Nuclear war movies had their heyday in the 1950s and early 1960s, with irradiated animals turning into mutant monsters and Communists lurking in every shadow. The “Silver Age” came during the Reagan administration, when his saber-rattling led to fears of a global nuclear holocaust destroying civilization if not all life on Earth.
In the US, the TV movie The Day After (1983) showed the effects of such a war on Lawrence, KS. Not to be left out, the next year the UK came out with Threads, which showed the breakdown of civilization in Sheffield in the aftermath.
Coming late to the party, and taking an entirely different approach, was the UK’s animated film When the Wind Blows.
Based on a 1982 graphic novel by Raymond Briggs, this film shows the life of retired couple James (John Mills) and Hilda (Peggy Ashcroft) Bloggs as they prepare for nuclear war in their rural cottage, and then deal with survival in the aftermath. It’s more of a tragedy than an anti-war film. At no point are you clubbed over the head with A MESSAGE; it’s a lot more subtle than that. Done in a watercolor-like style (interspersed with little bits of stop-motion), it looks deceptively tranquil.
James reads the depressing news of approaching war at the local library, and figures they should get their home ready. When reading the booklets about preparing for an attack, the couple are confused by contradictory and incomplete information. Bu they resolve to make it through, in the good old “Can do!” spirit that got them through The Blitz of WWII. We, the viewers, can see how hopelessly nostalgic they are, figuring everything will be all right once Emergency Services gets to them.
At times, you want to jump through the screen and yell at them. “You have a bike! Secure that before the bomb falls, so you can go scavenge or look for help afterwards! And for the love of god, DON’T DRINK THE RAINWATER! NOOO!!! DON’T!!!! ARRGGGHHHH!!!!”
Needless to say, they come down with radiation sickness. James keeps a stiff upper lip about it all, comforting Hilda by brushing it off as the result of stress and old age. In the end, it looks like they finally do come to their senses. But by then it’s too late to do anything other than make it easy for the people collecting the bodies – if there is anyone left to do that.
You can probably gather from the intimate setting (one cottage with two characters) that it’s no great Doomsday Apocalypse Movie. Nor does it get into graphic detail about the pain and suffering of the aftermath. The slow pacing lets you come to know and love the Bloggs, which makes their final tragedy all the more heartbreaking.
There’s an immense amount of talent involved in the production. Ashcroft and Mills are two of the finest and most respected actors ever to come out of Great Britain. David Bowie is just one of the names you’ll see on the soundtrack. The movie is a downer; there’s no getting around it. But it is well worth seeking out and watching. After all, we’re well past the era of Global Thermonuclear War, so we don’t have to worry about such things anymore.