Monday, March 23, 2009


Those of you under the age of 35 may not remember the time when people lived in constant fear of nuclear annihilation. As hard as it may be to believe now, "nuclear safety" drills were practised in schools as late as the Seventies, even though by that time most of us understood that if the bombs started dropping, we were doomed (well, actually we would've used another four letter word, but you know what I mean...). For younger Baby Boomers and older Gen Xers like myself, then, a movie like Fail-Safe could be as frightening as any horror movie.

Those of you under the age of 35 may also not remember the time when local television stations showed movies on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. It was on one such Sunday afternoon that my brother and I caught Fail-Safe on one of the local channels. We both thoroughly enjoyed the movie, but we agreed it was very frightening. I have seen it many times since then, usually on Turner Classic Movies, and it is as frightening to me now as it was then.

What made Fail-Safe so scary for the children of the Atomic Age was that its premise seemed extremely realistic. When an unidentified aircraft approached the United States from Europe, American bombers were deployed to areas outside the USSR as a fail-safe defence. The bombers had strict orders not to proceed past a specific fail-safe point without a specific code commanding them to do so. As it turns out, the unidentified aircraft proves to be harmless. Unfortunately, a technical error occurs where the code to attack is sent to one bomber group. Worse yet, radio jamming from the Soviet Union prevents the United States from contacting the group. As a result, the bomber group assumes nuclear war is imminent and proceeds towards Moscow...

Fail-Safe was directed by Sidney Lumet and based on the 1962 novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. It was shot in black and white, in a minimalist style reminiscent of documentaries of the time. The movie also had an extreme feeling of claustrophobia, set as it was for the most part in conference rooms, a bunker, and the cockpit of a bomber. Making the movie's tension even greater was the fact that the Soviets are never seen or heard except through the words of an American interpreter (played by Larry Hagman, later of I Dream of Jeannie). Much of the film lacks a soundtrack and there are even long spaces of silence between characters. As if the subject wasn't terrifying enough, the way the movie was shot made it even more so.

Fail-Safe was made all the more convincing by its cast. Henry Fonda played the President, faced with the hardest choice a president of the time could make. Walter Matthau gave one of the best performances of his career, as the fanatical Professor Groeteschele, a scientist who actually encourages the President to start World War III. Fritz Weaver played Colonel Cascio, the commander of the bomber group who believed the worst was about to happen. The performances of the superb cast only heightened the film's tension.

Fail-Safe would not have an easy journey to theatres. The film was based on the novel Fail-Safe, written by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler and published in 1962. Unfortunately, the novel was very similar to another novel about nuclear war entitled Red Alert, written by Peter George and published in 1958. George sued Burdick and Wheeler for plagiarism and the suit was eventually settled out of court. The plagiarism suit would ultimately hurt the movie adaptation as well.

Indeed, at the time Columbia Pictures was producing Fail-Safe, they were also producing an adaptation of Red Alert. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, the serious novel Red Alert would provide fodder for the black comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. When Stanley Kubrick learned that a novel based on Fail-Safe was in production, he grew concerned that if released first Fail-Safe could jeopardise both the critical and financial success of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Kubrick filed a lawsuit to halt production on Fail-Safe, alleging that the novel Fail-Safe was plagiarised from the novel Red Alert, the source material for Dr. Strangelove. In the end Kubrick successfully delayed the release of Fail-Safe, so that it came out a full eight months after Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was released.

For Fail-Safe this would mean disaster. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was both a success at the box office and with critics. It would ultimately be nominated for four Oscars. Worse yet, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was a satire which treated nuclear warfare as fodder for comedy. The effect that Fail-Safe might have had on audiences was then great reduced in the wake of the success of Dr. Strangelove. Although it generally received good reviews, Fail-Safe bombed at the box office.

Fortunately, Fail-Safe would be redeemed in the years since its release. Aired on television, audiences were able to discover and appreciate the taut Cold War thriller without making comparisons to Dr. Strangelove. By 2000 its reputation had grown to the point that the novel Fail-Safe was adapted as play on television. Directed by Stephen Frears and produced by George Clooney, the teleplay Fail-Safe was broadcast live. It is safe to say that the 2000 teleplay would never have been aired had it not been for the 1964 movie. Although it bombed at the box office, in the end Fail-Safe would prove to be an artistic success.


Jim Marquis said...

That is a great and powerful film. And you're right, a totally realistic premise.

Have you ever seen "The Bedford Incident" with Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier?

Terence Towles Canote said...

Oh yeah, I've see The Bedford Incident. That was another frightening movie. I always found it interesting in that in Fail-Safe and in Dr. Strangelove, the bombs were delivered by plane. As far as I know, The Bedford Incident was the only nuclear annihilation movie of the era that featured a guided missile destroyer.