The Celluloid Threat of Atomic Annihilation – The Cinema of Nuclear War.

“Just look at it, its on fire! Everything is on fire!”

When reporter Megan Barclay looks across the bay in the direction of the city of Charleston and attempts to assess the damage done by the accidental detonation of a nuclear bomb in 1983’s Special Bulletin, Actress Roxanne Hart conveys a rich concoction of emotion: disbelief, disgust, dismay – and then fear. In microcosm, this scene portrays widely-held public attitudes to nuclear weapons at that time. In fact, 1983 can be regarded as something of a pinnacle as regards the cinematic depiction of the use of nuclear weapons, with over half-a-dozen such movies either released or well into production. All of these offer at the very least an admonitory message, with most containing fervent anti-nuclear sentiments.

Cinema’s relationship with The Bomb has, until relatively recently, been a cautionary one – and a decent yardstick as regards public feelings on the matter. Often, historical analysis of cinema can be used to gauge societal opinions on the issues of the time. Nowhere is this perhaps more epitomised than when it comes to nuclear weapons.

The threat of nuclear annihilation has cast a shadow of varying ebonization on every generation since the inception of the atomic bomb. The very idea of the instantaneous annihilation of huge swathes of the population, followed by the death of millions of others through radioactive fallout is the stuff of extreme nightmares. Many filmmakers have taken these nightmares and committed them to screen. More recently, it has been for entertainment. More often historically, and more significantly, it has been as a warning.

The history of the ‘nuclear film’ can be seen to mirror the public’s understanding of The Bomb. At first the device was shrouded in secrecy, its status fuelled by propaganda and thus even lauded as a peacemaker. But as the public began to comprehend the true power of the atomic bomb and the threat it posed of fear, anger and a wish by many to undo what we had done as a species began to grow – both in the streets and on screen. And then, with the end of the cold war, the genuine, urgent threat The Bomb posed gradually drifted both out of the mass consciousness and the cinema, surfacing instead in the ‘historical’ or the fantastical, and, for some, once more becoming something to be revered.

The discovery of nuclear fission in the late 1930s led to fears that German scientists could develop an atomic bomb during World War II. This led to the establishment of the Manhattan Project, which sought to develop such a weapon for use by the United States. Following a successful test – codenamed Trinity – in New Mexico in July 1945, the US informed the Soviet Union that they had a new ‘superweapon’.

It is claimed that Japan was close to an inevitable defeat before 6th August 1945, when ‘Little Boy’ was dropped on Hiroshima, a target reputedly chosen as it had had no previous damage inflicted, and thus analysis of the atomic bomb’s effectiveness could be carried out posthumously. Three days later, ‘Fat Man’ was dropped on Nagasaki, with the original, primary target – the city of Kokura – having been spared owing to cloud cover that impeded visual reconnaissance.

The bombings killed over 129,000 people, and would go on to adversely affect the lives of over 650,000 others.

The exact impact of the bombs could not have been predicted beforehand, and the US sent investigation teams into Japan to investigate, following the end of the war. In effect, the bombings had been an experiment – one that cost tens of thousands of lives.

In August 1949, the Soviet Union conducted its successful nuclear device test, meaning it became the second nation to have developed nuclear weapons. Although The Cold War between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies had already begun by this time, the development of nuclear weapons behind The Iron Curtain created tensions regarding thermonuclear war that would last for decades. This allowed the US to declare The Bomb to be a peacemaker; the ultimate deterrent. Indeed, the only deterrent – preventing the USSR from unleashing their own newfound nuclear nightmare. Owing to this line of propaganda, nuclear weapons could be revered as a weapon of potential righteousness. A device capable of destruction seen only in a Biblical context. It was God’s will, encased in metal and dropped from aeroplanes.

Although in the early 1950s details regarding the development of nuclear weapons were secretive and the truth behind the exact results of the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki carefully contained, filmmakers had already begun to contemplate the possibility of a nuclear-fuelled apocalypse. Despite relatively little being known publically about the aftermath of the Japanese bombings, Arch Oboler’s Five – released in 1951 – contemplates the fate of a small band of survivors of an apparent ‘global atomic bomb-related disaster’. The film deals specifically with the effects of radiation – the first film to do so – and the beginning of what would become a 30-year exposé of the truth regarding a nuclear weapon-related catastrophe, and the harsh realities of such. By way of an example, released around the same time was the American civil defence film Duck and Cover which urges citizens – particularly children – to drop to the ground and shield themselves from a nuclear explosion. Bert the Turtle, the film’s animated star, negates to mention that if you happen to be in the close vicinity to ground zero at the time of The Bomb going off, you will be obliterated regardless of how quickly you duck and/or cover. And then there’s the small matter of deadly radioactive fallout…

Throughout the mid-1950s, the US developed the thermonuclear hydrogen bomb, testing it at Bikini Atoll in 1954. Effectively a continuation of the experimentation that had begun with Trinity and continued with the bombing of Japan, the full yield of the hydrogen bomb was not known until after the explosion occurred. It which was 15 megatons – 1,000 times more powerful than Fat Man and Little Boy. The unexpected size of the explosion led, in turn, to unanticipated nuclear fallout, which affected residents of nearby islands, US servicemen and in particular the crew of Lucky Dragon No.5 – a Japanese fishing boat caught under the fallout cloud.

Continued nuclear testing pushed the topic of nuclear weapons and their threat to mankind further into Western public consciousness, and thus began the first ‘cycle’ of nuclear weapon-related movies. The 1959 movie On the Beach, based on the 1957 novel of the same name, depicts a global nuclear conflict that devastates the Northern Hemisphere, with the resultant nuclear fallout sealing the fate of those in the Southern Hemisphere. Panic in Year Zero, a 1962 movie that bares striking resemblance to John Christopher’s 1956 novel The Death of Grass (although fails to acknowledge it as an influence), charts the societal impact of a nuclear strike though the fate of a family who escape The Bomb by chance, but are forced to live in a cave, and embrace a dangerous and increasingly savage future.

The 1962 Cuban missile crisis – perhaps the closest mankind has ever come to global thermonuclear war – increased public tensions further, and filmmakers responded accordingly. Frank Perry’s 1963 movie Ladybug Ladybug explores the psychological effects of the Cold War and the threat of paranoia in relation to potential nuclear holocaust. Here, these themes are literal and explicit – albeit open to some interpretation – but similar themes have been retrospectively attributed as ‘metaphorically implied’ in movies of the later 1950s, particularly those of the science fiction genre.

Stanley Kubrick’s revered Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb caricatures the absurdity of prominent cold war themes such as the ‘missile gap’ arms race and the concept of mutually assured destruction. Released in the same year, Fail-Safe depicts an accidental US thermonuclear strike on Moscow, and the extreme actions required to avert global catastrophe, further building on themes of potential ‘accidental’ or ‘miscommunicated’ nuclear bombings. It was a year later, however, that a British filmmaker first turned his attentions to the realities of nuclear war on the people who would be directly affected by them. Away from the war rooms or the fantastical depictions of post-apocalyptic survivors, what would nuclear war mean for ‘the man on the street’? The answer was chilling, and hugely controversial.

Britain had been the third nation to develop nuclear weapons in 1952. Peter Watkins’ The War Game was developed for the BBC some 13 years later in 1965, but wouldn’t air on TV for a further 20 years more. The War Game depicted how a Chinese invasion of South Vietnam escalated into global nuclear conflict, and then concentrated specifically on what nuclear warfare would mean to the British public. Detailed and harrowing descriptions of the conditions before, during and after a nuclear attack were depicted. The alarming and, for many, unseen ‘true’ nature of a nuclear blast was illustrated, along with what would happen to those ‘unlucky’ enough to survive – a situation perhaps best summed up when the film itself asks of the viewer:

‘Would the survivors envy the dead?’

Filmed in a documentary style, much like his previous work – 1964’s Culloden – Watkins’s unwaveringly bleak exposé made a mockery of any attempt to glorify The Bomb. With, at that point, the true legacy of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still kept from the public eye, the British public – or indeed the rest of the West – had not seen anything like The War Game. But before the film was due to air on TV, the BBC’s fears regarding ‘the effect the film would have on the viewing public’ began to grown and thus became a matter of governmental concern soon after, going as far up the chain of command as 10 Downing Street. Ultimately, the decision was taken not to show the film on television. It was instead granted a cinematic release – and an X certificate – where it garnered much praise from those who saw it, gaining a status of cult notoriety and acknowledged as a powerful and influential message for anti-nuclear sentiment. To this day, it remains a truly shocking piece of work.

Throughout the 1970s, depictions of nuclear war were all but absent from the big screen. But eventually, the issue of The Bomb bled back into cinematic relevance owing to a number of social and political factors. The issue of nuclear power, and in particular the safety of such, led to tensions illustrated on-screen in 1979’s The China Syndrome. Ironically, an accident similar to that depicted in the movie happened for real, only days after the movie’s release, in what became known as the ‘Three Mile Island’ incident. In addition to issues surrounding nuclear power, large swathes of the American public had grown frustrated and mistrustful owing to the Vietnam War, Watergate and the never-ending arms race with the USSR. In the UK, the prominence of US missile silos led to questions about the UKs role in any future war, and its likelihood as a target – particularly with Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher having shown a willingness for war with Argentina over The Falklands. These influences, and the ongoing political and military tensions with the Soviet Union (namely the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and their deployment of new SS-20 missiles in Eastern Europe – a move countered by NATO, who assigned a new deployment of nuclear weapons in Western Europe – allowed fears of nuclear war to surface again on both sides of the Atlantic. These are depicted in documentaries such as A Guide to Armageddon, The Truth Game and The Final Chapter. Such developments also led to the second ‘cycle’ of nuclear war movies in the early 1980s.

Testament, directed by Lynne Littman and released in 1983, is an unflinching drama depicting the horrors of radioactive fall-out in small town America. Released the same year, the aforementioned Special Bulletin is a made-for-TV movie that captures public frustrations as regards a lack of action on nuclear disarmament, and again illustrates the shocking capabilities of a nuclear device – all through the perspectives of ‘live’ TV news bulletins. Similarly, the Canadian made-for-TV movie Countdown to Looking Glass uses a mix of ‘newscast’ and dramatic narrative in depicting a nuclear conflict between the US and the USSR. Also released in 1983, WarGames (as well as The Manhattan Project, released 3 years later in 1986) is lighter in tone than its contemporaries, but also fuelled by the very-real prospect of ‘accidental’ nuclear war. However, the most impactful movie of 1983 was undoubtedly The Day After. Edward Hume’s film, which follows the plight of the residents of Kansas as they suffer first the horror of a nuclear attack, and the attritional agonies of radioactive fall-out. But, as undoubtedly effective as The Day After is, only a year later a film was released that bore comparison as regards its effectiveness only with Watkins’ The War Game; one that would be given the opportunity to educate, inform (and horrify) TV viewers that Watkins’ work was denied. That film is Threads.

Produced for the BBC and directed by Mick Jackson, Threads was first broadcast in September 1984. Written by Barry Hines and with televisual production values that enhanced the film’s realism, Threads follows the fate of several residents of the city of Sheffield as it comes under nuclear attack. Much like The War Game, Threads takes a documentary-style approach but mixes it with a continuous narrative, taking the viewer through the experience of The Bomb dropping, and then continuing many years into the future to depict the total collapse of societal norms. Threads’ bleak and utterly relentless journey through the horrors of nuclear war – complete with an unforgettably downbeat ending – make it a remarkable piece of work, and one that sparked both debate and panic amongst the British public as regards global nuclear warfare and Britain’s involvement in such. And just two years later, Jimmy Murakami’s adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ When the Wind Blows – focussing specifically on fears relating to radioactive fall-out – would re-ignite those fears.

Towards the end of the 1980s, as the Cold War ended, so did cinema’s second protracted interest in the prospect of nuclear annihilation. 1988’s Miracle Mile is an odd hybrid of romantic drama and conspiracy thriller regarding the probability of an incoming nuclear attack on the United States. Meanwhile, By Dawn’s Early Light, released in 1990, is perhaps the last true contemporary Cold War nuclear warfare movie, with themes of accidental nuclear aggravation and retaliation, similar to those of 1964’s Fail-Safe. 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day edged nuclear war into the fantastical, depicting a future world where computation posed the biggest threat to mankind.

The Bomb’s gradual rescindment from cinematic focus has coincided with its inability to be perceived as a threat to global safety. After all, the West is no longer at odds with another nuclear superpower. Despite the efforts of the media to shoehorn North Korea into the role formerly occupied by the USSR as regards a ‘nuclear villain’ with which the US can war, they are not regarded as a legitimate, nuclear threat to the West, evidenced by the distinct lack of cinematic production as regards this would-be conflict. India and Pakistan may be uneasy nuclear neighbours, but again are perceived as little or no threat to the West – cinematically at least. So where will the worlds next big nuclear threat surface? Discounting some sort of nuclear accident or miscommunication – both perhaps far more likely than actual war – Lucy Walker’s 2010 documentary Countdown to Zero reflects on the possibility of nuclear terrorism. This is an idea Hollywood flirts with in movies such as True Lies (1994) The Peacemaker (1997) and The Sum of All Fears (2002). But as the 90s became the new Millennium, the threat depicted by nuclear weapons subsided. Whilst the tone of the three aforementioned movies could be said to be distinctly lacking in terms of ‘realism’ (this is true even of The Sum of All Fears, where the detonation of a nuclear device over a populated area is actually depicted – with laughably little consequence), they at least still allude to the destructive horror of The Bomb.

In the 21st Century, two generations have passed since the atomic bomb was both the legitimate and cinematic eater of worlds. It has now instead seemingly taken two cinematic roles: firstly, one of historic reverence, with a quite bizarre and somewhat distasteful sense of nostalgic kitsch. Take, for example, the humorous scene when our titular hero escapes the site of an atomic test by hiding in a refrigerator in 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. Or perhaps the camp, comical nuclear device flown out of Gotham City ‘just in time’ at the climax of The Dark Knight Rises. Or, most notably, how in 2013’s Wolverine, the bombing of Nagasaki is somehow deemed an acceptable backdrop for a demonstration of the heroic mutant’s superpowers. And the second contemporary cinematic role for The Bomb is one of guardian; defender of the Earth. It’s the go-to solution for anything from rogue asteroids to invading aliens.

Cinema, it seems, needs The Bomb. Governments of the world’s nuclear powers argue that they need it too, owing to the paradoxical argument that more nuclear weapons make for a safer world.  Cinema needs The Bomb to blow rogue comets out of the sky and to annihilate alien motherships. And, of course, to re-write history – pretending The Bomb brought about the end of global conflict, and wasn’t just an unspeakably abhorrent experiment, casting a shadow over all humanity until the eventual extinction of the human race. But, much like the governments that argue that a nuclear planet is a safer planet, cinema is aware of the irony of its own nuclear paradox – after all, cinematic depictions of desolate, ravaged, post-apocalyptic landscapes outnumber depictions of their nuclear weapon-driven inception considerably…

By Ben Taylorson


Ben Taylorson writes and podcasts for ‘Closer To Midnight – the doomsday and disaster fiction and film podcast’. You can find Ben and Closer to Midnight at the following links:

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The next episode of Closer To Midnight is specifically focused on British nuclear threat films.

  • Katie Anna-Louise Doyle

    ah this is the kind of content I am here for