Following the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world to the brink of a nuclear apocalypse, America’s fear of nuclear annihilation grew exponentially to such an extent that many families constructed fallout shelters in their backyards. Hollywood studios, always searching for new movie themes, responded to this Cold War paranoia accordingly by producing a number of films on the subject of a possible nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
In 1964, Columbia Pictures released two such productions, six months apart, that have since become classics in the genre. The first was Stanley Kubrick’s satirical black comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb; the second, Sidney Lumet’s serious drama Fail Safe.
Both films were based on best-selling books and Kubrick was so concerned that the similar plotline of Fail Safe would undermine his Dr. Strangelove production, he demanded Columbia buy the distribution rights. When Columbia decided to also put Fail Safe into production, a furious Kubrick insisted that Lumet’s film be delayed until after the release of his movie.
Kubrick’s film embraces the subject with absurd satanic glee, reflected in his US military and civilian characters being depicted as a collection of madmen. The film’s finale has a Stetson-wearing bomber pilot riding an atomic bomb like a bronco whilst Vera Lynn trills, “We’ll meet again” as numerous mushroom clouds bloom.
Lumet’s film, however, is a more realistic and cautionary fable of humanity threatened by over-reliance on nuclear technology. When an unidentified aircraft appears on the large tracking screens situated in the Pentagon and at Strategic Air Command in Omaha, squadrons of US Vindicator bombers, each carrying two 20-kiloton bombs, are immediately scrambled. By the time the radar blip is identified as a harmless airliner, the bombers are recalled well before reaching their “fail safe” positions. But because of an unfortunate combination of mechanical malfunction and Soviet radio jamming, one squadron continue on their flight path. The US military try everything in the rule book to recall them, but the bombers fly beyond the fail safe position and continue toward Moscow with their deadly bombload.
The US President (stoically played by Henry Fonda) is now alerted and takes centre stage as he attempts to forestall an impending catastrophe. He calmly communicates with the squadron leader, Col. Grady (played by Ed Binns), but US pilots have been ordered to disregard all voice communication and to interpret any attempt to recall them as an enemy deception.
In a desperate effort to prevent a retaliatory attack by the Soviets, the president – using the “hot line” – opens communications with the Soviet leader and informs him of this terrible blunder. Furthermore, to avoid an all-out nuclear war, the president supplies the Soviets with secret information of the US military decoy system to assist them in defending their capital.
But even armed with this info, he warns the Soviet leader that it was more than probable that at least one bomber will get through their defence systems. The US president is now faced with a horrifying dilemma…
Although Lumet’s film received excellent reviews from a multitude of film critics on its release, it died at the box-office. Fail Safe would forever exist in the shadow of Dr. Strangelove, as it could not compete with Kubrick’s outrageous depiction of nuclear armageddon. However, Lumet’s earnest cautionary tale remains compulsive viewing, enhanced by an excellent cast depicting intelligent men desperately attempting to correct a genuine mechanical error and avert a nuclear holocaust. If nothing else, it perfectly captures the pessimistic 1960s Cold War paranoia and belief that a nuclear mistake by either the US or the Soviet Union was entirely possible.