Collective Angst in Film: The Existential Threat of Nuclear Annihilation
Film is a wonderful art form and often reflect themes that society is grappling with at the time that the art was first conceived.
I was reminded of this recently after Donald Trump, the reality-TV host who was appointed President of the United States by the Electoral College after he lost the popular vote, ordered the assassination of an Iranian general who was very popular in his home country.
The overwhelming response from both liberals and conservatives (including some folks on FOX News) was “Oh crap, the President just started World War III and we are all going to die!” The news networks ran hundreds of stories about the “brink of war” and Americans in general went into a panic. I personally had neighbors and friends tell me how frightened they were that we had just declared war on a country that may or may not have nuclear weapons or have the backing of larger world powers that may come to their defense with nuclear weapons.
This brought flashback to my childhood days, when I recalled the existential threat of being vaporized by a country on the other side of the planet, a dread that was instilled in my young mind with regular “duck and cover” drills in grade school.
While I can only guess how our current moment might materialize in future films, I took a look at three specific moments in time when the world thought it was on the brink of nuclear annihilation and reviewed films that captured those concerns.
For this exercise, I limited this to my favorite movies that explored the existential threat of complete annihilation, not the hypothetical aftermath if a nuclear war actually occurred. There is no analysis of “Mad Max,” “Waterworld,” or even the British fake documentary “The War Game,” which oddly enough, won the Oscar for best documentary even though it was fictional. I looked at seven films, and added in two honorable mentions that don’t quite fit into my parameters but are worthy of watching for further context.
THE COLD WAR ERA
The theme of existential threat of total annihilation first arise shortly after the August 1949 test of an atomic bomb by the USSR. This is the first time that it became clear that the United States wasn’t the only country with a “super bomb,” and therefore it was possible to have a “nuclear war” break out between the two superpowers.
Within two years of that test, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) was released.
Amusing footnote — “Klaatu Barada Nikto.” Most people seem to struggle to remember the command to Gort in the film, but once in the ’90s, as I was driving through the Bay Area, I came across a portable CalTrans sign that had been hacked to display that message. Needless to say, I was the only one in the car who laughed out loud.
Much like the many “Communist Threat” films that played on the fears of a Communist takeover by representing the Communists as unknown monsters from the deep (“Them” is a great example where ants aren’t just ants, but rather are a home-grown threat that could destroy the “American” way of life). In “The Day the Earth Stood Still, the space alien has a clear message to humanity — stop playing around with nuclear weapons or else we’ll just kill you all right now and get it over with.
While it’s a simple message, it’s one that really resonated with the viewing audience. In the film, the existential threat takes on the physical manifestation of a space ship with a giant killer robot landing on the grounds of the White House, a robot that can’t be stopped by the superiority of the U.S. military. This resonated because it captured the fact that many Americans were coming to grips that the world could end at any moment, regardless of how well we lived our lives or how “superior” we were to those pesky Soviets.
As the Americans and Russians started “testing” their bombs in public (check out the history of the Bikini Islands to learn how our “secret” tests were always publicly displayed as a way to intimidate the Russians), the second film on my list was released — Gojira (1954). To be transparent, I was not aware of this film until about 15 years ago when a restored version of this movie was shown at the Castro Theater in San Francisco.
This Japanese classic is very direct about its theme and is filled with numerous references to the threats of nuclear bombs. The movie recalls a true story where a commercial fishing ship strayed too close to an American nuclear test in the South Pacific, sickening everyone on board with radiation poisoning. It also references true stories of the thousands of people in Japan who were still suffering from radiation poisoning due to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as references to radiation contamination creating dead zones in the Pacific Ocean due to the American hydrogen bomb tests at the time.
Finally, the creature “Gojira” is awoken from the deep by one of those tests and comes along and easily destroys Tokyo, Japan’s largest and most famous city, which demonstrates how helpless the Japanese felt while the Americans detonated bombs to the south of them, and the Russians detonated bombs to the north of them. Honestly, the original version is very good film and practically slaps the viewer in the face with discussions about how destructive nuclear weapons are. As a bonus, it was made by Toho studios at the same time that Akira Kurosawa was filming “The Seven Samurai” on the lot next door. As a result, many of the actors in “Seven Samurai” have roles or bit parts in “Gojira.”
Unfortunately, at the time, any film that criticized American policy was deemed “Communist,” thus “Gojira” was not initially released in the United States as it was labeled “subversive.” It wouldn’t show up until it was heavily edited and censored and recut. In fact, there were so many scenes cut out of this film, whole new scenes involving an “American” reporter (played by Raymond Burr) covering the attacks in Tokyo had to be reshot. The United States version of the film was finally released in 1956 under the title “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.”
I urge everyone to watch the original Japanese version, which is available on Criterion both as an individual film and as part of the Godzilla box set. It is honestly very good.
THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS
In October, 1962, the United States discovered that the USSR had installed nuclear-tipped missiles on the coast of Cuba in retaliation for the U.S. installing similar equipment on the USSR-Turkish border. When this became public, absolute panic set in around the world as it seemed we were all going to die.
Here’s my first honorable mention film — Thirteen Days (2000). It’s a powerful look at what was happening behind the scenes in the White House, including how many war hawks in the Pentagon and in Congress were really hoping for a nuclear war because they were convinced “we could win.”
Shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, three movies appeared on the screen in the same year, each exploring a different aspect of the existential threat of vaporization.
Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)– OK, I can hear the collective “no duh” that this movie is on the list, but it holds up after nearly six decades. Besides the hilarious scenes and the brilliant acting by Peter Sellers, George C. Scott and Sterling Hayden, the movie really captured the post Cuban-Missile Crisis malaise that settled into the United States when it became clear that a U.S. “superiority” in the nuclear arms race didn’t really mean much if everyone dies anyway. The film illustrated the fears of the growing incompetence of the American and Russian governments, the insanity of having weapons that would end all life on Earth as we know it, and the dangerous machoism that drove international politics. While many still dismiss this film as an unrealistic comedy, it is worth reading this recent column that points out that nearly everything in the movie has been proven true since it was released.
Fail Safe (1964)– I was glad to learn that Criterion has remastered this film and is releasing it this year. Just like “Dr. Strangelove,” this movie also was influenced by the Cuban Missile Crises, which further demonstrates how heightened fear over a nuclear war was permeating all levels of society. Unlike “Dr. Strangelove,” this movie is a seat-of-your-pants drama that looks at the ridiculous nature of the policy of “mutually-assured destruction.” Under that policy, the idea was neither the Soviet Union, The United States or China would strike another enemy first, because the country that was attacked would unleash its nuclear arsenal, thus guaranteeing that everyone would die. “Fail Safe” asks the question “what if a country is accidentally attacked with a nuclear weapon?” In this case, it’s a malfunction that has ordered a squadron of bombers to drop the “big one” on a major city in the Soviet Union. When the “Fail Safe” system (which should recall the bombers) itself fails, the movie explores what our options are when nuclear war seems inevitable.
Seven Days in May (1964) — This is the third movie in 1964 to explore the threat of nuclear war, again further showing the impact that the Cuban Missile Crisis had on the collective psyche. Unlike the previous two, this film did not look at a flaw in the system that was meant to prevent an accidental war. Instead, it explores what would happen if the War Hawks in the Pentagon stage a coup so they could launch a sneak attack against the Russians, under the belief that they could “win” a nuclear war. The movie raised the specter that the U.S. rule of law is only as strong as those who are willing to follow that law. This movie should resonate in the age of Trump, where there seems to be no respect for rules, law or the Constitution and where the two other branches of government which are supposed to counterbalance the power of the Executive Branch have instead decided to roll over and play dead, thus allowing the Executive Branch to do whatever it wants to do, laws and logic be damned.
THE REAGAN ERA
When 1980 rolled around, my fellow Generation X’ers were feeling completely hopeless about it all. We were named the first generation in the U.S. that would not do better than our parents, all males were required to register for the draft at the age of 18 (though the draft had not — and still has not — been activated), and the new President of the United States — a B-rated movie star — openly made jokes about bombing the USSR. The situation looked dire.
War Games (1983), was one of THE movies to see when I was in high school. It really captured the angst and confusion that my generation felt at the time about adults who truly believed that the complete destruction of Earth was an acceptable outcome. This film again follows a similar theme already explored in the previous films — a nuclear war that is started by a systems malfunction. In this one, the protagonist who knows something is wrong (played by a very young Matthew Broderick) tries to tell the Pentagon that their computer system is malfunctioning, but his warnings fall on deaf ears because their arrogance makes them believe they have a perfect “fail safe” system to prevent such disasters. The weakness of this film is it has a real John Hughes feel to it, which at times doesn’t quite work because Hughes’ films usually focused on individual conflicts while this one is dealing with Armageddon. But that’s a minor flaw. Overall, the film is still worth a watch and raises great questions about the long-standing “mutual self-destruction” theory of defense.
While the film “The Day After” (1983 — also my second honorable mention) was one of the television events of the decade just behind “Roots,” it dealt with the aftermath of nuclear war, not the fear of one happening. But it’s worth a watch.
The existential threat of annihilation would be brilliantly explored on a personal level in the angsty-movie Miracle Mile (1988). This film is nightmarishly good, but was mostly ignored in the box office because it was a strangely good year for movies (among the films that year are “Big,” “Die Hard,” “Beetlejuice,” “Coming to America,” and “Rain Man”).
This movie basically asks a simple question — if you know that the missiles has been launched and your city would be disintegrated in the next hour, what would you do? In this case, it’s a young man (played by a very young Anthony Edwards) who is walking by a phone booth (remember those?) that is ringing in the middle of the night. On the other end is a panicked person who says that he is a soldier who was just ordered to launch the nuclear bombs and that the world was coming to an end. It then follows Edwards’ character as he tries to decide what to do with this information. It was a very compelling film.
I’m sure there are other films that should have been mentioned in this column, but I hope this is a great example of how issues manifest themselves in the art of film. And I do have to wonder how movies are going to treat our current angst and concerns in the future.
Patrick Giblin has more than 30 years in the field of communications, both as a print reporter and in public relations for higher education. A film-nut since his childhood, he has bachelor’s degrees in political science and journalism and a master’s degree in mass media studies. He has co-authored several academic papers on mass communications, and has a film credit in the Clint Eastwood documentary “In His Own Sweet Way” (2010).