Published on November 27th, 2007 | by Chris1
If you think living in today’s terrified “war on terror” world is, well, terrifying. I can only imagine what it must’ve been like to live in the shadow of constant fear of impending nuclear doom. And really the world was closer to total obliteration then than any single terrorist event that could happen now.
1964′s Fail Safe is based on the Burdick-Wheeler Novel of the same name, and explores that terror in great detail. Really this is a story about the fallibility of both man and machine, that if left unchecked can have disastrous consequences. Additionally its a great example of 60′s experimental film making.
The story if you’re not familiar with it goes something like this. While performing routine exercises in response to various unidentified threats, one bomber group doesn’t get the signal that it’s “not for real” and continues on towards its ultimate goal: The destruction of Moscow. From there everyone from the pilot’s wife to the President of the United States (Henry Fonda) tries everything within their power to stop a chain of events that only leads to disaster.
In one respect the story is very similar to the later War Games. Due to some technical glitches in the bomber group’s radios, caused by Soviet radio interference, they don’t get the signal to return to business as usual. The classic failed-machine scenario. After that first event we bear witness to more technology that is supposed to help in these situations cause even more problems, such as the radar decoys and formations.
In another aspect we are shown the ultimate point of failure when it comes to warfare of any kind, the human factor. Once the “Fail-safe” point is crossed, the bomber group has been told to ignore any further orders from anyone, which they do with machine-like consistency. Trust, or rather a lack thereof is the main driving force behind this failure of the human element, as neither side seems to want to believe the other even in the face of impending doom.
The final result is a strange decision on behalf of the president, and addresses the question of “what is fair” when it comes to war. Where do we draw the line at acceptable losses? This question comes up early on in the film by the consultant Groeteschele (Walter Matthau.)
You’ll also find yourself amazed that so much tension and drama can be drawn from a set of talking heads and two relatively static sets: The Offutt AFB war room and the President’s Bunker. There really isn’t any soundtrack to speak of, and that only adds to the level of tension, as there’s nothing else to focus on but the actor’s faces and their reactions. The entire film is shot in an incredibly harsh, almost noir style with lots of distinct shadows and simplistic set design. Again, it draws your attention to the actors and their plight.
The whole Gen. Black (Dan O’Herlihy) / Matador thing which opens the film, and is touched upon at the end is a bit of a mystery. I haven’t read the book in ages so I don’t remember what that is all about, but it doesn’t really fit into things at all.
I can’t say enough good things about this picture. A lot of the pontification at the beginning with Groeteschele and Black and the rest of the generals seems to get a little thick, but really it sets the stage for the battle which has yet to be played out, as you’ll find yourself asking the same questions.
There are a lot more familiar faces as well, from the nervous translator Buck (Larry Hagman) to the troubled and defiant Col. Cascio (Fritz Weaver), the steadfast Gen. Bogan (Frank Overton) and even the trapped Congressman Raskob, played by Sorrell Booke, who you’d later come to know as “Boss” Hogg(!)….
Fail Safe is one of those pictures that define an era. In this case, the cold-war paranoia and panic of the early 1960′s. It’s a great look into the mindset of the day, and is an excellent picture in itself.
Fail-Safe (Special Edition)
Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau. The United States government panics when a computer error sends American bombers to nuke Moscow. 1964/b&w/111 min/NR/widescreen.
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Audience Rating: Unrated
Manufacturer: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Original Release Date:
- Henry Fonda
- Walter Matthau
- Fritz Weaver
- Dan O’Herlihy
- Frank Overton
Summary: Fail Safe is one of those pictures that define an era. In this case, the cold-war paranoia and panic of the early 1960's. It's a great look into the mindset of the day, and is an excellent picture in itself.