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The Return of Nuclear War to the Public’s Consciousness?

Back in the 1950s and 1960s we saw Hollywood take older science fiction works and write the theme of nuclear war into them where it had not been present before — so pressing a problem of the day did the prospect of such war seem. Thus where the reader of Pierre Boulle’s original Planet of the Apes contains nothing about such a calamity, the end of the 1968 movie version gave us its most famous scene, and indeed one of the most iconic scenes in film history, in Charlton Heston’s character coming to the pained realization in the shadow of a Statue of Liberty reduced to a colossal wreck out of Shelley that nuclear war turned the Earth into the “planet of the apes” — while the sequel developed the theme even more shockingly with its nuclear bomb-worshipping telepaths, and its exceedingly bleak and ironic ending.

So did it also go with The Day the Earth Stood Still. An adaptation of Harry Bates’ “Farewell to the Master,” the original story also contained nothing about nuclear war. But the theme was also at the center of the film version, where the emissary from the stars came to warn the Earth that it was on a course for self-destruction, and were it to persist in it would not be allowed to endanger other worlds — with the others of the galaxy prepared to stop it by force if need be.

Of course, since the end of the Cold War the exact opposite tendency has prevailed. All too characteristically Hollywood has, rather than going back to the source material and trying to do something new with it, generally remade the adaptations, while eliding the nuclear war theme from the new versions. Thus the two twenty-first century remakes of Planet of the Apes (2001, 2011) have been Luddite, Frankenstein complex-type stories about biotechnology-gone-wrong. Meanwhile the new The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) switched its emissary’s concern from the destructiveness of human nationalism and militarism in the nuclear age to humanity’s conduct toward its environment. The theme of nuclear war, one supposes, simply seemed passé to them, or at least, less pressing than other dangers.

The judgment may have not seemed unreasonable at the time. (The biotech plots of the Planet of the Apes movies did not impress me, but it certainly has seemed at times that the ecological crisis was, if less dramatic, then at least in its inexorable progress, and the extreme hostility of business and government to its redress, more likely to get us than the Bomb.) But anyone who thought that the danger of nuclear war was somehow past was plainly ignorant. After all, Cold War or no, the nuclear arsenals of the superpowers remained — reduced, but still vast, with the creakier nature of the arsenal possessed by a fragmented and impoverished Soviet Union elevating the by no means novel risk of a major nuclear war starting as a result of a purely technical accident. This was all the more the case given that the international system and its potential for conflict remained, with the demise of Communism as an international political force far from automatically translating to the “world peace” of a Miss Congeniality. Indeed, if major states coming to blows less likely the period nonetheless saw one crisis after another — the 1995 Norwegian rocket incident; the 1996 Third Taiwan Strait Crisis; the open testing of nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan in 1998 and the fourth Indo-Pakistani War in 1999; and perhaps most incredibly, the stand-off between NATO and Russia over the former’s intervention in the Balkans which saw General Wesley Clark order future pop star James Blunt to destroy the Russian force and (General) Michael Jackson overrule Clark with the words “I’m not going to start World War Three for you” (just in case anyone didn’t get what was at stake), after which James Blunt has publicly assured the world that even had Michael Jackson not told him to stand down he would have himself refused to obey the order (such that, yes, one can now find innumerable headlines, online comments and the like declaring that JAMES BLUNT SAVED THE WORLD FROM WORLD WAR III! — and even MICHAEL JACKSON AND JAMES BLUNT SAVED THE WORLD!).

Still, the fault for that ignorance lies first and foremost with the press, which tended to treat such events lightly, distantly, belatedly, as remote curiosities less important than the latest piece of tabloid idiocy, with the doings of an Amy Fisher, a Tonya Harding, an O.J. Simpson infinitely worthier of the public’s attention (Blunt wasn’t famous yet, and that part of the story wouldn’t come out until 2010 anyway) — while even those who did not go in for this stupidity at least had some room in which to think that those crises were last aftershocks of the twentieth century’s conflicts. (For my part I thought that the danger of major war, while not so small as some seemed to think it was, and certainly not incapable of resurging, was at least in the short term on the wane, and that even if the economic and ecological stresses could reverse that, that may have been some way off, and I then dared hope, avoidable.) Amid all that it seemed that the public, and even its so-called opinion-leaders, had forgotten that nuclear war was something to be afraid of — indeed, perhaps even come to fear it less than a “zombie apocalypse.”

Recent years have put the issue right back on the agenda. Thus far the public has been slow to remember what it once knew and feared, not at all helped by the way in which governments and the press continue to act as if they have forgotten the harsh realities of the nuclear age (as perhaps, indeed, they have, the people in charge never the geniuses their sycophants would have us believe they are). But it seems unlikely that this can remain the case for long, with the Russo-Ukrainian War dragging into its second month — and unlikely that it will not mean some kind of political or cultural response.

I hesitate to make guesses about what shape it will take. We could see a revival of the anti-nuclear movement, the anti-war movement, calls for world government, and perhaps even a broader renewal of radical politics. Yet it could also be that the reaction will deepen the pessimistic, survivalist impulses already ever more in the air, while translating to more nationalistic, more militarized societies (with the second tendency, the more consistent with the trend of a deeply disappointing twenty-first century, so far prevailing in the entirely predictable press coverage, the actions of governments as austerity in every other area goes along with profligacy in this one). Much will depend on how long this war goes on, and the course it takes, and, one supposes, the way in which all this interacts with the constellation of other problems the world faces (from inflation in the West to food security in Africa and the Middle East). But it still seems bound to mean something, and that enough so that I suspect that intelligent filmmakers remaking a science fiction classic of yesteryear will no longer look at the theme of nuclear war and dismiss it as passé — and that when they shrink from it they will do so because they find it too relevant than because it is insufficiently so.

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Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy


Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.