Tim Van Schmidt
The Ukraine-Russia war has been going on now for a full bloody year. The Doomsday Clock has moved closer to midnight than it has ever been. Here are some reviews of a couple of movies that face up to the most terrible fear that has come from modern conflict — nuclear war.
“On the Beach”: This 1959 movie — released three years before the Cuban Missile Crisis — does not so much show the physical devastation of nuclear war as the mental devastation that follows far from ground zero. The war happens in the northern hemisphere, but the creep of radiation is destined to ravage the south.
The movie begins as an American submarine makes its way to Australia after escaping the widespread destruction in the north — apparently, they are the only ones who make it out alive.
While things are still sunny and appear somewhat normal in Australia, despite shortages of basic supplies, the approaching radiation hangs heavy over everybody. Some people drink to excess, some stubbornly deny the situation, some go fishing, and some even desperately fall in love. But everybody is doomed.
The most gripping sequence in the movie is when Fred Astaire’s character enters the final Grand Prix road race in Australia. It is literally a race to the absolute finish. It comes off a lot like the crazy vehicle mania of the “Mad Max” movies (also post-apocalyptic tales) with cars crashing and flaming out, killing the participants, leaving only one vehicle blasting across the finish line. It is a bitter victory.
When the radiation finally reaches Australia, it’s clear there really are no victories
“The Day After”: There is a scary coincidence between this movie and the present. The nuclear war here occurs during a conflict between the Soviet Union and NATO forces. In this case, the Eastern Bloc occupies West Berlin, then a Western-controlled stronghold surrounded by Communist territory. Things go from bad to worse, and it escalates into the ultimate horror.
But like “On the Beach”, the movie action happens many thousands of miles away from the actual conflict — in Kansas. The story starts out with the everyday activities of several characters, but the news gets worse as the hours roll on.
While everybody in the Midwest is stunned by the start the war, on edge by the fear of what could and does happen, one character asks out loud how bad it could be when they are living “in the middle of nowhere”. A young John Lithgow answers simply: “There is no middle of nowhere”, pointing out that there are Minuteman missile silos all over the region — each one is not only a weapon, but also a target.
“The Day After” does not pull any punches when the missiles start flying — everything turns into a blazing inferno, people disintegrated in a second. Once it’s “over” it is the sad duty of the survivors to pick up the pieces of what’s left of civilization as radiation sickness overwhelms them.
When “The Day After” — one of the most watched TV movies in history — came out, the threat of nuclear war, thanks to the proliferation of these horrible weapons, was a most urgent issue. Thanks to the current conflict in Ukraine, it still should be.
At the end of “On the Beach”, with the streets empty and people extinct, a banner still flaps in the breeze that reads: “There is still time”. It remains a poignant message today.
Check out “Time Capsules by Tim Van Schmidt” on YouTube.