Fail-Safe (1964)

This is part of my Sidney Lumet Syllabus

Fail Safe (1)

In January of 1964 if you lived in the US of A you would’ve been treated to a cinematic satire that we’re still trying to equal today without success with Stanley Kubrick‘s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Even the title itself is so ridiculously long that the moment you walked to the theatre and saw it on the marquee you probably asked the cashier weather “Worrying and Love the Bomb” was a different film entirely. Nine months later you would be treated to Sidney Lumet‘s discussion of the same topic in Fail-Safe.

Fail-Safe follows multiple perspectives of an ongoing system of pre-emptive preparations that America has made to react to an attack from the Soviet. This is shown through not only the chain of command, from President (Henry Fonda) to the General (Frank Bogan) to the Advisor (Walter Matthau) to the bomber pilot (Edward Binns) but also through the machine that they have entrusted the task of monitoring and managing all their communications through within this system. A multi-tiered system that has it’s own fail-safes checked and rechecked to check the checkers and uncheck those re-checkers and such. So what happens when a point of failure is so catastrophic that we’re unsure as to whether it can be fixed?

Fail Safe (3)

The film follows that exact idea. With this tense situation of being deeply in fear of nuclear subatomic warfare we have all of these systems in place to give the American society a sense of safety, or at the very least solace in the fact that if the world went to hell they wouldn’t be the only ones going there – linking back to the ideas of the supposed “Doomsday” machine. Here however, on this particular day there’s a fault in the machinery and a bomber is accidentally given a go code to enter Russian airspace and attack Moscow. One failure leads to another such that the bomber cannot be recalled and now America must find a diplomatic way to resolve the situation which was once hypothetical is about to become real.

With academics immediately talking about they should use this mistake as a tactical advantage to wipe out communism and let the history books tell how it inspired victory and the politicians talking about how at no cost should they be the instigators of war to the pilots who’re following their orders and left in the dark with only their direct tasks and directives that help them be unwavering in the execution of those tasks no matter what, Fail-Safe attempts to show the importance of transparency and disarmament. Even today with arms being at the stage that they are now we still discuss whether disarmament is a plausible idea. Now we no longer need to have a bomber or a submarine off the coast awaiting the reception of a kill code but rather are a button press away from having drone strikes – queue up Sloan from Newsroom gif – do all the heavy lifting for us without having to endanger an actual soldier, from the attacker’s side that is. Has the world’s military standing changed much since the 50s and 60s? Is America still afraid of the next attack? Do they still have everything connected to a single button press?

Fail Safe (2)

I’ve been trying to process the opening scene and I’m still unsure of where it truly was going, if it was at all related to the narrative of the film itself. As the film opens with General Black (Dan O’Herlihy) having a nightmare – as he says he’s had before — of a matador killing a bull with himself in the crowd. He watches, frightened, as the bull continually goes after the matador and the matador evades and plunges another blade into the bull’s body. Is the threat of war the bull? Is America or the General the matador? Is America continually dodging the threat of nuclear war? Or are they merely holding it at bay while it continues to lunge? I don’t know. I’m not even sure if it was even meant to be metaphoric. I do however note that it plays well as a frightening tone to begin a film like this which preys so heavily on our fears.

What do you think of Fail-Safe?

  • Ryan McNeil

    recorded this one off TCM while I was away, and I shall be watching it soon. Stay tuned for reactions…