The Baron Watches Seven "World War Three" Movies (SPOILERS Possible!)

This thread led me to think about all of the various movies I've seen over the years which revolved around "World War Three" happening and the aftermath thereof. While I've seen more than seven, seven is the number that I have currently available on disk or tape, so seven is the number I shall re-watch and describe here for your edification or amusement.

As an aside, I realize that this isn't a "Timeline" as such, but since I have this swell space here that the Skipper has provided, I figured that I ought to make some use of it. I'll be watching in release order, so that's sort of like a timeline, in a way. If you don't buy that, then think of this space as "The Baron's Timelines and Things", or some such.

 

Anyway, I begin my review of "World War Three" films in typical Baronial fashion by discussing a film that isn't about "World War Three" at all, but is in fact about World War Two.  This picture differs from the vast majority of World War Two movies in that it was made in 1936, three years before World War Two started. It's important to remember that in the 1930's many people imagined that a second world war would destroy civilization completely. In essence, back before the Second World War, "World War Two" was the "World War Three" of its day.

 

Things To Come (1936) was written by H.G. Wells, based on his book, which I confess to never having read. It was directed by William Cameron Menzies.

 

The film begins on Christmas 1940 in Everytown in England. I believe that's somewhere in Anyshire. We got a juxtaposition of images of impending Christmas with impending war. No name is given to the potential enemy, but I dare say that in 1936, it would have been fairly clear to the Great British public (Evening, all!) who it was meant to be.

 

We begin with John Cabal (Raymond Massey, all serious and portentous) sitting around with his buddies, whose general attitude seems to be "It'll never happen, and besides, it'll do us some good, and besides, we can't stop it." The jollity of the evening is interrupted by a surprise bombing raid, and the war is on.

The depiction of the war itself is interesting. While it has some elements in common with the Second World War as it actually happened, it is much more like the sort of 'roided-up World War One that alot of people of the time seem to have expected, with biplanes and gas attacks and such.

Some of the SFX are quite good for the time. There's a scene of a massive air raid on the town that is quite harrowing to watch, even now.  In many ways, it's like watching a nuclear attack without the nukes.

There's one scene where Cabal shoots down an enemy pilot who's gassing the town, then chivalrously lands his own plane to pull the downed pilot from the wreckage. Whilst Cabal pauses to pontificate on the horrors of war, a little girl and the enemy gas approach, in that order. The enemy matches Cabal's chivalry by giving his gasmask to the little girl. Cabal leaves him his sidearm before fleeing.  The pilot muses on the irony of  the fact that he may have killed the little girl's family, and then died to save her, before blowing his brains out, off-camera.

The war goes on for decades. By 1964, the enemy has begun to use a bio-weapon called "The Wandering Sickness", whose mute victims leave their sickbeds to wander about, mindlessly infecting others. In a way, they could be the prototypes of Romero's living dead!  

By 1966, Everytown is a ruin. It wasn't a nuclear war, but this could be seen as the protoype of any number of "post-nuclear" films, as we see people living primitive lives in the remnants of the old civilization. I am particularly amused by the depiction of automobiles being used as carriages, horseless no longer. The Boss (well-played by Ralph Richardson as a blustering, swaggering bully) has arisen, dealing with the Wandering Sick by shooting them on sight.

By 1970, the Boss is in complete control, and is attempting to create an air force for himself, to pursue a war against the Hill People. Cabal returns in a new plane, representing "Wings Over the World", a cadre of benevolent techno-fascists who are going around "cleaning up" the various local warlords, using advanced aircraft and the Orwellian-sounding "Gas of Peace". Cabal confronts the Boss, who locks him up. The Boss' Wife (Margaretta Scott, all regal and intelligent) quizzes Cabal about the wider world. In the end, Cabal's buddies come in giant planes of the sort that never existed in real life but were all over the fiction of the time and rescue him.The Boss dies ranting and shooting futilely,and his world dies with him.

We then get an interlude of seemingly endless scenes of re-building, and titanic machines that make me wish for a Jack Kirby adaptation of this film. Eventually we see Everytown in 2036, which has become the sort of effete, antiseptic, science fictional, socialist Utopia that took the place of the New Jerusalem for a certain type of bourgeois lefty thinker once upon a time, as if they had abandoned Christianity for a faith whose creed could be summed up as "There is no God but Progress, and Flash Gordon is Its prophet." We also get to see the "futuristic" fashions. Why did everyone assume that we'd stop wearing pants in the future back then?

We encounter Theotocopoulos* (Cedric Hardwicke, doing demagoguery quite well), who seems to be against Progress the way cranky old people are against young people being noisy late at night, and just generally seems to be against anyone doing anything even remotely interesting, ever. At the moment, he is especially against the Space Gun, a sort of massive cannon which could be considered a descendant of Verne's Columbiad.

We also encounter Oswald Cabal (Massey again, with hair coloring), great-grandson of John, and chairman of the local Soviet or whatever it is they have.  He's a big booster for space travel, and his daughter has volunteered to be part of the couple that gets launched around the Moon. Theotocopoulos stirs up a mob to attack the space gun, so Cabal #2 hurries the space launch. Theotocopoulos rants at them. The gist of his argument seems to be "Can't humanity ever just relax and sit quietly?" He also says "We shall hate you more if you succeed than if you fail!"

 

 The launch goes off as planned. We end with Cabal #2 giving a millennial speech about Progress: "All the Universe or Nothing? Which shall it be?", which sounds suspiciously similar to the old Nazi slogan of "Weltmacht oder Niedergang", which I'm told meant something like "World domination or ruin".

 

Overall: A very good movie, with generally good acting and good effects for the time.  Wells' politics  shine through a fair bit, and the picture does tend to get melodramatic and portentous and full of Big Ideas.  The war and the aftermath are quite good and obviously inspired countless imitators. The last segment with future Utopia is a bit weak and less convincing, but still not bad.  Definitely worth a look if you get a chance.

 

*Note that the troublemaker has a "foreign" sounding name.

 

 

Next: 1955, and the Return of the Mutant Boyfriend!

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Nice, I've never seen this or heard if it, but I'll keep an eye out for it.

Mark S. Ogilvie said:

Most of the other end of the world pictures I've seen have featured mass panic, rioting, looting. Nothing like that here. Only a sort of fatalism. No one trying to come up with a way to survive, just waiting for the end. They knew it was coming for months and no one was shown digging shelters or any other preventive measure. That seems strange to me as again all of the other pictures I've seen showcase either a group trying to survive or a group trying to come up with a way to survive.

On the Beach is a 1959 movie. I would guess that the other end-of-the-world movies were made later. They didn't show a lot of looting, etc, in the older films. Partially this is because the movies were working under their own version of the Comics Code.

The movie, like the book, is telling a cautionary tale. The intent is to present nuclear war as something that must be avoided, not to show ways to survive it.

I know, it just seemed to me that the acceptance of the end was emphasized more than anything else. This could be because the people shown in it were fairly low down on the power level. We didn't see the leaders of the nation, mostly just the people.

Richard Willis said:

Mark S. Ogilvie said:

Most of the other end of the world pictures I've seen have featured mass panic, rioting, looting. Nothing like that here. Only a sort of fatalism. No one trying to come up with a way to survive, just waiting for the end. They knew it was coming for months and no one was shown digging shelters or any other preventive measure. That seems strange to me as again all of the other pictures I've seen showcase either a group trying to survive or a group trying to come up with a way to survive.

On the Beach is a 1959 movie. I would guess that the other end-of-the-world movies were made later. They didn't show a lot of looting, etc, in the older films. Partially this is because the movies were working under their own version of the Comics Code.

The movie, like the book, is telling a cautionary tale. The intent is to present nuclear war as something that must be avoided, not to show ways to survive it.



Mark S. Ogilvie said:

 

 

 

You've said that before.  ;)

Next is This is Not a Test (1962), written by Peter Abenheim, Betty Lasky and Fredric Gadette and directed by Fredric Gadette. Rural deputy Dan Colter (Seamon Glass) is ordered to roadblock a remote stretch of highway around 4:00 a.m. As the story progresses and more and more people are stopped, it becomes increasingly obvious from the messages on Colter's radio that a nuclear attack is imminent. Colter is a fairly humorless, unimaginative, by-the-book kind of fellow who doesn't tend to think outside the box. A crowd quickly gathers at Colter's roadblock, including the following:

 

Old Jake (Thayer Roberts), a sort of stereotypical goodhearted, wise old Grandpa Rural.

 

June (Aubrey Martin), Jake's innocent grandaughter.

 

Cheryl Hudson (Mary Morlas), an amiable drunk who nearly runs Colter over.

 

Joe Baraji (sp?) (Mike Green). Cheryl's hepcat boyfriend, who talks about like what your great-grandad thought what a beatnik sounded like. Joe has just scored 175 grand, which is like $9 trillion in today's money, or something.

 

Al Weston (Alan Austin), a truck driver.

 

Karen Barnes (Carol Kent), a high-strung blonde. She has a little yap-dog called Timmy.

 

Sam Barnes (Norman Winston), Karen's husband, even more high-strung, with a tendency to get panicky. Seriously, this guy does "panicky" real well. You end up wanting to smack him.

 

Clint Delaney (Ron Starr), a notorious killer who was hitching a ride with the unwitting Al.

 

Pete (Don Spruance), a genial nice guy.

 

It's interesting - I've never heard of anyone in this cast. While I'm not expert like the Commander, it's rare that I see something where I've never even heard of anyone in it.
 
Basically, we watch them all get increasingly panicky as the attack becomes more imminent. Colter decides they will try to ride it out in the back of the truck. He handcuffs Joe to his own car when Joe mouths off. June becomes hysterical and runs off, encountering Delaney (who is very well-played by Starr, creepy and menacing). As the unload the truck, they come across a crate of Chrtistmas ornaments, which allows for their moment of irony, as they think about the Prince of Peace just as the world is about to destroy itself in war. When they move the truck, Clint becomes increasingly frantic, abusing the chickens that Jake and June were transporitng. ("No one will be seated during the infamous Chicken-Abusing Scene!") Sam shoots himself after he catches Karen making time with Al. Jake, Pete and June agree that Colter's plan to stay in the truck for two weeks is nuts, and Jake tells the two youngsters of an old mine where they might be safe. The others find the truck becoming increasingly stuffy, and Colter snaps Timmy's neck to save air. We don't actually see this, but it's implied pretty brutally.  Cheryl goes nuts and breaks out of the truck, only to be confronted by a gang of looters, who kidnap Karen and steal Colter's car. We end with an astonished Clint watching as Colter bangs frantically to be let back into the truck. Then comes the flash.

Overall: This is interesting. It's faily well-acted - you really do get a sense of the tension ratcheting up. It's like watching an obscure early 60's cop show where the writers just decided to go over the edge. Actually, I think this would be worth trying with actual shows. It would make a great final episode. Imagine if something like Friends had ended with all of the characters being incinerated without warning. That would have provoked an interesting reaction, I bet.


Next: 1964, and everyone dies laughing!

Re-typed the previous entry to eliminate typos.

I'd not heard of either of these last two. My guess for the 1962 film was Panic in Year Zero!, which I haven't seen and which apparently covers similar ground to This is Not a Test. Your review makes the latter sound an interesting film (but if the truck's a bit stuffy after a couple of hours, trying to stay in it for two weeks isn't going to work).

Safari is at it again, If I type more than two replies less than ten minutes apart for some reason one of them can vanish.

At any rate I've never seen the movie.

The Baron said:



Mark S. Ogilvie said:

 

 

 

You've said that before.  ;)



Luke Blanchard said:

I'd not heard of either of these last two. My guess for the 1962 film was Panic in Year Zero!, which I haven't seen and which apparently covers similar ground to This is Not a Test. Your review makes the latter sound an interesting film (but if the truck's a bit stuffy after a couple of hours, trying to stay in it for two weeks isn't going to work).

 

 

I've heard of Panic, but never seen it.  So many movies, so little time!

Next is Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), directed by Stanley Kubrick, with a screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George, based on the book Red Alert, by Peter George. I've never read the book, but I gather it was a fairly serious treatment, and that it was Kubrick who decided to turn the story into a dark comedy.

 

The film begins with a statement that the USAF says that something like this couldn't happen. As far as I've been able to tell, this is true. Nothing precisely like this chain of events could have happened. However, given that humans always screw up royally sooner or later, I believe that the possibility of a nuclear accident being launched accidentally or by unauthorized persons is greater than zero, so that while the film's precise scenario is invalid, the overall issues it considers are not.

 

We next get narration stating that rumors have been circulating of a mysterious Soviet "ultimate weapon". Then we get the infamous "jet-fueling" scene while "Try a Little Tenderness" plays in the background.  We see Burpelson AFB (I'm told that the "Peace is Our Profession" sign existed IRL),

 

The first character we meet is Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), an RAF officer who, as part of an exchange program, is serving as the chief executive officer of the base's commander.  Sellers plays Mandrake as a somewhat stereotypical  upper class British officer.

 

Mandrake's boss is General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), who launches an unauthorized against the USSR in order to provoke a general work. Hayden is incredible in this part, obviously completely nuts, but more than a match for the bewildered Mandrake. The extra for the film indicate that Ripper was loosely based on General Thomas Power of SAC, but I don't whether this was confirmed as Kubrick's intention. Ripper's obsession with fluoridation was a big thing back then. To tell the truth, I'm not completely convinced myself that fluoridation is an unalloyed Good Thing.

 

We next meet Major Kong (Slim Pickens) chief of the crew of one of the bombers. Supposedly, Sellers was also going to play this part as well, but decided against it because he felt he couldn't get the accent right.   It's just as well, because even Sellers couldn't have played the part as well as Pickens did. Legend has it that Kubrick didn't tell Pickens the film was a comedy. I'm always suspicious of statements like that, particularly because Pickens plays the part just so spot on. I don't recognize most of the other bomber crew, except that one of them is played by a young James Earl Jones, with that unmistakable voice of his.

 

One of the things that becomes clear early on in the picture is that the only people in the film who do their jobs well are the bomb crew.  They show determination, and ingenuity where everyone else is either waffling and indecisive, venal and self-serving or completely insane. They set out to attack the ICBM complex at Laputa. Laputa is a mythical flying island in Swift's Gulliver's Travels. "La puta" also means "the whore" in spanish, if I recall correctly.

 

Next we encounter General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), a general who must report to the President on Ripper's actions. Scott's not someone I would usually think of as a comedic actor, but he does quite well here. We initially see him wiith his secretary Miss Scott (Tracy ReeD), the only woman in the picture. Turgidson is supposeldy based on General Curtis Lemay.

 

President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers again) is a sort of Adlai Stevenson-esque ineffectual dolt, who tries desperately to communicate with Soviet Premier Kissoff, who is never seen, but is apparently drunk and somewhat hysterical. This is probably the weakest of Seller's three performances in the picture, but he's still pretty good at it.  (Note: A "merkin" is a sort of pubic wig that was used in Elizabethan times. Kubrick does seem to feel that "wacky names = funny").

 

Turgidson wants to follow up with a full attack, but Muffley tries to make peace, bringing in the Russian ambassador, De Sadesky (Peter Bull), who comes across as a stereotypical "dour Russian" straight from Central Casting. One half expects him to demand the surrender of moose and squirrel.

 

I hadn't really thought about it before, but much of this film revolves around conversations where people don't communicate, especially the Muffley-Kissoff phone call ("Hello Dmitri") and the face-to-face conversation between Ripper and Mandrake.  Sellers is especially good at conveying the moment in which Mandrake realizes that Ripper is completely insane.

 

De Sadesky announces the existence of the Doomsday Machine which will destroy all life on Earth if the American attack follws through. This brings in Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers, a third time), the President's director of weapons research and develpment. Sellers is incredible in this role, playing  Strangelove as cold, barely-human "ex"-Nazi, whose right hand keeps attacking him. (This is apparently an actual thing.)

 

(Side note: This business of playing several role in a movie seems to be a British specialty. I dimly remember a movie in which Alec Guinness played something like a dozen parts.)

 

When the base is besieged, Ripper shoots himself. Mandrake manages to figure out the recall code, but first must get past Colonel "Bat" Guano (Keenan Wynn), a hunorless fellow who accuses Mandrake of "preversion".

 

The film teases a happy ending several times - a missile damages Kong's plane, but the resultant fuel loss causes them to move in an unexpected direction, so the air defenses lose them. Mandrake gets the recall code out in time, but the bomber's radio is damaged, so they don't hear it. The bomb bay doors stick, so Kong focrces them open himself, riding the bomb to its target, howling all the way.   (Another humorous note: the bombs are inscribed "Hi there!" and "Dear John".)

 

We shift back to the War Room, where Strangelove concocts a bizarre plan to surive in mine shafts, which quickly degenerates into an adolescent male harem fantasy. (It's no accient that the only woman in the film is viewed as a sex object.)  Strangelove is weirdly energized by the Apocalypse, rising form his wheelchair as the film ends: "Mein fuhrer, I can walk!" We end with Vera Lynn singing "We'll Meet Again" over footage of atom bombs exploding.

 

Fun dialogue moments:

  • "Shoot, a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas Vegas with all that stuff."  (Changed after JFK was shot.)
  • "Getlemem, you can't fight in here, this is the War Room!"
  • The whole "I'm sorry, too" conversation".
  • "Mandrake, have you ever seen a Commie drink a glass of water?"
  • "If you try any preversions in there, I'll blow your head off."
  • "That's private property."
  • "It would not be difficult, mein fuhrer."

 

There's also a certain amount of broad physical comedy. - the bit where Turgidson trips was apparently a fortuitous accident, but the bit where Col. Guano gets a stream of water in the face could be right out of a Three Stooges short. Kubrick filmed a pie fight to end the film, but wisely left it out.

 

Overall: This film is one of my all-time favorites. So many incredible performances, all in one picture. This film is one I would use as an example of how I feel about film comedy-  the best film comedies are those made by people that you could imagine making a great "serious" film on the same subject. This is one I can re-watch endlessly.

 

Next: 1983, and the Apocalypse as television "event".

I think this and the movie "Fail Safe" were both released at the same time. 1964 was a dangerous year it seems. Fail Safe did play it straight and as movies go they were completely opposite in how they handled the subject matter but both great in terms of how the movies played. Walther Mathua's cold character reminds me of George C Scott's. I've read the book Fail Safe and it was just as chilling.
I liked in Dr. Strangeglove on how every time they'd switch to the bomber they'd play "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" and my favorite line is when Dr. Strangeglove talks to the Soviett Ambassador.
"But the whole point of having a doomsday device is lost if no one knows about it, Why didn't you tell anyone?!"
"It was to be announced on Tuesday."

I think the 'mine shaft gap' was a play on the 'Missile Gap' that everyone was afraid of back then.

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