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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Thanks for the info, Luke. A book that I've found very useful on ths subject is Kim Newman's Apocalypse Movies.

 

I've read Wells's War in the Air, but not lately.  The Burroughs book also sounds familiar, but I no longer have a copy of it.

It's also known as The Lost Continent, and can be found at Project Gutenberg (if anyone's interested: it's not one of his best). I don't want to imply I've read all the books I mentioned. I have an interest in landmark books and the history of SF.

 

There's a review of a 1909 silent movie about future war from the UK called The Airship Destroyer here.

  When you want high drama I guess disaster movies and end of the world movies are hard to beat.  You have so much opportunity to see characters change either for good or bad.  The Mad Max movies are like that.  Each era probably had it's own special world destroying boogy-man.  From the 1950's on it was most atomic, but there were some plagues too.

The Mad Max movies are an interesting case. The second and third are set after a nuclear war, but the first is instead set against a background of social breakdown.

I'm very interested in what comes next, Baron.

I should have something up about the next picture sometime this week. There's a hint about it in the first post...

OK, next we zip forward a few years to the Cold War Era, to watch the Roger Corman epic Day the World Ended (1955).   While I certainly would never try to sell anyone on the idea that Corman was a great director, he did have his moments. He certainly was no Ed Wood. In fact, some of his films were quite watchable.  This particular one is an old favorite of mine, and is one of the few films of this ilk that I find genuinely scary. It used to be in the regular rotation of Creature Double Feature  when I was a kid.

 

Written by Lou Rusoff, our film starts off with a title card reading "Our story begins with .... THE END!", followed by stock footage of a nuke going off, some swell theremin music, and some portentous uncredited narration by newsman Chet Huntley.  The day of the war is described as "TD Day", for "Total Destruction", although I can't help thinking "Touchdown!" when I hear it.


We first meet Jim Maddison (Paul Birch, who appeared in several 50's sci-fi movies, and who had a huge forehead.), an old Navy man who had anticipated the war, and who has prepared a special retreat up in the mountains. Birch is fairly believable as an old sailor, gruff and determined.

 

Also present is Jim's daughter, Louise (Lori Nelson, great-grandniece of "Black Jack" Pershing). Nelson is attractive, but a bit bland.  Jim and Louise are waiting for the arrival of Louise's beau, but it seems increasingly unlikely that he will show up, what with the nuclear war and all.

 

A handful of other survivors arrive seeking shelter. Jim is reluctant to let them in, but Louise insists. These include:

 

Tony (Touch Connors, later Mike Connors of Mannix fame). an angry, vicious hood.  Connors does well in this, portraying the "tough guy" who's actually a coward.

 

Ruby (Adele Jergens), Tony's girl, a "brassy broad" and stripper, who is basically decent at heart.  Jergen is entertaining in this.

 

Rick (Richard Denning, another genre mainstay), a young fellow who just happens to be an expert on uranium. He's very bluff and earnest, and quickly becomes a new love interest for Louise.

 

Radek (Paul Dubov, looking vaguely like an amalgam of Eric Roberts and Moe Howard), a badly-scarred, highly radioactive man rescued by Rick.  This is one of the odd bits of the picture - this guy is supposed to be as radioactive as can be, yet they just plop him down on a couch in the living room.

 

Pete (Raymond Hatton, at the tail end of a long career that stretched back into the silent days), a grizzled old prospector accompanied by his burro, Diablo.


The film has three main plot threads:

 

1)"The Question of Survival"  A rain storm is impending throughout most of the picture and much discussion revolves around whether or not this rain will be radioactive when it comes.

 

2)"The Couples Issue" Jim very much wants to pair up Rick with Louise, and for those two (and Tony and Ruby) to start producing children. This is complicated by the fact that Tony lusts after Louise, enraging Ruby.  Louise is repulsed by Tony and though she likes Rick well enough, she sees no point in trying to continue the human race.  (From what I've read about it, the general consensus seems to be that you would need at least twenty people to have any kind of a shot at re-starting the human race.)


3)"The Mutation Situation"  Jim tells Rick that he captained a ship that participated in an H-Bomb test, and that he saw experimental animals that had mutated terribly due to radiation exposure. He fears that such things may be happening to humans as well and believes that Radek is in the earliest stages of such mutation. There is much talk of roentgens, and such.


This last is built up to throughout the film - first we see a mutant animal corpse, and Radek's increasingly bizarre behavior. Something scares him away from a rabbit he's killed.  Tracks are found nearer and nearer to the house. Louise begins hearing something calling out to her. There are some spooky scenes where we see the creature's shadow on the wall outside Louise's bedroom and so on. Ultimately, when we see the creature, it manages to be both creepy and goofy. I've known people to be truly freaked out by it, and others to laugh out loud.  Me, I get a little of both. While it is never explicitly stated, it is strongly hinted
that the creature is Louise's boyfriend, having finally found his way home. In the end, the creature kidnaps Louise. She escapes him by diving into a pond, having figured out that he's averse to water. Careless of him to get that close to water, really.  Rick and Jim have figured out that since the creature is nourished by things inimical to human life, things beneficial to human life will kill it.  Thus, when the climactic rain comes and the rainwater turns out to be clean, the creature is dissolved by it, à la The Wicked Witch of the West.


The human drama plays out parallel to this. Early on, they get Tony's gun away form him, and he spends the rest of the picture trying to get it back, including one scene where he sneaks up on a dozing Jim, who has conveniently left the gun lying out on the couch. Eventually people start dying off. Diablo and Radek both get killed, Pete gets tired of being in the film and wanders off into the mists, Jim is poisoned going after him (no explanation is given as to why radiation kills some people and mutates others), Tony kills Ruby after a fight, and Jim shoots Tony when the latter is lying in wait to kill Rick.

 

The dying Jim tells Rick and Louise that he heard a voice on the radio (It was French, something about a school calling, which makes me think it's somewhere in Québec). We end with Rick and Louise preparing to leave, and a title card telling us that this is "The Beginning".

 

Overall: I quite enjoyed this film. It's not "great cinema", and it's certainly best not to think about the science of this too much (something that I suspect will prove to be true of all of the pictures on this list.),
but it's a reasonably well-acted, suspenseful picture, especially for a Corman film.  Worth a look if you get a chance.


Next: 1959, and "Can you hear, can you hear the thunder?" or, "Didn't we already have this conversation?"

I've not seen this one. An earlier film about the survivors of a nuclear war was Five (US 1951), which I haven't seen either. It was written and directed by Arch Oboler, who had earlier worked in radio (the Giant Chicken Heart episode of Lights Out was one of his). Come to think of it, the main part of Robot Monster (US 1953) is based around a kind of child's version of this premise.

I have seen Captive Women (US 1952). This is set several generations after such a war and is about warring tribes in the remains of New York. I remember it as not very well made and naïve.

In Seven Days to Noon (UK 1950) an atomic scientist disturbed by the possibility of nuclear war plans to set an atomic bomb off in London. I understand in Rocketship X-M (US 1950) a spaceship lands on Mars and finds (spoiler warning) that civilisation has been destroyed there by atomic war.

I've heard of Five, but never seen it. I believe you are correct about Rocketship X-M. They did an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 around that film, but it's been awhile since I've seen it.

  I remember seeing it, but I never really thought about it much beyond an end of the world picture. 

I think in the 1954 Disney version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea it's implied the Nautilus is nuclear powered, and that the explosion that destroys Nemo's island base at the end is an atomic one.

I think you may be right about that. Another one that I haven't seen in awhile.  Victorian atom bombs seem to be a sort of subgenre.  I remember a book called Queen Victoria's Bomb in which a British scientist invents the atom bomb eighty years early.

The son of Migholeto Lovelace did that in one of the Wild Wild West movies.

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