Sixty-five years after Hiroshima, the nightmare of nuclear war haunts us still

Daniel Bruno Sanz reviews the sci-fi imaginings of nuclear war and their place in contemporary consciousness.
Daniel Bruno Sanz
6 August 2010

A spectre is haunting the United States: the spectre of nuclear attack without nuclear war. Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Iran, Pakistan and North Korea, capable state and shadowy non-state actors contemplate flattening an American city with a device smuggled into the United States at one hundred possible ports of entry. It would have no return address. The scenarios of holocaust are many and multiply with the advance of technology and the information age. What will this lead to?

1938-39 were exciting years in both physics and science fiction. Uranium fission was discovered, fantastic novels and broadcasts by H.G.Wells and Orson Welles were popular and academic journals, newspapers and magazines openly discussed atomic energy. However, most American physicists were skeptical that atomic energy could actually be harnessed and there was no atomic research outside of obscure university laboratories. But Budapest-born physicist Leó Szilárd, a protégé of Einstein and recent arrival to the United States, knew Germany was dedicated to developing the bomb and was alarmed that the sale of uranium ore from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia had been halted. He was deeply troubled by the prospect of a Nazi atomic bomb and the lack of American effort to match German research.

Unable to find US government support and unable to convince Enrico Fermi of the need for atomic experiments, Szilard turned to his mentor Albert Einstein and convinced him to write a letter directly to President Roosevelt. The letter did not reach the President quickly nor did it have much effect until 1 September 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland and World War II in Europe began. Roosevelt appointed a Uranium Committee with a budget of $6,000 to buy graphite and uranium for experiments Szilard proposed. The tiny budget reflected deep official skepticism about the project and was a handicap to research progress. The US atomic project did not begin in earnest until 6 December 1941, just one day before the attack on Pearl Harbor and America's entry into WWII. The project was given the top-secret codename "Manhattan" in August 1942.

On 26 July 1945, ten weeks after Victory in Europe Day on 9 May and eight days after the world's first successful nuclear test at Alamogordo, New Mexico, the Potsdam Declaration was broadcast to Japan. It threatened "prompt and utter destruction" unless the Japanese Empire submitted to unconditional surrender. Emperor Hirohito agreed to the terms but the military faction of the Japanese cabinet would not. There would be no surrender. On 28 July in the Asahi Shinbun newspaper, the Allied powers got their response. Prime Minister Suzuki Kantaro, a long time opponent of the war with the United States, had no choice but to declare mokusatsu: contemptuous silence.

President Truman immediately authorized the atomic bombing of Hiroshima for the morning of August 6, 1945 and his orders were carried out. Physics caught up with science fiction. Three days later, Fat Man fell on Nagasaki while the Red Army invaded Japanese Manchuria. Six days later, with the atomic bombing of Tokyo imminent, Emperor Hirohito delivered the Gyokuon-hoso announcing the capitulation of Japan. It was the first time that a Japanese emperor, regarded as a divinity by the Japanese, had ever communicated directly to the people of Japan and the first time the Japanese people had ever heard the Emperor's voice.

There was a time when the nuclear genie could be confined to a small room after it escaped from the bottle. It brought a rapid conclusion to the war in the Pacific and stability to Europe through mutual terror in the decades that followed. The brief United States monopoly on atomic weapons in the wake of unconditional surrender by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan made American power unchallengeable. American intelligence services believed that the Soviets were at least fifteen years away from building their own bomb. Then on 29 August 1949, the Chairman of the Special Atomic Committee in Moscow, spymaster Lavrentii Beria, telephoned Marshall Stalin to announce the success of the maiden Soviet nuclear bomb test at Semipalatinsk, in the remote Central Asian steppe of Kazakhstan SSR Thanks to spies such as Klaus Fuchs and the Rosenbergs, the Soviet bomb project was years ahead of schedule and remained classified even after its first success. Not a single word of the test was mentioned anywhere in the Soviet press and the Soviet people knew nothing about it. Radiological analysis of residues from the atmosphere collected by the US Atomic Energy Detection System alerted the U.S. government to the bad news.

The nuclear arms race was on. What did it mean for the future? Would nuclear weapons make war obsolete or was the world doomed to destruction? Science fiction would have a field day grappling with this unprecedented question. But science fiction alone cannot provide the answer. The eternally unresolved themes of good and evil, the Creation and the End of Days affect the outcome as much as technological prowess, even more so.

Multi-talented Jewish-American radio playwright Arch Oboler (1907-1987), a giant from the Golden Age of Radio, accepted the challenge. Best known as the writer/director/host/producer of NBC Radio's Lights Out (1936-1939, 1942-1943), and producer/director of "Arch Oboler's Plays" on NBC Radio (1939-1940) and Mutual Radio (1945), Oboler was also a screenwriter, novelist, producer and director who was active in film, theatre and television. He was a master of the theatre of the mind genre and garnered critical acclaim for his radio scripts. He earned the public's respect as one of the innovators of radio drama. Now his task was to convey his vision of doomsday through motion pictures. For Oboler, there would be only five survivors after a nuclear war. Would they reject the errors of the past and band together as one to rebuild humanity anew?

The concept for the historic 1951 science fiction movie Five was in part inspired by his earlier radio play The Word, in which a newlywed couple awaken to find they are the only people left in a deserted New York City after the population mysteriously vanishes. In 1950 he staged the independent production of Five in the badlands around his own Frank Lloyd Wright designed home at 32436 Mulholland Highway in Malibu, California. The results have an outsider-indie look that impressed François Truffaut, a young critic for Les Cahiers du Cinéma that may have influenced him when he made his own dystopian fantasy, Fahrenheit 451. The allegorical relationships and scenario of Five may have also influenced the 1954 bestseller Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Rod Serling may have had the ending of Five in mind in 1962 when he presented a Twilight Zone episode with Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montgomery in a similarly themed post-war Adam and Eve allegory.

Five opened in the United States on 25 April 1951, in Finland on 26 October as Viimeiset Viisi, Los Ultimos Cinco in Mexico, Anni Perduti in Italy and Cinq Survivants in France. With each passing day, Five was more and more relevant to current affairs. A bloody new war in Korea raged, albeit indirectly, between the two nuclear powers. Mao sent Communist Chinese troops to the aid of North Korea and US General Macarthur spoke openly about using atomic bombs on China to break the stalemate. Stalin told his advisors that WWIII was inevitable. A ceasefire was declared quickly after his death in March 1953 but to this day a state of war exists on the peninsula. Now it is the world's and especially Obama's unresolved Cold War era problem.

Five (1951)

Five was the first American movie to advertise its premiere on television and the first to use a magnetic film system to record live sound on the set. It was a modest financial success, earning 49th place in Variety Magazine's top fifty most profitable movies for 1951. It haunted late, late show television in the sixties and seventies and in 2009 was given new life by Sony's Martini Movies series as 5ive on DVD.

Five is the first post-nuclear apocalyptic survival film -- a genre spawned by Hiroshima, then popularized during the Cold War by On the Beach, The Day the World Ended, The World, The Flesh and the Devil and Last Woman on Earth. The theme was revisited on television during the Nuclear Freeze Movement and Reagan years in The Day After (1984). It set the template for post atomic melodramas. While not a science fiction melodrama, the PBS TV series Cosmos, written by Carl Sagan in 1980, dealt explicitly with the effects of nuclear war and the urgent need to prevent it. The series had a profound impact on me as a young man. I will always remember this line from Sagan's monologue: "We know who speaks for nations. But who speaks for Earth?" Perhaps it was Oboler.

Five is a 90-minute science fiction horror movie that deals with a very complex topic in a short time frame and is more poetic allegory than precise documentary. Imagination is required to understand it. Judeo-Christian cosmology abounds: the film opens with footage of American nuclear bomb tests in the Pacific, blackened skies over New York, London and Moscow, and a quote from Psalm 103:16: "The (deadly) wind passeth over it, And it is gone: And the place thereof Shall know it no more...".

The Spartan storyline follows a handful of people marooned in the aftermath of an atomic exchange. The survivors find their way to an isolated cabin on a lonely landscape. Michael (William Phipps), the sole survivor from the city of New York, attends to the practical matters of gathering food. Roseann (Susan Douglas), her life spared by the protective cover of an X-ray lab when the bomb struck, awaits the birth of her child and agonizes over the unknown fate of her husband. Mr Barnstaple (Earl Lee) is an old-fashioned banker thrust into a world where money no longer has value. Helping him is his African-American Man Friday, a sharp WW II veteran named Charles (Charles Lampkin). Both men were in a bank vault when a bomb fell on their city that wiped everyone else out immediately. Alas, Barnstaple quickly succumbs to lingering radiation poisoning after the four characters find each other and form a community near the ocean. Just as the elderly banker passes away, the fifth character, Eric (James Anderson), washes up on shore nearly dead after trekking across the world looking for other survivors, which he could not find. Michael and Charles save his life and nurse him to health on the beach. Then the movie's leitmotif takes off.

Eric is the embodiment of unrepentant European fascism. He represents Nietzsche's Wille Zur Macht (Will To Power). Michael and Charles are Schopenhauer's Will To Live. The conflict between these forces forms the tension around which everything else in the film revolves. Today's film critics, too young to remember the 1940s, describe Eric as a mountaineer and attribute his diabolical character to personal failings. Eric, with a thick but untraceable accent and Hitler haircut, was busy conquering Mt Everest when the bombs started falling on the world's cities. He deludes himself into believing that he has not succumbed to radiation sickness because of some kind of inborn immunity, i.e. invincibility. As avaricious and wicked as the Third Reich, he ruins everything within his reach, including the corn Charles assiduously planted for all of them to eat. Just as Germany's thousand-year Reich imploded with Hitler as a man and an ideology immolated, Eric's notions of genetic superiority underscore his reckless forays to mindlessly loot the poisoned city further inland. As a result, he dies of radiation sickness. He's no superman after all and his kind will not reproduce with Roseann.

Charles Lampkin (1913-1989) as Charles is so far ahead of his time that he deserves comparison with Will Smith in I am Legend (2007). In an era when coloured men were chronically stereotyped as racial inferiors in American cinema: chicken-stealing Coons, crap-shooting Sambos, dangerous Bucks (today's urban predators and gangsta rappers), groveling, lazy, bewildered Toms (today's homeless Black men), stammering, good-for-nothing Stepin Fetchits (Stepin Fetchit was the first coloured "actor" to become a millionaire pretending to be a buffoon), dimwitted Amos 'n Andies and Eat 'n Sleeps... Charles turns all the degrading Hollywood stereotypes on their head. The movie no doubt disturbed American audiences for more reasons than one, not all of them benign.

A native of Montgomery, Alabama, Lampkin composed poetry and music and was a pioneer of Spoken Word in the 1930s. In the 1940s he had his own radio program in Los Angeles and was discovered by Arch Oboler, who invited him to join the cast of Five. In what would be the biggest coup of his life, Lampkin introduced Oboler to The Creation by James Weldon Johnson, composer of the spiritual Lift Every Voice and Sing and convinced Oboler to include excerpts of it in the script. It would become Lampkin's soliloquy and one of the most memorable moments of the film. As a result, audiences across the United States and worldwide were introduced to African-American poetry without even knowing it. The Creation is based on the story of Genesis.

Charles looks out at the dark sky over the ocean and, in an allusion to the effects of nuclear explosions on the atmosphere, says, "it's like it never was before." As a vibraphone plays a a disturbing melody in the background, Charles recites these lines from The Creation:

And God stepped out on space, And He looked around and said, "I'm lonely-- I'll make me a world."

Then God smiled, 
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said, "That's good!"

Then God reached out and took the light in His hands,
And God rolled the light around in His hands
Until He made the sun;
And He set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered it up in a shining ball
And flung it against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars.
Then down between
The darkness and the light
He hurled the world;
And God said, "That's good!"

Then the green grass sprouted,
(And) The pine tree pointed his finger to the sky,
And the oak spread out his arms,
The lakes cuddled down in the hollows of the ground,
And the rivers ran down to the sea;

Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled Him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand;
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till He shaped it in His own image;

Then into it He blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
Amen. Amen.

The movie concludes with Michael and Roseann as the two lone survivors, Adam and Eve-like. Revelations: 21 flashes across the screen: "And I saw a new heaven... And a new earth... And there shall be no more death. No more sorrow... No more tears... Behold! I make all things new!"

I would be remiss if I did not admit that I have more than an academic interest in this obscure film and my motive for writing about it transcends the humanitarian.

The late Charles Lampkin is my grandfather.

May his bad dreams never become our reality.

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