Home Year 1964 Fail-Safe (1964)

Fail-Safe (1964)

"I can hear the sound of explosions from the north east. The sky is very bright. All lit up."


The threat of nuclear armageddon was a very real thing throughout most of the latter half of the 20th century, what with the United States and the USSR stockpiling enough nuclear missiles to guarantee mutually assured destruction at the slightest provocation.

And so the plot of Fail-Safe was a genuine possibility back in the 1960s, if not quite for the same reasons depicted here. There’s even a message at the end of the film from the US government stating that such a technical glitch would never have occurred. In any case, it was a scary prospect indeed.

Adapted from the novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, this Sidney Lumet directed cold war thriller sees an electrical error give a US bomber plane the appropriate codes to begin a bombing run on Moscow.

I could wax lyrical about the cast here. Walter Matthau, Henry Fonda, Dom DeLuise, Larry Hagman… All great in their own way.

The droll Walter Matthau as Groet… Groetes… that political scientist guy is superb. He’s a realist, not driven by emotion. It’s arguable that his cold world view is just as dangerous to the situation than the more emotive views held by those in power. In fact it seems to be the military’s position that to engage in any aggressive manner is tantamount to destroying the world.

Dom DeLuise I only mention because he would later go on to bigger things (mostly comedic) but here he’s in a bit part role. Likewise, Larry Hagman would go on to wide fame but here puts in a solid performance as a translator for the President, played by Henry Fonda.

It’s clear why Mubi paired this up with Dr Strangelove. Both films cover miscommunication that could result in nuclear war. Both films are classics from the period, but they differ in that Dr Strangelove is the blackest of black comedies whereas Fail-Safe plays it completely seriously.

While it mostly consists of lots of men standing around looking at display screens with concern on their faces (no women – this was 1964 after all), there’s increasing tension as the unwittingly rogue craft gets closer to Russian borders. Some of the better moments come from a telephone call, of all things – one in which we only see the President’s side of the discussion. At no point do we jump over to Moscow to see their side of things. We hear snatches of conversation, interpreted by Hagman’s character, as negotiations become more tense.

It asks a lot of very pertinent questions about the strength of the Communist belief system, the moral implications of unwittingly attacking the Russians first, whether retaliation is likely to take place or if surrender will occur. It also provides a genuinely surprising ending, one that has an incredible amount of power to it. What lengths would our leaders go to in order to avert a full scale nuclear war? There is always an element of compromise, as horrifying as that might seem. It is this message that gives Fail-Safe its power.


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