“You cannot win a nuclear war!”
The real-life horrors of nuclear war are no secret, having been documented in factual films of the 1940s, as well as in PSA’s that trickled through the cold war of the late 20th century. Rarely, however, are the intricacies of such a man-made catastrophe ever captured on narrative film, largely because the devastation of the dropping of a nuclear bomb is so violent that its destruction of human lives, environmental sites and cultural landmarks is no fun spectacle to behold.
Explored briefly during the climax of Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb directed by Stanley Kubrick, here the dropping of the atomic bomb is joined by a haunting rendition of Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll Meet Again’ in a fateful reflection on the inevitability of such repeated horror. However, again, the details of such an attack are never explored, with the horrors of such an attack saved for the brutal realism of British filmmaking in TV projects such as The War Game, and particularly Threads.
Set in the industrial city of Sheffield in 1984, Threads tells the disturbingly accurate story of a nuclear attack on the city, breaking down the catastrophe of the event hour-by-hour, as the once-thriving city falls to its knees. A truly visceral piece of rudimentary filmmaking, Threads is a terrifying and genuinely upsetting depiction of nuclear war that suffuses with an almost total lack of hope.
As a piece of thrilling horror or science fiction, it is likely too disturbing to genuinely enjoy, featuring everyday citizens cease to exist in a flash of light, whilst the world around them crumbles. What the film certainly is, however, is a masterpiece of low-budget filmmaking, making the most of carefully nuanced moments of silence, whilst utilising simple lighting techniques to replicate hell on earth.
Spending a year researching the film before coming back with his proposal to his BBC producers, director Mick Jackson spoke with over 50 experts in the matter, stating in an interview with Vice, “Doctors, physicists, defense specialists, psychologist, agronomists, climate scientist, strategic experts, intelligence experts, investigative journalists, nuclear weapon scientists,” he said. “I made myself an expert on nuclear war”.
To normalise such a fantastical concept, Jackson made the inspired decision to set the film in 1980s Sheffield, noting: “It is unthinkable for most people. Nuclear war is so outside your everyday experience it’s hard to get your mind around it. And if you can’t get your mind around it, you can’t talk about it and have a meaningful debate”. Loosely following the story of two young lovers who decide to marry after the wife unexpectedly becomes pregnant, the film becomes a story about new life in the context of widespread destruction.
It all leads Threads down a difficult, pessimistic road featuring visceral, frank pessimistic images, as well as graphic moments of true torment. As Jackson further stated, “I tried to put into Threads images that you couldn’t get out of your head,” as he created a generation of individuals scarred by the potential of nuclear war, armed with the shocking evidence of catastrophe and dread that featured in the despairing Threads.