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You can't tune to a cable station these days without confronting a documentary cobbled from recycled war footage of various kinds, labeled as newly declassified or liberated from some foreign vault or another. The fashion of the moment is to contrast vintage newsreels and combat footage (sometimes colorized) with dramatic readings of soldiers' personal correspondence and call the whole thing a shattering emotional document. Ken Burns lives on in a thousand memoir pieces plastered with plaintive violins.
In the early 1990s, the creative special effects veteran Peter Kuran (check his IMDB credits; he's everywhere) decided to turn his digital effects skills to a personal project. Everybody's seen images of atom bomb tests -- many 50s science fiction films begin with a mushroom cloud stock shot. The shots are usually shaky, fuzzy film clips several generations away from the original. Kuran licensed formerly classified atom test film and submitted it to the same processes used to rejuvenate and polish other kinds of old stock footage. Just submitting the old negatives to a good digital transfer did much of the work; removing dirt & scratches and sharpening up color and contrast does the rest. Kuran's Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie was completed in 1995 and first hit VHS in 1998. VCE's new Blu-ray reissue is a feast for the eyes and ears.
For the most part, it's also politically neutral. Although we see a couple of the same dialogue bites used facetiously in the darkly satire The Atomic Cafe, the narration by Scott Narrie and Don Pugsley mostly sticks to historical basics. The facts surrounding twenty years of atom tests tell their own tale and are impressive without editorial embellishment.
Trinity and Beyond quickly dispenses with the necessary preamble about WW2 and the fear that the Nazis were developing an atomic weapon. After an H.G. Wells quote predicting just such a bomb -- in 1914 -- the story jumps from Einstein's 1939 plea to FDR to investigate nuclear fission and a lab breakthrough just prior to Pearl Harbor. The film gives us a better picture of what Los Alamos looked like during the development of the Fat Man and Little Boy atomic devices. All the Army footage has been recomposed for HD widescreen and given a top transfer; after Kuran's cleanup it almost looks like studio production work. The airplanes are shiny and the detail in familiar shots of bombs, etc, is much higher than we've seen it before.
Starting with the initial Trinity explosion, we see more before and after footage of each explosion, often from unusual angles. The two Japan bombings include shots of post-blast destruction. As soon as testing gets going at an accelerated rate, we're engulfed in one awe-inspiring explosion after another, in full color, clearer than I've ever seen them before. At the Bikini Atoll Crossroads test, an air explosion doesn't do much visible damage to the hundreds of warships placed at anchor, but the following underwater blast we've all seen blows the bottoms out of a number of ships and sends an incredible volume of water into the sky in less than a second.
Trinity and Beyond never becomes repetitive. The narration points out the reason for whatever new test is being conducted and shows how the Tinian Atoll is being wiped off the face of the earth, one detonation at a time. The army gets into the act with a demonstration of a practical atomic artillery shell, producing one of the most disturbing images of the Cold War. A cannon fires in the foreground, and a mushroom cloud sprouts in the desert valley beyond. 1
Grinding into the fifties, the bomb-making industry literally boomed, with Edward Teller working out ways to maximize megaton yield and the former Army operation transferred to the "private sector". Long rows of employees assemble bomb components as if they were mass-producing TV sets. Test schedules run into the dozens of explosions -- in the air, on the ground, and atop Wehrner Von Braun's new rockets. Spokesmen for this new atomic military industrial bonanza couch every "discussion" of the arms race in Catch-22 terms: all roads lead to proliferation. Holding forth at the United Nations, Adelai Stevenson berates the Soviets for doing exactly what we're doing.
If it's possible to follow Dr. Strangelove's example and Love the Bomb, Trinity and Beyond provides the video pinup art. The visuals of explosions are staggering, awesome. As Michael Nesmith might say, seeing all those fireballs instantaneously engulfing several square miles of real estate, vaporizing matter and fusing the earth into glass -- why it just enhances my territorial imperative! 2 Some of the details are fascinating. Most surface explosion tests fire off a number of data-recording rockets on a radius line away from ground zero, bracketing the mushroom clouds with weird smoke-trail punctuation. Kuran's enhanced images sometimes show a bizarre bubble-like phenomenon occurring just after an H-Bomb ignition: an enormous, bloated blister covered with strange white dots, that may mark the region where the atmosphere itself has been instantaneously ionized. In some detonations the giant blisters looks like futuristic blown-glass sculptures a mile across -- or a fearsome glimpse into some other dimension. 5
Trinity and Beyond doesn't show the most extreme images of test animals suffering or mutilated by blast effects, but we get the idea anyway. We do see much more before/after footage than usual of those "atomic neighborhood" mannequin cities constructed for tests. One early South Pacific H-test yields much more radiation than is expected, so much so that the research crews cannot approach the hulks of target ships for days. By that time the animals on board have perished, even if they survived the blast. This is also the same test that irradiated military personnel and an unlucky Japanese fishing trawler, an incident that shocked the world with images of radiation burns previously suppressed from public view.
The latter parts of the show concentrate on the establishment of nuclear test bans. The treaty negotiations motivate the U.S. to accelerate its testing schedule to get in as many bangs as possible before the deadline. Bombs detonated high in the stratosphere (!!!) lead to the discovery of the Electromagnetic Pulse effect (EMP), that wipes out electronic circutiry. Just as the Yanks and Russkis appear to be settling into a test ban, Trinity and Beyond cuts to some dynamic footage of the Chinese entering the atomic party with their own aboveground tests. Scenes of Chinese cavalry charging with swords drawn and wearing gas masks gives the impression that utter barbarians are now in possession of this awful destructive capability. Although the exciting footage provides a bang-up climax, the editorial comment is at odds with the neutral tone of the rest of the film.
William Shatner provides the film's solid narration, while Randall William Cook performs a secondary voiceover meant to sound like a vintage newsreel. Backing up the film's visual wonders is a superb score by William Stromberg, performed by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. The music (with input from Lennie Moore and John W. Morgan) enhances the drama and makes the scale of the images seem even more enormous.
VCE, Inc.'s Blu-ray of Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie is an excellent HD encoding of this fascinating visual essay. The parade of bizarre images never stops. Patterns of vapor form rings around the blast center. Paint ignites on the side of a school bus before the shock wave hits -- frightening scenes shown in far more detail than ever before seen. The audio track (no configuration is given) is robust. In short, nothing technical impairs the presentation.
Besides a number of trailers, VCE's disc offers a montage of uncut fireballs and mushroom clouds, and an extensive still slideshow. Back in the first year or so of DVD I checked out another atomic bomb docu and was disappointed when it was a grainy, faded & indistinct 16mm print, with a phony new narration track added. Trinity and Beyond is the real goods, presented in a way that truly satisfies. It's also the perfect background wallpaper video for your next morbid survivalist cocktail party! 3
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie Blu-ray rates:
1. The impressive shot of the howitzer lobbing a nuke four miles into the background is the only "test" in the movie that looks as if it could have been faked. A suspicious jump cut occurs just before the explosion. After seeing that even the smallest nuclear device of the time is as big as a kingsized water heater, those shells just seem too compact. Of course, everybody was talking about bombs in briefcases back then, too. In an alternate (paranoid) scenario, I can imagine the film being produced for the specific purpose of being leaked into the hands of the Kremlin: "What -- the Americans can shoot a tactical warhead out of a cannon??
2. That's an unfortunate Elephant Parts reference.
3. I almost feel ashamed that I can instantly identify several of these shots from their (inferior quality) appearances in 50s monster movies. A docu on the Bikini tests is clearly the source for the opening montage of the American version of Rodan. One picture perfect shot of a boiling mushroom cloud provides the main title background for Sam Fuller's Cold War hysteria adventure Hell and High Water.
Hi Glenn. I enjoyed your review of Trinity and Beyond. I have the DVD but neither a good screen nor a Blu-Ray player so this will be a great candidate for an upgrade someday. Regarding that atomic cannon, I can't remember the jump cut that you referred to, but the test was real and they really had nukes miniaturized down to artillery shell size. (They might have cut the film to eliminate a few seconds of waiting.) They manufactured a few of these cannons, and one is at Sandia National Labs in Albuquerque where I work as a physicist. I've seen replicas of Fat Man and Little Boy in museums here and at Los Alamos, and there are always two powerful impressions: first, that something so small could destroy a city, and second, that those two bombs were hulking, primitive contraptions compared to what came later.
These films are really impressive, and I think are very popular even among the many scientists who, like myself, are not militarists.
Finally, the maker of the film, Peter Kuran, also published a book called How to Photograph an Atomic Bomb which is quite interesting. The text describing how the filming was done is actually rather sparse, but lots of great photos.
Happy new year! Chris
5. Peruse this photo, which, if the markings on it are correct, records a moment .016 seconds after ignition of an H-bomb. Here are some very non- scientific remarks: The plasma blister appears to be 300 meters in diameter. If descriptions I read are correct, the matter inside the blister has been (take your pick) vaporized / disintegrated / converted into energy. A first-generation Hiroshima-type atom bomb isn't nearly this powerful. The blobs of something (?) at ground level and the apparent 'spots' on the blister resemble impurities in molten metal. Presumably in the next fraction of a second the smoke and flame and heat effects will replace the ephemeral plasma blister, seen only for an eye-blink in some of the live-action shots in the docu. The image is so alien-looking, like a microscopic event writ large on the landscape, that Science Fiction visions come to mind -- has any of the matter in the blast passed into a different dimension or time frame?
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