Mick Broderick, Nuclear Movies (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1991)
A critical analysis and filmography of over 850 feature-length dramas concerning nuclear issues from 1914-1989 and from over 30 countries.
Foreword by Dr Helen Caldicott (1988)
Chapter: From Atoms to Apocalypse
Introduction © Mick Broderick
What images come to mind when we consider nuclear issues? A huge, broiling mushroom cloud? An awesome, devastating explosion? Medical isotopes combating cancer? Perhaps cheap and abundant electricity?
The dichotomy of this imagery illustrates opposing ends of the atomic spectrum. While the latter connotation has been carefully sanitized and promoted by the proponents of the nuclear industry, the former associations remain predominant within popular consciousness. Clearly, this is something of a paradox. If, since 1945 the dominant psychic link with nuclear themes is one of catastrophe and destruction, how then has the global community permitted the construction and proliferation of over 50,000 nuclear weapons and many hundreds of nuclear reactors around the world?
One answer it would seem, is fear - or more precisely terror. 1 Despite the rigorous campaigns of military and corporate public relations specialists over the past four decades, the narratives of mainstream film and television drama suggest there remains an innate, submerged fear in relation to most things nuclear. This 'state of nuclear terror' as psychologist Joel Kovel puts it, however, is ironically a vital component to the mindset of global nuclearism. 2 Rather than arousing and channeling positive emotions such as hostility, outrage and anger into constructive action, this particular fear is one which frequently debilitates Ý those who experience it. Psychically, the response often becomes one of resignation and then denial of the perceived personal/social impotence, which in turn promotes a refusal to even consider the issues and recognize one's state of compromise and/or despair.
Just as other forms of media attenuate and inform public responses to social issues by their very selection and representation of material, logically, one can assume a similar relationship occurs via film and TV dramas. When asked to think of a "nuclear-related" movie common responses are: The Day After, Silkwood and/or The China Syndrome. Occasionally Dr. Strangelove is remembered. Mention is also made of On the Beach and Fail Safe. The first response is usually a film which deals with a catastrophic nuclear war , yet nuclear themes have been entertained in virtually all classifications of film, from comedy, espionage, musicals and thrillers, to their most frequent representation in science fiction and horror genres. Considering the bulk of movies compiled for this Filmography, what does such a limited recall suggest? Does this psychic block also reflect the same social processes of repression at work by avoiding the pervasiveness of nuclearism within the fictive arena as well as the real?
The aim of this work is to address a long-ignored feature of our cultural expression of nuclearism via one of its most popular mediums - film and television. I have attempted to lst all the feature-length films, serials, made-for-television movies and mini-series that deal in one way or another with nuclear themes. To suggest by juxtaposition and cross-referral, the catalogue hopes to indicate repetition, divergence and modification of familiar ideas by generic interplay. Similarly, alongside the decade 'time-lines' of relevant nuclear events, the chronological structure of the listings has been designed to encourage readers to develop their own sense of the historical evolution of this genre as a sort of barometer of nuclear issues, projecting the ebb and flow of public attitudes through mainstream film and TV.
When I began this research I naively assumed the total genre might have, say, 200 or so titles. To my astonishment the tally nears 1,000 from 37 countries as diverse as the Philippines, Poland, Iceland, South Korea, Rumania, Australia, Czechoslovakia, Mexico, New Zealand, Brazil, Israel, Hong kong, Finland and Thailand through to the expected entries from the USA (approximately 63%), Britain (13%), Japan (8.5 %), Italy (5.1%), France (3.4%) and West Germany (1.8%). The lack of material from both the Soviet Union and China remains a surprise although several Eastern Bloc countries have produced many related titles.
Throughout the Filmography I have attempted to be exhaustive in my excavations yet I am sure there have been oversights. I would greatly appreciate any reader feedback on other films to be appended and matters of accuracy. Such suggestions can be forwarded to the publisher's address at the front of the volume.
I have chosen to concentrate solely on feature length dramas because to date they have not received any systematic analysis, whereas more attention has been paid to their documentary counterparts. 3 Watching these movies over the years and from subsequent discussions I have noted a deliberate bias towards documentary film material by both the proponents and opponents of nuclear energy. There is a peculiar tendency among some academics, most critics and, consequently, audiences to discount any political or ideological thrust inherent to the bulk of these features which (except for the obvious polemics like The China Syndrome which are happily promoted as such) are dismissed as 'mere entertainment', 'fiction' and 'fantasy' to be experienced and vicariously consumed from the comfort of the theatre seat or lounge-room chair.
The complex apparatus which gatekeeps, bank-rolls, produces, distributes advertises and exhibits these commodities is chiefly responsible for fostering such attitudes. It is a combination of these factors which indelibly stamp generic brands onto their product, chiefly as 'horror', 'action', 'war', 'sci-fi', etc, which not only is a means of marketing but simultaneously serves to effectively package and pre-figure audience expectation and response.
Unlike the 'serious', 'well intentioned' parables of the nuclear age, it is my contention that the bulk of movies which have been relegated and condescendingly described as "illogical visions: hooded, deformed villains, giant insects and other monsters" 4 etc, remain the most influential treatments of nuclear themes, largely bypassing a priori audience predispositions precisely by using metaphor and allegory to depict 'the unthinkable' -- often drawing from and reinterpreting prevailing mythologies to frame their dramatic depictions.
While the dramas of 'liberal conscience' (like their didactic documentary cousins) may be accused of preaching to the converted, the staggering box-office draws and video rentals of the adventure/exploitation movies indicate a far greater exposure to their diverse nuclear themes. The question remains, however, in what manner do these popular film representations construct their audience as subjects in relation to such issues?
1. For examples, see Spencer W. Weart's excellent history Nuclear Fear , Harvard Universtiy Press, 1989.
2. Joel Kovel, Against the State of Nuclear Terror , Pan, London 1983.
3. Two exceptions are The Atomic Cafe (1982) which contains excerpts from several nuclear dramas, and No Nukes (1980) the film of the anti-nuclear benefit rock concert, both included because of their mass release into cinemas around the world. For other documentary information see the following citations in my Select Bibliography: John Dowling (1982), Cultural Information Service (1983), Peter Malone (1985), Leanne Nichols (1986).
4. This dismissal comes from no less than a Professor of Mass Communications, when introducing an anthology of writings on nuclear war films. cf Jack G. Shaheen (ed), Nuclear War Films , Southern Ill Uni Press, Carbondale 1978, p. xviii.