Thoughts by Richard Bleil
Through the years, there have been the occasional movie that will become of historical significance. I’m not talking about movies that were popular or launched a franchise like Harry Potter or Star Wars, but rather the movies that changed our society, or that had the courage to make statements and tell the truth.
It has been said that Japan provided the world a tragic favor when the US dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tragic because of the horror of nuclear holocaust, but a favor because this action allowed us to see the horrors of nuclear exchange. It’s been suggested that the reason there has never since been a nuclear bomb used in war is because of what happened in Japan. We cam dangerously close to a nuclear exchange during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but there are those who believe that the reason Kennedy stayed his hand is because he was alive to see the tragedy of these Japanese cities. When George W. Bush was elected president, my friend (the MIT nuclear physicist) pointed out to me that he is the first US president too young to have seen this exchange, and there were many who feared that this heightened the danger of the use of nuclear weapons.
There were two movies in particular that struck the fear of nuclear holocaust in the hearts of the American movie-going public. In 1959, Gregory Peck starred in “On the Beach”, a movie that dealt with the last days of the last people alive on earth. The premise of the movie is that the nuclear war had happened, and nobody can raise anybody else on earth. The only survivors were the people living in Australia and one American nuclear submarine. The assumption was that everyone else was already dead. The Australians were not involved in the active war, but their scientists know the radioactive cloud is heading towards them, and as much they know exactly how long they have left to live. So how do the last people spend the last days of life on earth? Ironically, that same nuclear physicist did the calculation; the last people on earth after a nuclear exchange won’t be Australia, but rather New Zealand, Australia’s neighbor. The reason is two-fold; first, there is no strategic point in attacking New Zealand, so nobody has weapons pointed at them. Second, the prevailing solar winds will, indeed, blow the radioactive cloud over New Zealand last. On the Beach is credited for bringing this fear into the hearts of Americans.
A few years later in 1964, Peter Sellers starred in a movie called “Dr. Strangelove”. The premise of this dark comedy is that a rogue general with a few nuclear bombs in his command decides to use those weapons, knowing it wasn’t enough to win a war but rather that once dropped they would force the US to commit to total nuclear war. This movie, despite the fact that it was presumably a comedy, brought the fear of accidental nuclear exchange to the US. These two movies together, raising the specter of an accidental nuclear holocaust giving rise to the destruction of all life on earth, created an environment that pushed the need for nuclear arms treaties and redundant fail safe measures to fruition, treaties that have since been abandoned by recent US leaders George W. Bush (who abandoned nuclear proliferation treaties like SALT II and on nuclear arms development without replacing them) and Donald Trump (who abandoned the treaty with Iran and the Open Skies treaty without replacing them).
Other movies of historical significance should be included in this post, but there is limited space. Clockwork Orange asks the question of if we can resolve the violent tendencies of people or if they’re inherent within us. Fahrenheit 451 broached the critical issue of censorship, and Soylent Green was a brutal movie of a dystopian future of a society in decay touching on sensitive topics including gender equality and police corruption.
And, yes, all of these movies are in my collection.
We have a habit of dismissing older movies, but some have had a significant impact on society as we know it today. We know quotes from some of these movies (“They blew it up!”), often without knowing the source (that was from Planet of the Apes), and we have had societal changes if not caused then at least inspired by movies. Just the other day I finished going through the entire Harry Potter collection, a fun movie that had the potential to make a profound statement on racial issues (“muggles” and “mudbloods”), but kind of failed to hit the mark probably because their main goal was entertainment as opposed to making a social statement. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying newer (yes, I know Harry Pothead is old by today’s standards) movies, but at the same time, I strongly urge my readers to take a little time to watch these classics. They can be disturbing, the cinematography is…wanting and the dialogue is often just plain cheesy, but watching them will help expand your understanding of where we have come from.