Most of us are probably familiar with Dr. Strangelove, the Terminator series, and (spoiler alert) Planet of the Apes. But as nuclear war movies go, not one of them is genuinely disturbing. Dr. Strangelove, for all its razor-sharp political satire, is still just a comedy, and Terminator and Planet of the Apes are both science fiction, taking place in a world that’s comfortably removed from our own.
It’s probably no coincidence that serious nuclear war movies—films with unnervingly plausible plots—tend to fall by the wayside. But considering how many of the films on this list faced heavy censorship, suppression, and even outright bans, we owe it to their creators to take note. Nuclear war may be unthinkable, but only because we push it from our minds. It’s actually a miracle we haven’t had one yet, and it’ll be another miracle if we avoid one in the future.
The following 10 films give us some idea of what to expect—or rather, to avoid at all costs—and should be mandatory viewing for anyone with their finger “on the button” (which, by the way, accounts for many more people than any of us should feel comfortable with, even in the United States alone).
10. Testament (1983)
With their all-American values and Lifetime movie feel, the family in Testament could easily be advertising Cheerios or life insurance for the first twenty minutes of the film. Their ‘Anytown USA’ suburban idyll is so full of sunshine, in fact, that they don’t even know they’ve been nuked until they hear about it on TV. But even then, except for a quick and blinding flash, there’s no obvious damage, no immediate death or destruction; just confused residents wandering out of their houses to the street.
It’s actually a fairly dull movie, but therein lies the horror. Testament takes the everyday familiar dullness of American society and turns it on its head, highlighting the extent to which we take it all for granted. Other plot developments are just as sudden as the original nuclear attack, continually uprooting expectations and casting us adrift in a world where people can simply disappear overnight and in which things are, slowly but surely, bound to keep getting worse.
One reviewer called it “the scariest movie ever made” for the depressingly empty existence it depicts. And Roger Ebert, who gave the film four stars, said that it brought him to tears. Paramount was equally impressed, giving this made-for-TV B-movie with its unknown cast and inexperienced female director an unprecedented theatrical run. Yet very few people nowadays have even heard of it.
9. Der Dritte Weltkrieg [World War Three] (1997)
Although Robert Stone’s most recent film, Pandora’s Promise (2013), highlights the advantages of nuclear power for combating climate change, he’s always been critical of nuclear weapons. His first film, Radio Bikini (1987), looked at their cavalier early testing, while his fourth film, World War Three, imagined their use in war.
Uniquely, this alternate-history mockumentary shows the geopolitical build-up to nuclear war in detail but very little of the catastrophic fallout. It relies heavily on stock footage of historical events and actual politicians for realism, amid mounting tensions with the Soviets over Berlin. And while the movie can be a little politically naive at times, especially in its portrayal of NATO as the unequivocal “good guys” and Russia as a stubborn, out-of-control menace—striking (first), moreover, out of petulence and defeat—this is precisely the slant we’d expect from the Western news media anyway, so the film remains plausible throughout.
By the end, the message is clear: A policy of nuclear deterrence is a commitment to our own annihilation. The threat of nuclear weapons doesn’t just reflect a commitment to retaliate; it creates one. And, as the film gravely informs us at the end, “there is no further historical record of what happens next.” Suffice it to say there are very few survivors, let alone any winners.
8. Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie (1995)
According to an ominous title card, “some goats, pigs, and sheep were nuked” during the making of this movie—or rather, during the making of the real-life test footage it compiles. Pigs in particular were nuked because of their skin’s similarity to humans’, so burning them alive showed roughly what would happen to us.
While other movies on this list show maybe one or two nuclear detonations (or in some cases none at all), Trinity and Beyond is full of them. From start to finish, from one mushroom cloud to the next, it’s the story of the atomic bomb—from the first ever detonation at Los Alamos in 1945 to the banning of above-ground testing in 1963.
And it represents only a fraction of the 6,500 secret films shot, many of which are still highly classified. Their purpose was to provide a visual record by which scientists could estimate the size and destructive power of nuclear detonations. Interestingly, the demands of capturing these detonations on film necessitated the development, by Hollywood’s finest, of sophisticated new lenses, cameras, and filming techniques that are still in use by Hollywood today—just one early example of Tinseltown’s codependence on the military.
Peter Kuran may be better known in Hollywood for his pioneering special effects work on the original Star Wars and Star Trek movies, but everything in this film is real. Very little has been added. There’s not even much of a moral message—although the epic score, provided by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, was intended to parody the knuckle-dragging “my bomb is bigger than yours” mentality of the Cold War era arms race. Ultimately, though, the verdict is left up to you.
7. The Day After (1983)
The Wrath of Khan director Nicholas Meyer transformed the real-life town of Lawrence, Kansas into a post-apocalyptic wasteland for this movie. Windows were smashed, cars were burned, the streets were littered with debris, and locals were paid fifty dollars apiece to shave their heads and stop bathing to resemble the victims of fallout.
The result was the most-watched TV movie to date, with over 100 million US viewers tuning in for the original broadcast. But The Day After was so hard-hitting and bleak that ABC set up special hotlines to calm viewers down. There was also a whole week of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood episodes focused on the theme of conflict, apparently to help children process the trauma. Adults had to make do with the panel discussion that followed the original airing, in which Carl Sagan likened nuclear proliferation to enemies stockpiling matches in a room doused with gasoline: “One of them has nine thousand matches, the other seven thousand matches. Each of them is concerned about who’s ahead, who’s stronger.”
Meyer himself was so traumatized by his work on the movie that he was ill throughout most of its production. It later transpired that he was suffering from clinical depression.
It even affected the president, who saw it well in advance of the televised broadcast. Writing in his diary, Ronald Reagan claimed to be “greatly depressed” by the film, and sent a long list of editing suggestions to Meyer. The Department of Defense also got involved, insisting that Meyer make it absolutely clear that Russia strikes first, not the US—despite, in reality, the US being the only nation ever to have nuked civilians. The political establishment knew exactly what they were doing, knowingly twisting the point of the movie to suit their own agenda. As Reagan wrote in his diary, “we know it’s anti-nuke propaganda but we’re going to take it over and say it shows why we must keep on doing what we’re doing.” For the most part, they seem to have succeeded.
6. Pisma myortvogo cheloveka [Dead Man’s Letters] (1986)
As a Soviet-made film, Dead Man’s Letters offers an alternative viewpoint to the “US-and-them” overtones of some others on this list. Yet there’s no sense of it being partisan in the opposite direction and portraying the USSR in a positive light. If anything, the religious themes of this movie make it distinctly un-Soviet—although the inclusion of Western consumer goods, American-style assault rifles, and no Russian text whatsoever suggest the movie is set somewhere else, thereby sparing the Soviet Union the humiliation of on-screen defeat.
Still, Dead Man’s Letters is one of the most depressing, pessimistic films ever made. It’s the story of an old scholar sheltering survivors in the basement of a history museum, while in his mind he writes letters to his son. He knows they’ll never be read, though, and the survivors know they’re all doomed.
There’s really no hope to be found. Everything in this movie has a sickly yellow tinge, from radioactive puddles and realistic corpses to endless piles of rubble and even the sky itself. One reviewer summed it up perfectly as “a portrait of a world in decay, witnessing humanity’s final days through an endless radioactive haze.”
Nothing really happens; we don’t even see the nukes. But Dead Man’s Letters remains an unforgettably dark piece of work that’s every bit as powerful today as it was in the 1980s.
5. When the Wind Blows (1986)
Based on a comic by Raymond Briggs—the author and illustrator of the schmaltzy Christmas classic The Snowman—When the Wind Blows is the subtle and moving tale of an elderly couple facing nuclear winter together. It’s about the tragedy of misplaced faith in the powers that be, and in their guidance for surviving armageddon. In particular, the old man (Jim), who makes a habit of reading the dailies despite how depressing they are, has total faith in the government’s ‘Protect and Survive’ instruction booklet. “Ours is not to reason why,” he stoically reminds his wife Hilda. And she, for all her matronly nattering, has just as much faith in him.
Stark, heartbreaking, and relentlessly grim, When the Wind Blows highlights the cruel absurdity of targeting civilians—with their sausages and chips for dinner and their lovingly tended cabbage patches—with weapons of mass destruction. Some called it propaganda for unilateral nuclear disarmament, and they were right. But it’s hard to imagine a positive spin on the effects of nuclear war.
The movie was actually the third adaptation of the comic, following earlier runs as a stage and radio play. But it’s undoubtedly the most effective, artfully combining hand-drawn and stop-motion animation in such a way that the characters, as cartoons, appear increasingly ethereal and ghost-like against the backdrop of their physical house—an actual miniature model reduced in the film to rubble.
4. Kuroi Ame [Black Rain] (1989)
Shot in black and white with a haunting classical score, Black Rain looks and feels like a much older film than it is. But its special effects were state-of-the-art, contrasting the dated aesthetic with a truly horrifying and unexpectedly graphic depiction of the nuclear attack on Hiroshima. We also get to see the mushroom cloud from a distance, from the perspective of evacuees, affording us an unforgettable sense of the size and scale of the bomb—as well as how awesomely, terrifyingly strange it must have looked.
Based on a novel by Masuji Ibuse, the movie is, after the initial action, mostly character-driven, fast-forwarding several years to focus on the lives of the survivors. But the attack is never forgotten. Indeed, director Shohei Imamura went to extraordinary lengths to keep it at the forefront of the actors’ minds, even forbidding the cast from leaving the set on days off to return to the comforts of Tokyo.
It paid off, though. Black Rain won numerous awards, and was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
As a side note, it’s most definitely not to be confused with Ridley Scott’s thriller of the same name and year. In fact, since that movie depicts the Yakuza in America as Japan’s vengeance for the bombing, and thereby the Japanese as stubborn and bitter, it may well have been released to coincide, outshine, and obscure Imamura’s movie in the US. That’s the cynical take on it anyway.
3. Hadashi no Gen [Barefoot Gen] (1983)
Barefoot Gen is a disarmingly cheerful anime from the start, despite its bewildering themes. Set in the Ghibli-esque pastoral paradise of rural Japan, the movie absorbs us so fully in the innocent, idealistic outlook of six-year-old Gen that we almost forget he’ll be nuked. Of course, this lullaby effect is deliberate; by the time “Little Boy” tumbles from the Enola Gay’s bomb bay high above downtown Hiroshima, you’ll be feeling like a child yourself.
And it’s one hell of a wake-up call when it hits—pulling no punches with its animated carnage and gore: Eyes melting from heads; adults, children, and animals indiscriminately burned alive; and the maimed “survivors”—the so-called “ant-walking alligators”—emerging like ghosts from the dust.
Yet, for all its brutal sentimentality, the film is far more bitterly critical of Japan than it ever is of America. Keiji Nakazawa, who wrote the manga series on which the film is based, actually lived through the bombing himself and recalled the weight of his own brother’s skull in his hands. But he blamed the Imperial Japanese Army for inviting the attack and branded Emperor Hirohito a murderer.
The series was so fiercely critical of the Japanese wartime leadership, in fact, that it remains controversial to this day. As recently as 2013, it was decided by the Shimane Prefecture Board of Education that students should be discouraged from reading it—despite the majority of headmasters disagreeing. Meanwhile, a public library in Tottori Prefecture actually banned the books from its shelves.
2. The War Game (1965)
It may be the shortest on this list, but in its day The War Game was the most controversial. Not only did it position the West as the instigators of nuclear war, but it ridiculed the government’s advice to build shelters and defend them with guns.
People were also advised to keep hold of their marriage certificates, savings books, and National Health cards, highlighting a woeful naivety about society after the nukes. A soundbite from a nuclear strategist underscores that delusion with the belief that “both sides can stop before the ultimate destruction of cities, so that both sides could retire for a period of ten years … in which World Wars 4-8 could be prepared.”
The War Game brutally mocks all such plans for the future with endless piles of corpses, survivors who look just as dead, and evacuation plans that rely on the kindness of others—a concept jarringly at odds with the policy of nuclear deterrence. When asked for the camera what they want to be when they grow up, a group of zombified kids all say the same thing: They don’t want to grow up to be nothing.
Unfortunately, the BBC decided not to broadcast the film as planned on the twentieth anniversary of Hiroshima. Instead, it was shelved until the 1980s. Although they commissioned The War Game, its realism caught them off-guard. They also worried the government wouldn’t like it. And they were right, of course; senior officials hated the film and made it clear that it couldn’t be screened. However, since the illusion of the BBC’s independence was integral to British public life, the corporation pretended the decision was their own. The official reason, apparently thought up at the last minute, was that “people of limited mental intelligence” might not know it was fiction. Newspaper editors were permitted to view the movie, but it was almost on the condition that they’d publicly lend support to the ban.
Nevertheless, there was serious opposition and debate raged even in Parliament. Yet despite winning the 1967 Oscar for Best Documentary, The War Game remains fairly obscure.
1. Threads (1984)
For its bleak and unrelenting horror, Threads gets the number one spot. It’s the best (or rather, the worst) depiction of nuclear war ever made. It’s also one of the most realistic. Numerous experts were consulted, including defense specialists, physicians, and psychologists, and, since the filmmakers detonated an actual smoke bomb in public without first alerting the police, even some of the on-screen panic may be real.
Unlike The War Game, Threads was aired as soon as it was made. Then it was quietly shelved for decades and almost forgotten about. It was only this year, in fact, that it came out on DVD.
However, aside from the obvious, it’s not an overly political film. The geopolitical reasons for the war are barely touched upon, and the characters themselves aren’t all that interested. The true power of this movie lies in the rapid unravelling of society, and of the many different lives—the individual threads—within it.
It’s a film full of indelible images: The shell-shocked mother and child; the psychotic military and police; and the endless fights over food (to name just a few without giving too much away).
Film critic Peter Bradshaw says it’s the only film he’s ever felt “really and truly scared and indeed horrified by – in an intense and sustained way.” Back when he first saw it, when nukes were on everyone’s minds, he found himself unable to speak or even to look at the screen. When it finished, he and his girlfriend went to bed without saying a word.
And it’s easy to see why. Threads offers nothing in the way of hope. As with Testament, things just keep getting worse. But in this case, things are far more harrowingly believable.
If you can only stomach one film on this list, you should definitely make it this one.