The collective nightmares of a generation are on display in the 10 best nuclear war films. During the Cold War, filmmakers and audiences alike were terrified at the prospect of a nuclear exchange. These films demonstrated how their fears were more that justified.
“Dr. Strangelove, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb.” Director Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy asked the question: What if the people controlling nuclear arsenals were as inept and crazy as they seemed? Clueless politicians and gung-ho soldiers each contribute in their own way to a wacky nuclear armageddon.
“Duck and Cover.” For pure historical impact, few nuclear war films top this 1952 U.S. public service film, shown to millions of schoolchildren. Cartoons and narration provide useless advice on surviving a nuclear blast. The film was a milestone, marking the beginning of the Cold War for countless Americans.
“On the Beach.” Gregory Peck starred in this 1959 drama about the survivors of a global nuclear exchange. submarine crew searches for signs of life and prepares for the worst. The award-winning film was remade in 2000.
“Fail Safe.” This 1962 film shared the premise of “Dr. Strangelove”: an accident that causes a nuclear war. But “Fail Safe” played it straight, showing how a technical glitch could lead to worldwide tragedy. It inspired a 2000 TV remake and the 1995 submarine drama “Crimson Tide.”
“Testament.” By the 1980s, scientists had confirmed that nuclear war would change life on Earth forever. This 1983 drama dealt with the aftermath for the survivors of a distant nuclear exchange. Jane Alexander won acclaim and awards for her starring role as a woman trying to keep her family together.
“When the Wind Blows.” This 1986 British animated film is based on a beloved graphic novel by Raymond Briggs. A suburban couple faces an uncertain future after nuclear war decimates England. David Bowie, Roger Waters and other acclaimed British rockers supplied the haunting music.
“Special Bulletin.” This innovative 1983 TV movie masqueraded as a series of news broadcasts about a nuclear terrorist action. The filmmakers included disclaimers to keep from alarming viewers who might mistake it for the real thing. It was produced by Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, who would later win acclaim for TV’s “thirtysomething” and films like “Glory” and “Traffic.”
“Rhapsody in August.” Legendary director Akira Kurosawa dealt with the emotional aftermath of the Nagasaki bombing in this, his 29th film. A Japanese family welcomes a new American relative with mixed emotions on the anniversary of the bombing. Kurosawa was 81 years old when he confronted the subject, concluding “Rhapsody” with a sobering visit to the Nagasaki war memorial.
“Crimson Tide.” The Cold War may have been over by 1995, but nuclear weapons were still a threat. Submarine commanders Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington face conflict over an order to deploy a nuclear missile. The tense drama thrilled audiences worldwide, just as “Fail Safe” had done thirty years earlier.
“The Day After.” This award-winning drama made headlines when it premiered on television in 1983. Schools and homes around America tuned in to watch survivors struggle in the aftermath of a nuclear exchange. The ultra-realistic drama even made President Ronald Reagan rethink his nuclear strategy.