Film talk-1: Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove

Despite the heading on this blog, I realized that I had not been writing about films for quite a while. The reason is simple: I had not been seeing films over the past few months. This was because I was reading a lot of books as part of serving on the Common Reading Book Selection Committee. This is Case’s committee to select the book that will be sent to all incoming students in the summer of 2007 and the selected book also forms part of the basis for orientation, fall convocation, and the First seminars.

This is a great committee to serve on because you get together with other students, staff, and faculty, all of whom love to read and talk about books. In serving on this committee over the past few years, I have been introduced to a lot of great books that I might not have read otherwise. This year saw a particularly good selection which I will write about once the final choice is made. But because the books were so good, I found it hard to tear myself away to my other love: films.

But in the last two weeks I watched some old films that were worth writing about.

Fail Safe is a great 1964 film based on a book of the same name by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. I have never understood how two people can collaborate on a novel because a novel seems like such a personal creation. But I digress.

I had read the book back in the 70’s but had never seen the film. Its premise is the same as that of the much-better known Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb, which also came out the same year. I wonder how it came to be that two studios decided to make two films with such similar themes in the same year. It seems weird to me. But I digress again.

Both films deal with the situation that arises during the cold war when a US nuclear bomber squadron begins a mission to attack the Soviet Union. In Fail Safe the cause is malfunctioning equipment while in Dr. Strangelove the cause is a psychotic US General who wants to start a nuclear war. But in both cases, technical malfunctions and cold war paranoia (at least initially) between the US and Soviet political and military leaders hinder attempts to get the fleets called back, despite their joint frantic efforts once people realize the seriousness of what is going on.

They are both wonderful films, though quite different in their approach to the same scenario. Dr. Strangelove, which I have seen numerous times over many years, is the ultimate black comedy, getting laughs from a potential nuclear catastrophe, with director Stanley Kubrick getting brilliant performances out of Peter Sellers (in three roles, Dr. Strangelove being one), George C. Scott, and Sterling Hayden.

Fail Safe, on the other hand, plays it straight and there is not a laugh to be had in the whole film. Instead director Sidney Lumet, with a small cast, created a small, tight film that kept me completely absorbed throughout, even though I knew how it would end because I had heard that it was faithful to the novel. In the film, the US president (played by Henry Fonda) and his Soviet counterpart and their respective military and civilian advisors find that, even after overcoming their initial mutual suspicions and starting to cooperate, it is hard to reverse events that could lead to a nuclear catastrophe. Their machines of war have taken on a life of their own that relentlessly drives events.

Both films are anti-war in the best sense of the word. In Fail Safe, the US and Soviet leaders and most of their advisors are portrayed as thoughtful, humane, reasonable, and intelligent people, and yet they cannot control events. It made me think of the present. The current leadership in the US, Israel, Iraq and Iraq can none of them claim to have any of these desirable qualities and yet they are the ones we have to depend on to try and avert a catastrophe in the Middle East. It does not give one hope.

If any of you have not seen Fail Safe or Dr. Strangelove, you should check them out. They are true classics, in that they are timeless.

POST SCRIPT: The battle for Haifa Street

I wrote recently about how disturbing it was that nearly four years after the invasion of Iraq, US and Iraqi forces were still fighting pitched battles on a boulevard right in the capital Baghdad. According to Lara Logan of CBS News (who has done some terrific reporting), that battle raged for two weeks and may even still be going on. She appealed to her colleagues to spread the word about the video, which shows and important battle that is symptomatic of the stalemate that exists there. (You have to watch a commercial first.)


  1. Karl Borowski says

    I think the two are equally effective from two of the classic Greek play types, with “Dr. Strangelove” as the comedy and “Failsafe” as the tragedy.

    Both are certainly top notch films in terms of story, acting, and cinematography. I forget who played the crazed general in the war room in “Strangelove”, but if you look closely, during one of his speeches, he had the man playing the Russian ambassador cracking up. The actor who portrayed the U.S. president in “Failsafe” did an equally admirable job in that film.

    I also think it fitting that both of these films were shot in B&W. It sounds contradictory, but that almost makes them seem more real. With color, cinematographers seem to do things to beautify it. It also has to do with color films being optimized for pleasing skintones perhaps, that gives B&W such an allure. We are presented these two stories with a focus on the form of what is in the frame.

    “Failsafe”, for me, captures an element of reality that I find in few other films, B&W or otherwise. With recent developments in Pakistan, and now N. Korea, these films, which I thought would be dated with the collapse of the Soviet Union, enter into prominence once again.

  2. says


    The actual wording of that great quote is “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”


    The general in the war room was played by George C. Scott. I agree that he was great though I had not noticed the Russian ambassador cracking up. I agree with the comment about the effectiveness of black and white for films like these.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *