The Romance of Extinction: Nuclear War Films


bomb Of all the contrived analyses that cling to science fiction films of the fifties—McCarthyist body snatchers, Russians from Mars, the Bomb in the guise of Godzilla—the most pervasive has been the anemic notion that viewers sublimated the Bomb as the stereotypical Victorians did sex.  The survivors of Hiroshima themselves would be hard pressed to find much mythos in the destruction of Tokyo by a seventy-story snail.  The six-acre moth and the one-chicken skyline were given radioactive rationales simply because radiation lay at the leading edge of science, where known and unknown interface.  In the mutant monster cycle of the fifties (e.g., Them!), and in films about reconstructed or mutated societies of the distant future (e.g., Planet of the Apes), the Bomb served simply as a plot gimmick. 

To argue otherwise is to attribute a two-dimensional, socio-political function to the profoundly personal nature of psychic images.  At best, such interpretations misjudge the degree to which McCarthyism and the Bomb were perceived by the average moviegoer as immediate personal threats.  Academics often live too much in the tiny clearing that is rational consciousness, swapping hack politicisms like adages from Poor Richard, denying, as D. H. Lawrence said of Franklin, the primal immensity of the dark forest. 

If the Bomb has had a psychological role in film at all, the fact should be most evident in such films as Five, On the Beach, and Damnation Alley, in which the holocaust itself is the point of departure.  Yet the most obvious characteristic of this subgenre, focusing on the immediate aftermath of Armageddon, is not its peripheral concern with death but its suggestion that the holocaust may be a means to purification and rebirth in a New Eden.  Beneath the post-holocaust films of the Cold War fifties lurked the ultimate nostalgia. 

The cinematic pattern for the New Eden theme was set by the first postholocaust film, Five (1951), a melodramatic social allegory in which the last five survivors, four men and one woman, converge miraculously at a mountaintop retreat near the coast of Southern California (actually the home of writer-­producer-director Arch Oboler, who shot the cast-of-five film for $78,000).  By the end of the film, three of the four men are dead, leaving only the new Adam and Eve.  First to succumb is an elderly bank clerk who rambles on about finance, believing he is on vacation from his job.  Frail and spectacled, wearing his former identity like a spacesuit on a dead world, he is the “John Q. Public” in the editorial cartoons of the time; and his short role at the outset of the film is that of a brief afterimage, a collective ghost.  Next to die is a saintly black elevator operator who has selflessly cared for the old man.  He is the gentle folk figure of American legend, a young Uncle Remus whose buoyant faith gives hope to the others.  He is tormented and finally killed by a Nazi-like mountain climber, a racist, male chauvinist named Eric.  Arrogant, violent, and lazy, Eric lies in the sun while the others work the fields.  His search for jewels in the empty city and his attempt to abduct the only woman ends in his timely demise by radiation.  The woman, Rosanne, alone, pregnant, and dazed at the beginning of the film, is comforted by Michael, the agrarian idealist.  Obsessed with finding her husband, Rosanne returns to the empty, skeleton-strewn city, encounters his remains, and later loses her baby.  When she rejoins Michael in the mountains, he is repairing the vegetable garden destroyed by the evil Eric.  “I want to help you,” she says—the last line of the film.  And together the new American Adam and Eve face the sun as the music rises, and a verse, taken loosely from Revelations, is printed over the scene:

And I saw a new heaven a new earth . . .
And there shall be no more death
No more sorrow . . . No more tears . . .
Behold!  I make all things new!


There is little coincidence in the fact that Arch Oboler was the first to create such a film.  Having written almost 800 plays for radio in the early 1930s, most in the horror or fantasy genre, involving such gimmicks as giant earthworms that take over the world, or an expanding chicken heart that destroys civilization, he turned in the forties to propagandistic dramas about “smirky little Japs” and “the Jap-Nazi world.”  Among his melodramas of horror and romance was a radio script he had written for Bette Davis in 1938 called “The Word” (of God), about a couple alone on earth who start a new world.  A decade later he dictated an updated version to his wife as they treked across Africa on mule back.1

The result, Five, is about beginnings rather than ends.  More spectacularly, as the poster ads announced, it is about four men on a one-woman planet.  It is about racism, chauvinism, and self-delusion versus the simple American virtues. It is about purification, renewal, and rebirth—about everything, in short, but violent, meaningless death.  Buildings, plant life, and environment appear untouched; even the windows are unbroken, and the corpses have converted immediately to polished skeletons.  All that has been lost is an imperfect society with its complexities and ambiguities.  (“We’re in a dead world,” says Michael, “and I’m glad it’s dead . . . cheap honkey-tonk of a world.”)        If Oboler had intended a realistic warning, the glimpses of aftermath would have been less antiseptic and the plot less contrived.  Anyone intent on showing that “this could really happen” would at least do the few minutes of research necessary to discover that a holocaust sparing only five humans would not exempt someone “up in the Empire State building,” or locked briefly in a bank vault.  Not only do the survivors cross a continent to happen upon one another in an obscure mountain spot, but the one who had been climbing Everest chances to wash ashore in America right at the feet of the other four.

The real concern of Five, with its love triangle, its social preaching, and its arty pretense (predictably, it was a cult favorite in France), is not the Bomb but the absurdity of modern society.  Nuclear holocaust is a plot gimmick, which could just as easily have been a plague (The Omega Man, Where Have All the People Gone) or an astronomical disaster (When Worlds Collide).  Oboler, in fact, had lived by the gimmick—the science fiction twist or the new technique (he made the first 3-D movie, Bwana Devil).  Five is a fantasy of purification and personal transcendence, falling into the tradition that extends from universal tales of a Great Flood to the disaster film cycle of the 1970s.  Its timely appearance during the floodtide of crisis in 1949-50—the fall of China, the Russian Bomb, atom spies, and the invasion of South Korea—reinforced the film’s social metaphors: the aggressive, self-serving foreigner, the passivity and denial of the old man as Everyman, and Michael as the college-educated, middle class American Adam, beginning anew with his self-sacrificing helpmate in the garden of Suburbia.  Even the token black man is part of the fifties vision: a poetic ideal who turns out in practice to be dispensable.  The role of the Bomb in all this seems closer to what Robert Lifton has termed the religion of “nuclearism”; it is a cleansing, purifying agent, hosting the power of God to bring the Flood, the Second Coming, or the New Eden.2

Oboler’s Edenic theme and microcosmic plot—love triangle, villain intruder, a handful who survive for flimsy reasons, sanitized or unseen destruction, and conventional social concerns—recurred in other fifties films such as The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1959) and Roger Corman’s change-in-­his-pocket productions such as The Day the World Ended (1956), which included a rubber mutant to break the monotony.  (A 1965 remake,  In the Year 2889, may have been camp’s finest hour, viewing like a high school play with the metal-shop teacher cast in the older lead, projecting every line for the benefit of lip-readers and the hard-of-hearing.)  Corman struck again in 1960 with The Last Woman on Earth, shot with another film during a two-week Caribbean vacation write-off.  The scriptwriter, who thought it up day to day as they filmed, filled in as juvenile lead, cutting travel costs and allowing him to think it up moment to moment as well.3

Not limited to immediate postholocaust scenarios, the Edenic theme was extended to natural catastrophe (When Worlds Collide [1953]) and to the regeneration of mutant, decadent, or regressed societies, where the holocaust had long passed and the new Adam was often a time traveler (e.g., World Without End [1956], Teenage Caveman [1958], The Time Machine [1960], and Planet of the Apes [1968]).4  The visions of renewal in postholocaust films were part of an increased longing for the innocent, pastoral settings of a simpler time, manifest not only in science fiction films but throughout postwar popular culture: MGM musicals, the spate of adult Westerns, historical and Biblical romance, the Davy Crockett mania, and the folk music revival, all against the backdrop of suburban migration and reemphasis on security, tradition, God, country, and family.

By the early sixties the Edenic fairy tale had lost favor with nuclear film makers, reappearing only in Damnation Alley (1977), a film well after its time, which recapped variations on the Five plot.  While earlier films ended with “The Beginning” written across the screen, a Great Flood deposits Damnation Alley’s survivors on a pastoral shore where blue skies have returned; a female radio voice guides them to a rural town with lawns, trees, and white fences, and the small crowd of inhabitants—perhaps just out from a Little League game—runs toward them with outstretched arms.  As one critic observed, not only is an unspeakable horror turned into “a household word, easily spoken because already confronted, already digested,” but special effects make the atmospheric hell “thrillingly trippy,” and the desolation becomes “a challenge for pioneers of the future who refuse to mourn, refuse to regret, but only carry on courageously.”5

The first postholocaust film to break with the Edenic theme was Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach (1959), based on Nevil Shute’s 1957 bestseller.  Nuclear war has annihilated the Northern Hemisphere and poisoned the atmosphere, dooming the rest of humanity to extinction within months.  The southernmost and last surviving large city, Melbourne, carries on much as usual while awaiting the lethal cloud.  An American nuclear submarine captain, Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck), falls in love with Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner), a middle-aged local wildflower.  With no illusions about the reality, he nevertheless chooses to remain loyal to a sanity-saving vision of his wife and children awaiting him in Connecticut.  Accepting this, the lonely Moira gives him love and companionship.  In the end, hoping to die on home soil, Towers takes his ship to sea, submerging off the coast as Moira waves from the beach in the deadly breeze.  Supporting characters include Peter (Tony Perkins) and Mary (Donna Anderson), a young married couple who care for their baby and plan for the future until the last moment, and a nuclear physicist (Fred Astaire) who fulfills his lifelong dream, buying a Ferrari and risking his now meaningless life in winning the Grand Prix.

Rejecting a new Genesis in favor of extinction, the film was touted by some as a courageous social message.  Linus Pauling thought posterity might remember On the Beach as “the movie that saved the world.”To others, however, it was a “lucrative venture masquerading as social consciousness” —another fifties fairy tale of proper romance and domestic virtue, a Woman’s Day approach to extinction, with the sun dancing on the water behind a kiss, sailors ogling Ava Gardner, and other devices on the level of Astaire’s musicals.Once again, we see no destruction, no corpses, no physical agony—only the poignancy of ill-­fated love.  Rather than show us what must have happened to New York and Moscow, complained one critic, the film “portrays sweetly sad images” of deserted San Francisco and San Diego, and “the elegiac last days of Australia,” where business-as-usual is carried to the extreme of people in orderly lines being carefully checked off lists as they receive government-issued suicide pills in the final hours.8  Others, however, noted that it is easier to identify with the concerns of healthy, attractive people in normal settings.  Moira’s rage at having wasted her youth only to lose her life to someone else’s war, or the physicist’s realization that his glamorous role was not only meaningless, but partly responsible for the end of all meaning, or the young couple feeding and changing their baby until the day when it must be given the dose of poison recommended for infants—these are closer to our personal perspectives than, for example, a man dragging himself through burning rubble in search of his leg.

The reason that On the Beach is not about the bomb any more than its Edenic predecessors is that it is about meaning rather than meaninglessness, life rather than death.  More exactly it is about the meaning of life in the face of one’s own death.  At the very least it is implied that a simplified, albeit shortened, existence may achieve new levels of romantic intensity and personal discovery.  In its celebration of the human spirit the film denies even the gesture of anarchy—unless one counts the wanton moment when the starched butler, perceiving he is the only one left in the stuffy men’s club, elects for the first time in his career not to straighten the portrait that always lists when the door slams.

Contrary to critics who argued that the understated depiction of life-as-usual itensified the sense of doom, it was the understatement of doom that intensified life-as-usual.  Mary continues to tend the garden and plan the baby’s future, Moira’s father improves his farm, and Captain Towers and his crew, the last surviving Americans, never stray from even the most trivial navy regulation. The novel is even more insistent: Moira enrolls in a secretarial course, Dwight goes gift-shopping for his imaginary family in Connecticut, and Peter goes to great lengths in the last hours to obtain a decorative bench for his wife’s garden. None of the characters accept the full implications of meaningless extinction.  Perhaps this is because most human action is predicated on a perception of immortality, a faith that the individual, the family, the community, or the species will endure in some form.9  Under the circumstances, however, anarchy would make no more sense than business-as-usual.  To ask why Towers stays with his ship is no more reasonable than to ask “why not.”  Far from being unrealistic, the holocaust’s intensification of life-as-usual forces the perception that meaning ultimately lies in process—in the mundane, inertial patterns themselves rather than their specific content or their idealized ends.  The novel clarifies this point when Moira comments on the young couple’s obsession with their garden:

“They won’t be here in six months time.  I won’t be here.  You won’t be here.   They won’t want any vegetables next year.”

Dwight stood in silence for a moment, looking out at the blue sea, the long curve of the shore. “So what?” he said at last.  “Maybe they don’t believe it.  Maybe they think that they can take it all with them and have it where they’re going to, someplace, I wouldn’t know.”  He paused.  “The thing is, they just kind of like to plan a garden.”

Yet for all its effectiveness as a meditation on personal mortality, it remains true that the film sugar coats the holocaust.  A lingering city that allows elegiac love affairs and long, sweet farewells seems at least an atypical postholocaust scenario.  Once again there is a suggestion of Lifton’s “nuclearism”:  All problems are solved by a single explosion, annihilating concern with decisions, responsibilities, complexities—even death itself.  For, as Towers says in the novel,

“We’ve all got to die one day, some sooner and some later.  The trouble always has been that you’re never ready, because you don’t know when it’s coming.  Well, now we do know, and there’s nothing to be done about it.  I kind of like that.  I kind of like the thought that I’ll be fit and well up till the end of August and then—home.”

What we really fear, moreover, is not extinction but terror, pain, and suffering.  Because it achieves the former without the latter, the film remains transitional, ostensibly pessimistic, but in fact idealistically celebrating rather than censuring the human spirit.  Kramer boasted that, unlike the novel, his film ended on a note of hope—the Christian banner fluttering over empty streets in the last scene, reading “There’s still time, Brother!”  As a message film, On the Beach was far better than Five, but finally no more effective than the banner.

Just as the classic fifties Western, in which an innocent town was threatened by villains from outside, was replaced by the anti-­establishment sixties Western, in which an evil town was cleaned up by a group of paid renegades, so the classic fifties science fiction film with innocent communities threatened by alien monsters, was superseded in the late sixties and early seventies by films in which dystopian societies battled underground rebels.  Most of the dystopias and wastelands in these films were the product of some previous holocaust, and the “survivor”—whether the heroic rebel (e.g., Logan’s Run) or the scavenger who caricatures all the decadent extremes of former civilization (e.g., Road Warrior or The End of August at the Ozone Hotel)—became an increasingly popular image.  The appeal of these films had less to do with nuclear war than with a growing paranoia and survivor mentality.  The leap in technological leverage has encouraged an illusion of individual autonomy within the larger reality of one’s abject dependence on the depersonalized, demythologized, technological society.  The increasing sense of individual isolation, vulnerability, and loss of control is reflected in the proliferation of disaster-films and action-hero vigilantes who repeatedly survive certain death to bring down archvillains and vast global conspiracies.  The nostalgic need to simplify and purify in the face of impotence and ambiguity also underlies much of our obsession with sports, where the issues are clear-cut, confrontation is pure and direct, and the winner survives.  In short, the paradox of apparent power and utter dependence produces an image of the superior man as a romanticized primitive—a survivor.

Among those films dealing with the immediate aftermath of the Bomb, Panic in the Year Zero (1962), based on Ward Moore’s stories “Lot” and “Lot’s Daughter,” is the most explicit example of the survivor syndrome.  Appearing during the bomb shelter mania, and depicting nuclear war as a temporary inconvenience, the worst effect of which is a breakdown of law and order, the film is probably an accurate representation of public illusions at the time.  While on a fishing trip, a Los Angeles family discovers that the city has come under nuclear attack.  Amid the ensuing anarchy, the heretofore civilized, middle class father (Ray Milland) and son (Frankie Avalon) seize weapons and attack anyone who stands in their way.  “It’s going to be survival of the fittest,” says father, and “we can start with one basic fact—us.”  He knocks out a service station attendant to get gas, robs a hardware store when he cannot pay, and parts a stream of cars blocking the family’s escape by pouring gasoline over the road and setting it on fire.  Horrified at first by his commitment to violence, his wife is converted to his view when their seventeen-year-old daughter is raped by a gang of thugs.  After hunting down the rapists and shooting them at close range, Milland leads his family back to what is left of civilization and the protective arm of the U.S. Army.

Panic in the Year Zero is a reactionary film, concerned with law, order, and the status quo, exemplifying, as one critic observed, “exactly the sort of attitude that is likely to cause World War Three.”12  “I looked for the worst in others and I found it in myself,” is Milland’s belated conclusion.  Yet to the degree that his actions represent the willingness, indispensable to any healthy community, to accept a necessary evil in pursuit of a larger good, they exemplify what Robert Bly has called “making contact with the Wildman”—the dark, aggressive energy deep in the masculine side of the psyche.13  The repression of this energy by a liberal tradition that has never granted evil its due has disturbed the psychocultural balance of masculine and feminine.  The result is that the masculine face of this equilibrium—­forceful action undertaken, not without compassion, but with resolve—is itself polarized:  On one hand, the Wildman is paraded as the castrated, domesticated Dagwood, while on the other, he breaks loose to commit the macho excesses that characterize the survivor syndrome.  The collective neuroses of the towns in fifties Westerns lay in the fact that they had to import their Wildman-stranger-saviors—their Alan Ladds and Gary Coopers—from the wilderness.  But regardless of how one evaluates the issues raised, Panic in the Year Zero remains another film that was never intended to be about the holocaust.  To the degree, in fact, that the power of the Bomb is translated into the power of the Wildman, it is Lifton’s “nuclearism” at its finest.  And the final message, despite the film’s underlying cynicism, is that even the Bomb need not sever the family that preys together.

To disqualify films that bathe the Bomb in auras of rebirth, elegiac death, or resurrected masculinity, raises the question of what a film truly about the Bomb would be like?  For many critics, the immediate answer was Peter Watkins’ The War Game (1966).  Made for BBC television but never aired (allegedly because it was “too horrifying,” though political motives seemed likely14), The War Game is a forty-seven minute, newsreel-style semi-documentary graphically depicting the nuclear devastation of Britain’s Kent County.  Released to theaters in 1966, it won an Oscar for best documentary of the year.  Eschewing not only melodrama but any form of story line, the film exposes the absurdity of government civil defense policies and rejects the notion that survivors would remain orderly and civilized.  One of the most controversial pictures in film history, The War Game included not only food riots, executions, gory wounds, and bleak, apathetic faces, but also the shooting of the hopelessly injured, bulldozers clearing bodies: and people being sucked into firestorms like dry leaves.

A similar film, Nicholas Meyer’s The Day After, which cost $7 million and reached an estimated 100 million viewers on ABC-Television in 1983, included violence, suffering, and people being incinerated into skeletons.  A problem for both films was the impossibility of living up to the orgy of controversy that preceded them.  The BBC feared that The War Game might cause suicide and national panic, while previewers of The Day After called for the mobilization of crisis centers to handle the wave of grade-school suicides and mass catatonia anticipated in the wake of the program.  Benina Berger-Gould, Berkeley “specialist” on the effect of the nuclear threat on children and the family, made it into TV Guide with her warning that “no one—child, adult or teen-ager—should watch it alone.”15  Just as ambulances were put on standby when The War Game premiered in Scotland, dozens of organizations like SANE, “The Day Before,” and Physicians for Social Responsibility, feeling that The Day After should be watched “with others rather than alone and helpless in one’s own home,” made arrangements for group viewings and local post­-broadcast gatherings.16

In truth, The War Game’s camera panned and jerked so rapidly over grainy, black and white scenes that often the subject itself, let alone the detail, was too unintelligible to be shocking.  A public opinion poll reported that only 9.4 per cent thought the film too horrific to be televised, while another survey found that “all of those interviewed who had actually seen the film believed it should be aired.”17  As for The Day After, most came away with the feeling that it was just another disaster movie, flitting from miniplot to miniplot to suit the attention span of the TV generation, jerry-rigging cardboard characters in order to kill them off, and doing so with far more discretion than the mildest splatter movie, where heads blow apart like cherry-bombed tomatoes.  Far from being controversial shockers, The War Game and The Day After failed partly because their low megaton scenarios did not go far enough.  Ironically, they failed for their lack of realism.

On one side of this critical controversy is an extreme oversensitivity—the childlike innocence of the would-be counselors who previewed The Day After—something close to emotional hemophilia.  At the opposite pole is an almost schizophrenic undersensitivity to anything outside the self—a feeling that no death could be worse than one’s own, which is inevitable anyway, and that if we all go together, one avoids missing out on the future.  The oversensitives tend to read their personal anxieties and insecurities onto humanity at large, projecting an attitude that can paralyze both the individual and society, while the undersensitives come close to losing touch with reality by carrying to an extreme the necessary ability to desensitize oneself to indirect, universal dangers.  The oversensitives thus accuse us of “psychic numbing,” while the undersensitives see us as paralyzed neurotics who lack the perception that evil is inherent in the human condition.  The truth is that each extreme is speaking only to the other, while the great majority of us in the middle, who experience the same tendencies in a more complex balance, listen in bewilderment, if at all.  To the degree that nuclear films were ever intended to be about the Bomb, they have failed to speak to this mass in the middle, for whom the norm tends toward undersensitivity.18  Nor can an understanding of how the average man relates to the realities of the Bomb be accomplished with armchair catch phrases like “psychic numbing” which offer any and all possible conditions as evidence.  If my honest optimism about my future is hiding an hysterical fear of the Bomb, how am I to be distinguished from one who has achieved the conscious and healthy resignation so often required to live a productive life? 

Perhaps what Watkins and Meyer have taught us is that it is not necessary to show the actual physical realities—the skin hanging down in sheets and the loose eyeballs popularized by Hiroshima accounts—for only the oversensitives are properly shocked.  Such “realism” not only increases emotional anesthesia but appeals to the voyeur in us who seeks antidotes to everyday tedium in horrible human suffering—in fantasies of miraculous survival, renewed unity and purpose, and redeemer heroism.  Instead, the prerequisites for an effective nuclear message film are that the probability of extinction be made inescapably clear,19 that there be no emotional escape routes for the viewer, and most important, that the annihilation take place within a context that is personally meaningful to the audience.

In this respect, Lynne Littman’s Testament (1983), based on “The Last Testament” by Carol Amen, is far more successful than The Day After ­because it stays with one family, develops characters in depth, and has an emotional unity and progression that draws the viewer in ever more deeply.  A suburban family, apparently caught in the interstices of those circles of destruction that Life magazine used to superimpose on metropolitan maps, awaits its inevitable death by radiation.  The father never returns from what was San Francisco, and the mother must bear up alone as she buries her children one by one, stitched in body-bags made from bed sheets.  We are never present at the moment of death, we never witness intense physical pain, and we are never exposed to catastrophic special effects. World War III is a blank TV and a blinding flash through the windows.  What we see instead is spiritual death, intense emotional pain, and catastrophic hopelessness.  The contrast between The Day After and Testament is similar to that between contemporary films and those of the thirties and forties.  The earlier films deal in symbol and suggestion rather than explicit special effects—a shadow on the wall rather than a chain saw in the groin.    In the most memorable scene from The Day After, hospital workers stare in disbelief at the rising white vapor trails of Minuteman missiles, soaring from their silos, arcing away into the blue over the pastoral Kansas landscape. Likewise, the striking images from The War Game were not the nightmares of destruction but the man trying to protect his family from the knowledge that they would all soon die of leukemia, or the child who had looked at the fireball        and then stood sightless in a garden, weeping in pain and confusion.20

Testament is about an extraordinary event in the lives of ordinary people.  Like E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, Testament’s long beginning establishes audience identification with the familiar uneventful routine of life in middle class, child-oriented suburbia.  Testament, however, is actually E.T. in reverse:  In E.T. a transcendent, Christlike power intervenes with a message of hope; in Testament a transcendent evil power intervenes with a message of doom.  In both cases, the viewer is unable to pigeonhole the experience.  Just as E.T. brought the extraterrestrial out of the remote deserts and cardboard communities of fifties science fiction films and into the real world of pizza and Sesame Street, Testament freed the holocaust from the Edenic fantasy, the romantic elegy, and the circus of special effects, planting it under the nine-to-five day with such stealth as to catch the thrill-seeking escapist completely off guard.

Habitual activities persist after Testament’s holocaust just as they did in On the Beach.  The school play (The Pied Piper of Hamelin because they live in Hamelin, California) goes on, the last line spoken by the family’s youngest boy: “Your children are not dead.  They will come back when the world deserves them.”  And the preteen daughter continues her piano lessons with her intense teacher, whose demand for punctuality is less an obsession than a tenacious clinging to meaning.  Like those in On the Beach, the characters discover that meaning derives from networks of connectedness and communion, no matter how pointless the patterns themselves become.  Reflecting on the fact that a few have left town, the twelve-year-old explains to his mother that he is running errands for the old man who sits at the ham radio, that Mary Liz has her piano lessons, and that Dad might still come back.  “And besides,” adds his mother, “it’s our home.”  But unlike On the Beach, Testament’s story is not diffused into global and institutional concerns, nor is it all stiff-upper-lip anticipation of a discreet off-screen nightmare.  Testament’s deaths not only take place, but do so amid conditions that deteriorate so gradually, evenly, and inexorably that the viewer never regroups his perspective.  One has almost adjusted—almost achieved the resignation of On the Beach—when one discovers that the next incremental step has already become a reality.  Not only do we move from collapsed services to sickness to burials to a great bonfire of bodies, but the photography grows dark and monochromatic, sunshine gives way to rain, and people seem to merge with the shadows. Yet all of this wilting, flickering, and dying never lapses into melodrama.  The story, seen entirely from the mother’s harrowed perspective, never loses the profaning sense that beyond even this last personal agony there remains that cosmic indifference which has always belittled our own crises.

This intense personal focus (along with a $750,000 budget which was unable, for example, to adequately populate the town) caused one critic to call the film “an overbearingly banal” and “genteel vision of the apocalypse,” its “soap-opera sentimentality domesticating the unthinkable.”21  Ironically, however.. it is not Testament but The Day After that domesticates the Bomb.  The power of the “unthinkable” lies in its unseen mystery.  Just as something essential is lost when God materializes as a bearded man in the sky, graphic special effects make the Bomb thinkable; there is a feeling that one has confronted it, digested it, and that it is nothing but those images.  The critical dilemma concerning the nuclear message film is similar to the theological paradox concerning the image of God: to concretize it (idolatry) is to take away its numinosity; yet without concrete representation it cannot become immediate and personal.  Unlike other films, Testament overcomes this dilemma by leaving the Bomb its numinosity and confining its “realism” to an emotional explicitness that is as raw as the physical images of The Day After.  Much of this personal realism is achieved by ignoring the global perspective, including such meaningless abstractions as who started the war, or big-scale images of extinction. 

The concern over extinction, whether of humans, whales, or sea otters, is an emotional luxury.  The idea that extinction is greater than personal death is an abstraction that belongs with Copernican theory and relativity.  For most humans, bound to subjective reality, the sun still rises and sets; and though relativity may be so real as to ultimately produce extinction, in most minds “matter” will   retain color, odor, and texture to that last moment.  In the common mind, “extinction” is the opposite of walking on the moon; “death” is the opposite of walking at all.  The one is abstract and cerebral, like the explanation of “red” in an optics textbook; the other is personal and immediate, like seeing red itself.  Abstractions provide necessary rationales for the narcissistic personality prerequisite to leadership, but the foot soldier never fights for an abstraction.  He doesn’t fight to preserve “liberty” or the peasant utopia or the perfect union; he fights to preserve his Wednesday night pinochle game, his wife’s new curtains, or his Little League champions.  If the man in the street finally gets mad-as-hell about the Bomb it will         not be in response to remote archival photos of charred Japanese children, or special-effect images of a bald, moonlike planet; more likely it will come from repeated visions such as those in Testament―a wife listening for the last time to her husband’s voice on her answering machine, then transferring the last battery to the flashlight; or a mother’s panicked search for the teddy bear before burying her little boy in the yard.

These things alone, however, cannot account for the film’s effectiveness. An underlying counterpoint to Testament’s dominant pessimism affirms, even idealizes, the abiding spirit of the average individual.  It is as though the human collective were some alien creature—an evil monster like the Bomb it has created—in the shadow of which each individual must somehow nurture hope.  Testament simply depicts this predicament in its extreme form.  In the final scene, the last three survivors—the mother, her twelve-year-old son Brad, and a retarded Japanese boy sit in the dark observing Brad’s thirteenth birthday with three candles stuck to crackers.

“What do we do now?” asks Brad without expression.
“Make a wish,” answers his mother. 
“What’ll we wish for, Mom?”

After a pause she says: “That we remember it all.  The good and the awful.  The way we finally lived.  That we never gave up.  That we were last to be here—to deserve the children.”  The film then ends with another of the slow-motion, bright, flickering, home movies that have punctuated the story—this one a surprise birthday celebration for Dad in the backyard with cake and candles.

One recalls the last act of Our Town, in which the dead Emily returns to witness her twelfth birthday and says to the Stage Manager:

It goes so fast.  We don’t have time to look at one another. . . . I didn’t realize.  So all that was going an and we never noticed. . . . Good-by to Grover’s Corners . . . Mama and Papa.  Good-by to clocks ticking . . . and Mama’s sunflowers.  And food and coffee.  And new ironed dresses and hot baths . . . and sleeping and waking up.  Oh, Earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.  Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?

At the deepest level, our reaction to the postholocaust film is less a feeling of fear and rage than a renewed appreciation of Mama’s sunflowers, new ironed dresses, and hot baths, and of the fact that we all live under a lesser form of the same fate, that we are each finally alone, with our candles and our wishes, in the face of death.


1.   J. Fred MacDonald, Don’t Touch That Dial: Radio Programming in American Life, 1920-1960 (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1979), pp. 56-57, 67, 68, 106;  Columbia Pressbook for Five (Hollywood: Columbia Pictures, 1951).

2.   Robert Jay Lifton, The Broken Connection: On Death and the Continuity of Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980), pp. 369-87.

3.   Joe Bonham, “The Return of Roger Corman,” Starlog 4 (February 1979): 46-49.

4.   The Edenic theme in film was not initiated by the bomb; in The End of the World (1916), the new Adam and Eve survive a comet catastrophe.

5.   Judith Bloch, “Damnation Alley,” Film Quarterly 35 (Fall 1981): 51.  The film differs radically from Zelazny’s novel, which is superior in intent, focus, and resolution.

6.   Joseph Keyerleber, “On the Beach,” in Nuclear War Films, ed. Jack G. Shaheen (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois Press, 1978), p. 31.

7.   Keyerleber, p. 34; Robert Hatch, “Films,” Nation, January 2, 1960, p. 20.

8.   Midge Decter, “Stanley Kramer’s ‘On the Beach,’” Commentary 29 (June 1960): 524.

9.   Robert Lifton elaborates on this idea in The Broken Connection and other writings.

10. Nevil Shute, On the Beach (New York: Signet Books, 1957), pp. 88-89.

11. Ibid., p. 103.

12. John Brosnan, Future Tense: The Cinema of Science Fiction (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978), p. 156.

13. Keith Thompson, “What Men Really Want: A New Age Interview with Robert Bly,” New Age Journal [n.v.] (May 1982): 30-37, 50-51.

14. The War Game was the first film ever banned by the BBC.  Asked if she agreed with the decision, Mrs. Winifred Crum Ewing, producer of documentaries for the BBC, answered that “having lived in the Southeast of England throughout the war, having seen how people behave in circumstances of war and bombing, it was an absolute slander on humanity.  His [Watkins’] observations are profoundly wrong. . . .  We don’t need these emotional, left-wing intellectuals to tell that we can destroy the world” (quoted in Jack G. Shaheen, “The War Game,” in Nuclear War Films, ed. Jack G. Shaheen, p. 313.  See also James M. Welsh, “The Modern Apocalypse: ‘The War Game,’” Journal of Popular Film and Television 11 (Spring 1983): 25-41; Joseph A. Gomez, Peter Watkins (Boston: Twayne, 1979), pp. 45-66.

15. Howard Polskin, “Educators Worry About Effect of ‘The Day After.’” TV Guide, November 9, 1983, p. A-1.  See also Forum 2 (Fall 1983) [newsletter of the Educators for Social Responsibility], special issue on The Day After; and Judith Michaelson, “The End of Denial: A Psychiatrist Looks at ‘The Day After,’” San Francisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle, November 30, 1983, Datebook, p. 59.

16. Welsh, “The Modern Apocalypse: ‘The War Game,’” p. 30; Gerzon, “Watching the World End: How Hollywood Faced Up to Nuclear War,” New Age Journal [n.v.] (November 1983): 87.

17. Welsh, “The Modern Apocalypse: ‘The War Game,’” p. 38.

18. Public opinion polls at the time continued to show that the majority of Americans did not consider themselves seriously affected by thoughts of the bomb.  Surveys of children’s reactions suggested more fear, probably because opposite results tend to be ignored.  And what can a child say in reaction to a questionnaire other than to repeat what he has heard and give descriptions that could hardly be positive?  See Hazel Erskine, “The Polls: Atomic Weapons and Nuclear Energy.” Public Opinion Quarterly 27 (1963): 155-90; Eugene Rosi, Mass and Attentive Opinion on Nuclear Weapons Tests and Fallout, 1954-1963,” Public Opinion Quarterly 29 (1965): 280-97; Vincent Jeffries, “Political Generations and the Acceptance or Rejection of Nuclear Warfare,” Journal of Social Issues 39 (1974): 119-36; Howard Means, “Freedom from Fear,” Washingtonian 116 (August 1981): 77-86; Lawrence D. Maloney, “Nuclear Threat through the Eyes of College Students,” U.S. News and World Report, April 16, 1984, pp. 34-37; Harry F. Waters, et al., “TV’s Nuclear Nightmare,” Newsweek, November 21, 1983, pp. 66-72; Michael Kernan, “Children in Fear of Nuclear War,” Washington Post, October 14, 1983, pp. C1, C4; Marcia Yudkin, “When Kids Think the Unthinkable,” Psychology Today 18 (April 1984): 18-25; Sylvia Eberhart, “How the American People Feel about the Atomic Bomb,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 3 (June 1947): 146-49, 168; “How U.S. Citizens React to the Bomb,” U.N. World 1 (October 1947): 9; and Alice Cheavens, “Facing the Fear of Bombs,” Parents Magazine 25 (November 1950): 42, 136.

19. The most popular case for extinction is Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), which reflects the scientific consensus.  See also Paul R. Ehrlich and Carl Sagan, The Cold and the Dark: The World after Nuclear War (New York: Norton, 1984).

20. The Day After originally contained a powerful scene showing a child screaming but was cut when a child psychologist retained by ABC said it would upset children (Gerzon, “Watching the World End,” p. 34).  The War Game examples are noted by Richard Schickel in Second Sight: Notes on Some Movies, 1965-1970 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), p. 104.

21. David Ansen, “A Quiet Apocalypse,” Newsweek, November 14, 1983, pp. 98, 101.

22. Thornton Wilder, Three Plays by Thornton Wilder (New York: Bantam Books, 1961), p. 62.

[This appeared in the anthology Phoenix from the Ashes, edited by Carl Yoke (1987)]


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