I recently found a cheery Internet article about a new scientific study that concluded that “even a ‘small’ nuclear war would destroy the world.” A child of the ’50s, I remember the air raid shelter signs in downtown Dallas, the ads for make-your-own bomb shelters, the paranoia and fear that William Faulkner so ably defined in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?”
A child of the movies as well, I decided to revisit how the bomb played out on the big screen in the ’50s, choosing four representative films that ran the gamut of the decade. The first is also one of the best, despite a minimal budget and no-name cast. Written, produced and directed by Arch Oboler, (whose Frank Lloyd Wright-designed guesthouse at his California ranch is also the film’s major setting), Five (1951) focuses on what might be the last five humans left on Earth after a nuclear war. Apart from the dubious explanations of their various survival stories, the movie is intelligent, realistic and grim (though not without hope). Occasionally lyrical and intentionally artistic, Five is also heavy-handed at times. Nonetheless, it’s the first feature film to deal seriously with nuclear Armageddon.
Four years later, Roger Corman directed his first science-fiction film, Day the World Ended, about seven souls who gather in another California rural setting after the bomb drops. More kiddie fare than anything else, the movie deals with how radiation turns some humans into monsters (of the rubber suit variety) who then stalk our heroine. The cast includes a hood, a gun moll, a rugged geologist and others who talk and bicker until it’s time for the monster to clomp into view. Scientifically ludicrous, the film shows how Corman could read the pulse of the times and make money and entertainment out of a genuinely terrifying nuclear premise.
World Without End (1956) is the most typical sci-fi fare of the group, starting with a crew of four on their way back from Mars when an unexpected warp speed propels them onto post-nuclear Earth in the year 2508. When they finally figure out where they are, they encounter giant spiders (again of rubber), mutant human savages and finally a sophisticated but dying civilization hiding underground. Our four stalwart heroes (including vigorous young Rod Taylor) kill and tame the mutants and romance the surviving women, all of whom look like starlets. Absurdist fun, World Without End is the thematic precursor of two far superior films of the ’60s — The Time Machine (1960, also with Rod Taylor) and Planet of the Apes (1968).
Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach (’59) closes the decade on a truly depressing note. No one survives the apocalyptic aftermath this time. The last ones left — Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire (in his first dramatic role) and Anthony Perkins — gather in Australia, waiting for the fallout to make its inevitable way to them. Somber but effective, the film features good performances from its star-studded cast and Ernest Gold’s Oscar-nominated score that made “Waltzing Matilda” a top-10 hit. Definitely a “message” film, On the Beach was still criticized by some officials for exaggerating the effects of nuclear fallout.
In 1964, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb would show just how hilarious and absurd that particular objection was. Until then, we will have to wait and see.