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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The Baron said:

Kubrick does seem to feel that "wacky names = funny").

Kubrick was a genius but also needed someone to sit on him. As for your pie fight example, I'll bet he had to really be talked out of it. When he made his version of The Shining he didn't respect the material (not unlike a lot of comic book film directors) and made drastic "improvements" to the story. Anyone who hasn't seen it should watch The Shining TV miniseries, which is faithful to the (very good) book.

Another humorous note: the bombs are inscribed "Hi there!" and "Dear John".)

This is something Kubrick didn't have to make up. Bombs and heavy weapons are often inscribed with tongue-in-cheek sayings.

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.

I can also watch this one countless times.

Mark S. Ogilvie said:

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.

The movies released in 1964 were probably a reaction to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and how close we came to nuclear war then. Fail Safe is one movie I actually hate. The ending is completely unbelievable while at the same time completely disgusting.

Next up is The Day After (1983), which was a TV movie produced by the ABC* television network.  It was a big “event” at the time. I was a junior in college at the time, and I remember watching it in the dorms with my buddies.  Now, we were fairly uncivilized, cynical little thugs at the time, and I dimly recall that we found the film fairly comic at the time. Thirty-odd years later, I am somewhat less cynical, but still fairly skeptical. I no longer find the film quite so laughable, although there are perhaps still one or two risible moments. The film was written by Edward Hume, and directed by Nicholas Meyer.   The music is OK, including an excerpt from something called “The River”, by Virgil Thompson, which is vaguely Aaron Copland-y. There are many scenes of the American heartland, i.e., “the real America” ;) .


The picture is about two hours long. The first fifty minutes introduces us to various characters in and around Kansas City, MO, letting us get to know them and their various life issues – the planning of weddings, career moves, and so on. In the background to all this, we hear news reports of heightened tensions between the US and USSR in Germany, which breaks out into conventional warfare, and which quickly goes nuclear. There’s about ten minutes of nuclear war, with scenes of various people and a horse getting “skeletonized”, and the same footage of atom bombs going off that have been used in countless pictures for decades.  I remember seeing them most recently in Godzilla  (1998), but I wouldn’t be astonished to discover that they’d been used since then. The last part of the picture shows the surviving character dealing with the aftermath of the conflict, generally not very well.


The main character is Doctor Russell Oakes (Jason Robards), who works at a university hospital. He and his wife have two children, a daughter who is planning to move to Boston following a boyfriend, and a son who is a budding football star. He and his wife react to the rising tensions by reminiscing about the Cuban Missile Crisis, generally considered one of the closest times we’ve come so far to an all-out nuclear war.  His colleagues include Sam Hachiya (Calvin Jung), a Japanese-American resident physician  at the hospital, and Nurse Bauer (JoBeth Bauer), a sort of stereotypical “faithful nurse” character.


Secondary characters include Airman Billy McCoy (William Allen Young), who works at a missile silo (and therefore knows more so than others what is likely to happen), whose plans for a vacation to New Orleans with his family are disrupted by the impending alert.


We also meet the Dahlbergs (John Cullum and Bibi Besch), whose oldest daughter Denise is about to get married, Steven Klein (Steven – later  “Steve” – Guttenberg) - a pre-med student at the university,  Joe Huxley (John Lithgow)  – an academic at the university, and the Hendrys, a farm couple with two young children. One other character whose name escapes me at the moment is a heavily pregnant woman – much is made of the notion that maybe her baby is hesitant about being born into a world that is wrecking itself.


There are lots of scenes of people panicking in the streets prior to the bombs going off, and general turmoil. One things that marks this picture as a relic of a bygone era – lines of people waiting in line to use payphones, in that distant pre-cell phone era. There is an eerie quiet right before the bombs go off, as though the Earth itself was holding its breath.


One of the things that stays with me for some reason is a scene showing the officers preparing to launch the nukes – the key switch has a little label on it that says “gently”. Yeah, you wouldn’t want to damage the equipment, would you?


As the missiles are launched, we see our characters reacting variously. We see the Hendry children watching stupefied (no kidding, they do the best “stupefied”  looks I’ve ever seen) as they launch. Ma Dahlberg manically makes beds, freaking out when her husband pulls her down into the cellar. There’s a great scene where Oakes is the one guy driving into Kansas City while everyone else is driving out. (You know, I think might take that as a sign.) Billy and his colleagues argue about whether to try to hide in the now empty silo or to run – Billy runs. Danny (the youngest Dahlberg) is blinded by a nuke going off. Steven, who has been hitching home, ducks into a store. Huxley and several students take shelter in a campus building.


In the end, the Hendrys are all vaporized, as are Oakes’ wife and children, Billy’s family and Denise Dahlberg’s boyfriend.  The Dahlbergs, Oakes, Sam, Nurse Bauer, Billy, Huxley and Steven all survive.


Oakes makes it to the hospital, where he finds it understaffed and short on supplies. Conditions there deteriorate, and it swiftly becomes like something out of the Middle Ages, as all the survivors for miles around find their way there. The Dahlbergs survive in their cellar, where they are joined by the wandering Steven.  Billy survives in the back of a truck (Shades of This is Not a Test!), and as soon joined by a little weird guy that he helps. The rest of the film is pretty much everyone sickening and dying.   We see a priest breaking while giving a sermon. Denise starts bleeding uncontrollably , and Steven takes her and the blinded Danny to the hospital, where they aren’t helped much. We hear a Presidential radio address announcing a “ceasefire” in the war with the Soviets and saying that America is fighting on, counterpointed by scenes of the dead and dying. Oakes collapses in the hospital. We see the little weird guy watching as Billy is dumped into a mass grave.  County officials try to tell farmers how to dispose of contaminated soil. Pa Dahlberg is shot – and maybe eaten? – by squatters.  Oakes recovers and puts on a preternaturally clean white shirt and decides to go back into Kansas City to see his home before he dies.  Another squatter consoles him as he weeps in the wreckage of his home. The pregnant woman has her baby and we close on Joe Huxley on his radio, quoting the Welles War of the Worlds: “Is anybody there? Anybody at all?” There is a caption saying that a real nuclear war would probably be much worse than what we have just seen.


Overall: The picture is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it certainly succeeds as an attempt to depict nuclear war as a Very Bad Thing. There are none of the cleansing rains of Day the World Ended, or the hopeful future rebuilding of Things to Come,  or even the carefully staged, antiseptic, largely-offscreen deaths of On the Beach.  This is as graphic  as American network television would allow at the time. 


On the other hand, where the film tends to fall down is as a story. Robards and Lithgow are excellent actors, and none of the other actors, with the occasional exception of Guttenberg, are glaringly awful.   Maybe it’s the writing, but I don’t find the characters al that engaging. I don’t find myself especially caring about them. What happens to them is unpleasant and depressing, but not especially sad. There are two other movies from around the same period,  Testament  (1983)   and Threads (1984), which I remember seeing at the time, and which I remember as being a good deal more moving than The Day After. Unfortunately, I do not have copies of either of them available to review right now.  It’s funny, I compared This is Not a Test to an early 60’s cop show that decided to do a “nuclear war” episode. In some ways, The  Day After is like an 80’s night-time soap opera that decided to do the same, and I never liked 80’s night-time soaps.


Next: Back to 1960, and the eighth of the “seven movies”!


*Stands for “American Broadcasting Company”

I was working nights at the time and never saw this.

Another movie from the period with a threat of nuclear war background was WarGames (1983). I remember a British semi-documentary starring Peter Ustinov called Nuclear Nightmares: The Wars That Must Never Happen (1979) which had a sequence in which Ustinov, in a bunker, describes how WWIII started with conflict in the Middle East.

The War Game (1965) was a semi-documentary made for the BBC (for the programme The Wednesday Play, Wikipedia tells me) which it didn't broadcast and which was shown in cinemas instead. It won the 1966 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. It was shown on British TV in the 80s, and also on the ABC here. I remember it as making a lot of a limited budget.

By the 80s it was taken for granted that a nuclear war would be a missile war, whereas in Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe the weapons are delivered by bombers. The Soviets supported anti-nuclear weapons campaigns as part of their propaganda efforts.

I saw The Day After in a dorm, too. I recall the next door neighbor screaming when that one guy appeared to have been shot by a Dalek. You know what I mean. His scream was very much like the "Wilhelm scream."

The Baron's description of it as like a nuclear war episode of an evening soap is dead on.

The War Game is another one I've heard of but never seen.

I confess to not knowing what a "Wilhelm scream" is. 

I looked it up. It sounds like something I've probably heard a million times, but didn't know by that name.

I most recently heard it while watching Despicable Me 2 with my granddaughter.

I found an eighth film I'd forgotten I had. In fact, I'm fairly sure I'd never watched it before I looked at it the other day.  the film is Rat (1960), a Yugoslav film. It's nothing to do with rodents, "rat" is apparently Serbo-Croatian for "war". Theenglish title is Atomic War Bride. It was directed by Veljko Bulajic, and written by Cesare Zavattini.


The picture features Anton Vrdoljak as "John Johnson" (I somehow doubt that that was the character's original name. The English dubbers seem to have given all of the characters these same kinds of names: "Pete Peterson, Jack Jackson", and so on. It's really tedious.) and Ewa Krzyzewska as Maria, two young, fresh-faced Aryan Superman tyes who are about to get married. War is declared on their wedding day (Indeed, one gets the impression sometimes that the entire war was set up just to ruin John's day. The cabby driving John to the church begins shouting anti-war slogans and is immediately arrested.) and John is immediately conscripted into the army. After some extremely non-brutal basic training (which still somehow contrives to kill John's cousin Jack, who is a bit of a Milquetoast), John is sent out to abuse a cranky old person who doesn't want to do what he's told, which admirable actitivty the film for some reason chooses to portray in a negative light.   John, being thicker than battleship armor, is promptly outwitted by the old-timer, and ends up stuck in a bomb shelter, where he encounters Maria, who encourages him to desert.   the President announces on a nationwide broadcast that they will be launching a surprise nuclear attack against the enemy. (So don't anyone spill the beans.) John then more or less accidentally organizes an anti-war march and is almost immediately arrested for treason. Just as John is about to be shot, a report comes in that the war is over, as the enemy has been destroyed. John and Maria seize this opportunity to go on the run. Alas, the enemy has been mostly destroyed and his missiles arrive.John and Maria return to the home they had been planning to move into. Maria quietly expires and the understandably distraught John  holds her body and weeps.


Overall: Odd little film.  In a way it reminds me of the Mitteleuropan films that would sometimes turn up on the CBS Children's Film Festival when I was a kid, which always seemed strange to me, because at the time I didn't realize they were foreign, and so didn't quite grasp why people in them behaved differently than what I expected.


Of course, the main question I have after watching this is:  "Was this picture meant to be funny?"  The silly names would certainly seem to indicate that, but that could be the doing of the dubbers. I've seen that happen before with dubbed films - Godzilla 2000 springs to mind as a film where the Japanese version was meant to be relatively "serious", but the people who dubbed it into English tried their best to make it "wacky" in parts.  However, there are purely visual gags - John fumbling with his radiation suit, a scene where the new recruits practice keeping their trigger fingers supple en masse, that I'm sure were meant to be funny. However, there are parts that have a peculiarly "innocent" sort of earnestness that make me wonder, and the ending is obviously meant to be heartbreaking.  I would recommend giving it a look if you get the chance, if only because you're unlikely to have seen anything else quite like it.

It does sound like a comedy.

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