Updated: Jul 9, 2019
For more years than I care to remember, I have had a strange fascination with the idea of nuclear war. Just to clarify, I don't ever want it to happen. As a matter of fact, I would say that it's a good thing for me that I was wasn't an adult at any point during the Cold War because I get the distinct impression that I would have been a neurotic mess. More so.
For those who had responsibilities beyond playing with Ghostbusters toys and lusting after the newest M.A.S.K. vehicle, the specter of wide-scale nuclear conflict was very real. As a natural side effect, nightmare images of such scenarios began to grace screens large and small. From On the Beach and Dr. Strangelove to Testament and Miracle Mile, there was no shortage of doom and gloom for anyone who wanted to indulge in visions of what could happen.
One of the most well-known American films to tackle this subject was the ABC made-for-TV drama The Day After, a movie following the lives of several characters in the lead up to and aftermath of the unthinkable. While it is a well executed tale (and one that I recommend seeing), one of the biggest criticisms that it received was that its depiction of life after the war was not realistically grim enough. Scary thought, but hard to argue when you consider what Earth would undoubtedly look like in the wake of an all out nuclear assault.
Threads, a BBC produced TV drama which debuted 10 months after The Day After, does not suffer this same fate.
Much like the ABC production that came before, Threads focuses on a varied cast of characters facing daily life as world events drive the world's superpowers towards opening Pandora's Box. News reports give us updates on escalating tensions between the USA and USSR, up to the point that it becomes painfully clear what is coming next. Once the Protect and Survive PSAs start playing, you know that shit is about to hit the fan for anyone not packing 9 billion SPF.
Prior to each film's attack sequence, there are a fair share of similarities: news broadcasts keep the characters and viewers updated on the rising tide of war, those who once wrote off the possibility of the end are forced to face the truth, and the people trying to help survivors quickly find themselves out of their depth and overwhelmed. Of course these are obvious issues that would be encountered in this type of situation and I'm not knocking either movie.
Where they differ is in the portrayal of the attack itself as well as its aftermath.
Compared to The Day After, the sequence of destruction in Threads is much more visceral and raw, pulling no punches at any time. Yes, there is stock footage, however the scenes filmed are where the real terror is found: Milk bottles melt on a stoop, a woman begins urinating uncontrollably at the sight of a mushroom cloud in the distance, and a doomed city's inhabitants scream in terror as they try in vain to flee their fate as warning sirens wail all around.
While the cries of the damned hit hard, two of the scenes that truly haunted me kept the sound to a minimum.
The first features the matriarch of one of the families we've been introduced to as she calls out to her son. A second later, a warhead detonates in close proximity. As soon as his name leaves her lips, the explosion is depicted by the frame fading to a brilliant and blinding white. This is immediately followed by her clothes bursting into flames and her husband struggling to extinguish the flames, all set to silence.
The second features scenes of the aftermath. We see mountains of burning rubble, charred bodies, a man struggling to pull himself along the ground, a cat having a freak out, and more. There is no music or dialogue, only the howling whistle of wind and the crackling of fire. It's a somber and sobering series of images made all the more powerful by the complete lack of a score or any sounds of life.
The rest of the movie is just as heavy, moving through time and ending 10 years after the attack. There is no message of hope as we see Great Britain thrown back to a setting more reminiscent of medieval times than the early 1980s, both in terms of population and technology. It's stark and depressing and it fits the material perfectly. It left me wanting to curl up and sleep as well as wary about looking up to the sky. It made an indelible mark on my psyche, which I suppose is the mark of a piece of work that hit its intended mark.
As the consequences play out, text appears on screen (as it does throughout the movie to relay relevant information) to bring the viewer up to pace on food shortages, the dwindling number of survivors, and other news about this frightening new world. Those who didn't perish in the attack itself are left to scavenge for food while contending with the onset of cancers brought on by increased radiation levels. Adding to the fun is the return of several archaic plagues, brought about by the countless corpses that have been left to rot.
All of the movies that I listed are worth a watch, each one taking differing tacts and utilizing disparate means to deliver their messages. It may seem strange that two TV movies, with their limited budges and content restraints, managed to pull off such gut punches, but I would chalk that up to the care with which they were made. They sought to tackle an ugly, horrible subject and they did so with stunning results.
I apologize for the scattershot nature of this blog. It was originally intended to share a few thoughts and not border on a review. That said, I hope you enjoyed reading and that you consider checking out some of the films that I listed. If so, check back and share your thoughts. If you've already seen a few (or all) of them, leave a comment with your thoughts.
As always, thanks for reading!