The bomb was ours before we were the bomb's, but not by much. Within two years of the use of the atomic bomb on Japan, MGM had a ponderous and solemn government-approved account of the Manhattan Project in movie theaters. It was called "The Beginning or the End," and Ludwig Stossel played Albert Einstein. The bomb had made its rather official debut in the dominant pop-culture medium of the day.
Actually the nuclear age came to movies even earlier. Alfred Hitchcock liked to brag, in the last years of his brilliantly creative life, that he (and screenwriter Ben Hecht) had given the federales fits by making uranium 235 the Maguffin in his romantic thriller "Notorious," released in 1946. Movie people weren't supposed to have known then about things like uranium, Hitchcock claimed, though popular speculation was rife. In the film, uranium was the stuff Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman found in the wine bottles in Claude Rains' basement.
These films typify two principal approaches to The Bomb taken by movies and TV ever since; either it is the looming idee fixe in a dire cautionary tale, or it is just the most oversized of all mechanical plot devices. But always the big bad wolf. Cinematic treatment of the bomb ranges from the recent "Testament," in which the sacrificially suffering Jane Alexander shepherds her children through nuclear diarrhea, to the merrily mordant 1959 British comedy "The Mouse That Roared," in which a football-shaped "Q-Bomb," capable of global annihilation, is kicked and chased all over the mythical duchy of Grand Fenwick by various incarnations of Peter Sellers.
Whether being grimly contemplated by a cinematic sobersides, or shamelessly brandished in the timeless spirit of movie exploitation, the bomb and nuclear threats have sustained a fairly steady presence in films throughout the past 40 years.
The largest gathering in history to consider seriously the subject of nuclear holocaust was convened by the ABC television network on Nov. 20, 1983, for its history-making telecast "The Day After," a haunting movie about the aftermath of a nuclear attack on the United States. Weeks of advance hysteria about the film, during which it was denounced by every crackpot commie-phobe group in America, helped it achieve a 46 Nielsen rating and 62 percent share of available viewers. That means it had the largest audience, 100 million people, ever to see a movie at one time.
It's good that the movie that holds that record is not about a shark or a bunch of robots or a southern plantation, but about the most crucial and commanding subject imaginable to living humans.
Of all the words spoken about the film and its effects on viewers following the broadcast, some of the wisest were those of Dr. George Gerbner, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. "The Day After" was not important as a work of art -- a similarly titled film, Jon Else's documentary 1981 "The Day After Trinity," about the men who built the bomb, was a far superior treatment of this topic -- but ABC's movie was enormously important as a national confrontation with the unthinkable.
"The nuclear issue has been covered by the news media and has been the subject of books and magazine articles for 30 years," Gerbner said on the morning after. "But when something is put on television, it gains additional power . . . Millions of people who have tried to evade or avoid thinking about, or being exposed to, images of nuclear war, had no choice once they tuned in this program."
The closing image of "The Day After" was of the great actor Jason Robards, as a Kansas doctor, sitting and weeping in the ruins of what was once his home. That picture had the kind of stringent simplicity that television can transmit with lacerating precision. As a visual reference point, it took its place in the general consciousness beside the newsreel films of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that resurface every few years in one context or another. Or perhaps there is only one context for scenes like these.
Such sights have not yet lost the power to move and shock. Yet what about the specter of the bomb itself? ABC News used so many films of nuclear explosions in its three-hour special report "The Fire Unleashed" that it began to look commonplace. But Stanley Kubrick probably did the definitive denaturing of the mushroom cloud 22 years earlier with his mischievous finale to "Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," an unparalleled satire noir. Shots of nuclear explosions in rapid profusion were accompanied by Vera Lynn singing one of her World War II pick-me-ups, "We'll Meet Again."
Kubrick's comedy may rank as one of the best serious films ever done on the subject of planet meltdown. Using the bomb as the focus of the blackest humor was an audacious stunt; the film seems to have lost none of its cynical power in the intervening years. It is a seminal apocalyptic work. There are others, none perhaps more unlikely and yet likely than "Godzilla, King of the Monsters" (1956) a film produced by the first and so far only country to experience nuclear devastation, Japan.
Known as Gojira in his native land, Godzilla is one of a long line of radiation mutations that trampled their ways across the movie screens of the '50s. With diligent Barnummy enterprise, movie producers used nuclear testing as a bogeyman that unearthed giant ants, giant grasshoppers, even a giant turtle. An atomic blast in the Arctic dislodged "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms" in 1953, a special-effects dinosaur (by Ray Harryhausen, the Michelangelo of this genre) who tried to eat New York and was induced to swallow a fatal radioactive isotope while making a first-rate inferno of Coney Island.
But Godzilla stood above his colleagues in monsterdom, even though he was all too clearly not an ingeniously animated model but simply a man in a rubber suit stomping across a paper landscape. Worse, the film was radically altered for American audiences by the importing producer, who inserted shots of Raymond Burr, as reporter "Steve Martin," in the already-completed film (the original, three-hour, subtitled and Burr-less "Godzilla" was shown last year in New York, but no Washington theater has booked it).
For all these impediments, the film still wields, even in interrupted television showings, a seductive cumulative clout, much of it traceable to an awareness of its country of origin. Godzilla is given life by the bomb and having thus been born, he extracts bomblike, and godlike, vengeance. The volume of destruction depicted on the screen is overwhelming.
To add to whatever ironies there were, the Godzilla monster subsequently became a folk hero in Japanese culture, a tall and scaly Davy Crockett, and succeeding Godzilla movies ("Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster") depicted the creature not as a pestilence but as an easily summoned do-gooder. A new remake, featuring a life-size, computer-operated "Godzilla," is now being readied. Like the bomb itself, he will not go away.
Until "The Day After," the single most visible film treatment of life in the nuclear shadow was probably Stanley Kramer's 1959 "On the Beach," an all-star apocalypse set in Australia, where inhabitants wait for the arrival of a radioactive cloud drifting their way after a devastating exchange between the superpowers up north. Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner clinched, Anthony Perkins stammered, but something more likely to be remembered about the film was a Kramer casting gimmick: this movie was so serious that Fred Astaire was in it but did not dance. He played a race car driver who commits suicide rather than face nuclear puking.
Another thing people remember from the film is its Ernest Gold score, specifically the interpolation of the Australian folksong "Waltzing Matilda." Those of us of a certain generation will, thanks to Messrs. Kramer and Gold, never hear "Waltzing Matilda" again without thinking of the end of the world.
Stanley Kramer wasn't the only one to sound warning bells in movie houses during the '50s. The ubiquitous Arch Oboler named his 1951 movie "Five" after the number of people who survive its portrayal of a nuclear attack. Irwin Allen, before he began upending ocean liners and torching skyscrapers, disgorged the hopelessly ludicrous "Story of Mankind" in 1957, a preachy dirge in which Vincent Price as the devil argues in a heavenly court that humanity should be destroyed with the H-bomb.
Much more memorably, the dignified sci-fi thriller "The Day the Earth Stood Still," released in 1951, made it clear that a visit from the mysterious outer space tourist Klaatu and his omnipotent cop robot Gort were prompted by the fact that beings on other planets looked down and saw earthlings messing around with nuclear weapons and concocting interplanetary travel plans. Gort's benediction was the 1951 equivalent of "Clean up your act."
One of the most helpful reference works around on the bomb as theme, and character, in such motion pictures is Michael Weldon's "The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film," an invaluable labor of love published in 1983. Within its wackily appreciative pages on cinema oddities are synopses and assessments of many movies with atomic motifs, from the 1971 "Octaman" (a poster shouts, "Horror Heap from the Nuclear Trash!") to "These Are the Damned" (1962), Joseph Losey's rather languid shocker about radioactive children secretly bred to survive nuclear attack.
The compleat guide to nuclear cinema would include such other Hollywood films as "The Bedford Incident" (1965), in which Sidney Poitier tries to keep Richard Widmark from firing a nuclear missile at a Russian submarine during a very Cold War encounter off the coast of Greenland, and "Fail-Safe" (1964), which has President Henry Fonda, speaking through interpreter Larry Hagman, offering to destroy the city of New York with an atomic bomb after learning from the Russian premier that a deranged U.S. serviceman has nuked Moscow.
In that one, director Sidney Lumet found a shrewdly effective way of conveying the utter finality of nuclear attack without showing the by-then casual mushroom cloud. He freeze-framed various scenes of everyday life -- children at play, pigeons taking flight, lovers embracing -- to indicate how all would be stopped in their tracks forever.
Other moviemakers have favored films set in post-apocalyptic realms to those that brandish portents of doom; they proceed from the hard-to-debunk premise that humans will be unable to resist using nuclear weapons. The three "Mad Max" movies have all been set against the barren landscape of a neo-primitive future. "Glen and Randa" (1971) were two soulful hippies wandering over irretrievably scorched earth. "The Last Man on Earth" (1964),later remade as "The Omega Man" (1971), depicted a post-holocaust planet on which mutilated survivors of the bomb had become degenerate vampires. The first of the five "Planet of the Apes" movies ended with the discovery that it was set in what was left of an America that had been through nuclear war. Charlton Heston looks up and sees one of pop cinema's most startling exclamation points: the remains of the Statue of Liberty, buried up to her sternum in sand. In the second film, "Return to the Planet of the Apes," the hero encounters a tribe of mutants that worships the bomb as a god.
Television, supposedly the most timid of media, has confronted the bomb on numerous occasions, never as frivolously as in films like "Atom Age Vampire" or "The Amazing Colossal Man," or that sort of thing. On April 3, 1960, the CBS anthology classic "Playhouse 90" offered a TV adaptation of Pat Frank's doomsday novel "Alas, Babylon," starring Don Murray. It was all rather squalidly melodramatic, but certainly grim. More recently, on NBC, Rock Hudson played a distraught U.S. president forced by circumstances to lead his nation into the hopeless conflict of "World War III."
Regularly scheduled programs from "Medic" of the '50s to "Lou Grant" of the '70s included episodes that dealt with age-of-anxiety anxieties. A bit more inventively, Rod Serling's "The Twilight Zone" offered several moral-laden dramas that looked at the specter of Armageddon unflinchingly. In "Third From the Sun," a scientist and a test pilot make plans to flee their homes in a spaceship and head for another planet because they know an all-consuming nuclear war is imminent. At the end of the episode, the viewer learns they are not leaving the earth in their rocket but in fact heading toward it.
In a "Twilight Zone" episode called "Two," a man and a woman discover they are the only survivors of an H-bomb blast that leveled a city six years earlier. The roles were played by Elizabeth Montgomery and Charles Bronson. "The Old Man in the Cave" also takes place among the remains of an annihilated civilization. But the best of the atomic "Twilight Zones" is probably "Time Enough at Last," in which a chronically nearsighted bookworm played by Burgess Meredith survives atomic war because he had spent his lunch hour in a bank vault. He emerges into the ashes to find the library destroyed but many of his beloved books still intact, but after piling them up neatly as part of his lifetime reading plan, he is devastated when his thick glasses fall to the ground and crash into useless pieces.
At the Museum of Broadcasting in New York this month, vintage radio programs that dealt with America's use of the bombs to end World War II will be on exhibit. One, "The Quick and the Dead," written and directed by Fred Friendly, is narrated by, of all people, Bob Hope. It was 1950 and people still associated the atom with progress. A museum spokeswoman says that among the most popular television entries dealing with nuclear warfare is a one-hour kinescope of live coverage by Los Angeles station KTLA-TV of 1952 nuclear tests in Nevada, and that people get chills up their spines when they watch it.
On the other hand, it was two years later when Mickey Rooney starred in an imbecilic B-movie comedy called "The Atomic Kid," playing a goof who wanders into an A-bomb test and emerges with such supernatural powers as the ability to beat Las Vegas slot machines. For such an imponderable subject, the bomb has certainly inspired a great deal of mundane inanity.
What is the "proper" film and television treatment to be, the correct and most responsible approach? Gloomy reverence is only one of several alternatives. The makers of modern mass fantasies were bound to use The Bomb as a gimmick, a toy, a vehicle for pandering on one level or another, as they had used many serious subjects previously. There is justice in this, even sense. What one can see looking back at all the pop-apocalypse literature, and looking ahead to inevitable new entries in the field, is that the bomb may be not only the ultimate terror of all time, and the ultimate joke of all time, but also, and fittingly, the ultimate banality.