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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Coming soon (hopefully): The ninth of the seven films!

Picked up a copy of Panic in Year Zero! (1962), which was written by John Morton and Jay Simms, but was pretty heavily based on a story by Ward Moore.  The film was directed by Ray Milland.

 

The film centers around the Baldwin family: Father Harry (Milland), mother Ann (Jean Hagen), son Rick (Frankie Avalon) and daughter Karen (Mary Mitchel), who set out from their LA home early one morning to go into the mountains for a fishing trip. While they are driving, they see bright flashes of light in the direction of LA, and all the radio stations go off the air. (Ah, how I must those old-style car radios. I love the computerized marvel in my current car, but I miss the syle of those old ones.)  They decide to go back and check up on Grandma, even after they see a giant mushroom cloud over LA.  They eventually decide to head back up into the hills, after hearing a radio report confirming the LA has been nuked.

 

Civilization breaks down pretty quickly, and Harry swiftly becomes ruthless in support of keeping his family alive, no matter what. After stocking up on dry goods, he then buys a gun from a hardware store owner, then holds him up with it.

Ann is aghast at how brutal Harry becomes.

 

After a scene in which a motorist becomes violent after being charged $3.00 a gallon for gas (!), the Baldwins encounter three thugs, (Carl, Mickey and third guy) but scare them off when Rick wings one of them with a shotgun.  Harry warns Rick not to become too bloodthirsty, although in the next scene, Harry creates a path for them to cross a road of streaming refugees by setting fire to it.

 

They take refuge in a cave (Back to the caves that quickly!), where Harry gives a speech about maintaining civilization, which mostly seems to mean that he and Rick need to keep shaving regularly.  (Harry spends much of the picture doing some pretty brutal stuff to keep his family alive and then talking about the need to remain civilized.)  Harry and Rick discover the hardware store owner and his wife murdered, and find that the three thugs from before are hold up in a house in the woods.

 

Meanwhile, the thugs find Karen and drag her off-camera, implicitly raping her. Ann drives them off with a shotgun.  Harry and Rick go to the house and gun down Mickey and third guy, and find Marilyn (Joan Freeman), a girl the thugs have been keeping prisoner, implicitly as a sex slave.

 

Back at the cave, Harry agonizes over having killed two men, but Joan consoles him. They hear a radio report about the Army setting up relocation centers, but Harry doesn't want them to go, because he figures there will be all sorts of baddies waiting for them to do just that.

 

Carl (who was out when his buddies were killed) shows up and shoots Rick in the leg. Marilyn (who has been falling for Rick) shoots Carl dead. As they set out in the car to find a doctor for Rick, they hear a report that the enemy has asked for a ceasefire. In a badly-looted town, they find a Cynical Country Doctor (Willis Buchet a.k.a. "Bouchet"), who patches up Rick, but tells them they need to get him to a real medical facility or he'll die.  They set out to find the rleocation center, and encounter some soldiers,  who direct them to an aid station. We end with shots of them driving along, and the legend :There must be no end - only a new beginning."

 

Overall: Not a bad little picture. Alot of apocalyptic gloom with a fairly optimistic ending, i.e., after the bombs drop, the Army will come in and help straighten everything up.  It's very much of its time, and is largley carried by Milland and Hagen, but is worth a look if you get a chance.

I've seen part of this and I was struck by how quickly Ray Milland's character went from civilized to ruthless. The point in the film where he clears the road by using fire was particularly chilling.

Just watched "Flash of Darkness", an episode of Medic, a program that ran on NBC from 1954 - 1956. I'd never heard of the show  before I stumbled across this episode. This was Episode 17 of the first season, and first aired on February 14, 1955.  It's about 26 minutes long.

It was written and directed by John Meredyth Lucas, who seems to have written and/or directed about nine million or so episodes of the original Star Trek.  It stars Richard Boone as Doctor Konrad Styner, a physician who is drafted for Civil Defense work after a nuclear attack.  The episodes consists of him working desperately hard to save who he can, while making brutal triage decisions as he begins to run out of drugs and blood plasma.  The story ends with Styner and his colleagues being relieved and sent to a rear area.  Styner comforts the surviving brother of a deceased boy of whom Styner had said earlier, "He's going to be blind, but it won't bother him for long."

I don't recognize any of the other actors, although legendary newsman Chet Huntley is the voice of a radio announcer. 

Overall:  An interesting piece. Probably about as graphic as they could have gone on 50's American TV.

I guess the prospect of nuclear war was scary from the start.  In the late 1940's maybe it was thought to be survivable, but as the 1950's went on truth set in no matter who said what.  I've got a record from that time period on how to build a bomb shelter.

The Baron said:

Just watched "Flash of Darkness", an episode of Medic, a program that ran on NBC from 1954 - 1956. I'd never heard of the show  before I stumbled across this episode. This was Episode 17 of the first season, and first aired on February 14, 1955.  It's about 26 minutes long.

It was written and directed by John Meredyth Lucas, who seems to have written and/or directed about nine million or so episodes of the original Star Trek.  It stars Richard Boone as Doctor Konrad Styner, a physician who is drafted for Civil Defense work after a nuclear attack.  The episodes consists of him working desperately hard to save who he can, while making brutal triage decisions as he begins to run out of drugs and blood plasma.  The story ends with Styner and his colleagues being relieved and sent to a rear area.  Styner comforts the surviving brother of a deceased boy of whom Styner had said earlier, "He's going to be blind, but it won't bother him for long."

I don't recognize any of the other actors, although legendary newsman Chet Huntley is the voice of a radio announcer. 

Overall:  An interesting piece. Probably about as graphic as they could have gone on 50's American TV.

Got a chance to see Threads (1984), a British TV drama, written by Barry Hines and directed by Mick Jackson.

The story starts out with what might have been a family drama with Sheffiled resident Ruth Beckett (Karen Meagher) informing her boyfriend Jimmy Kemp (Reece Dinsdale) that he has gotten her pregnant.  In the background, we hear radio and TV reports of an escalating war in Iran between the US and USSR.  Meanwhile, the Sheffield City Council is ordered to a special shelter in order to be ready to assume the functions of government after the upcoming nuclear holocaust.  The nukes fly as expected. Jimmy is vaporized, but Ruth survives, and the film shows us her life with her daughter Jane one month, one year and ten years after the war. We end thirteen years after the war with Jane being shown her own daughter.

Threads is the single most brutal film of this type that I have ever seen. Seriously, it's not for the sensitive. Even a relatively coarse fellow such as myself finds it affecting. It didn't have the budget that The Day After, but it's much better written and acted.  It's much more real, without the theatrical feel that the US film had. The film is spiced with captions and narration explaining just how bad the situation would be, and how utterly incapable the UK would be of coping with the aftermath of a nuclear attack. It's a relentlessly grim picture, showing Britain becoming an authoritarian nightmare, reduced to a near-medieval subsistence level.  The ending is the capper, a truly horrifying denouement.

I don't what to say about this picture. It's very well-made, and definitely worth seeing, but it is more likely to give you nightmares than any horror movie that I've ever seen.

Does It Got Any Doctor Who Actors In It?:  Yes, David Brierley, the second voice of K-9, played Ruth's dad.

Saw Fail-Safe (1964), which was based on a 1962 novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler.

The screenplay was written by Walter Bernstein and Peter George.

The film was directed by Sidney Lumet.

This picture was made right around the same time as Dr. Strangelove, and, because of off-screen shenanigans, came out after that film.  Lumet and others contends that their film would be much more widely remembered if it had come out first.

Th plot is very similar to that of Strangelove.  An off-course jet liner causes SAC's bomber to go to their fail-safe points.  A combination of technical failure and Soviet jamming cause one of the bomber groups to get the "go" code and head of to nuke Moscow.  The President must then coordinate efforts with the Soviets and  SAC to try to stop them.  When their efforts fail and Moscow is destroyed, the President has an American bomber destroy New York City as a conciliatory gesture to the Soviets.

The cast includes:

  • Henry Fonda as The President. Fonda is very good here..He plays the kind of president we'd all like to have, but don't seem to get in real life. He conveys the tension of the scenario very well.
  • Dan O"Herlihy as General Black, an old college friend of the President, who opposes the idea that a nuclear war is winnable, and who must fly the bomber that destroys New York, despite the fact that it means killing his own wife and children.  O'Herlihy is good in this, aw well. He doesn't make any attempt to hide his Irish accent, which is perhaps better than him essaying an American accent that he may not have felt confident doing.
  • Walter Matthau as Professor Groeteschele, an academic who believes that nuclear war is winnable, and who urges the President to launch an all-out attack, believing that the Soviets will not fight back. Groeteschele likes to provoke people, as in one scene where he suggests that from their point of view, the Japanese were right to attack Pearl Harbor, a suggestion guaranteed to seem outrageous to any American, especially those who were alive at the time. He's almost a parody of a cold intellectual. Once the decision has been taken to destroy New York, he immediately begins considering how to save important financial records before they are destroyed. Matthau is very good in the part. If you've only ever seen him play lovable old grumps,  it's a revelation to see what a good dramatic actor he was.
  • Frank Overton as General Bogan, the head of SAC, Overton is good as a man trying to work with "the enemy" to avoid a catastrophe.
  • Fritz Weaver as Colonel Cascio, Bogan's number two. this is apparently Weaver's film role, although he had been appearing on  television for several years before this.  Cascio snaps under the pressure of cooperating with the Soviets - whom he does not trust - and the fact that Bogan saw his parents living in relative squalor early in the film, and that Cascio's father is an abusive drunk. Weaver plays the part well.
  • Edward Binns as Colonel Jack Grady, an old school bomber pilot, who does his duty and does it well.
  • Larry Hagman as Buck, the President's translator. When I first saw this, I had only seen Hagman as Tony Nelson, so it was another revelation to see him do dramatic acting. Hagman and Fonda both do good jobs having to react to essentially nothing. Hagman convinces as a man who feels in way over his head but still carries on.
  • William Hansen as Defense Secretary Swenson.
  • Russell Collins as Gordon Knapp, a defense contractor who happens to be visiting SAC when the excrement hits the airfoil.
  • Sorrell Booke (much later Boss Hogg on The Dukes of Hazzard) as Congressman Raskob, who is accompanying Knapp.
  • Nancy Berg as Ilsa Woolfe, a party guest who tries to seduce the Professor.
  • Hildy Parks as General Black's wife.
  • Janet Ward as Grady's wife, who is brought in to try to convince him to turn back. (There's somewhat more of a female presence in this film than there is in Strangelove, but the Apocalypse is still largely a male affair. This is perhaps unsurprising for the time and place.)

These are the main characters. Look also for Dana Elcar as Foster, a party guest who argues with the Professor, and Dom DeLuise as Tech Sgt. Collins. looking supremely uncomfortable  as the man called on to give secret info to the Soviets when Cascio refuses to do it.

All in all, it's a good film, and well worth a look. Would it have done better it it had come out before Strangelove? I really have no idea. since it's played seriously, there's a lot more tension in this picture than there is in other one. The moment where the Americans all hear the electronic whine indicating that the telephone of the US ambassador in Moscow (and the ambassador along with it) has melted is one of the eeriest scenes I've ever seen in a movie.

The picture was done on the cheap, and, as Lumet himself admits on the DVD commentary track, it occasionally shows in places. there's a bit of a "Mountains of Illinois" moments when Bogan arrives outside the elder Cascios' home in Omaha, and it's obviously not Omaha.

Lumet says that the USAF did its level best to block him form getting stock footage of  military planes, which is why Grady's flight never seems to look the same way twice, except in one scene where footage of the same plane taking off is shown five times to indicate five planes taking off.

the general theme of the picture is of a protest against technology taking the human element out of the momentous decision of whether or not to go to war. As with Strangelove, this picture has a disclaimer saying that the USAF says this couldn't happen.

The degree to which I love Dr. Strangelove is equal to the degree to which I hate Fail-Safe. The idea of bombing New York City kinda bothers me in a two-wrongs-don't-make-a-right way, let alone killing one's own family.* I saw both of them a few years after they came out. They are both trying to make a similar point though I could watch Dr. Strangelove a hundred times but won't watch Fail-Safe a second time.  

* The Nuremberg Trials established that no one should obey an illegal order.

Finally got to see Peter Watkins' The War Game (1966) .  It was considered too disturbing,  and wasn't broadcast in the U.K. until 1985. It's done as a pseudo-documentary in the style of a TV news magazine. It alternates between depicting the lead-up to and immediate aftermath of a nuclear attack on the U.K., experts explaining how bad it would be, and the general public being generally clueless, all with matter-of-fact narration.

It's less than an hour  long,and there's no character development as such, but it's still fairly grim, and manages to  convey that:

  • Nuclear war would be really bad
  • The U.K. would be completely unable to cope with the aftermath of a nuclear war
  • Defending a so-called "Christian" civilization by incinerating millions is, perhaps, morally questionable

Overall, it's worth a look if you get a chance.

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