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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Fail Safe

Curiously, Columbia Pictures ended up with two Brink-Of-War films in 1964. Fail Save (FS) came out 10 months after Columbia's Dr. Strangelove. They're bookends. FS was well directed and well filmed. It had big name actors, such as Henry Fonda and Walter Matthau. It even had some "free" pre-release publicity. Yet, FS did not do well. Unlike the satire, Dr. Strangelove, FS was a serious drama on the same topic, but following comedy made it harder to be taken seriously. The film deserved better. Watch for a young Dom DeLuise in his first film. A bit part as Sgt. Collins.

Quick Plot Synopsis
General Black wakes from a recurring bad dream, but composes himself, leaves his wife and two boys in New York City and flies to a pentagon briefing. Professor Goetschele (Matthau) is a political scientist and advisor to the Pentagon. He thinks nuclear war can be survived. The real question is which superpower is better prepared to survive and emerge. At an Air Force Base in Omaha, generals give a tour for a congressman. They get a brief moment of tension as a UFO scrambles fighters and puts patrolling bombers on alert. The UFO turns out to be commercial plane off course. A faulty circuit box is replaced, causing a brief blip in the system. This blip sends the attack order to bomber Group 6. They head for Moscow. The Russians have a radio jammer going, so the recall order doesn't get to Group 6. The President (Fonda), the Pentagon and Omaha base confer on what to do. The President orders some fighters to intercept and shoot down the bombers. But, with such a head start, they fail to reach them. Hawks among the advisors, such as Colonel Cascio and Professor Groeteschele urge that America capitalize on the error and launch a massive first strike. Win the Cold War right now. Doves among the advisors speak of the millions killed and moral wrong. The President calls the Russian Premier to discuss options. After some bickering and jockeying, and the Soviet's failure to shoot down all the bombers, the President orders defense secrets given to the Russians to improve their success. This works, but patriotic Colonel Cascio can take no further compromise and takes command of the Omaha SAC base. He is taken into custody. The Russians shoot down all but one bomber. Their last defense is to launch up all their surface to air missiles (heat seekers), in hopes of making a fireball and trap the low flying bomber. To prove his sincerity that it was all an accident, the President tells the Premier that if the bomber gets through and Moscow is bombed, he will order an American bomber to bomb New York City. The trade is horrible, but keeps the general peace. Grady, the pilot of the bomber, figures out the Russian missile tactic and evades it. The blast irradiates them (he says) so they decide to blow up with their bombs over Moscow. The President hear's the ambassador's phone squeal, so orders General Black to drop the bombs on New York. He does, then injects himself with poison. He realizes he is the matador from his dream. Routine life in NYC is shown in mini-video vignettes. They all zoom in and freeze frame for the moment the bombs explode. The End.

All four of the big Nuclear Doom movies came out of the late 1950s. On the Beach ('59) was the first movie. The stories from which Fail Safe and Dr Strangelove would come, were written in 1958. The Last War came out in 1961. At that time, Russia had the bomb, and post-Sputnik ('57), they'd proven they had capable rockets too. Diplomacy was not going well. Things looked especially bleak. The Cuban Missile Crisis was coming together. All four stories imagined the unimaginable -- that global nuclear war would happen, and wipe out all life on earth. In FS, it is only the two major cities, Moscow and New York that are wiped out, but they serve as proxies, representatives for what would happen to the whole world if that terrible compromise had not been reached.

Influence on Sci-fi
As mentioned before, many of the post-armageddon stories that populate sci-fi, usually pick up their stories well after the above-mentioned nuclear armageddon has taken place. These four apocalyptic films serve as understood footnotes for how those future worlds of mutants and cave-dwelling remnants got that way.

Cold War Spotlight
FS is pretty much 100% Cold War as a topic, but a little bit of American boosterims manages to seep through. The American President is the cool, calm leader type. The Russian Premier (all off camera) is more flighty and prone to brag and bluster. American weapons and defense systems are superior to the Russians. The moral of the film is delivered by Fonda near the end, talking to the Russian Premier. "We're to blame, both of us. We let our machines get out of hand. Today we had a taste of the future. Do we learn from it, or go on the way we have What do we say to the dead? We must say that it will not happen again. What we put between us, we can remove." FS preaches reconciliation.

Battle of the Books -- Before both films, Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe, had been released, there was a rather public legal battle. The writer of the story that would become the basis for Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, sued the writers of the book "Fail Safe." (published in 1962) for plagiarism. While the book had been on the shelves for over a year, it was news of Max Youngstein (former of United Artists) working on a film version of "Fail Safe" that prompted the suit. Peter George's "Red Alert" was published in 1958. He alleged plagiarism. Harvey Wheeler, one of the authors of "Fail Safe" countered that the book was based on his prior story, "Abaraham '58" and that George took no legal action until news of the movie broke. The parties settled out of court, with part of the settlement being that Columbia be granted rights to the Fail Safe. Now Columbia had two Doom movies.

Early Trace -- Harvey Wheeler asserted that he did not plagiarize Peter George's "Red Alert", but wrote a similar story a year earlier. His short story had a similar scenario and was titled "Abraham '58". There is a hint of this in the screenplay. At one point, the President asks Blacky if he remembers his Old Testament. Particularly the story of Abraham. Not much more is said in the movie, but this was a reference to events in Genesis 22, where Abraham follows orders from God to sacrifice his son Isaac on the altar. (God stops him at the last minute.) Wheeler used this imagery for a president's burden in deciding people's fates, hence his title. Perhaps this is a bit of his short story that survived into the script. It's interesting that Wheeler assumed he could include a mere mention of Abraham and that his audience would be familiar enough with the Bible to catch his inference.

Nascent Technophobia -- The distrust (if not fear) of machines had been perking in the background during the 50s. It showed up only a few times. In Gog ('54), robots and computers kill, but it is still by a human (enemy) hand guiding them. In Invisible Boy ('57), a super computer becomes sentient and tries to take over. Amid the Cold War, technophobia got a huge boost as people realized the vast power (nukes) that their machines controlled. In the Marathon of Doom films (see below), mechanical failures are the sparks that blow up the world. Fear of computers would grow as the 60s and 70s wore on. These Doom films highlight that moment when people realized they had voluntarily yielded too much power and responsibility to them. Many a sci-fi tale would spring from this.

Dying Phones Squeal? -- An iconic element in FS was the pronouncement that they would know if the bombs were dropped on Moscow because the phone line would emit a loud squeal as the ambassador's phone melted. It's dramatic, like a symbolic technological metaphor for the screams of the millions of Moscovites. The reality would be less dramatic. A nuclear bomb would be more likely to have broken phone lines (simple, undramatic dead air) than it would have left them intact long enough to melt the phone. The death squeal is undeniably more powerful for storytelling, though.

Star Plane -- Where Dr. Strangelove had some of its story play out in the cramped interior of a B-52, FS's counterpart was the cramped cockpit of a Convair B-58. In real life, the B-58 was called "Hustlers." In the movie, they're called "Vindicators". (Also note how the planes are always shown in negative) In reality, the B-58 was America's ace in the Cold War game. Capable of flying at mach 2 and very high, it was thought that the Hustler would be nearly impossible for the Soviets to stop, far better than the huge, lumbering B-52s. Strategic Air Command imagined the B-58 performing just the role depicted in the film. Actually, advances in Soviet missile technology made high altitude approaches too risky. The B-58 was then planned to fly in low, under radar, but at the lower altitude, it could not fly as fast. The B-58 was also tricky to fly and expensive to maintain. By the mid-60s, the Pentagon sought a better, less expensive alternative. By 1970, the B-58 was retired. The FB-111 was that smaller, cheaper alternative. Ironically, the B-52s that the Hustler was designed to replace, stayed in active service into the 21st century as the only viable carrier of air-launch cruise missiles.

Doom Marathon -- An interesting movie marathon (though not necessarily a "fun" one), would be to start off with The Last War ('61) for a third party's view of Armageddon-Via-Mistakes. Follow that with Fail Safe ('64) for an American view of the same scenario (just expand Moscow/New York to mean the world). Third up should be Dr. Strangelove ('64) for a satirical view of the same. Stop there if you wanted a fun evening with friends. But, if you wanted the complete Atomic Angst experience, wrap it up with On The Beach ('59) for that last forlorn look at mankind's end. Any Generation Y or Millennial who doesn't understand what everyone was so stressed about back in the Cold War days, should have a pretty good idea after this Marathon of Doom.

Bottom line? FS is a solid film, well paced, well acted, and visually strong (aside from the odd negative airplanes). It is well worth watching as a drama-thriller, but especially so as a window into the soul of Cold War fears.


TomJay said...

love this film from the first time I saw it as a kid and holy crap does it stand up today. Its by far my favorite Lumet film and I know people get in a tis over the fact it is like Dr Strangelove but what the hell its great. Many thanks for the article really enjoyed it!

Nightowl said...

I agree, Tom. Fail Safe is strong drama with some nice depth to the script. It's too bad it lives in the shadow of Dr. Strangelove.

Squidee said...

The negative Hustler footage was the result of Lumet's failure to get US Air Force cooperation. Surprising Kubrick had no such problems with Strangelove. Anyhow Lumet was forced to use stock footage of such low quality it looked best as negative.