FAIL-SAFE is a 1964 film directed by Sidney Lumet. The movie is based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. It tells the story of a fictional Cold War nuclear crisis during a time when the world was concerned about its own mutual destruction. The film features an all star cast, including Henry Fonda, Dan O’Herlihy, Walter Matthau, Frank Overton, and early appearances by Fritz Weaver, Dom DeLuise and Larry Hagman.
When I was a kid I had a babysitter named Rosie whom I adored. She did “big girl” things like volunteer for the Civil Air Patrol, and she let me tag along. So every Thursday evening at quarter ’til six, we walked up the block to the Methodist Church and climbed the winding stairs to their top floor. We got out the official notebook, put the binoculars around our necks and looked and listened for enemy aircraft. Our directions were to record information on every plane we heard and saw: the time; the type — passenger or other; the direction of the flight; and the number of engines.
I relived these memories recently when I saw FAIL-SAFE on TV. The film, shot in black and white with no music, was released in 1964. Thus, the action takes place around the time of the Cuban missile crisis, portraying a world on the edge of nuclear war.
For those of you too young to remember, there were people in the US in those days who wanted to push the button first and get it over with. They truly believed that the Soviets would be caught napping, and that Soviet technology and weapons systems were faulty. They believed that we could survive whatever the ‘Commies’ threw back at us.
William, a political science professor played by Walter Matthau, brings this point home by making “death into a game.”
As a crisis unfolds, those around him ask questions centering on acceptable losses and the consequences of nuclear war — noting the fact that there will be no or few survivors. William, in turn, talks about the ‘thrill’ of pushing the button that will start all out nuclear conflict.
William’s position provokes a heated discussion and elicits concerns from military leaders and other experts in the room with him:
- What is the purpose of war?
- Should we stop war or just limit it? Is there even such a thing as a limited war? Can there be a limited response?
- What happens when the war machine acts more quickly than the capability of men to control it?
And a question that is quite timely in today’s post 9/11 world: Are there any circumstances under which we should shoot down our own plane?
Dramatic tension in the film revolves around a box called The Fail-Safe Box.
Has Soviet aircraft crossed over into American territory or has there been a mistake?
The President of the United States is forced to consider: what are we going to do? What do the Russians think? What are they going to do?
Remember that “back in the day” there were no shades of gray. Every war — even a thermonuclear war — was expected to have a clear winner and loser. Moreover, MAD or Mutual Assured Destruction, a military doctrine in play during this period, allowed each superpower to destroy the other many times over. The Cold War had become a conflict more dangerous and unmanageable than anything faced before.
Americans had once enjoyed superior nuclear force, an unchallenged economy, strong alliances, and a trusted imperial President to direct this incredible power against the Soviets. Now many perceived that Russian forces were close to achieving nuclear equality.
Today’s viewer may find FAIL-SAFE to be overly dramatic. But it provides insight into some of the most pressing issues raised by the Red Scare and the half century Cold War conflict. Some of them remain relevant today.