Before considering the movie Panic in the Year Zero, some general remarks about nuclear-war movies are in order.
Nuclear war, should it ever occur, would be a dreadful thing. But from that it does not follow that a movie about nuclear war will induce a feeling of dread in its audience. And so it is with a lot of subjects that, in themselves, are dreadful, but the presentation of which in a movie can be quite enjoyable. Murder is something dreadful, but murder mysteries are fun.
Perhaps that is because few of us are in fear of being murdered. We take precautions, of course, but the prospect of being murdered does not weigh heavily on our minds. Cancer, on the other hand, is something that threatens us all. And certainly, a movie about someone dying of cancer might be expected to induce a feeling of dread, such as Cries & Whispers (1972). But other movies in which cancer plays a role can be quite enjoyable, such as Rebecca (1940). Of course, it might be argued that the woman who has cancer in that movie, though she is the title character, is never seen, but only referred to. However, in Dark Victory (1939), the protagonist, played by Bette Davis, has terminal cancer and dies in the end. And while this movie is a tearjerker, it is not dreadful, but actually uplifting.
Whether a movie about nuclear was will be experienced as dreadful or not depends in part on the way the story is presented, and in part on the attitudes of those who watch the movie. In the 1950s, the threat of a nuclear attack was thought to be a real possibility. There were a lot of civil defense and military films produced by the government to prepare its citizens for nuclear attack, the most well-known being Duck and Cover (1952). In this partially animated short, featuring Bert the turtle, who has the advantage of being able to duck into the shell he carries around with him, children are advised to seek shelter in case there is a warning that an attack is imminent. We hear air-raid sirens, at which point children go into buildings, preferably into those with a bomb shelter. In some cases, adults wearing civil defense helmets advise them where to go. Since bombers were the principal means by which atomic bombs would be dropped in those days, it was expected that there would be such warnings. If there was no warning, the first indication of such an attack would be a flash of bright light, at which point the children were advised to avail themselves of whatever cover was at hand, protecting their head and neck primarily. Being a child myself back then, having been born in 1946, I remember that we would regularly have nuclear-attack drills.
I also remember the films. In the 1980s, I began hearing about all the trauma children like me experienced in those days. That’s not the way I remember it. I used to like it when we were able to get out of class to see one of these films. I especially liked watching the way buildings were flattened by the atomic bomb. Other students my age seemed to have similar attitudes. When I was in junior high, some smart aleck posted a sign on the wall that read as follows:
In case of nuclear attack:
1. Bend over.
2. Put your head between your legs.
3. And kiss your ass goodbye.
As noted above, during the 1950s, the principal means of delivering nuclear bombs was by airplanes. Every day, twenty-four hours a day, planes loaded with nuclear bombs would head toward Russia, prepared to proceed to their targets should they receive an order to do so. In Strategic Air Command (1955), James Stewart plays Dutch Holland, a professional baseball player. He was a pilot during World War II, and now, being in the reserves, he is called back to active duty to fly the long-range bombers that carry a nuclear payload in case World War III should break out. His wife Sally (June Allyson) really shouldn’t worry her pretty little head about the important work men have to do, but being a woman, she is all sentiment and feeling, and she just doesn’t understand her husband, who has to make all the big decisions in their marriage without consulting her, because a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.
Halfway through the movie you’ll be wishing that war would break out, and that Dutch will get the order to proceed to a target inside Russia. Instead, in an effort to keep us from being bored, the movie manufactures moments of dramatic tension: a seemingly hostile situation just turns out to be a drill; an engine catches on fire, causing a crash; a bomber almost runs out of fuel, and Dutch has to land in the fog. It makes you sympathetic to the device in Top Gun (1986), in which a dogfight occurs between American fighter planes and those of an unnamed enemy, even though the country is not at war. Let’s face it. Military movies set during peacetime can be pretty dull. In fact, life during peacetime can also be pretty dull. I sometimes wonder how many wars are started because someone got bored.
During the crash that occurred because the engine caught on fire, Dutch injured his shoulder. This eventually leads to his being discharged, giving us the typical Hollywood ending: Dutch got the satisfaction of doing the right thing by deciding to make a career out of being in the Air Force in spite of Sally’s objections, and Sally gets her way when he is forced to return to civilian life. Of course, with an injured shoulder, it is unlikely that he will ever play third base again, which is in keeping with the sense of sacrifice that the men of SAC must make to keep this nation safe.
In 1964, two movies were made based on these long-range nuclear bombers: Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The former was played straight, intended to fill us with dread; the latter was a satire, meant to be enjoyed. Both movies, however, have an interesting twist. The threat is not an attack by the Soviet Union, but rather a failure in the American defense system, one that allows the crews of American bombers to believe they have a legitimate order to attack Russia, even though the Russians have done nothing to warrant it. In Fail Safe, it is an accident that some bombers receive an order to attack Russia; in Dr. Strangelove, a mentally unbalanced American Air Force general deliberately orders a nuclear strike. In both movies, a bomber manages to drop a nuclear bomb on Russia.
In Fail Safe, Henry Fonda, as president of the United States, has a nuclear bomb dropped on New York City as payback for the unintended strike on Moscow. The fact that the president’s wife happens to be in New York at the time really makes this dreadful. Dr. Strangelove, which is too well known to warrant even a minimal synopsis, is great fun.
Subsequent movies have played on this theme, in which America might inadvertently start a nuclear war rather than having it begin with an attack by the Russians, as was the principal fear in the 1950s. However, unlike the two movies above, an attack on Russia is averted in Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977), The Dead Zone (1983), War Games (1983), and Crimson Tide (1995). That fact that nuclear war is completely avoided makes it easy to treat such movies as entertainment.
Movies in which nuclear war does break out are usually intended to fill us with dread, and they tend to be ambiguous as to who started it. In the early 1980s, there was some concern that President Ronald Reagan would get us into a nuclear war. In response to this, there were protests and calls for disarmament. Perhaps as a result of this movement, The Day After was produced in 1983, in which escalating tensions build up between the United States and the Soviet Union until full-scale nuclear war breaks out. There is no sneak attack, and both sides seem to be partially to blame for what happens. This movie falls into the dreadful category, although it sometimes seems as though the point of the movie is that nuclear war will ruin everyone’s sex life. An even more dreadful nuclear war movie is Testament (1983), where we never find out how the war started. Another nuclear-war movie made during this period is Threads (1984), a television movie produced by the United Kingdom. It too is supposed to be in the dreadful category, but we are reassured by the fact that Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” has survived.
Finally, there are the movies in which we learn about a nuclear war that has already taken place. On the Beach is intended to give us that feeling of dread, no doubt owing to the fact that it was made in 1959. Since then, however, the nuclear war that took place at some time in the past merely allows us to enjoy stories of adventure in the post-apocalyptic world, notably the Mad Max movies.
The 1980s seem to be the last time the threat of nuclear attack was high on the list of things to worry about. I live in Houston, and at the start of that decade, an air-raid siren could still be heard every Friday at noon as a test to make sure it was still working. A few years later, this practice was discontinued. Nuclear-attack drills in school have been replaced by active-shooter drills. Fallout shelters have been replaced by safe rooms.
Panic in the Year Zero
Panic in the Year Zero was made in 1962, when a sneak attack by the Soviet Union was still regarded as a genuine threat. Early in the movie, nuclear war begins when just such a sneak attack is initiated, though by an unnamed enemy. This movie is unusual in that it is intended to be enjoyed, despite such a scenario and the year in which it was produced. Imagine an episode of Father Knows Best, a television show that ran from 1954 to 1960, in which the Anderson family finds itself having to deal with such an attack. Except for the absence of someone corresponding to Kathy, the daughter still in grade school, there are corresponding characters in the Baldwin family in Panic in the Year Zero: Harry Baldwin (Ray Milland); Ann (Jean Hagen), Harry’s wife; Rick (Frankie Avalon), their son; and Karen (Mary Mitchel), their daughter.
Frankie Avalon was twenty-one when this movie was made in 1962, but was still playing teenage roles, as in this movie. Mary Mitchel was only one day younger than Avalon, but plays a teenager as well. One wonders, would it be considered politically incorrect to let adults like Avalon and Mitchel play teenagers in a movie made today, as a form of ageism, much in the way it is frowned upon to let actors play ethnicities and gender identities that are not really theirs?
In any event, when the movie begins, we hear a jazz score, which tends to suggest a loosening of the restraints of civilization. At the same time, the camera focuses on a car radio. In addition to the numbers and a vertical bar indicating the approximate locations of the AM stations, we see two marks that are immediately recognizable to those who were around when this movie was made: the CONELRAD stations located at 640 and 1240 kHz. In case of atomic attack, American citizens could tune in to those two stations and find out from the government what they should do or where they should go.
We see Harry with his fishing rod, standing in front of his car with a trailer attached. He and his family are about to embark on a trip to the country where they can do some fishing. In other words, the Baldwin family will be away from Los Angeles when nuclear war breaks out, and they will be in good shape for surviving in the aftermath. However, it is important that it is a fishing trip and not a hunting trip they are going on. Civilians who own guns when a movie begins usually end up being killed, as a kind of cinematic punishment. But civilians that do not own guns when the movie begins, but acquire them later, after they find themselves in danger, are likely to survive and defeat the bad guys.
As the Baldwin family drives down the road, a couple of hours after having left town, they become aware of flashes of light behind them. Harry says he is going to stop and check the rear window on the trailer, but that is not the real reason. He suspects the flash may indicate something ominous, and he does not want to alarm his wife Ann. This is the first indication that Harry, being a man, is able to handle the truth, while Ann, being a woman, must be protected from the harsh realities of life.
Eventually, they see a mushroom cloud rising from the west. They decide to call Ann’s mother to see if she knows anything. And there, in the middle of nowhere, is a phonebooth on the side of the road, all by itself. Boy, was that a long time ago!
However, the telephone lines to Los Angeles are dead. Up till now, Harry has been just like Robert Young in Father Knows Best, easy going and relaxed, but now he acquires an edge. He is still the one in the family who knows best, but as the patriarch, he must now set aside his genial attitude and become firm and resolute in what must be done. But while Harry gets to be the one who can see the big picture, using reason and a realistic understanding of the Hobbesian world they are about to enter, Ann is consigned to the role of silly, emotional female. When Harry says they cannot go back to Los Angeles, Ann cannot believe he is just going to forget about her mother. Karen is not much better, being the other female in the family, who can’t believe her father doesn’t care about “grandma.” Of course, Harry knows that Ann’s mother is dead by now, a fact the women in his family just cannot face. Over and over, during this movie, Harry has to reprimand Ann for whining and being irrational, and he does so in a loud voice. I felt sorry for her. Then, I began to feel sorry for Jean Hagen, who had to play this part, similar to that of June Allyson’s character in Strategic Air Command. But finally, I began to feel sorry for the women of those days who suffered from such stereotypes.
As noted above, the Baldwin family didn’t start out with guns. But Harry decides they now need them, as well as a lot of other supplies. Not having the cash to pay for it all, he robs a hardware store, using the very pistol he just purchased. That is a bit of a cliché in the movies. In real life, customers are not typically allowed to load up the gun they are about to purchase.
Rick helps his father pull off the robbery. Being the other male in the family, he is rational and competent too. However, being young, he is a little too eager to violently engage in this world of every man for himself. In fact, he seems to be having a good time. When Harry punches out the owner of a filing station in order to steal his gasoline, Ann is shocked, but Rick just grins.
The Baldwin family has two problems. First, there is the general panic on the part of people like themselves. Second, there are three jive-talking hoodlums they have to confront. When these punks start roughing up Harry, Rick shoots one of them with a shotgun from inside the trailer. The hoodlums take off. Harry asks Rick why he almost missed the guy, just barely wounding him in the shoulder. Ann admits that she pushed Rick’s arm to keep him from killing the guy. Harry admonishes Ann, telling her they would have killed him and Rick, and then, in so many words, would have raped her and Karen. Rape is a major theme in this movie, although the word “rape” is never used. One almost gets the feeling that the purpose of the women in this movie is either to be raped or be in danger of such. After Ann gets back in the trailer, Rick gets a dreamy look in his eyes, saying, “I could have blown that guy’s head off.” Harry gives Rick a stern lecture, telling him he mustn’t like doing this sort of thing.
Harry figures they would be sitting ducks living in the trailer, so they ditch it, cover the car with foliage, and take up residence in a cave. When listening to a radio, they hear that looting has been taking place and that all those responsible are guilty of treason and will face the death penalty. Looks like Harry just might be in some trouble.
By coincidence, Ed Johnson, the owner of the hardware store Harry robbed, and his wife have made their way to the same area and have taken up residence in the trailer. It turns out that Harry was right to abandon it, for he and Rick later discover the couple have been murdered, and the wife raped. But every cloud has a silver lining. That’s one less witness to the looting Harry’s been doing.
It turns out that the three hoodlums they encountered earlier have taken up residence in a nearby farmhouse. And while Harry and Rick are burying the Johnsons, two of the hoodlums come across Karen and rape her, a really wild jazz score playing in the background. Ann hears Karen screaming. She redeems herself somewhat by taking a couple of shots at the two men, but she doesn’t hit either of them because such competence would have been in conflict with the stereotype to which she must conform.
When Harry and Rick find out, they go to the farmhouse, and Harry kills the two hoodlums that raped Karen, the third one being out at the time. They find Marilyn, who lived there with her parents before the hoodlums killed them. She has been repeatedly gangraped by the three hoodlums and others as well. Rick talks his father into bringing her with them. The next day, Rick makes a move on Marilyn, but she recoils. I guess he figured the rape had worn off on her by that time.
When the third hoodlum shows up, he shoots Rick in the leg, but Marilyn shoots and kills him. She is allowed to be a competent female because she was raised on a farm, as opposed to urban females like Ann and Karen, who just get emotional. Since Rick is losing a lot of blood, they are forced to leave camp and go back to civilization in search of a doctor. While in the car, the radio says that the “enemy” has asked for a cessation of hostilities. This enemy could not possibly be any other than the Russians, but they are not mentioned specifically.
After being stopped by some soldiers, who are restoring order in this post-apocalyptic world, they are directed to a hospital where Rick will be able to get blood. It might be thought that the rape of the two teenage girls in this movie would preclude the possibility of regarding this movie as having a happy ending, but that is not the case. Although rape is, in itself, something dreadful, it, like murder, cancer, and nuclear war, can be featured in a movie meant to be enjoyed. This is especially so if the movie is one in which women are depicted as being of little value, expect in their role as something for men protect or avenge.