For a subject that was once (and still is, from time to time) so pervasive in the news media, it’s surprising to me that there aren’t more films exploring the “what if” scenarios of nuclear war. Here is my attempt to list the best of them. Disclaimer: “On The Beach,” “The Sacrifice” by Andrei Tarkovsky, “Terminator II: Judgment Day,” “By Dawn’s Early Light,” and “Fail Safe” are all great movies that didn’t make this list. Certainly numbers 9 and 10 are not as good as these. But in the interest of rounding out the nuclear attack list with disparate genres, these fine films were excluded.
10. Dreamscape (1984)
Starring Dennis Quaid and Max Von Sydow, “Dreamscape” isn’t exclusively about nuclear war, but the opening scene so effectively epitomizes the latent fear of nuclear war (which was very timely in 1984) within most of us that it would be negligent to ignore it. It’s a movie about a scientist exploring the possibility of jumping into other peoples’ dreams, and the opening scene happens to be a “dreamscape” of the current U.S. President. It shows his wife running from the iconic skyline of downtown New York (World Trade Center intact, of course) while screaming his name. Shortly thereafter we see the blast of a hydrogen bomb obliterate the city, and the shockwave soon envelopes the woman. Later in the film we see more of the president’s dreams, and they depict a post-apocalyptic world, red-skied and lifeless. “Dreamscape” is definitely less realistic than most of the films on this list, but the fear of nuclear war–surreal and itself the stuff of dreams–is represented well here.
9. Damnation Alley (1977)
This movie is adapted from a Roger Zelazny novel. George Peppard (star of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and head honcho of “The A-Team”) and Jan-Michael Vincent (“Airwolf’s” Stringfellow Hawke) star in this mostly silly sci-fi flick. Annoying characters drive a strange all-terrain vehicle called the Landmaster through post-apocalyptic America, which of course includes fiery tornadoes and thousands upon thousands of cockroaches. It’s pretty dumb material, but entertaining if you’re in the right frame of mind. Their destination is Albany, the source of a mysterious radio signal. Anyway, what’s important here is a great opening sequence involving the aforementioned main characters as commanders of the 123rd Strategic Missile Wing in a Tipton, California Air Force silo. They suddenly realize that the U.S.S.R. has begun a massive first strike against the U.S., and they receive the orders to launch. Murray Hamilton, (Mr. Robinson from “The Graduate”) appears here. The quality of this sequence is not approached for the remainder of the movie. (Of bizarre note: The Landmaster vehicle was later used in an episode of Chris Elliott’s early-90s sitcom “Get A Life”). “Damnation Alley” is viewable in its entirety here.
8. A Day Called X (1957)
A Day Called X is a short fictional film with an instructional film bent. It begins much like “The Day After” in that it depicts the everyday lives of citizens in the city of Portland. And like “Threads,” it shows the machinations of government preparing to reorganize the city before the impending nuclear attack occurs. It’s of particular note because, when local authorities receive word of the impending attack, the CONELRAD (now long defunct) and NAWAS (still in operation) warning systems are shown in action. The 28-minute TV film is narrated by acting journeyman Glenn Ford. It uses local amateurs—including city council members, housewives, firemen, and schoolchildren—and because of this, delivers a surprising realism. Missing from this portrayal of nuclear doom is the unbridled panic we expect from such scenarios. It’s probably an attempt by those behind “A Day Called X’s” production to show the proper way to react to an approaching nuclear war (apparently it’s important that we calmly queue up single-file before we meet our final destiny). The most noteworthy and compelling moment of the short film is its ambiguous climax. “A Day Called X” is viewable in its entirety here.
7. The War Game (1966)
This BBC product was scheduled for broadcast on August 6, 1965 (the 20-year anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing) but experienced a 20-year delay due to the producers’ declaration that “the effect of the film has been judged by the BBC to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting.” It actually saw a theatrical release in 1966 and won the Academy Award for best documentary that year. It is a stunning and troubling 45-minute film—it pulls no punches. Eardrums are ruptured by the sudden concussions, “upturned eyeballs” are melted, furniture and curtains ignite, and people panic. This cheery film is kind enough to let us know that, at even 60 miles away, a 1-megaton nuclear bomb is 30 times brighter than the midday sun. An early scene shows government officials outlining those who will be evacuated, coldly delineating classes of citizens (mothers, the handicapped). “Are there any fathers?” “No, no fathers.” Those who refuse to relinquish their homes are imprisoned. “The War Game” is viewable in its entirety here.
6. When The Wind Blows (1986)
This is an animated film from the U.K. about an elderly couple preparing for nuclear war. Their out-of-touch disposition makes them sympathetic characters; one can’t help but feel that, in a similar scenario, there would be numerous such individuals completely at the mercy of the political happenings around them. There are countless touching scenes—the husband measuring parts of the house’s interior when the wife isn’t looking, the wife reminiscing about first meeting her husband, both of them nostalgically thinking back about WWII, saying “those were the days”—that take on a grimmer tone when juxtaposed against the underlying theme. The somewhat lighthearted nature of the first half of the story gradually becomes more sinister and sad when we realize that our protagonists are dying before our eyes. “When The Wind Blows” is viewable in its entirety here.
5. Countdown to Looking Glass (1984)
This was a Canadian made-for-TV film that HBO featured in October of 1984. It’s such a captivating film because it blends fictional news broadcasts with narrative, movie-like scenes. It really is something special, and is unsurpassed in its realistic portrayal of how a station like CNN might handle a complex and intensifying international conflict of such magnitude. To further bolster its notability, real experts and politicians (such as Senator Eugene McCarthy and Newt Gengrich, in a masterfully subdued performance) are among those interviewed by the Peter Jennings-esque anchor. Scott Glenn (the bad guy from “Urban Cowboy”) turns in a very believable performance as an on-the-scene reporter who eventually finds himself on the deck of the USS Nimitz. Near the end, when the US-Soviet conflict in the Strait of Hormuz reaches its point of no return, Glenn argues with officers on the carrier when clearly non-conventional weapons begin exploding in the vicinity. This is a very entertaining and informative film that should not be missed. “Countdown to Looking Glass” is viewable in its entirety here.
4. Testament (1983)
Jane Alexander (nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in this role) plays a mother of three in this understated and nearly flawless film. She and her family live in a fictional town outside of San Fransisco. Nuclear war breaks out while her husband Tom (played by William Devane) is at work in the city. “Sesame Street” is being watched by the children when the Emergency Broadcast System interrupts. Shortly thereafter, Alexander’s character is seen huddling with her kids on the living room floor as the room grows white with the flash of a nuclear blast and local air-raid sirens sound (just a bit late). Their small town is not affected by the initial stages of the war but it soon succumbs to fallout and looting and is effectively isolated from whatever is left of the outside world. Radiation sickness begins to kill many residents of the town, and that’s when the movie, cleverly, ends. “Testament” shows us that the terrifying initial stages of a nuclear war can be almost marginal compared to its ability to bring civilization to its knees by thoroughly interrupting the flow of our everyday lives. Kevin Costner, Lukas Haas, and Rebecca DeMornay also appear in early roles.
3. The Day After (1983)
“The Day After’s” depiction of the clockwork military nuts and bolts of nuclear war is essentially unsurpassed. The starkly chilling scenes of (actual) USAF personnel preparing for and waging war are from the 1979 PBS docudrama “First Strike.” Jason Robards, Steve Guttenburg and John Lithgow lend this made-for-TV movie some acting cred. The majority of “The Day After” was famously filmed in Lawrence, KS (much more on that in Jon Niccum’s fantastic 2003 Lawrence.com article). The inclusion of an instrumental, pastoral rendition of the hymn “How Firm a Foundation” as the opening theme is absolutely creepy when you know what’s coming. The slightly dissonant elements of the piece tend to come to the fore and the result is unsettling. Admittedly the escalation of international tensions and the ensuing final moments of the attack are somewhat hit and miss, but when this movie hits, it really hits. The exceptional drama, totality, and breadth of this film push it toward the top of this list. Reportedly, after signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan sent director Nicholas Meyer a telegram which read “Don’t think your movie didn’t have any part of this, because it did. “The Day After” is viewable in its entirety here.
2. Threads (1984)
For some reason, the more effective and dreadful of these films tend to be from across the pond. This British product, about the residual effect on Sheffield of an all-out nuclear war between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., is far and away the bleakest of the films on this list, and probably the most realistic. Where “The Day After” occasionally fails, “Threads” succeeds. The writing and acting is top-notch. Throughout the buildup to war, local TV airs instructional videos on what civilians can do to survive in the event of war breaking out. What’s more, they were real (filmed in 1976, though never broadcast), and you can watch them here. (I can’t imagine watching these during the height of the cold war—they’re pretty unnerving). Additionally there are several moments in which captions scientifically explain certain aspects of the situation. Several disturbing images may linger in one’s mind well after viewing: a glass milk bottle quickly melting beneath the intense thermal radiation of a nuclear blast, a young woman forced to dine on freshly killed mutton, a burned and scarred man joylessly playing a handheld video game in an attempt to escape the horror around him, a huddled group of youths watching a damaged educational videotape years after the collapse of civilization, looters being apprehended and subjected to firing squads. This is a film that forces you to reconsider the comforts of this world that you are probably taking for granted. “Threads” is viewable in its entirety here.
1. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
I’m going to keep this brief–so much has been written about Stanley Kubrick’s satirical masterpiece (on this site alone) that anything I say about it is going to be entirely unoriginal. So though I’m clearly not the first to point this out, it’s fascinating to me that such a funny film can also scare the pants off of its audience.