Apocalypse Then

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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The Cold War was rich enough in drama that films dealing with the ultimate catastrophe could just let the story speak for itself. Most of the best known films are high quality, but a few turkeys sneaked through.

On the Beach (1959)

Neville Shute's novel of the world facing creeping death from nuclear war. A regional nuclear conflict escalates into a general U.S. - Soviet exchange, flooding the northern Hemisphere with fallout. Since many of the bombs were encased in cobalt, the fallout is long-lasting because it is rich in Cobalt-60, with a half life of five years. The earth's winds mostly keep the fallout confined to the northern Hemisphere, but each year the wind belts shift north and south, pumping some fallout south. As the novel and film open, the fallout is creeping south across Australia.

An American nuclear sub based in Australia cruises into the north Pacific to check a hypothesis that rainfall is washing the fallout out of the atmosphere. It isn't. As the fallout edges south, people come to terms with the end. The film closes with a deserted religious revival site displaying a banner with the double entendre "There is Still Time, Brother."

This story is one of the richest apocalypse stories in terms of science. The notion of encasing a bomb in cobalt, creating long-lived cobalt-60, was discussed early in the nuclear age. As far as we know, nobody has ever seriously deployed such a weapon for the simple reason it would be as deadly to the user as to the victim. It might have appeal as a "Doomsday" deterrent (see Doctor Strangelove), but the really scary possibility exists that this sort of device might appeal to some apocalyptic group. 

Cobalt by itself is simply a metal. It is used mostly in steel alloys and as an ingredient in high power magnets. The metal vapors are fairly toxic but the solid metal is not especially hazardous and is not radioactive. Cobalt chloride changes from pink to blue as it absorbs moisture and is often used in packaging as a humidity indicator.

The trade winds blow from east to west and converge near the equator. The boundary, the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) shifts north and south with the seasons. In northern hemisphere summer it spawns Atlantic hurricanes, among other things. The novel and film picture the ebb and flow of this boundary as pumping fallout south of the equator.

The problem is that once it's south of the equator it creeps steadily south. In reality, weather systems would result in very irregular distribution. Any given area might see intense radiation followed by clearing as weather systems moved the fallout around. Rainfall would be a potent mechanism for removing the cobalt from the atmosphere, although it would then get in the soil and thence into the food chain.

The Australian town where the film was shot named a number of streets after people connected with the film. The musical score, which makes extensive use of the tune "Waltzing Matilda," is marvelous.

Alas, Babylon (1960)

This 1959 novel by Pat Frank was made into an episode of the acclaimed Playhouse 90 drama series in 1960 (90 minutes then being a daringly long time for a dramatic program). The TV adaptation deserves a perverted Emmy for Worst Betrayal of an Author's Vision.

In the novel, the citizens of Fort Repose, Florida find their lives changed forever by nuclear war. The owner of the local gas station sells all his gas and automotive supplies, then realizes he has nothing left to face the future but money. The town banker learns that "the end of civilization as we know it" means the end of money, and commits suicide. The protagonist, Randy Bragg, evolves from something of a directionless dilettante to a tough and resourceful leader as he copes with the sudden changes around him. The townsfolk cope with loss, the end of the economy, and brigandage in the year following the one-day war. It helps that the town is in a warm climate and in an area bypassed by fallout. It also helps that the surrounding area is rural so the townsfolk don't have to deal with massive refugee invasions or casualties, and they can survive off the land easily. The message was that survival would be tough but possible if people remained adaptable and refused to accept defeat. The book was actually distributed to Civil Defense planners to show how the aftermath of a nuclear war might be.

The TV adaptation dispensed nihilism and despair at every turn. In the novel the town doctor is roughed up by addicts desperate for drugs, but he survives and learns to dispense 19th century medical care; in the TV adaptation he is beaten senseless and left in a comatose state, depriving the town of medical care. In the novel, the public library becomes a center of society as people, deprived of other forms of entertainment, rediscover reading. The TV version ends with townsfolk sitting listlessly on the front steps of an empty store, descending into a Tobacco Road hopelessness and inertia.

Doctor Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb (1964)

The ultimate Cold War black comedy, starring Peter Sellers in three roles and directed by Stanley Kubrick. Also the longest title of any Oscar-nominatedfilm.

A berserk general (Sterling Hayden) launches his own private war on the Soviet Union. A British officer (Sellers) finally figures out the code to recall the attack, but not before one plane drops its load. The bomb sticks, but Maj. T.J. 'King' Kong (Slim Pickens) jumps on the bomb and knocks it loose, then rides it down, waving his cowboy hat and giving out a war whoop. Even in a black comedy masterpiece, this is an outrageously surreal scene. Unfortunately, the Soviets had just completed, but not yet announced, the creation of an automated doomsday device as a deterrent.

A proposal to build a starship propelled by nuclear weapons was called Project Orion. This propulsion system was actually used in the film Deep Impact. According to Arthur C. Clarke, Kubrick toyed with using it in 2001, sending the special effects department into near panic, then abandoned the idea. Clarke mused that maybe Kubrick was worried people would think he really had "Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb."

Fail Safe (1964, 2000)

The 1964 original starred Henry Fonda as the President, with Larry Hagman (later of Dallas fame) as his translator. A computer malfunction sends a flight of American bombers on the way to Moscow, and when all attempts to divert the planes or shoot them down fail, the President orders a nuclear attack on New York as the only way of demonstrating that the attack was not deliberate. During the attempts to stop the attack, the President and his Soviet colleague must deal with breakdowns in discipline and ideologues who push for an all-out attack. The movie ends with a montage of street scenes in New York followed by a blank screen.

The 2000 remake starred Richard Dreyfus as the President and included James Cromwell and George Clooney. It hewed very closely to the original, down to being shown in black and white and re-enacting the shrill monotone of an Air Force sergeant who is ordered, against all his training, to reveal top-secret information to the Russians.

One of the very best of the Cold War apocalypse films. The claustrophobic settings heighten the tension and leave everything else to the imagination. The 2000 remake, to the filmmakers' credit and my great surprise, did not attempt to spiff up the special effects in any way.

The War Game (1965)

A 1965 pseudo-documentary produced by the BBC but never aired on TV. The official reason was that it was too graphic; although persistent speculation has it that the real reason was political. It was released theatrically and won several major awards.

And it is graphic, showing hospitals overwhelmed with hopeless casualties, the breakdown of services, increasingly harsh martial law, mass burials and cremations, and the swift collapse of society into near-barbarism. Quite possibly the best film for realistically depicting the aftermath of nuclear war. Definitely not a feel-good movie.

The Day After (1983)

This admittedly excellent mini-series about a nuclear war and its aftermath was touted as so chillingly realistic, some psychologists warned that impressionable children who watched it would need intensive counseling. After watching it, I agreed there were people who needed intensive counseling all right, but it wasn't the kids. 

Supposedly the most disturbingly graphic scenes involved the depiction of people and animals being vaporized by nuclear blasts. What actually happened was a freeze frame followed by a quick glimpse of a skeleton in silhouette. Even by the much weaker special effects standards of the time, it was clumsily done.

The most dubious element of the film has to do with people weathering the fallout by hunkering down in basements or the lower floors of large buildings. The problem is that fallout on the roof of a house would emit gamma rays that would penetrate to the basement. A large building might have enough mass to stop gamma rays coming from the roof, but radiation penetrating outside walls would be a problem. You'd have to stay in a basement or interior room with several walls between you and outside to have good lateral protection.

The series came embarrassingly close to having to acknowledge the technical assistance of the Pentagon. The screenplay was reviewed by the Defense Department, who found it overall accurate and understated. The Defense Department had two principal objections. The film portrayed the U.S. as holding the doctrine of “launch on warning,” meaning launching missiles first if it looked like an enemy launch was imminent. Our stated position was that we would launch only in response to actual attack. Also the film showed soldiers executing brigands by firing squad. It might come to that if authority breaks down badly enough, but the Pentagon held that law enforcement would still be the job of civilians. Although it would have been fairly trivial to modify the script, the producers refused to and the Pentagon bowed out, probably to the mutual relief of both parties. 

Amerika (1987)

The U.S. loses the Cold War and is occupied by U.N. peacekeeping forces, mostly from Soviet allies. I knew this mini-series was in trouble when I found myself liking the villain (Sam Neill) much more than any of the heroes. Some people are born villains, like Tommy Lee Jones, Victor Garber or Anthony Hopkins. Even when they play good guys, you always have the impression they're a bit befuddled at being on the side of right and are doing it more out of personal advantage, or maybe purely by chance, than conviction. Other people, like Liam Neeson or Morgan Freeman, were born to play heroes in the movies. (Even in Batman Begins, Neeson brings a certain nobility to his cause; there's a real unity with his hero roles: a bit of a megalomaniac in his devotion to his cause. He's not a crass villain, in it for his own pleasure or profit.) Then you have people like Clint Eastwood or Harrison Ford. Even when they play villains and do it convincingly, you just know it's leading up to them switching sides. Sam Neill is not a villain type.

The series opens with an audience filtering out of a clandestine play, then shifts to former President Devin Milford (Kris Kristofferson) being released from ten years in a re-education camp. The U.S. has been partitioned into regions, although it's not clearly explained how, including Heartland, the region where most of the action takes place. Apparently things got so chaotic that the UN sent in peacekeepers, but we don't get much in the way of details. Milford heads to the east coast to try to contact people to learn what's going on and perhaps turn things around, providing an opportunity to view a montage of the occupation, such as refugees gathering forlornly at a barricaded state line hoping to find better conditions on the other side.

At the climax of the series, the East German occupiers of Heartland finally overstep their limits and the remaining Heartland armed forces attack and defeat them. Milford prepares to address the nation on radio, asking citizens to rise up and expel the invaders. The commanding general of the Heartland armed forces, who has just shot up the occupiers and thereby declared war on the U.N. and the Soviet Union, orders him to stop and shoots him when he refuses. In so doing he kills off the best chance for effective, organized resistance. Would someone please explain to me what the blazes that was all about?

This mini-series has the dubious distinction of getting some of the most babblingly incoherent reviews ever posted to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). One ended up being a tirade on illegal immigration; others insisted that criticism of the series was mostly fueled by dislike of Communism. Some of the more perceptive reviews include "As exciting as watching paint dry," "By the time I'd gotten to Day 4 of this dog's breakfast, I was stupefied with boredom,"  "The show ended as it started, a colossal waste of time," "Kristofferson .... emotes throughout with the energy of high-speed oatmeal," "It ended like a balloon running out of air" and "vapid, vacuous, boring and incoherent."

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Created 21 January, 2003,  Last Update 24 May, 2020

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