Iran is being arm-wrestled into nuclear talks, but can cinema tell us what’s in store? Substance discovers vegetarian freedom-fighters, telepathic dogs and Sheffield on fire inside the Cold War B-movie mushroom cloud.

With the combination of corrosive ideology and nuclear weaponry making more and more headlines of late (most recently being yet another round of talks with Iran in December about their “uranium enrichment plan”), it’s time to revisit some of the cinematic gems from the Cold War. If the headlines are putting mushroom clouds in your dreams two then here’s a mixed bag of favourites to add to your wacked-out post-apocalyptic collection.
 
1. La Jetée (1962, Chris Marker)

 
In a devastated Paris during the aftermath of WWIII, the few surviving humans begin researching time travel, hoping to send someone back to the pre-war world for a solution (obviously). Made up entirely out of stills photography and voice-over, it distils (not detracts from) a fully-realised post-apocalyptic world. To say that Terry Gilliam’s quixotic 12 Monkeys borrows heavily from this film is an understatement.
 
2. A Boy and his Dog (1975, L.Q. Jones)

 
A mental post-apocalyptic tale based on the novella by Harlan Ellison. A boy communicates telepathically with his dog as they scavenge for food and…sex. The premise might be flimsy, but this B-movie classic was the strongest influence for the Fallout game franchise. If you enjoy scurrying along gamers’ wastelands, pick this up.
 
3. Barefoot Gen (1983, Mori Masaki) 
 
 
Based on the acclaimed graphic novel by artist Keiji Nakazawa, this is an animated drama about a family's struggle to survive in Japan during the darkening days of World War II. Animation might sound like a shaky way to explore the nuclear proposition – wait until you see the effects of radiation – but Gen demonstrates Hiroshima’s horrors in a way that’s hard to trump with live action (narrowly beating its British counterpart ‘When the Wind Blows’, due to its grounding in history rather than hypothesis).
 
4. Threads (1984, Mick Jackson)

A BBC TV play, inexorable in its brutality, about a nuclear attack on Sheffield. The peeling skin, screaming and handling nuclear atrocities deservedly sticks in the mind. Though superior, it is clearly indebted to the similarly bleak ‘The Day After’ (1983). Warning: some images will be seared into your brain forever!
 
5. Radioactive Dreams (1985, Albert Pyun) 
 
 
After an atomic war, Phillip Hammer and Marlowe Chandler have spent 15 years on their own in a bunker, which is stuffed to the brim with pulp detective novels. Now, 19 years old, they leave their shelter to find a world full of mutants, freaks and cannibals. It’s charming, mad trash. The film parries between Bogart-esque mystery, Eighties cheese and road warrior anarchy with an unexpected style given its unbelievably shoddy production values. Dig the montage.
 
6. Delicatessen (1991, Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
 
 
The last film here which can be considered both about and of the cold war, released in the same year as the Soviet Union went tumbling down. This is a deliciously quirky vision of post-nuclear France. Vegetarians are freedom fighters pitted against the evils of a cannibalistic butcher. It’s this, not the sickly-sweet Amélie made 10 years later, that’s Jeunet’s true magnum opus.

Images from films like these don’t only entertain us, they help us process the implications of living in an era in which (to quote Robert Oppenheimer) the physicists have known sin. They serve as a haunting reminder of what could very well happen if the combination of ideology and apocalyptic weaponry might one day become likely. And where else are you going to find a telepathic dog in a trans-American sex quest? Exactly.

Robert Howells
 

Photo credit: R. Clucas

 


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