Nuclear Madness, Part 1: When the Wind Blows (1986), Threads (1984), and The War Game (1965)

February 28, 2015 | By

StopTheNeutronMadness2When I was a teenager, I remember going to the CNE (Canadian National Exhibition) and finding in one of the pavilions a series of international stalls with assorted pamphlets on political and cultural subjects, and one that stood out was a booklet called “Stop the Neutron Madness,” which I never read, but remember grabbing because of its arresting, gloomy cover (which, amazingly, can be found via Google). I’m pretty sure this was from the USSR booth, because they also had assorted manifesto pamphlets (and I also picked up a rather elegant deck of playing cards).

This was my first exposure to nuclear-themed material, but I didn’t really understand it at the time, except in the sense that a bomb had been developed that could do grievous damage.

Then along came the NFB short If You Love This Planet (1982), an Oscar-winning lecture-documentary in which Dr. Helen Caldicott outlined in clear, clinical terms what a bomb does, what many bombs do, and the insanity of stockpiling enough bombs to blast several Earths into dust. Caldicott also interpolated graphic footage from survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that was likely the first time most people had seen colour footage of what happens when a human being comes into contact with a nuclear bomb, and sort of survives.

The early 1980s were filled with nuclear chatter, tales of paranoia, annihilation scenarios in the media, and the impression that we were on the brink of resetting human civilization back to the caveman era (or the amoeba).

The dramas that followed on TV and in cinemas remain time capsules of the era, capturing the fear and how some filmmakers chose to use the medium to either educate or exploit the subject as just a hot-button topic for a good yarn, but what was produced within a short few years is markedly different from the post-apocalyptic tales of the 1970s, in which a nuclear war had already happened.

Perhaps it was too much of a downer to show seventies audiences the reality of mass human extinction, and just leap to the years after the big kaboom, as humanity was slowly re-evolving, using bits of surviving infrastructure, or restarting in the countryside, far away from crumbling cities branded forbidden zones or other teasing I-dare-you monikers.

There’s much to be read about the sci-fi films of specific eras – bombs would create giant monsters in the fifties; the world would be silent and boring in the sixties; monkeys would evolve and flip the master-servant roles in the late sixties; the race to save the last vestiges of knowledge, green spaces, and unpolluted food in the seventies – but the eighties were ripe with fears that by most scientific accounts, one could not and would not want to survive a global thermonuclear war, as toyed with in WarGames (1983).







Twilight Time’s Blu-ray edition of William Briggs’ When the Wind Blows (1986) offers up a unique film where animation was the container to present a story of how we would die slowly, and die horribly. It’s also a drama about government folly in trying to calm the populace with ridiculous preventive measures that made it seem There Was a Plan, but in reality, the world – in this case, Britain – would quite clearly be fucked if the Soviets (or anyone) launched a strike.

Snowman1982Supplementing a review of Jimmy Murakami’s film version of Briggs’ affecting tale is that other Briggs story that’s the antithesis of gloom: his perennial Christmas tale The Snowman (1982), which Murakami supervised, being a Oscar-nominated director himself. I’ve ported over a review of the prior Sony DVD from the archives.

Within Twilight Time’s BR is a bonus doc, Jimmy Murakami: Non-Alien (2012), which follows the director on a trip back to the U.S. for a reunion with his brother and sister, and revisiting Tulalake, where the Murakami family was interned with other Japanese-Americans as “non-aliens” during WWII. It’s a solid, moving doc that reveals why Murakami was the perfect director for a film about governmental deceit.

Threads_R2_bAlso added from the archives are two British anti-nuke films which most on this side of the pond may not have heard of: Peter Watkins’ The War Game, banned by the BBC in 1965 for patently scaring the shit out of everyone; and Threads (1984), a more formidable TV production than the better-known U.S. teleplay, The Day After (1983).

Threads is still unavailable in North America – it seemed to have vanished after a PBS airing decades ago – whereas Watkins’ work may be barely known to anyone because he was often forced to work on the fringes, partly due to his unique aesthetic, and the genre through which he tackled historic events and figures: the mockumentary.

WarGame_CullodenI’m a huge champion of his work, and it’s not a stretch to claim a link between Watkins and both U.S. and Brit versions of The Office. He was the fellow who not only refined a technique of telling stories via a ‘documentary’ camera crew assigned to hover around fictional subjects, but do so in different time periods with historical figures. In the coming months I’ll revisit more of Watkins’ work, and port over the substantive titles previously released by Oliver Groom’s Project X label before the implosion of New Yorker Video put Watkins’ now OOP DVDs back to the fringes.

(Hopefully Groom’s proposed release of Watkins’ epic dec series Resan / The Journey is just in stasis and not fully dead. The anti-nuke series was reportedly released on VHS by Facets, and aside from rare screenings, it’s completely vanished from distribution.)

Lastly, let us collectively chime a solid Good Riddance to February, and may March be a portent of warmer temperatures, sunnier days, and the excitement of new projects. Soon it’ll be possible again to film outside without freezing one’s ass off in 10 minutes.

Coming next: reviews Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind (1960) and Martin Ritt’s Conrack (1974) on Blu.





Mark R. Hasan, Editor
Big Head Amusements

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