FAIL SAFE (1964)

THE SWORD OF DAMOCLES

Columbia Studio in 1963 had a bad bout of cognitive dissidence. They were developing two projects that were like fraternal twins. Even in the early stages of creative nurturing, the projects were already wrestling in the womb, fighting over who would be born first. One project was a film based on RED ALERT, a modest novel by Peter George. Stanley Kubrick had rewritten it as a screenplay, and he was directing a film based on it, called DR. STRANGELOVE, OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB. The other property was based on a best-selling novel, FAIL-SAFE, by Eugene Burdick, who also wrote THE UGLY AMERICAN, and Harvey Wheeler. The talented Sidney Lumet was directing the film of that book. Kubrick, ever the infant terrible, threatened to sue Columbia, and sue Lumet’s production team, claiming plagiarism, harassment, character defamation, and God-knows-what all. There were stories that Kubrick even threatened to quit, as he had on ONE EYED JACKS, and almost had on SPARTACUS, if Columbia didn’t release his film first.

Consequently, after all that blood under the bridge, some button-down cone head, some twerp, some idiot, or even some gaggle of morons at Columbia made a decision. They would release STRANGELOVE first, followed a few months later by FAIL SAFE. [This is reminiscent of the release of BEN HUR, followed a few months later by SPARTACUS. SPARTACUS got initial lukewarm reviews, and did not make much money; yet in some ways it is the superior film]. I think, in retrospect, Columbia made a bonehead decision. It would have likened to President Truman sacrificing thousands of American servicemen, deciding to attack the Japanese home islands instead of dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, simply because certain Congressmen, lobbyists, and bleeding hearts contended that the unleashing of an atomic bomb on largely a civilian population was inhumane.

Stanley Kubrick, who was a cinematic eccentric genius in his way, had decided that the subject of nuclear holocaust was just too intense, too stark to portray in a straightforward dramatic manner. So DR. STRANGELOVE became satire, one of the greatest comedies about war and war mongering ever made; a classic. This was a comedy so dark one would laugh until it hurt. Peter Sellers was magnificent in his three roles. Equally good were Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, and Keenan Wynn. But within that film, where was the morality and the conscience? I think that what Columbia should have done was to release FAIL SAFE first, to cut loose the rabid dogs of nuclear madness directly onto us, to introduce the subject as a straightforward dramatic treatment, a creative short jab to the guts. Then follow it up, a few months later, with the satirical clone, giving the audience a much deeper appreciation of both mediums.

So, to some extent, Columbia made more of a political decision than an artistic one when they released STRANGELOVE first. Prior to the final credits, as a kind of political poultice, they included the lame disclaimer,

“The producers of this film wish to stress that it is the stated position of the Department of the Defense and the United States Air Force that a rigidly enforced system of safeguards and controls ensure that actual occurrences, such as these depicted in this story, can not ever happen.”

I understand that it is a given that all Comedy is based on fear; that we laugh at things because we are glad they are happening to someone else. Whole books have been written on the subject. So DR. STRANGELOVE, which was truly hysterical in parts, was born of fear, stank of fear. Our laughter poked fun at our deepest fears of nuclear accident and its consequences. We stuck our tongues out, protruded the raspberry, into the face of the Nuclear Demon. There is a place for such levity in this world. But in 1963, what we needed first was the grim pessimism of FAIL SAFE, the unclouded acerbic rhetoric of Cold War stupidity, probable computer malfunction, and the terrible haphazardness of death at our door. We were on the brink of our own destruction, and we needed to be reminded that that was a damned dangerous place to teeter.

In 1963, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy had just faced down Premier Kruschev over Cuba, and the “Missiles of October”, the year before. Former President Eisenhower was playing golf and taking fat kickbacks for land deals relative to his innovative cross-country freeway system. Cans of potted meat and peaches sat on dusty shelves in dark backyard and basement bomb shelters. School children were still watching flickering filmstrips about “Ducking and Covering”. Kennedy had not started his campaign for re-election yet, was still having love liaisons with Marilyn Monroe and Angie Dickinson, and had not flown to Dallas yet.

By 1964, when both films were released, JFK was dead, and President Appointee Lyndon Baines Johnson, allegedly, was opposed to releasing FAIL SAFE. So this, of course, also meant that the United States Air Force would likewise be opposed to the making of and the release of the film. The USAF was completely uncooperative, and so there was no available film footage of their bombers, their bases, and their meeting rooms. Weapons and Plane aficionados have pointed out the footage used in the film of the Vindicator bombers were actually archaic stock footage of Convair B-58’s, and in one brief shot for the climax, they used F-86 Sabre Jets. For the shot where the fighters are supposed to be going to their afterburners, what was shown were fighters firing missiles. One can see them flashing ahead of the planes. Secondary to the desperate situation, the stock shots all seemed tacked on and clumsy, and poorly lit. But actually, in terms of the dramatic flow of the story, this was hardly noticeable.

At one point in my life, in the late 50’s, the enormity of this fear and stress used to give me insomnia. The roar of commercial jets, punctuated by the scream of military aircraft, used to shape my nightmares and bathe me in night sweats. Often I would wile away the sleepless hours poring over scientific and weapons journals. I would read the U.S. Defense Nuclear Agency Manual like it was the Sears catalog. One of my favorite bits of light reading is still THE EFFECTS OF A GLOBAL THERMONUCLEAR WAR, the 4th edition, published in 1988, updated in 2003, written by William Robert Johnston.

It is evident that in 1963 the threat of the total destruction of most of the earth’s surface within the Northern Hemisphere was not merely a fantasy, or a warmonger’s wet dream. Rather it was just a quiver, the push of several buttons, stress-induced loss of mental facilities, the acting out of carefully nourished embedded aggressions, or the malfunction of machines away from the lethal blossoming of thousands of blood red nuclear clouds, the cumulus of Mars, and the raining down of black acidic radiated death on our amber waves of grain, and our purple mountains majesty.

Johnston projected a scenario, and “intelligent speculation” where upon the USSR exercised a pre-emptive first strike at America. He chose 1988 as the year of this event. The Soviet Union would launch about 1,000 missiles, carrying 5,000 warheads. All the orbiting satellites would be taken out first, putting a red fist into all those eyes in the sky, generating electromagnetic pulses (EMP). Computers would suddenly be useless, and we would have our communications jugulars torn open. Power grids and networks and cellular phones would all go silent, and no real warning could be implemented for the bulk of the civilian populations. We, of course, would have immediately retaliated, emptying thousands of missile silos of their ICBM’s. SAC would send up dozens of their bomber squadrons, pointing them at the USSR, loaded down with thousands of nuclear bombs and missiles. Then both sides would launch their antiballistic missiles (ABM’s). Too late, within the perimeters of major cities, after the enemy ICBM’s are detected, we would send up our hundreds of thousands of surface-to-air heat-seeking missiles (SAM’s).

After launching their first strike at America, the Soviets would attack Israel and China. The nuclear powers, America, England, France, Israel and China would all retaliate in unison. Over 500 missiles would be in the first salvo aimed at Moscow. It is estimated that 200 would reach their target. In all countries, the leaders hiding in lead-lined bunkers would initially survive. Civilians hiding in subways, tunnels, and most basements would die within one hour. Huge firestorms would rage across the immediate areas where the bombs were detonated.

Unilaterally, Naval combat would ensue. Submarines from both sides would launch their SLBM’s. All of these spiraling cones of death would, at some point, pass each other on route to their destinations. At sea, all over the Atlantic and Pacific, battleships and heavy cruisers and nuclear missile carrying destroyers would engage, all firing their cargos of tactical missiles. Very soon all of the major dams in America and Russia would have been destroyed, and massive flooding would occur. Walls of steaming radiated black water would roll over rural areas. Then as the tall fire clouds would begin to fade, they would let loose of their burdens, dumping vaporized soil and radioactive bomb residue as fallout upon the land. The fallout, like ash from a volcano, would cover and coat everything, settling into the gray earth itself. The remaining fallout would be caught up by the prevailing pressure systems, and it would be spread quickly downwind. Temperatures would begin to drop dramatically. Exposed persons caught outside would be burned or poisoned. Then the black rain would start. It would be radioactive too, and it would burn people’s skin; like the whole sky was spewing tons of battery acid.

Bomb blasts and fires would have destroyed 70% of the world’s industrial capacity, and toxic chemicals would be released everywhere. Bombers in second and third waves would arrive at their targets, Soviet bombers here and NATO bombers there, and they would still have payloads to deliver. As the returning bombers would make a run for home, they would start running out of fuel. Very few runways would still exist. The oceans would open their cold arms to welcome scores of diving dead stick bombers. Their crews would be the lucky ones. It is estimated that out of the 67,000 known nuclear weapons available for use in 1988, 75% of them would have been deployed in the first 48 hours.

Nuclear smoke clouds would spread a solid band of radioactivity completely around the northern half of the globe. It would become overcast everywhere, and the sun’s rays would barely be able to penetrate it. Temperatures would continue to plummet. Midst the darkness of nuclear night, we would be informed about the delayed fallout heading our way from the nuclear waste that was blasted clear out of the naked stratosphere, but is now returning to join the melee.

Within one month, 140 million Americans would have died. China would have lost 100 million souls. We would find that there would be very little medical help available for the survivors. There will be 20 million severe injuries, and about 8,900 beds to accommodate them. We will have no computers, no new medicine, and no power; just darkness and death.

Limbs would be amputated without anesthetic. Many survivors would panic and flee from the cities out to the open areas, exposing themselves to intense uninhibited fallout. Vast migrations of the population would attempt to flee to the Southern Hemisphere. Most would be met with armed resistance, and there would be riots and wholesale slaughter of unarmed travelers. Some Latin American countries would begin to raid American ports, scavenging and stealing. Wood would become one of the few sources of heat.

Bubonic plague would break out in many third world countries. In American, there would be epidemics of food poisoning, hepatitis, cholera, dysentery, and typhoid sweeping the country. The United States of America would resemble the Warsaw ghetto under the Nazis. Dead bodies would be stacked up like cord wood, like the plague years of the Middle Ages. Hundreds of thousands of bodies would have to be bulldozed in deep pits and burned. The sweet sickly stench of Death would live in the nostrils of everyone. The odor would drift on the winds clear down to Argentina, where some of the very old Nazis would smile sadly, recognizing that olfactory sense memory.

New Orleans, Galveston, and Miami would all sink below sea level. Earthquakes would have flattened Los Angeles and San Francisco. Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, and Mt. Hood will all have erupted. Mudslides and lahars would have devastated Seattle, Tacoma, and Portland. The gray volcanic ash would billow up and mingle with the nuclear storm clouds. Within one year, only 45 millions Americans would have survived, but what did they inherit? World War III would become a part of history, even though there was no one to record it, and no one to print the books.

FAIL SAFE was shot on a miniscule budget, on a brisk 32 day shooting schedule. It was shot in black and white. [Interestingly, DR.STRANGELOVE was also shot in black and white, which further diluted the visceral impact.] It was lit starkly, mostly from above. It was completely devoid of musical interlude as background or mood enhancement. It has been called,” a Cold War film noir “. Some historians and liberals felt that it should be compulsive viewing for all Political Science majors. There have been other Cold War films, like THE WORLD, THE FLESH, AND THE DEVIL (1959), ON THE BEACH (1959)—remade in 2000 as a TV mini-series, THE WAR GAME out of Britain in 1965, and THE BEDFORD INCIDENT in 1965—but none of them had the bite, or the naked truth found in FAIL SAFE.

This film was regarded by some American conservative reactionaries as “too heavy-handed—earnest to a fault”, even “ridiculous and tedious”. Perhaps it was in part because in this film it was the Americans who found themselves pushed into the pre-emptive strike, the low blow, the sneak attack; none of which displayed America in a positive light. In the movie, by the time that we realized that it was the Soviets that had jammed our communications for our bombers, it was too late. It didn’t matter any more. The nightmare was escalating of its own volition. Hell, at that point, we were all to blame. Something needed to be done about our nuclear situation; change seemed eminent. Can you imagine all the stress this would have caused for the corpulent gang of right-wing warmongering Capitalists?

Sidney Lumet, a very gifted artist that is considered an Actor’s Director, directed FAIL SAFE. When he was a child actor, only four years old, he worked in the Yiddish Theatre. He was a Broadway actor during the 1930’s-1940’s. He was in the cast as one of the original DEAD END kids. Most of these youngsters were taken to Hollywood to do the screen version of the play, and work opposite Bogart and Joel McCrea. Many of the young actors stayed on in LA, but Lumet returned to New York. In so doing, he missed out on having a B-movie career, on becoming a pal to Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall. He could have been a member of the Dead End Kids, then the Little Tough Guys, the East Side Kids, and finally the Bowery Boys. Instead, after returning to New York, he got involved in television during the Golden Age of live drama. He rubbed shoulders with John Frankenheimer and Sydney Pollack.

He began directing movies in the early 1950’s. He began to build a reputation as a talented serious director who believed in rehearsal before filming. He continued with this practice for all the rest of his career. He became well known for his technical knowledge, and being able to get first-rate performances out of his actors. In 1954, his breakthrough film was 12 ANGRY MEN. Later his theatre experience helped him direct LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT in 1962. Right after FAIL SAFE, in 1964, he directed THE PAWNBROKER, shocking the American public with the first full screen shot of a woman’s breasts. By the 70’s, he worked with Al Pacino in both SERPICO (1973), and DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975), and somehow he still had the energy and vision to helm NETWORK in 1976.

FAIL SAFE gave people nightmares, even after losing some of it dramatic impact because of its secondary release. Its plot hook was clarion; through a combination of human and computer errors a squadron of Vindicator bombers would fly past the “fail-safe” line, and head into enemy territory by mistake. It fed the fires of paranoia. It is postulated that once the pilots read their top-secret orders nothing could divert them. They were trained not even to trust voice communications. So when the President finally was able to talk with them on their radio, they switched him off. Even when his wife contacted the pilot, Major Jack Grady, he did not trust that it was really she. Edward Binns played Grady, and he did a fine job with it. When he opened his top-secret envelope, and saw that his target was Moscow, it was tragic. When Slim Pickens opened his top-secret envelope in STRANGELOVE, it was treated as a comic moment.

Walter Matthau played professor Groeteschele, a kind of antagonist for the plot. It was a complex role, a character that was fanatic and intellectual, logical and irrational. Matthau was always very effective in dramatic parts, even though he is remembered mostly for his comedic skills, and for being a comic foil to Jack Lemmon in a dozen films. His Groeteschele was flint hard, arrogant, and brilliant. He could spout percentages and probabilities like a computer. His character was somewhat parallel to George C. Scott’s brilliant role in DR. STRANGELOVE, the hawk, the hissing Iago, urging the President to make the first move, to strike first and come out on top. Matthau was very intense in the part, and when he played his scenes his eyes really made contact with the other actors. He was working his butt off, and all that energy was transferred to those around him, energizing the situation. We could fear him, even hate him, but somehow we found ourselves respecting his knowledge and fortitude. Watching his fanaticism was like watching Henry Kissinger on crack, and it reminded us of just how insane the entire Cold War really was. It reminds us further that if one keeps a gun in the house, there is a higher probability that someone will get shot with it. Or if we stockpile nuclear weapons, and are fueled by our patriotism and paranoia and natural sense of competitiveness—then in a weak moment, a stressful emotional moment, it is almost logical to take that next step—to use the damned things, the let the missiles fall where they may, to strike first and survive longest.

Henry Fonda as the President was excellent. He was so good that we wished he really could have been President rather than say, Ronald Reagan. Often celluloid Presidents seem very attractive to us; Walter Huston in GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE (1933), Fredric March in SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (1964), Kevin Kline in DAVE (1993),

Michael Douglas in THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT (1995), Jeff Bridges in THE CONTENDER (2000), and these days Martin Sheen on television in THE WEST WING. Fonda displayed just the right amount of humanity, strength, humility, and heart. It was a profound acting challenge. There were a plethora of tight close-ups on his face while he had only a phone to act with. He pulled it off magnificently.

Larry Hagman, playing Buck, the interpreter, helped Henry Fonda immensely. Before he dreamed of Jeannie, before he monogrammed J.R. on his lapels, he was this skinny bright-eyed kid with a thick curly mop of dark hair. He quietly held his own during the dramatic tension of his scenes with Fonda. It was really one of Hagman’s best roles, showing his range as an actor; his subtlety and strength and compassion. And that was something that was never really tapped again by the roles he played later in his career.

My favorite character in the film was Brig. General Warren Black, played wonderfully by Dan O’Herlihy. His role was the proverbial “voice of reason”, a good man caught up in terrible events. He was a man who doubted himself, and doubted the direction the administration was heading. He had a reoccurring nightmare about a matador during a bullfight. As the matador would stab and kill the bull, Black who saw himself in the audience, would feel himself dying, perhaps becoming the bull and accepting the death that it was bred for. The dream terrified him. He considered resigning his commission, quitting, but somehow he realized that he had to continue on, to do his part. He was an old school chum of the President’s, who called him “Blackie”.

O’Herlihy had a sweet sad scene with is wife Kathryn in the beginning of the film. Hildy Parks played his wife. The scene set the mood for the first movement of the plot, a moment of warmth, the reality of a good marriage and a couple of kids, the miracle of spousal communication. [A strange bit of trivia exists around the part of the wife. In the credits she is known as Betty Black, but Fonda refers to her as Kathryn, and O’Herlihy in his last speech called her Kate. Yet she is labeled as “Betty” even in the IMDb, and Amazon.com credits for the film.]

As an actor, I was fortunate enough to work with Dan O’Herlihy. We did a 17 day shoot on the television series THE QUEST; a two-parter with Kurt Russell, Keenan Wynn, Woody Strode, and Tim Matheson. Dan and Kurt Russell had worked together years before on the series THE TRAVELS OF JAMIE MCPHEETERS. Later our two part episodes were released on VHS as a film, and it was titled THE LONGEST DRIVE. I remember sitting around on the set, sitting between O’Herlihy and Keenan Wynn, and discussing with them the Hollywood of the 40’s and 50’s. I praised Dan’s portrayal of MacDuff in Orson Welles 1948 film of MACBETH. I, too, had played MacDuff in a theatrical production of MACBETH. Influenced by the film, we, too, set the play in a barbaric time, wore animal skins and painted our faces fiercely; a kind of Celtic warrior world. We used broad swords for the stage combat. I shared with him how much he had influenced me. He was a very gracious man, and sitting there waiting for the crew to finish setting up a shot, there in the hot California sun in 1976, I remember him saying,” Glenn, you are not old enough to have all this knowledge about movies. You are sitting here reminding Keeno and I about things we have done that we barely remember ourselves.”

When Fonda as the President decided to sacrifice New York City as a token of our sorrow, as an apology for nuking Moscow—it was Blackie that he called, that he charged with the task of dropping the bombs on the city; knowing full well that the First Lady was in town and that Blackie’s family lived in NYC. After dispatching the payload, O’Herlihy’s Black chooses to commit suicide, to quickly join his family and all the innocent victims below him. His final speech was devastating.

Gen. Black: Kate—the Matador, the Matador—is me—me.

The supporting cast was all first rate. Frank Overton was General Bogan, and Fritz Weaver, in his film debut, was Col. Cascio. They were the commanders of Strategic Air Command. Dom DeLuise had some good scenes as Tech Sgt. Collins. It was he who had to step up and take over when Col. Cascio had his breakdown. Some film historians claim that this film was the debut for DeLuise and Larry Hagman. Actually, this film was DeLuise’s third one, and Hagman’s sixth—but who is counting?

In 2000, there was a television remake of FAIL SAFE. It was broadcast in black and white, and it worked pretty well. George Clooney put it together, and he played Col. Jack Grady in it. They got Walter Cronkite to appear as host for it, and Stephen Frears directed it. It was done on CBS. Richard Dreyfuss played the President. Hank Azara played professor Groeteschele. Noah Wylie was Buck. Brian Dennehy was General Bogan and John Diehl was Col. Cascio. Harvey Keitel played Gen. Warren Black, and Sam Elliott and James Cromwell were in the cast. The telefilm was a sterling effort, and it is worth a look.

FAIL SAFE as a film came at you like a rocket sled. It was relentless, unblinking, austere and graphic; creating very tense drama. There was no comic relief. It was one of the only films that I can recall that did not have a musical score. Oddly, I did not miss the music. The message of the film was crystal clear, an uncompromising vision illustrating the folly of total reliance on machines at a time when even the slightest error in human judgment, or machine computerized logic, would have catastrophic results; that mankind could put themselves into a situation that is beyond the human capacity to correct. I consider this the best Cold War film ever made.

I gave this movie a rating of 4 stars
Glenn Buttkus 2004