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Welcome to The Stag Blog’s new series dealing with portrayals of the end times through movies, novels, docudramas, documentaries, instructional pamphlets and films, songs, and and memories. The focus will mainly be on nuclear fears during the Cold War, but we may branch out into some asteroids, aliens, or plagues. Let’s keep it loose.

Guests posts are particularly welcome on this subject — give me your best nuke movies, your memories of hiding under desks, or your childhood (or adult) worries over alien invasion.

Do you fear this man’s invention
That they call atomic power
Are we all in great confusion
Do we know the time or hour
When a terrible explosion
May rain down upon our land
Meting horrible destruction
Blotting out the works of man

There are a lot of songs about nuclear war, more than I realized — a few of them passed by in nuclear war documentaries, and my Cold War history class senior year of college. But the first I heard, and so far the most epic is Alabama country-gospel brotherly duo the Louvin Brothers’ original composition “Great Atomic Power.”

There are two versions. Above is the more bluegrass-tinged one.

This song is awful, and wonderful, and creepy-Christian exploitative. It says the times are scary and uncertain, we might get nuked at any moment by the dirty Ruskies, but good news, there’s Jesus. Jesus will have your back, come mushroom cloud or nuclear winter. Indeed, that’s the only option available for those who want everlasting life free of the horror of man’s latest bad idea:

There is one way to escape it
Be prepared to meet the lord
Give your heart and soul to Jesus
He will be your shielding sword
He will surely stay beside you
And you’ll never taste of death
For your soul will fly to safety
And eternal peace and rest

It’s certain, it’s even cheerful, but then it ends with:

When the mushrooms of destruction
Fall in all it’s fury great
God will surely save His children
From that awful awful fate

It’s got the subtlety of Bert the Turtle singing “Duck and Cover.” It’s got the soothing spiritualism of  Jesus Camp, and is just as likely to traumatize the children. 

Except that it’s also pure poetry and strangeness. And that ending, well, Charlie and Ira sound convinced, but “God will surely save his children” sounds just a little hopeful, just a little desperate when you think about it. They believed it, but they were making damned sure all the same. This meeting of old-school fire and brimstone and new seemed a bizarre concept when I first heard it, but it works.

Any other favorite end of the world songs?

Burgess_Meredith_The_Twilight_ZoneWelcome to The Stag Blog’s new series dealing with portrayals of the end times through movies, novels, docudramas, documentaries, instructional pamphlets and films, songs, and memories. The focus will mainly be on nuclear fears during the Cold War, but we may branch out into some asteroids, aliens, or plagues. Let’s keep it loose.

Guests posts are particularly welcome on this subject — give me your best nuke movies, your memories of hiding under desks, or your childhood (or adult) worries over alien invasion.

This week, I was planning to write about On the Beach — the original movie, and maybe the novel and the 2000 remake in passing — but instead I thought I would talk about two Twilight Zone episodes that deal quite differently with nuclear annihilation. Be warned, I had many classic Twilight Zone episodes spoiled decades ago by many classic Simpsons Halloween specials, but I’d rather not be the ruiner of even 50-year-old TV shows. 

Forgive the lateness of the hour, but remember the Andy Warhol joke about going to Pittsburgh in the event of nuclear war — everything, you see, comes to Pittsburgh five years late.

Time Enough At Last, season 1, episode 8

You know this one, or you know a parody. This is one of the most famous Twilight Zones — maybe the most famous not starring William Shatner (who was actually in two episodes, on a sidenote!). This is the story of poor bank teller Henry Bemis (Burgess Meredith) who seems good-hearted, if frustratingly absent-minded, and is the world’s biggest bookworm. A bookworm, but nobody in his life will let poor Mr. Bemis read. His boss’s scolding is one thing, but Bemis’ wife, portrayed with oddly-masculine coldness by Jacqueline DeWit, is simply sadistic. Who did she think was marrying, if not a be-speckled Burgess Meredith who only wants to lose himself in Dickens, poetry, and any other literature? I don’t think her husband was ever a dynamic, suave individual. Her fault, then, if she’s now unhappy. Indeed, you could write a whole story about Mrs. Bemis and what made her so cruel. The scene where she pretends to be interested in her husband’s poetry book is her peak of small, but sharp horribleness. The fact that he really believes she might be interested after God knows how many years of marriage is a testament to his infuriating fuzzy-headedness, perhaps, but his face when he sees what his wife has done to his book — blacked out every single word on every page — breaks the heart.

That scene is why the most upsetting part of this episode is not the destruction of everything. Yes, Mr. Bemis goes down to the bank vault and therefore survives what seems to the end of the world (though there must have been a few more people going into basements at just the right moment). The empty, H-bomb-wrecked world is a little tidy in it’s carefully-placed rubble, like a film set. But the producers did well for the times. It looks pretty bad, it looks well and truly destroyed. And Bemis has been portrayed and remembered and parodied as a character who is bothered by all the people around him, but he doesn’t suddenly adapt to this new, empty world. He is after all not really an introvert, so much as someone who needed time to read, and then meet some folks who shared his love of books. Didn’t they have book clubs in your time, Mr. Bemis?

Anyway, Bemis tries to cope. He talks to himself a little, finds some food, and mourns. Eventually, he very nearly commits suicide. With a pistol to his temple he tells himself he’ll be forgiven, considering the circumstances. Then he sees the books in the ruined bits of a public library! Suddenly it’s all turned around! After a few minutes of hopeful scenes where Mr. Bemis gathers enough stacks of books to keep him going for the next several years (assuming that rain and snow has stopped existing; find some shelter, Mr. Bemis), we get to the final, oft-parodied scene where Mr. Bemis breaks his glasses. In my case, breaking glasses would hinder my survival, but not my ability to read. Still, Bemis is probably doomed now. But worse still, it’s not fair. There was time now!

There is often justice in the twilight zone, but not always. Mr. Bemis didn’t deserve his fate, but irony chose him.

And the nuclear destruction is only incidental. The real tragedy is that what he asks for is so simple, and he doesn’t get it.

But at least his horrible wife is dead, I guess.

Third From the Sun, season 1, episode 14

Since the twist in this episode is much less commonly-known, I will again warn that readers wishing to remain unspoiled should proceed with caution.

I’m a connoisseur of well-crafted dread in movies or television that deals with subjects as heavy as nuclear war or worlds’ ends. It’s only so-so for most of this episode, perhaps because the character mostly speak of feeling it in the air. There’s a lot of tell, and the show of it is confined to Dutch angles and tight shots on nervous faces. It’s not unsubtle, but since the plot is fundamentally horrifying, I demand nothing less than soul-crushing. And it’s just not that. (Maybe the Richard Matheson short story it’s based on is that — I’d like to read it.)

The main character in “Third From the Sun” is Will Sturka a father who works at a military base on horrible weapons; we also see his wife, his teenage daughter, and a couple where the husband, Jerry Riden, works at the same plant, but on a secret spaceship. The antagonist is the boss,Carling, who seems to be a true-believer of striking first and watching what you say and think in such times as these.

What times? Well, the end times. Or nearly. Sturka and Riden know it’s coming. They plan to gather their families and flee. Their cover is an evening card game, during which Carling stops by briefly. Then there’s a whole lot of charged dialogue where everyone knows everyone else knows, but nobody says anything. Carling leaves, and the two families head for the base to steal away on the craft Riden has been building. At one point we learn that there has even been talk of other planets that contain people not unlike our characters. Riden and Sturka and their families hope to head for one.

When they reach the base, Carling is there — naturally — but the teenage daughter actually helps to save the day by smacking him with a car door.

We see that the ship looks an awful lot like a UFO, and we either get it now, or we don’t. The final shot is Sturka and Riden discussing how the ship is holding up (well), and if they can really image that there are people like them on this distant planet they’re flying towards. It’s third from the sun, and it is called Earth.

Is this a throwaway, “he was dead the whole time?!” type of ending? Perhaps, but no more than other Twilight Zones, which often dealt with the question of who was the real alien in various scenarios. (Man is of course, the real monster in all cases.) And in a greater context of Cold War terrors, it strikes a more effectively sinister note than all previous dialogue about man destroying man, and all the fear in the air; because if the same insane scenario of weapons build-up and worldwide suicide is happening on this other planet, what hope is there for little old Earth?

Walter M. Miller’s brutal and wonderful A Canticle for Leibowitz says humans will utterly destroy themselves not once, but over and over again through the course of thousands of years. With its twist ending, the more flawed but still thoughtful “Third From the Sun” suggests the same pattern can repeat across the galaxies. So much for Klaatu or other aliens coming to save us from our deadly impulses. Things are just as bad up in the stars.

Miracletheatrical

A terrible poster and tagline. Please ignore.

Welcome to The Stag Blog’s new series dealing with portrayals of the end times through movies, novels, docudramas, documentaries, instructional pamphlets and films, songs, and and people’s memories. The focus will mainly be on nuclear war fears during the Cold War, but we may branch out into some asteroids, aliens, or plagues. Let’s keep it loose.

Guests posts are particularly welcome on this subject — give me your best nuke movies, your memories of hiding under desks, or your childhood (or adult) worries over alien invasion.

Our first entry is the 1988 film Miracle Mile, starring Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham. It’s got some of the genre’s — or subgenre — conventions, but it’s got a different feel to it than many hyper-realistic movies dealing with Cold War terror. 

It’s hard to know how Miracle Mile would play out in the daytime. The majority of the movies takes place at night, and not just night, but the bleary-eyed, dead hours of 4 a.m. to just-about-dawn. And that’s the time to watch it, and let its atmosphere of dread and panic and strangeness take you over.

Romantic everyman and trumpet player Harry (Anthony Edwards) meets his dream girl Julie (Mare Winningham) at the museum. They have a date over ill-advised narration and a dreamy, synthy ’80s score. They make a plan to meet up at midnight after her shift at a diner. But Harry’s power goes out and he oversleeps, so he rushes to the diner at 4 a.m. There’s a cast of promisingly odd characters having their very early breakfasts, men who tell dirty jokes, a transvestite, a stewardess, and a 1980s businesswoman in a power suit. There’s also the cook/owner and another waitress. Harry calls and leaves a message of apology for Julie, and then the payphone rings. It’s a young, frantic-voiced man named Chip who thinks he is speaking to his father. He’s in North Dakota in a missile silo, and he’s trying to tell his father that the big one is happening. Nuclear war. The US will strike first, and then the Soviets will return it in 70 minutes.

The acting here is perfect. Harry has a quaver in his voice, but isn’t yet convinced. The voice on the phone is exactly right in its unhinged terror — a lot of post-50s and ’60s nuclear war fiction doesn’t have enough hysteria. (Even the hero should have a moment or two of terror, before they’re stoic again.) Chip realizes he has dialed the right number, but the wrong area code. He begs Harry to tell his dad he’s sorry for something unclear. Then a voice in the background, gunfire, and then, like a horror movie, the military man comes on the line and offers no apologizes for the hoax, no confusion over what’s happening, no gotcha!, just “forget everything you heard and go back to sleep.”

So begins the nightmare. Harry is so shellshocked he smacks his face into the diner door. At the counter, his food has arrived, and he stares at it as blood drips from his nose onto his overeasy eggs. After a few minutes of wondering if it could be true, he decides it is. He tells the other diner goers what has happened. A few minutes of argument later, a phonecall by the powersuit woman on her enormous, 1980s cellphone confirms that a mysteriously large number of important people in Washington are just now in South America.

Already, the understated, quiet dread that I am particularly partial towards in movies is leaving. Part of me wanted to stay in the cinematic possibilities of the 1987, 4 a.m. diner and its promising case of weirdos. But we’re going a different way. Everyone in the diner climbs into the owner’s van, while the competent woman — Landa — pulls in every favor possible, trying to charter a flight to Antarctica. Already, you, the viewer, should be thinking of the time and knowing it’s impossible that anyone will make it, but you’re caught up in the exhilaration of that slim possibility of survival.

Instead of sticking with the group, though, Harry needs to go and find his new love Julie. He’s on his own with that. But the diner owner won’t even slow down, though. He’s advised to tuck and roll and he does, taking the diner owner’s gun. Alone on an overpass, now with a cut head, Harry stops to tell himself this must be a dream. He fires the diner owner’s gun into the air and confirms that weight and heat of it, and no, it’s real. But alone, bleeding, carrying a gun, standing on a highway with the knowledge that it’s supposed to be an hour until nuclear holocaust. If that’s not a nightmare, what is?

Harry reluctantly highjacks a car driven by Wilson, who offers stolen stereos in exchange for his life. And so begins the part of the story where if Harry somehow is wrong about the call — well, some mistakes cannot be undone. They drive fast. They pull into a cabs-only gas station and bribe the owner for fuel. A cop car pulls up and demands that they lie on the ground because the gas station man has an illegal shotgun. Wilson squirts gas from the pump onto the female cop. She’s blinded and fires her gun. She catches fire. The fire spreads. The other cop burns. Harry and the criminal speed away in the LAPD cruiser as the gas station blows up. This is the first completely surreal moment. It should be cheesy. It somehow isn’t. They drive on.

Wilson drives off when Harry goes to get Julie. He manages to reunite her estranged grandparents in the process, and those two drive off to share a last breakfast together. Wilson is seen again, he crashes the cop car through a mall window. He is mortally wounded beside his girlfriend or wife who is already dead. Harry and Julie run in. At one point the Wilson his love and tries to walk up a down escalator. It’s still not funny, just troubling.  Even later when Harry frantically runs into an early morning gym searching for someone who can fly a helicopter isn’t funny. The bizarre ’80s workout clothes add to the surrealness, and you just feel a bit sick instead of amused.

“It was all a dream” is an awful cliche that nobody will dare use for another 50 years. But to say Miracle Mile is a nightmare isn’t to say there should be a moment of Harry waking up in bed, realizing he’s safe. There was supposed to be such a moment back when the screenplay was a hot item in Hollywood, and was going to be part of The Twilight Zone movie. Director and writer Steve De Jarnatt refused to include the relief of waking. He wanted it to be real.

The pacing goes deeper into a nightmare, with half a dozen versions of your worst one ever offered: there’s being chased — first by the police, then by a crazed man into a sewer; there’s hysterically trying to make someone else understand, trying to find someone who will help you; the fear that it was all a mistake, and now you’ve done terrible things and caused deaths for nothing; finding yourself the bad guy with the gun, yelling orders; the lonely panic of being the only one who knows the truth turning into the blind, crazed horror of the masses trampling each other in an orgy of fear, and the worst part, the clock ticking away and there isn’t enough time — there never really was enough time. The only hope of anything beyond Lovecraftian indifference and panic is the love Harry has found in Julie. But she’s only just been found, and being “the girlfriend” she never really has a compelling personality. (Maybe that doesn’t matter). All of this, though, may be less of a nightmare, and more of an insomniac’s waking, dazed horror while the whole world goes wrong around him and he must be getting it wrong, it can’t be real.

I won’t say how it ends, only that the uneasy pacing works, even when the quiet turns into the screaming, teeming mob in the morning. Instead of the myriad other versions of nuclear doom in movies, compare Miracle Mile to Signs. Signs isn’t necessarily unreal, or a metaphor for losing faith, or any of the other suggestions offered for the controversial/cop-out ending. But it has a quality of another world that isn’t quite our own. It doesn’t matter if Miracle Mile is “real” or even “realistic” in its portrayal of facing the end. Its lurching horror makes it a worthwhile and troubling watch — it feels more personal and more queasy in the guts than stern generals in war rooms ordering strikes against the enemy.

Tune in next Tuesday for what happens after those generals order those strikes in On the Beach, the huge downer of a movie that began my fascination with nuclear terrors.