A visual representation of Barefoot Gen.
A visual representation of Barefoot Gen.
Image: Supplied

With the release last week of Christopher Nolan’s epic biopic of the father of the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer, the still ever-present, if not as much publicly discussed, topic of nuclear arms and their potential for total annihilation is back on the table of popular consciousness.

As the jazz genius Sun Ra and his Space Arkestra bluntly observed in their 1982 song Nuclear War, nuclear war is a “motherf****r” and if one of the madmen with the ability to pushes that button, “your ass must go, they’ll blast you so high in the sky, you’ll kiss your ass goodbye”.

During the height of Cold War fear, paranoia and anxiety about the threat of nuclear annihilation provided rich material for filmmakers who approached the subject from a variety of angles ranging from the blackly absurd to the deadly serious and the heartbreakingly horrific.

This week’s selection of films offer differing but equally memorable meditations on the bomb and the ways in which it changed the world and 20th-century human psyche and society.


Dr Strangelove — Rent or buy from Apple TV +

Stanley Kubrick’s 1963 black comedy remains a classic and arguably one of the master director’s most perfectly realised creations. Scripted by counterculture satirist Terry Southern and starring the indomitable Peter Sellers in three roles, it’s a madcap farce that still makes a strong and memorable argument for why the best solution to the insanity of Cold War nuclear stockpiling and fearmongering was always disarmament.

When an insane US army general and commander of a nuclear silo — brilliantly played by Sterling Hayden — crosses over into total insanity propelled by his paranoia about women and communists and sets in motion the launching of a nuclear weapon against the Soviet Union, all hell breaks loose.

In the imminent shadow of total destruction, the many and often ugly faces of various approaches to nuclear war are revealed, most memorably by George C Scott’s gung-ho general looking to teach the reds a lesson they’ll never forget, no matter the consequences and Seller’s creepy former Nazi-turned-nuclear adviser whose fascist past is about to catch up with him.

By the time it all comes to a terrifying and inevitable conclusion that Kubrick thankfully decided shouldn’t take the form of his originally planned custard pie fight, Dr Strangelove has proved to be a film that’s both heavily informed by the dread-filled atmosphere of its time and one whose satirical dissection of the absurdities of it all remains eternally prescient and relevant.



Fail Safe — Rent or buy from Apple TV +

Sydney Lumet’s 1964 drama may have been unfairly eclipsed by Kubrick’s much acclaimed film the year before and though it was poorly received at the box office at the time, it remains a solidly tense and trenchant, if sometimes earnest, examination of many of the same nuclear-terror concerns.

Starring veteran Hollywood legend Henry Fonda as the US President, funny man Walter Matthau as a very unfunny political scientist and future Dallas star Larry Hagman as the president’s translator, the film was adapted from the best-selling novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, which took the idea of what might happen in a Doomsday scenario and unravelled it to its logical but terrible conclusion.

When a US Air Force nuclear bomber, equipped with a “fail-safe” mechanism intended to instruct pilots when and if to attack inadvertently receives an attack order due to a system failure, the president and his war room must scramble to try to stop the crew of the plane from dropping nuclear bombs on Moscow.

Lumet’s skill for handling actors in high-tension, theatrical inspired set-ups, which he demonstrated most memorably in his jury-duty drama classic Twelve Angry Men, is here applied to successfully keep viewers focused on the high drama of the decisions made in various increasingly claustrophobic rooms. As the film builds towards its horrific but logical finale, the sweat drips off the brows of all its characters and the audience may well find themselves clenching their hands in white-knuckle terror too.

It’s final argument about the irrationality of nuclear war, no matter how rational the measures to run it that are put in place may seem, remains one that holds true.



Barefoot Gen — YouTube

Director Mori Masaki’s 1983 animated adaptation of the manga series created by Hiroshima survivor Keiji Nakazawa is a taut, hard-hitting anti-war film about the realities of what happened when the first nuclear bomb was dropped on Japan in August 1945.

Making full use of the potential of the animated medium to translate onto screen imagery that would be too gruesome and unbearable for a live-action version, the film follows one ordinary family’s difficult experiences under wartime life in Japan and the subsequent unbelievable horror of the effects of the bomb and what it did to over 100,000 people in a matter of minutes.

It’s an emotionally devastating portrait of the too-often-overlooked real consequences of nuclear war that still manages to offer a sliver of hope in its final moments for a more peaceful future that never quite materialised. 


© Wanted 2024 - If you would like to reproduce this article please email us.