper sacks to await rescue by the authorities; the very sacks suggested by the government as added protection from the radiation.
Of course, we know that help will never come and the poignant scene of the dying couple awaiting rescue in their pointless shelter is the last we see of them. Once again, the use of believable characters behaving almost normally makes this all the more effective as a film.
It also has a soundtrack featuring music from Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, David Bowie, and other famous British recording artists.
By Dawn’s Early Light (1990)
This started life as an HBO TV production and later sold well on DVD.
Once more concerning a possible war between the western powers and the old Soviet Union, it is set in 1991. Using the tried and tested storyline of rebellious Soviet officers starting a war by stealing missiles, this time one is fired into Russia, hoping the soviets will believe that they are being attacked by the west. The Russian Premier is aware that this strike has been carried out by his own officers, but contacts the US president asking him to consider tolerating a single counter-strike on the USA to retain the balance of power. During these negotiations, China retaliates against the Russians, and then Washington is hit, presumably by a Russian bomb.
The story makes a lot of valid points about bad decisions and conflicting opinions, at a time of potential disaster. It also brings home the fact that the proliferation of weapons means that they might be used by others, not just by sovereign nations. Hawks in the military would sooner retaliate, and destroy everything rather than negotiate with the ‘enemy’. When the president is presumed dead, they manipulate his weak successor into allowing a counter-strike.
While all this is going on, the film’s secondary plot line features the crew of a tactical bomber, led by Powers Boothe, and Rebecca De Mornay. They are instructed to drop a bomb on a Russian city, but do not want to do this, and instead drop it on a mountainside nearby. The crew have their own problems, with one member half crazy at the loss of his family back in America, trying to take over the aircraft, and the military, incensed at their refusal to obey orders, deciding to shoot them down, or force them to land.
The pilot sent to do this soon realises the futility. With many cities destroyed, and confusion reigning back home, he leaves the bomber to its fate, and they both fly off into the sunset.
I like the fact that this film addresses the senselessness of the actions of almost everyone involved, and leaves the viewer to make up their own mind about the eventual outcome.
Right At Your Door (2006)
With the threat of war with Russia as good as gone, filmmakers post 9/11 looked to new enemies for ideas. One of them hit upon the notion of a ‘dirty bomb’ being detonated on mainland America – the sort of bomb that causes minimal damage, but leaves fatal radiation behind.
Writer and director Chris Gorak made this incredibly realistic film with a small cast, and received much acclaim for it at the Sundance Film Festival.
Set in Los Angeles, we see a woman, Lexi, leaving home to go into the city. Her musician husband Brad stays behind, and not long after, unknown terrorists detonate a number of dirty bombs across the city. There are no well-known stars, glossy sets, or dramatic set pieces. The power in this film comes from the ordinary things; the lack of information, the powerlessness to act, and the deep-seated desire to survive.
Once the bombs are set off, an ominous ash begins to settle in the area. Brad tries desperately to find his wife, but he is not allowed to leave the neighbourhood by the police. He sees others trying to do so, and the harassed officers shoot them.
He returns home, where he is asked by Hispanic workman Alvaro to allow him in. He reluctantly agrees, and as advised seals his house against the ash as well as he can. Lexi later comes back, having been lightly injured in a car crash. This is when the story begins to hit home. He won’t let her in. His selfish desire to survive overcomes his love for his wife, and he tries to tell himself that she will be taken care of by the authorities. When she becomes hysterical, he seals off part of the house, so that he can at least allow her inside. Alvaro eventually leaves, deciding to go home to his wife.
The couple encounter another man, who tells them that medical aid is being given out by a ship on the coast, and Lexi decides to go and get help. Later that evening, Brad is visited by the military who tell him to stay at home, and not to let Lexi in, if she returns. As they depart, they leave an ominous ‘Red Tag’ on his house. When she gets back, with tales of the difficulties she has faced, Lexi and Brad sit either side of the sealed section of the house, talking about the future. Troops appear, and drag Lexi away to an ambulance, at the same time sealing the house, by fitting wooden panels over the windows and doors. Brad tries to escape, but is beaten to the ground.
This film brings us right up to date, with the terror coming from anywhere, not just a foreign enemy. It allows the viewer to picture themselves in a very realistic situation, with the authorities dealing in misinformation, and the most basic human emotions turned upside down. We always think that we would do the right thing if this happened, but after watching this, the viewer is left to ponder the actions that we would really take, and the decisions that we might have to live with.