Our Generation is Missing a Film
At the height of the Cold War, two films brought the horror of nuclear war to British and American televisions — and we need a refresher.
It was one of those October afternoons that dispel any lingering doubt that winter is coming. The weight of the cold, damp grey skies dragged the light from the day and the leaves from the trees. I was fourteen, and that afternoon, the YouTube suggestions algorithm had decided that art would indeed mimic life (well, mimic weather at least) and presented me with Threads, a 1984 BBC television film that depicts a nuclear attack and its aftermath on the United Kingdom.
If I thought the afternoon was bleak before, well, it got a whole lot bleaker. I don’t think any artwork has ever had such a profoundly harrowing impact on me. How I wished I’d just rewatched Mamma Mia! for the hundredth time instead…
A Stark Warning in a Dangerous Time
My stunned, contemplatively sombre mood was exactly what writer Barry Hines and producer Mick Jackson intended to instill. Set in Sheffield (northern England), anchored around a young couple, Threads is based on the actual scenario postulated by military planners of the time and extensive input from military, medical, and scientific experts. It depicts the build-up to nuclear war (with the Soviet Union, of course), the attack, the appalling nuclear winter aftermath and subsequent collapse of society over the dozen years, eventually depicting an unrecognisable Britain of disease-ridden subsistence farmers, where even language has disintegrated.
The year before, ABC released The Day After, often cited as the American counterpart to Threads. It likewise portrays the build-up to a nuclear war, the attack and the following months, anchored around the experiences of a handful of characters in Kansas City and Lawrence, Kansas. The Day After lacks the documentary-style narration of Threads, is somewhat less harrowing, and does not cover the longer-term impact of the war — but still aims to show the absolute devastation of nuclear war with unsympathetic realism.
Both films can be seen as responses to the rising danger of their era. The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, subsequent Olympic boycotts, the extensive US and NATO 1983 military exercises FleetEX ‘83–1 and Able Archer 83 (the latter of which the Soviets feared was part of a genuine attack preparation) pushed the prospect of nuclear war to the front of political and public imagination.
These films took nuclear weapons out of their usual, over-worn strategic and political context, and instead showed them as forces that transcended any semblance of control or order.
Threads’ depiction of Sheffield’s civil leaders paper-thin attempt to coordinate a response to the calamity aimed to show whatever contingency plans the government had for nuclear war would be futile. Likewise, it samples the then recently-published Protect and Survive public information films, which to some extent implied a nuclear war was something society could survive — a notion that is thoroughly countered in Threads. In a similar vein, The Day After juxtaposes a misguidedly optimistic speech from the president with the starving, injured, and forlorn citizens, as a character laments upon the following 1948 quote from Albert Einstein :
I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones
And that quote summarises the sentiment that both films aim to convey: nuclear war was not containable nor winnable, and would spell the end for civilisation as we knew it. Both films’ fictional wars tell of East-West tensions boiling over to an initial limited nuclear confrontation, which quickly escalates to a full scale nuclear exchange, driving home the argument that it would not have been possible to use nuclear weapons in a ‘tactical’ or limited context.
These films are exceptionally graphic. Infernos, radiation sickness, disease, starvation, violence, mutations: the characters who start the film living normal lives just like you and me, see it all. To borrow a tagline from Threads, these films are ‘the closest you’ll ever want to come to nuclear war.’
Both films succeeded in stunning audiences at the time. ABC had a hotline with counsellors on standby when it first broadcast The Day After, and Ronald Reagan wrote in his diary how the film left him depressed and even forced him to reconsider his attitude to policies on nuclear conflict.
The need for a sucessor
The depictions of sheer human suffering are timeless, however, neither of these films appear to be widely consumed today, especially amongst the generation that has grown up after the Cold War. Furthermore, while the films are still distressing, they depict a version of Western civilisation historic enough to degrade the original impact of the films — 2020 looks very different to 1983. Watching them now, they are hard to construe as active warnings about nuclear weapons, instead they can all-too-easily be disregarded as mere postulations of what could have happened in a bygone world before the Berlin Wall fell.
The focus for our existential fears has moved on to issues such as climate change, and this entirely understandable. Climate change, for instance, is happening, is a real threat, and is something we can and must attempt to address. But we should not forget that, right now as you read this, it is possible that if the right people press the right buttons, the horrifying scenes depicted in Threads and The Day After could become a reality in less than half an hour. There’s no other threat to human existence that humans themselves have the power to summon in such a way. Nuclear stockpiles have fallen a great deal since the 1980s, but there’s still more than enough active warheads to annihilate much of the world, and enough brewing geopolitical tension that we could find ourselves in the same scenario as the one that prompted the production of those two films.
We need a film that performs the duty of Threads/The Day After for today’s world. A realistic, unflinching depiction of what a nuclear war would like in the internet age — what would that look like? I would be comforted to see such a film, as difficult as it would be to watch, pop up in the new arrivals section of Netflix. It would remind the post-Cold War generation that nukes are not just something you get after a tewnty-five kill streak on Call of Duty. Every generation that inherits a nuclear arsenal needs a film that takes a vignette of its cherished society and shows it smashed with unabashed destruction by the unfathomable power of a weapon we may never be rid of.