From Strangelove to Godzilla: 10 of the best nuclear movies

To accompany his essay on Christopher Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer’, Matthew d’Ancona selects his favourite atomic-age films

July 19, 2023
Image: Allstar Picture Library Limited. / Alamy Stock Photo
Image: Allstar Picture Library Limited. / Alamy Stock Photo

Dr Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)

After Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers whistle-blower who died in June, saw Kubrick’s masterpiece, he and a colleague agreed that “what we had just seen was, essentially, a documentary”Memorable for the multiple performances of Peter Sellers, Strangelove is a work of comic genius—but still nightmarish in its depiction of the superpowers sliding into nuclear apocalypse by mistake.

Hiroshima mon amour (Alain Resnais, 1959)

From the first, hypnotic shot of ash falling on the entwined bodies of Elle (Emmanuelle Riva) and Lui (Eiji Okada), this account—written by Marguerite Duras—of a brief affair between a French actress and a Japanese architect braids together memories of the destruction of Hiroshima with a tale of doomed passion. The intensity of the lovers’ emotions constantly competes with “the horror of forgetting”.

The Sacrifice (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1986)

The great Russian director was too ill with cancer to accept in person the Grand Prix awarded at Cannes in 1986 for his final movie. Mythic in its reach, the film follows the moral deliberation and psychic collapse of Alexander (Erland Josephson), a middle-aged critic, living in a remote waterfront house in rural Sweden, as he offers to sacrifice all that is dear to him to avert a nuclear war.

Black Rain (Shōhei Imamura, 1989)

Based on a 1966 novel by Masuji Ibuse, the film poses the question cried out by an old man looking out of window: “Where did Hiroshima go?” The radioactive “black rain” that falls from the sky after the initial devastation is also a metaphor for the derangement, disease and despair that seizes the survivors.

Gojira (Ishirō Honda, 1954)

At least 38 Godzilla movies have been produced to date, and he first in the kaiju (strange beast) franchise introduces us to the colossal sea creature, roused by underwater H-bomb testing, and heading for Tokyo. Gojira was a portent of much else: many of the superheroes of the modern comic book era (now colonising our cinemas) were spawned by untamed nuclear power and radioactivity.

Fail Safe (Sidney Lumet, 1964)

Based on the 1962 novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, Lumet’s under-rated thriller follows a US president (Henry Fonda) as he tries desperately to recall a group of nuclear bomber planes mistakenly heading for Moscow. The film is worth watching for Walter Matthau’s megalomaniacal Professor Groeteschele—and the withering put-down of Ilse Woolfe (Nancy Berg): “We all know we’re going to die but you make a game out of it… You make death entertainment.”

On the Beach (Stanley Kramer, 1959)

It is revealing that the Eisenhower administration sought so vigorously to discredit Kramer’s movie and the 1957 novel by Nevil Shute upon which it is based. Starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire, the story of the crew of the USS Sawfish desperately searching for survivors of a nuclear war touched a raw nerve; as Richard Hoggart recalled in his autobiography, On the Beach spoke to the “first generation to be haunted by the thought that their children might have no future at all.”

Where the Wind Blows (Jimmy Murakami, 1986)

Featuring the voices of Sir John Mills and Dame Peggy Ashcroft, the animated version of Raymond Briggs’s bestselling 1982 graphic novel portrays an elderly couple, Jim and Hilda Bloggs, in their rural Sussex cottage as their lives are engulfed by nuclear catastrophe. In the bathos lie both the humour and the horror. “Oh dear,” says Hilda as the three-minute warning sounds, “I’ll just get the washing in.”

Rhapsody in August (Akira Kurosawa, 1991)

Kurosawa’s penultimate film is a saga of family, centred upon Kane (Sachiko Murase) an elderly survivor of Nagasaki (or hibakusha). Richard Gere plays her nephew Clark, who travels from Hawaii on behalf of her dying brother, Suzujiro. A beautiful exploration of reconciliation and the tension between memory and forgetting.

Seven Days to Noon (John and Ray Boulting, 1950)

“Dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon”: Milton’s words from Samson Agonistes haunt this Oscar-winning British noir thriller. In 1950, the Prime Minister (Ronald Adam) is sent a letter by a distraught nuclear researcher, Professor John Willingdon (Barry Jones), who threatens to detonate a bomb that will destroy the centre of London unless the government ceases to manufacture such weapons. Enter Detective Superintendent Folland of Scotland Yard (André Morell) to prevent disaster.

Read Matthew d'Ancona's essay on 'Oppenheimer' and nuclear culture here