The Ninja Film Review: Domesticating Nukes

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The Ninja Film Review: Domesticating Nukes

An antinuclear poster from 1965
Atomic Attack

The Motorola Television Hour

Starring: Phyllis Thaxter, Walter Matthau


Full disclosure: I didn't see this television film (yes, it's on Youtube) when it first aired. I was a toddler at the time and wouldn't have understood it. But I do remember the Fifties. Anybody who remembers the Fifties and looks at this film, which I did a short while ago, knows exactly what happened to Judith Merril's nuclear apocalypse novel when the government, a television network, and a radio-manufacturing company got hold of it.

To verify my suspicions, I read the novel this drivel was based on, which is called Shadow on the Hearth and was published in 1950. Judith Merril was a science fiction novelist and editor of renown. She was married to Frederik Pohl at one time. She was a member of the Communist Party USA until disgust with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact drove her away, along with most of the sympathetic intellectuals, who weren't stupid. Merril moved to Canada later out of disagreement with the Vietnam War. What I'm saying is, she didn't write what you see in this television movie, because she couldn't have.

Shadow on the Hearth is an astounding effort for its day. It stands the test of time. Sure, we know more about the effects of nuclear fallout than they did in 1950, even a well-informed science fiction writer. But the book tells us what we might not have guessed: how interpersonal relationships worked in the snooty New York suburb of Westchester in the 1950s. How women saw themselves, and how men reacted to them. How ordinary people in a bourgeois setting might have been expected to react to an unthinkable catastrophe. Stop worrying about the gas leak and watch the people in this book.

The story's fairly simple. Suburban family members go off to work and school. Mom finds out that the maid is home sick. Mom goes down to the laundry room to wash clothes. That's when it happens: a bright light. Later, a mild earthquake. Gladys Mitchell doesn't know about the nuclear attack on the city until a neighbour brings the girls home from school.

Things go downhill rapidly after that. Gladys has to make a lot of decisions. She has to contend with everything from technical emergencies to would-be looters. Her daughters may, or may not, have been exposed to radiation. She doesn't know where her husband is. She doesn't know whether to trust the dissident scientist her daughter's hiding in the laundry room. She does know she doesn't trust the creepy neighbourhood civil defence leader: he's more than slightly power-mad and he thinks Gladys is pretty…

Only a woman could have written this book. It isn't about strategy or global politics or nuclear policy, although it touches on all those things. It's about human beings. No wonder it took women to come up with SANE. Moms of America, we thank you.

The 50-minute TV version hews to the party line, which is that nuclear war is survivable as long as you trust authority. The civil defence leader has been de-creeped and turned into Joe America. The dissident scientist? Oh, they're only looking for him because his expertise is invaluable in this crisis. The maid – one of the most interesting characters in the novel (she's arrested on suspicion of 'knowing something' because she escaped the fallout) – has been eliminated. The overworked, handsome young doctor has been replaced by Walter Matthau. True, he's young, but he still looks like Walter Matthau. The husband is now conveniently dead. The hysterical neighbour lady is no longer dying of radiation sickness.

Radiation sickness? Oh, it's easily curable with antibiotics and such.

One of the main characters in the TV version is the radio. A Motorola, of course. This has to be one of the most unfortunate examples of product placement in entertainment history. At least in the film, they switched to battery power. I could not believe how long the electricity stayed on in that book. But having lived without power for a couple of weeks once in the aftermath of a hurricane, I couldn't help worrying about the state of their batteries.

In both versions, 'we', er, 'won'. In the novel, this announcement provokes bitter laughter from the main character. Guess how it plays out on the small screen.

Television films about nuclear war played a huge role in public opinion. According to NPR, the 1983 film The Day After made President Ronald Reagan very depressed. He later told the film's director that it definitely influenced his decision to pursue a nuclear non-proliferation treaty with the USSR. So there's that.

I really recommend this book. It's an underappreciated gem. The film, not so much. But it will take less than an hour of your time. Watching it could be a salutary exercise.

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