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10 Distressing Films on the Potential Aftermaths of a Nuclear Holocaust

For decades, Cinema has done its duty in questioning the blood-lust-driven establishment on its nuclear activities despite its claims to the contrary. The sheer scale of devastation conjured by nuclear holocaust may naturally overwhelm our senses. But the movies’ clear-cut, unflinching visuals have made us comprehend the real, unalterable costs of such a disaster.

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It’s been more than seven decades since two atomic bombs annihilated the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the only times nuclear weapons have been used in warfare. And in these seventy years, we have learned a lot about the irreparable human costs of nuclear holocaust and the long-lasting hazards of radiation exposure. Yet, the chance of a warring nation deflecting the use of such a weapon in extreme measures couldn’t be deemed impossible. The dark clouds of Cold War may have long perished, but power-hungry governments all over the world tend to toy with their nuclear weaponry. With ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) winning 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, the need to recognize the catastrophic consequences of these deadly weapons has only drawn more attention.




For decades, Cinema has done its duty in questioning the blood-lust-driven establishment on its nuclear activities despite its claims to the contrary. The sheer scale of devastation conjured by nuclear holocaust may naturally overwhelm our senses. But the movies’ clear-cut, unflinching visuals have made us comprehend the real, unalterable costs of such a disaster. The selected nightmare-inducing movies below convey the utter pointlessness and horror of nuclear conflict. In the list, I have mostly avoided including movies that uses nuclear apocalypse as a mere backdrop. Nevertheless, if I have missed out on any significant works pertaining to the topic, please comment it.

10. On the Beach [1959]  | Director: Stanley Kramer

Image result for on the beach stanley kramer

Stanley Kramer’s somber drama was set in the waning days of human civilization right after an alleged nuclear warfare. Based on Nevil Shute’s best-selling novel, the film was made when the Cold War tensions were at their peak. The story is set in 1964 and follows a small group of nuclear holocaust survivors in Australia. The radioactive fallout hasn’t yet reached the far-off continent. However, it would in few months time. Consequently, people accept their fate and start preparing for the inevitable. On the Beach has an exemplary cast, including Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, and Anthony Perkins. The narrative moves on the psychological terrain, unlike the later era films that methodically detailed the palpable consequences of atomic destruction. The drama is soap-operatic at times, although the star-heavy cast delivers wonderful performances.

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9. The Day After [1983] | Director: Nicholas Meyer

Nicolas Meyer’s TV movie, although attracted huge attention during its day, although now feels like a message-driven informative work. The story revolves around nuclear crisis which propels US and Soviet government to launch nuclear missiles against one another. The narrative follows small community of people living close to the nuclear silos of Missouri and Kansas. The Day After is said to be mentioned in President Reagan’s memoirs. It’s credited for having shown the American people & government on how a nuclear war is an unwinnable one. However, unlike similarly-themed movies, the characters here are a bit dry. The character dynamics often stays stiff and doesn’t bring much emotional connection. The visual effects and disturbing specifics of nuclear holocaust, nevertheless, are impressively created for its time.

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8. The Atomic Café [1982] | Directors: Kevin, Pierce Rafferty and Jayne Loaders

This fascinating account of life during the atomic age is an odd one among this list of films. Atomic Café is less about human exposure to the atomic bomb, and more about paranoid mind-set of Cold War. Nevertheless, this 90-minute montage of old propaganda films powerfully iterates the folly of playing with A-bombs. Disturbing and goofy in equal measures, the documentary chronicles the period between America’s nuclear infancy (mid 1940s) and the peak of Cold War propaganda (in early 1960s). But Atomic Café doesn’t employ talking-heads to dish out a detailed historical account of the era. Instead, the director/producers Kevin and Pierce Rafferty and Jayne Loaders artfully and satirically juxtaposes government propaganda films (of 40s and 50s) to bring home their political message.




The footage of Hiroshima A-bomb survivors and radiation sickness of Bikini islanders speak of the horrors of atomic holocaust. There are also moments of comic relief, including the Civil Defense Short ‘Duck & Cover’. More ludicrous are the military reels accounting the threat of Soviet nuclear power and red menace in US soil. Altogether, ‘Atomic Café’ masterfully turns the tools of propaganda to explore the dark contours of nuclear warfare.

Also Read: Come and See [1985]: A Chilling and Indelible Reminder of Nazi Carnage




7. Letters from a Dead Man [1986] | Director: Konstantin Lopushanskiy

Every single treatment of the nuclear holocaust in cinema that was made in the west could be divided into two categories: the ones detailing the horrific post-blast aftermath (the movies in this list); and paranoia surrounding the threat of nuclear warfare (Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe, Seven Days in May, Miracle Mile, etc). But rarely have we witnessed the other perspective. And that too, a work from pre-glasnost Soviet Union that overtly speaks against the arms race and authoritarianism.




Konstantin Lopushanskiy’s ‘Letters from a Dead Man’ offers an unsentimental, sublime take on the nuclear apocalypse. The parable follows a group of nuclear holocaust survivors, shacking up in a dilapidated city building. An old professor taking care of his sick wife writes undeliverable letters to his missing son. The ‘letters’ that unfolds in the form of interior monologue provides a glimpse into the devastation. The film is mostly shot in sepia-tone, offering a very harsh viewing experience, but also a necessary one. Lopushanskiy, who worked as assistant to Tarkovsky in Stalker (1979), manages to imbue few of the auteur’s touches. Even though ‘Letters…’ isn’t a masterpiece, it’s an extraordinarily humanistic film, devoid of propaganda or jingoism.




6. When the Wind Blows [1986] | Director: Jimmy T. Murakami

Jimmy Murakami’s faithful adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ graphic novel is a moving, unforgettable documentation of cold war madness. Made in the format of traditional animation, the visual tone is deeply ironic, whimsical, and also utterly disturbing. The central characters of the story are James and Hilda, ordinary old-age British pensioners. Jim and Hilda live in bucolic English countryside, where the outside world isn’t much of a concern. But the worsening international crisis escalates Jim’s obsession with news. He attempts to get his habitat ready for the forthcoming inconvenience of nuclear attack.




Jim’s efforts to build nuclear fallout shelter, based on the safety brochures issued by government agencies, instills subtle humor. The narrative, however, takes a distressing turn when the worst-case scenario actually happens. The pile of indignities and suffering visited upon these simple, harmless people is observed in a very moving manner. ‘When the Wind Blows’ is a bit message-heavy, even though the devastating emotional impact it generates is undeniable.




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