Seventy years after the first use of the atomic bomb in warfare – on the Japanese city, Hiroshima – Insight team member and editor, Christopher Norris, reviews five films about nuclear holocaust for this week’s #FaithFilmFriday.
At a conference in London to mark this momentous anniversary, titled ‘Sowing the Whirlwind: Nuclear Politics and the Historical Record’ (organised by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and the United Nations Association: Westminster Branch UK), I asked the following question to the panelists taking part in a Round Table discussion during the conference’s concluding session:
Given that film screenings with Q&A panels provide contexts for meaningful, focused discussion and can catalyse opinion forming and social change, which films would the panel like to see made and/or recommend to bring the threat of nuclear warfare back to the top of the political and news agendas?
The Round Table panel comprised the following speakers:
➤ Dr Knox Chitiyo: Associate Fellow, Africa Programme, Chatham House, London, UK
➤ Professor Peter Kuznick, Department of History, American University, Washington DC, USA
➤ Joe Lauria, UN Correspondent, Wall Street Journal, New York City, New York, USA
➤ Andreas Persbo, Executive Director, VERTIC (Verification Research, Training and Information Centre), London, UK
The keynote address of the conference was delivered by Dr Akiko Mikamo – President, US–Japan Psychological Services, San Diego, California, USA – whose parents miraculously survived the epicentre of the Hiroshima bomb within 2000 metres of Ground Zero in different parts of the city.
For #FaithFilmFriday, here are some on the films mentioned by the panelists and by earlier speakers, followed by links to these films and other media resources (e.g. television, books)
#FaithFilmFriday: film 1
Director: Stanley Kramer
Recommended by Round Table panelist, Joe Lauria
This alternative history film – based on the novel of the same name by Nevil Shute – imagines a future World War III that comprises an exchange of nuclear weapons that leaves Australia as the last place on earth where human beings have survived the conflict. The film does not attach blame to an aggressive act by a nation state, rather that the catastrophe was caused by a technological fault or accident.
The film is set in 1964, a few months after the northern hemisphere has been wiped out. Australians know their fate will be to die of radiation caused by nuclear fallout spreading around the globe. One group of Americans survive: the crew of the submarine USS Sawfish are onshore in Melbourne by chance when the missiles exploded on the other side of the world. The submarine’s commander, Captain Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck) seeks solace with Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner), an attractive alcoholic, knowing that his American family is dead. Personal consolation is, however, secondary to duty, as the Australian Government order the USS Sawfish to investigate the possible survival of a group of people on the West coast of the USA.
The authorities prepare for the worst, issuing suicide pills to all survivors wishing to take control of what remained of their lives. Is there any hope for humanity for surviving Armageddon? Do Dwight and Moira have a future together?
The film takes a serious and grim view of nuclear catastrophe, which remains a real threat today despite the end of the Cold War. The lingering image in the final scene is a banner, fluttering in the wind, that reads: ‘There is still time… Brother’ – a plea to humanity to resolve the issue of nuclear weapons before it is too late. The banner remains relevant today.
The film premiered simultaneously in 17 cities on six continents (on 17 December 1959) as a deliberate marketing ploy to mimic the effects of a global nuclear catastrophe. The excitement of the film’s release is captured in the trailer. Although the film was not released commercially in the Soviet Union, a special screening was arranged at a workers’ club in Moscow on the same night that was attended by Gregory Peck and his wife, 1200 members of the Soviet hierarchy, the foreign press and a range of diplomats, including US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Llewellyn Thompson.
#FaithFilmFriday: film 2
Director: Peter Watkins
Recommended by Round Table panelist, Andreas Persbo
This UK docudrama film was originally commissioned by BBC Television for the small screen, but the resulting collation of archive footage, interviews and all-too-real fiction was considered too violent and bleak for mass viewing on BBC1. The film, instead, was given a theatrical release in cinemas, where its intensity and brutality could be regulated by the use of the film classification system.
The War Game imagines a nuclear explosion in a typical English city and its aftermath. The film argues that the contemporary British public and civil defence authorities were poorly prepared for nuclear attack. The low-budget production, shot on location, lends credence to these claims, which include graphic portrayals of physical injury, psychological trauma and social instability.
The film touched a nerve around the world, winning the Best Feature Documentary Academy Award at the 1967 Oscars. Has anything changed on the issues raised by The War Game in Britain, or elsewhere in the world, since the mid 1960s? It would be interesting and instructive to see a remake of the film using recent footage, current interviews and updated fictional premises. I predict the reaction to a nuclear explosion would be just as hapless now as back in 1965.
#FaithFilmFriday: film 3
Director: Ishirô Honda
Mentioned in a paper delivered by Professor Matthew Jones – Department of International History, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK – during a session titled ‘After Hiroshima: redefining fear, living in denial’.
The concept and themes of the original Godzilla film are a creative, anxiety-infused Japanese response to nuclear weapons and radiation fallout.
Made in 1954, memories were raw regarding the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the radiation fallout destruction of the tuna fishing vessel, Lucky Dragon 5, from testing weapons in the Pacific region.
Godzilla is a prehistoric sea creature, stirred into action through nuclear radiation. The monster’s means of attack is its ‘atomic breath’, a heat ray blast from its mouth, created by an internal biological process. Having survived nuclear catastrophe, Godzilla cannot be destroyed by any means less violent. Having been woken, the monster goes on the rampage, destroying Tokyo: the beast seems to be unbeatable.
Can Japan and the rest of the world survive? Does the monster have to be killed? Although the answer is formulaic to genre movies of this type, Godzilla has enjoyed its revenge: the beast has starred in around 30 sequels, spin-offs and remakes since its original appearance. This popularity speaks to our enjoyment of pitting human wits against monsters, to fight against the odds; it also shows our collective, enduring fear of the power of nuclear weapons and technology.
#FaithFilmFriday: film 4
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Mentioned in a paper delivered by Dr Susan Williams – Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London, UK – during a session titled ‘What is the historical record? The contestation over truth’
One way to address deadly serious issues is to laugh at them. The black satire, Dr Strangelove, shows that director Stanley Kubrick was capable of ridiculing the absurdity of the nuclear arms race, which was feeding the Cold War.
The film shows that the world is vulnerable to the actions of isolated mad people with access to nuclear weapons.
Brigadier General Jack D Ripper (Sterling Hayden) is in charge of the Burpelson Air Force Base somewhere in the USA. He becomes paranoid by the thought that the Soviet Empire is poisoning water supplies for American citizens with fluoride and, unilaterally, decides to mount a full-blown nuclear assault. Ripper bypasses protocol, checks and balances, to launch B-52 bombers with their lethal payloads: only Ripper knows the codes to scramble the planes back to base.
Ripper takes a hostage, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellars), who believes he can get the codes to the outside world if he can establish lines of communication. The true chain of command is in panic mode – it comprises Air Force General Buck Turgidson (George C Scott) in the Pentagon’s ‘War Room’, US President Merkin Muffley (also Peter Sellars), the Soviet Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky (Peter Bull) and Soviet Premier Dmitri Kissoff. Into the maelstrom of chaos comes mad nuclear scientist and ex-Nazi, Dr Strangelove (Peter Sellars again).
The diplomats and military try a range of tactics to outwit Ripper, to the extent of telling Kissoff how to shoot down the B-52s. The stakes are raised when Kissoff informs Sadesky about the Soviet’s last resort: the ‘Domesday Device’, programmed to blow up the world should a nuclear weapon land on Soviet soil.
It’s a race against time and Ripper’s paranoia. Can the world be saved?
Beneath the biting satire lies a serious critique of nuclear weapons and their capacity to cause mass human extinction by accident. Kubrick tries to raise awareness of issues with humour: the fact that Peter Sellars plays three roles, all people trying to avert the nuclear attack, shows that there are no ‘white hats’ and ‘black hats’ in a military endgame of such importance.
#FaithFilmFriday: film 5
Director: Mori Masaki
Inspired by collating first-hand experiences of the bombing of Hiroshima, reflected by the keynote address presented by Akiko Mikamo, entitled ‘Rising from the ashes: under and beyond that mushroom cloud’
The story of Barefoot Gen was first told via serialisation in the Japanese manga publication Weekly Shōnen Jump. The graphic novelist Keiji Nakazawa based the story on his own experiences as a child survivor of the Himoshima bomb. The series tells the tale of 6-year-old Gen Nakaoka: prior to the bomb, he lives with his family; after the bomb, he must do what it takes to survive.
The film adaptation starts with Gen’s father upsetting his community by saying that the Pacific war cannot be won by the Japanese. This view makes him unpopular locally and members of the Nakaoka family are treated as outcasts.
The bomb changes everything. Every family suffers loss, and Gen’s family is no different. Among the survivors, relationships change as everyone struggles to adjust to the reality of physical injury, radiation sickness, mental distress and lack of basic resources, food and water.
The bombing sequence, partially shown in the trailer for the film, shows graphically how the nuclear explosion caused such devastation: even though the film is an animation, these scenes are shocking and emotionally raw. Mori Masaki pulls no punches in showing a detailed reconstruction of the atrocities cause by nuclear weapons. Barefoot Gen is therefore a powerful anti-war feature.
Product links: 5 films about nuclear warfare (UK only)
Film: Peter Watkins, The War Game (1965), DVD issue 2003, Michael Aspel, Peter Graham, Kathy Staff
Film: Ishirô Honda, Godzilla (1954), DVD issue 2006, Takashi Shimura, Akihiko Hirata, Akira Takarada
Film: Stanley Kubrick, Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), DVD issue 2002, Peter Sellers, George C Scott, Sterling Hayden
Book: Peter Kramer, Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (2014), paperback 2014, BFI Publishing
Film: Mori Masaki, Barefoot Gen (1983), DVD issue 2005, Issei Miyazaki, Catherine Battistone, Yoshie Shimamura
Book Nakazawa Keiji, Barefoot Gen: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima: No. 1 (1975), paperback 2005, Last Gasp
Filmography and bibliography (global, not Russia/Soviet Union): Peter Kuznick teaches a history course on ‘American Culture in the Nuclear Age’ at the American University in Washington, DC, USA. Peter has kindly given Insight permission to upload an edited version of the syllabus of this course (HIST-448 | HIST-648), which references many films and books on the theme of nuclear warfare. Please download this PDF version of the course syllabus to use its lists of films and books for further research.
Filmography and bibliography (Russia/Soviet Union): Vladimir Gakov and Paul Brians, ‘Nuclear-War Themes in Soviet Science Fiction: An Annotated Bibliography‘, Science Fiction Studies, March 1989, Issue 47, Vol. 16, No. 1, DePauw University, Greencastle IN, USA (This paper references films and books produced in the Soviet Union on nuclear warfare.)
Film: Sidney Lumet, Fail Safe (1964), DVD issue 2007, Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Fritz Weaver (This feature film was recommended by Joe Lauria: the movie poses the question of whether all-out nuclear war can be avoided when the first strike is caused by a technical glitch)
Book: Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, Fail-Safe (1962), paperback 1999, Ecco Press
Television: Paul Wilmshurst, Hiroshima (2005), DVD issue 2005, John Hurt, Noboru Akima, George Anton. (This docudrama was recommended by Andreas Persbo: the programme devotes 43 seconds to a sequence that shows the payload falling from the American B-29 aircraft, the precise period of time that the atomic bomb took to descend before exploding above Hiroshima.)
Television: Mick Jackson, Threads (1984), DVD issue 2013, Karen Meagher, Reece Dinsdale, David Brierly (This documentary-style television movie was recommended by Joe Lauria: the film imagines a nuclear attack on the English city of Sheffield and the long-term effects of nuclear holocaust.)
Television: Oliver Stone, The Untold History of the United States (2012), DVD issue 2013, Oliver Stone, Alan Shearman, Jim Ward (This series of 10 one-hour documentaries was recommended by Peter Kuznick: episodes 2 and 3 are especially relevant to the development and use of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima.)
Book: Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States (2012), paperback 2013, Ebury Press
Book: Akiko Mikamo, Rising from the Ashes: A True Story of Survival and Forgiveness from Hiroshima (2013), paperback 2013, Lulu Publishing Services. A feature film based on the book – called 8:15 – is in production.
Knox Chitin expressed his desire to see a film made on the subject of uranium mining in Africa, especially with respect to mining in Shinkolobwe (in the Katanga province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo) during World War II. Source material for this period is the current research projected being undertaken by Susan Williams. There are videos of contemporary lectures available online, such as the presentation below:
YouTube: World Uranium Symposium 2015, Community and uranium mining issues in Africa, video posted 7 May 2015, David Bayang (Cameroon), Mamadou Diallo (Mali), Bruno Chareyron (France) and Peer de Rijk (Netherlands)
Andrew Flores, ‘Shinji Mikamo interview: preview‘, YouTube, video (06:03), 16.11.2013 – Shinji Mikamo shares his experiences of surviving the atomic bomb
Vibeke Venema, ‘When time stood still: a Hiroshima survivor’s story‘, BBC, web, 24.07.2014 – Shinji Mikamo’s eye-witness account on the Hiroshima bombing
CBBC Newsround, ‘Hiroshima: Bun Hashizume’s story of survival‘, BBC, video (04:57), 05.08.2015
CBBC Newsround, ‘Hiroshima: A Newsround Special‘, BBC, video (15:35), 05.08.2015<
Joe Lauria, ‘For Hiroshima family, memento’s vanishing is loss to the world‘, Wall Street Journal, PDF, 05.08.2015 – Shinji Mikamo father’s watch has been taken from a display case at the United Nations in New York
Ana Swanson, ‘What it would look like if the Hiroshima bomb hit your city?‘, Washington Post, web, 05.08.2015
News > World > Asia, ‘Hiroshima marks 70 years since atomic bomb‘, BBC News, web, 06.08.2015
Amy Goodman, ‘Japanese Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe on 70th Anniv. of US Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki‘, Democracy Now!, video (35:13), 06.08.2015
Cath Levett, Finbarr Sheehy and Paul Torpey, ‘Hiroshima and the nuclear age‘, Guardian, web, 06.08.2015
Issei Kato, ‘After the A-bomb: Hiroshima and Nagasaki the and now – in pictures‘, Guardian, web, 06.08.2015
Justin McCurry, ‘Hiroshima remembers the day the bomb dropped‘, Guardian, web, 06.08.2015