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Fail-Safe, written by Walter Bernstein from the novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, directed by Sidney Lumet, 1964, 110 min.

Fail-Safe has always existed in the shadow of Dr. Strangelove. The similarities between the two films caused a deal of legal flap at the time, because the basic plots are indeed copies of each other (to put it diplomatically). Dr. Strangelove caused more of an uproar in its time, both critically and at the box office, but I feel that Fail-Safe is a superior film in some ways. It has none of the same problems of pacing, and keeps the viewer tense and off-balance from beginning to end. Fail-Safe also boasts some excellent acting, especially from Henry Fonda as the President and Walter Matthau as a civilian advisor. I am glad that audiences over the years have recognized Dr. Strangelove for what it is -- an absolutely unique work of genius -- but I was also deeply impressed with Fail-Safe. Both movies do good work in emphasizing the profound lunacy of nuclear war.

Fail-Safe opens with a dream sequence. General Black (played by Dan O'Herlihy) is dreaming of a bull being speared to death by a matador. He wakes up and goes to a meeting at the Pentagon. Meanwhile, a Senator and a businessman are touring a command centre in Nebraska. A blip appears on the big board -- is this the long-feared attack by Soviet forces? American planes are sent to the fail-safe point, a line beyond which they cannot be called back. When the blip turns out to be a non-threat, the planes are indeed called back, but some kind of malfunction in the system lets one plane go on with its mission to bomb Moscow. The President (Henry Fonda) gets called in to deal with the situation, and he gives some orders to General Black that tie the ending in with the opening nightmare. There are no laughs here, as in Dr. Strangelove, but Fail-Safe delivers the same message with a feverish intensity. In comparison to another very "serious" movie, On the Beach, the tight plotting is again very much in Fail-Safe's favour -- yes, the message is somber and sincere, but this movie also moves forward like clockwork. In a rather demented clock, considering the topic, which makes the movie only more effective.

The characters are well-cast and well-portrayed. Henry Fonda does an especially good job as the President, who refuses to crack under unbearable pressure. This is staged very effectively by Lumet, who gives the President a naive young interpreter for conversations with the Soviets. All of these scenes are remarkable tribute to Lumet's power to tell a story and build tension and to Fonda's acting, considering that we only see Fonda in a bland, featureless room deep below the Earth's surface. Walter Matthau does a fine job in a rare dramatic role, this time as a civilian advisor on the subject of nuclear war. The kind of advisor who would say that as long as 40 million Soviets are wiped out, 30 million casualties at home are acceptable. He has an odd scene early on with an admiring young woman, that only hints at the twisted sexuality that permeates Dr. Strangelove. And his ruthless adherence to his own form of "rationality" makes the character coherent and above all, believable. I saw Fail-Safe on TVOntario, and the host, Elwy Yost, interviewed Matthau after the movie. Matthau said that he was proud of the role, but frightened that people would tell him that they agreed with his character. Just as many people certainly agreed with the real-life counterparts to Matthau's character. This would not be a problem for anybody acting in Dr. Strangelove -- Kubrick's extreme caricatures pushed the fact of their lunacy right into the viewer's face. But a kind of Catch-22 is in operation here -- what kind of lunatic would advocate nuclear war to begin with? A lunatic who doesn't see lunacy. I liked the scene where Matthau's character comes to the conclusion that Soviets will simply surrender, showing how far separated he is from reality.

Is Fail-Safe science fiction? It has a "what-if" situation, but diverges only minimally from the reality of the time. In the interests of raising the level of discourse in the genre, I would claim it as science fiction -- Fail-Safe is an excellent film that contributes a great deal to how we think about and understand the future. About how our choices in the "now" bring us to calamity or good fortune in the "then." But then my definition of science fiction is almost impossible to pin down from day to day. Whatever its genre, Fail-Safe speaks powerfully and simply to its topic -- the destructive power of the bomb and the mindset behind the bomb. As such, I respect it immensely.

Last modified: September 24, 1998

Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (

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