Friday, November 25, 2011

1964 - Fail-Safe

Poster for Fail-Safe (1964)

In 1964 the Cold War was in full swing with the Cuban Missile Crisis only a year old, the war in Vietnam growing hotter and the intercontinental ballistic missile tests that both the USA and the Russian’s were disguising as their space program were going spectacularly well, clearly demonstrating to both sides the ability to totally destroy each other in a nuclear inferno.

Bad for property values

Many films of the era reflected the fears that average people were feeling about the possibility of thermonuclear destruction. Movies such as On the Beach, The World, the Flesh and the Devil and of course Dr.Strangelove all were films that dealt with the end of the world with various degrees of intensity and humor. 

The War Room from Dr Strangelove (1964)

One of the best films of the era, and one that shares a surprisingly large amount of it’s plot with Strangelove was Sidney Lumets tale of bombers that refuse to be recalled and the attempts by the American government to somehow prevent total catastrophe, Fail-Safe.

Larry Hagman and Henry Fonda in Fail-Safe (1964)

With a powerful cast led by Henry Fonda as the President, a solid young Larry Hagman as his interpreter, giving voice to the Soviets, Dan O’Herlihy as an Air Force General asked to do the unthinkable, Fritz Weaver as an officer on the brink and Walter Matthau as a government consultant who thinks that since the facts are what they are, the US has no choice but to commit to a full attack, Lumet creates a stark, non flinching film, with a minimal soundtrack,  that plays more like a documentary then a piece of fiction.

Who is the matador?

The matador is facing the bull, and the dance to the death is in full swing, but everything is shaky, unclear, and then General Warren Black (Dan O’Herlihy), or Blackie as he is known to his friends wakes from his dream disturbed by what was there in his sleep.

Blackie dreams of the matador
Heading into his job at Strategic Air Command, Blackie stops to give a ride to his adjunct, Col. Cascio (Fritz Weaver), and stumbles into an ugly domestic scene where Cascio is fighting with his drunk father, a poor immigrant who hits his wife. Deeply embarrassed by what Blackie sees, Cascio and the general head to SAC.

Col. Cascio's family
It’s an average days at Strategic Air Command, although as always tension exist between the US and the USSR, there is nothing particularly interesting going on and everything is more or less peaceful. Visiting Congressman Raskob, played by future Boss Hogg, Sorrell Brooke questions the officer in charge about the possibility that something could go wrong, the General laughs and tells the Congressman that there are systems upon systems to prevent any kind of accident.

The War Room Situation Board

Which is of course when the big board in the war room suddenly lights up and automatic orders are sent out to have strategic nuclear bombers move out to their Fail Safe positions, Something the general mentions is a common occurrence.

Destination: Moscow

But what’s not so common is that once the planes reach their holding points, they keep on going, heading directly for the Soviet Union with their nuclear payloads. It’s seems that instead of sending out the recall codes, the computers have made an error and sent out the legitimate attack codes instead.

Edward Binns in Fail-Safe (1964)

Meanwhile on one of the bombers, Col. Jack Grady (Edward Binns) the attack group commander is trying to reach base to get his orders confirmed, but finds his radio is being jammed. So with no way to double check, Grady has no choice but to carry on with his instructions and continues on towards his primary target, Moscow.

Watching the "Big Board"

Back on the ground SAC command is in a panic as they desperately attempt to reach the bombers. At the White House in the basement bomb shelter, the President of the United States, played with full gravitas by Henry Fonda decides that since the planes are not responding to radio messages that there is no choice but to order fighter aircraft to shoot the bombers down.

Buck and the President speak to the Soviets

When the fighter aircraft meet with only limited success, the President along with his interpreter Buck (Larry Hagman) call the Soviet Chairman and inform him of the situation. Telling the Chairman about the danger to Moscow and offering full American support, the Soviets, all things considered take the news fairly calmly, and refuse the American offer of help, making clear that they will shoot down the planes themselves.

The battle as seen from the "War Room"

Unfortunately though, the Soviets are only able to shoot down a few of the planes leaving a few still in the air and heading toward the Soviet capital.

Back at SAC a panel is quickly assembled to discuss the options for how to handle the situation with one member Professor Groeteschele (Walter Matthau) making the case that like it or not, war was here, so Americas only option was to go for an all out attack and try to just “win”.

Discussion in the "War Room"

While the two sides bicker back and forth with America offering all help it can provide, but the Russian showing not unreasonable distrust, the world stands on the brink of full fledged nuclear war, when the President makes the Soviets an offer that will balance the scales and allow the world a chance at survival.

The President places a fateful call

The President orders Blackie to pilot a bomber over New York City and if Moscow is destroyed to drop a nuclear bomb over downtown Manhattan killing millions in the process, including Blackies wife and children as well as the First Lady.

It turns out that the Soviets have been jamming the planes radio in a misguided belief that this was all an American plot, but now allow SAC to communicate with the bombers, even putting Grady’s wife on the radio to convince him to stop, but believing that the broadcast is a trick, Grady continues on to Moscow and drops his load destroying the city.

Blackie prepares to follow his orders

Hearing the destruction of Moscow over the phone, the president orders Blackie to proceed with his mission. Injecting himself with a suicide needle as he drops the bomb over New York, Black whispers as he dies, “I am the matador”.

We see children playing in the streets, people going about their business cars driving down the street, birds taking off into the sky.

Birds fly for the last time from Manhattan

Everything freezes.

Everything goes to black.

Unlike Stanley Kubrick’s classic film, Fail-Safe is a serious event from beginning to end, and I guess that in a way that sort of works against it. Dr. Strangelove looks at the absurdity of mutual nuclear destruction, but Fail-Safe goes for a different tact, instead showing normal, decent people doing their best to cope with the unthinkable and failing.

Shot in a stark black and white with almost no soundtrack, Fail-Safe has a tight room intimacy that pulls the viewer in and truly makes you feel like you are in the room.

Fail-Safe is very much a relic of the early 1960’s and might not hold up as well with younger viewers as with people who actually lived though the area, but never the less, Fail-Safe is a well acted, brilliantly directed end of the world drama that 50 years later is still one of the best examples of its type.

Original Trailer for Fail-Safe (1964)

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for an excellent synopsis and clearing up one question I had. Well done.