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7-10-2015, 21:37

Themes of destruction

As soon as the news broke of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Western writers began to ruminate about the horrible potential of nuclear annihilation. The idea had surfaced in Anglo-American fiction as early as 1895, but now nuclear destruction and its consequences became a major theme in Western culture. Almost always the nuclear theme served as a critique of Cold War logic and a plea for peace. Important early manifestations included John Hersey’s Hiroshima, (1946), and Leonard Engel and Emanuel S. Filler’s imagined account of full-scale nuclear war called World Aflame: The Russian American War of 1950 (1947).

The American imagination ran riot around nuclear fears. Nuclear tests created armies of giant ants in the horror movie Them! (Gordon Douglas, dir., 1954), stolen nuclear materials immolate the femme fatale in Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, dir., 1955), and nuclear war inaugurated a new dark age in Walter M. Miller’s remarkable novel A Canticle for Liebowitz (1955-59). On the lighter side, in 1959, the satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer released his pastiche hymn "We’ll All Go Together When We Go," with such memorable lyrics as: "When the air becomes uranious, we will all go simultaneous It was much the same story elsewhere in the West. Britain produced the thriller Seven Days to Noon (John Boulting and Roy Boulting, dirs., 1950) in which a mad scientist tries to use a bomb to blackmail the world into disarmament, while Roald Dahl’s first novel, Sometime Never (1948), contained vivid descriptions of nuclear devastations during World Wars III and IV. Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957) (filmed by Stanley Kramer in 1959) imagined Australia’s wait for inevitable death following a nuclear war elsewhere in the world. France produced both Alain Resnais’s film Hiroshima Mon Amour [Hiroshima My Love] (1959) and the black humor of designer Louis Reard, who dubbed his two-piece swimsuit the “Bikini” (1946) to compare the garment’s impact to the US nuclear test at the Pacific atoll of the same name. Japan - whose population knew nuclear devastation at first hand - fixated on the issue. Japanese comics and movies were full of nuclear blasts creating monsters, the most famous being Gojira [Anglicized as Godzilla] (Ishiro Honda, dir., 1954). In 1972/73, Japan was gripped by the publication of Hadashi no Gen [Barefoot Gen], a powerful memoir of the impact of the atomic bomb in Manga form by a Hiroshima survivor.

The Cuban missile crisis spurred a series of major films in the West about the danger of a rogue individual or a systems failure triggering a nuclear apocalypse. The most innovative was Doctor Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, dir., 1964). Similar scenarios were played straight in Fail-Safe (Sidney Lumet, dir., 1964). Two major American superheroes created in the 1960s - Spiderman and The Incredible Hulk - gained their powers from nuclear-related accidents. American nuclear fears were also directed toward China, the most extreme example being Battle Beneath the Earth (Montgomery Tully, dir., 1967) in which a rogue “Red Chinese” general attempts to attack the US mainland by tunneling under the Pacific Ocean and placing atomic bombs under American military bases.

In Britain, the documentary filmmaker Peter Watkins made The War Game (1965) in which he dramatized the effects of a nuclear bomb on London. The BBC thought it too intense to screen on television for another twenty years, but the film was shown theatrically and won the best documentary Oscar. Humorist Spike Milligan created The Bedsitting Room (Richard Lester, dir., 1969), a black comedy set in a British nuclear wasteland.

In stark contrast to the West, in the Eastern bloc the subject of nuclear devastation was officially taboo, appearing only in veiled form in science fiction.671 The regimes hated to allow their populations to dwell on questions which the party could not readily answer. The nuclear theme was explicit only in anti-American treatments of the legacy of World War II such as the 1974 film co-produced with Japan, Moskva, liubov moia [Moscow my Love] (Aleksandr Mitta and Kenzi Yesida, dirs.), in which a Japanese dancer finds happiness with a Soviet sculptor only to expire from cancer, traced to her mother’s presence at Hiroshima before her birth.