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Raised Cold War pressures in the 1980s saw an upsurge in movies and TV shows warning about nuclear war, at at time when the public was no longer buying the earlier government propaganda about survivable atom bomb attacks. Three Mile Island and Chernobyl were major wake-up calls, while Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars") added more tension by declaring an atom war 'winnable'. Thus we were exposed to unusually grim atom war scenarios in The Day After, Testament, Threads and Special Bulletin. All had overt or implied no-nuke messages. Yet when shown on television, The Day After was given a special "after-discussion", enabling a debate on the credibility of its nuclear war scenario. Special Bulletin uses a realistic reality-show format, so was regularly interrupted by network messages aimed at avoiding an Orson Welles-"War of the Worlds" panic.
Perhaps the most unusual of these films saw little distribution in the United States. When the Wind Blows is a faithful adaptation of a graphic novel by Raymond Briggs depicting the effect of a nuclear attack on a sweet, dotty retired couple in rural England. Understated to the point of absurdity, it nevertheless is not a 'black comedy' as claimed by some reviewers. It has neither the anger or the cynicism of earlier films. Although filmed flat, surely in the knowledge that most future viewing would be on Television, the movie is a technical triumph for pre-CGI animation, refining techniques to produce an ominous mood difficult to achieve in live action.
Author Briggs based his leading characters on his parents, old-school Britons of modest means. Good-natured retiree Jim Bloggs (John Mills) returns by bus to his quaint country cottage to find his plump wife Hilda (Peggy Ashcroft) cooking and cleaning. He's worried about the war scare but can't get Hilda to focus on the radio news, which warns that 'pre-emptive strikes' are imminent. Hilda doesn't even know what kind of strikes she is talking about. Preparing as if for a storm, Jim follows his civil defense pamphlet and uses several doors to construct a lean-to shelter in the center of their home. Word comes that an attack is expected in just three minutes, and Jim must wrestle an uncooperative Hilda under the shelter. When they emerge they find that a blast has blown out the windows of their house and ruined everything inside. Everything outside has been blighted and blackened by a great heat. The dazed and uncomprehending pair dodder about, grossly underestimating their situation. Jim is surprised when the water isn't running and the electricity is off, but persists in his dithering optimism: "We'll be all right". Hilda is also incapable of grasping the enormity of the calamity. They tell each other that help will be on the way and that they'll have to keep their chins up. The pamphlets told them to stay in their lean-to for two weeks to avoid radioactive fallout, but the impracticality of that is aggravated by Hilda's reasoning that something she can't see, smell or touch can't possibly hurt her. They continue eating normally and drink rainwater after their supply has run out. Two days later, they've yet to see another survivor, nothing has improved, there's nothing left to eat and they're beginning to feel very ill.
When the Wind Blows begins with a video prologue of 'radical' demonstrators being arrested at a protest against the installation of cruise missiles at an American miitary base in England, erasing any doubts about the picture's position on the issue of nuclear armaments. Raymond Gibbs' book had previously been dramatized on the radio. The show remains dialogue-driven, except that director Murakami's excellent mix of animation styles widens the limited scope of the story. When Jim and Hilda recall the 'good old war' that they knew, we see free-drawn animated scenes of the heroic Blitz, happy caricatures of Allied leaders, and a few film montages. Ignoring her husband's concern, Hilda finds a dandelion in the garden. It prompts a beautiful little reverie where she imagines herself as a chubby seraphim, dancing in the sky with butterflies and cherubs, and finally happily dining in heaven with her extended family. Jim and Hilda Bloggs are pitifully unsuited to any kind of struggle or confrontation but the film does not ridicule them. They have already fought their way through an earlier world, and simply aren't equipped to deal with the awesome new scale of jeopardy. Were it not for the endearing characters and charming style of animation the film would be unbearable. A live-action version would be a punishing ordeal.
With his little round head and body, Jim Bloggs looks like a senior citizen Charlie Brown, only British. Hilda is content to take care of her little nest of a house but is no longer able to adapt to any kind of change. They persist in identifying the enemy as those terrible Germans, and when they imagine a Russian foe, their "Ivan" is a fearsome Mongolian monster. In her little fantasy Hilda offers the monster a cup of tea, and it disappears. We witness their denial as they try to clean house while making excuses for the headaches, upset stomachs and other symptoms that soon follow. Their faces have literal dots for eyes and tiny mouths; when little shadows appear around their eyes and hollow marks form on their cheeks, the effect is traumatizing. By the finish the added facial details suggest the contours of skulls.
Director Murakami's chosen animation style is fascinating. The Bloggs' cottage is a blend of cel animation over careful live action footage of a miniature setting. The blends are so good that the distinction between shots with depth and those without disappears. The animation styles for their various fantasies run the gamut -- even using primitive computer images for a montage of confusing defense system names, all acronyms.
Jim arrives by rural bus that he shares with a couple of amorous teenagers. After that we leave the little house only during the attack. We then see grim images of a missile, a submarine and a jet bomber, followed by a destruction montage using mixed animation styles. Houses and churches, cars and factories are blown to bits and engulfed in smoke and fire. The Bloggs cottage still stands but the beautiful meadows have been transformed into a lifeless gray landscape muted by smoke and mist. The sense of utter isolation is frightening; with all promise of aid and community gone.
A few critics of When the Wind Blows thought the use of 'posh' actors Mills and Ashcroft ("Sir" and "Dame") was condescending to working class 'simple folk'; this American isn't sensitive to that distinction. Others ask why the couple are so utterly clueless about the nuclear threat. I think that Raymond Briggs' overall concept is both realistic and appropriate -- not even avowed survialists can live in the post-nuke scenarios described by the experts. It's true that everything in Briggs and Murakami's movie was covered twenty years before in Peter Watkins' searing docu-drama The War Game. But that was a different time, just a few years after Kramer's On the Beach put the issue on the table, and Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove showed us what a poisonous joke the atomic stalemate had become. Watkins' angry movie indicted the British government for lying to its citizens about the very real oblivion that could arrive in just the space of an afternoon. Banned and officially discredited, The War Game was labeled as radical propaganda, permitting the atomic denial to continue. 1
By keeping things basic When the Wind Blows doesn't leave much room for political dismissal. It isn't a science fiction disaster spectacle, so it can't be accused of exploitation. Neither is it littered with dead bodies, burned children or other gross unpleasantries. All a critic can say is that the old couple are stupid and do all the wrong things -- which only leads to the observation that a genius couldn't do anything to protect himself either. When the Wind Blows dishes out the bad news in the most gentle way possible. Considering the vital nature of the issue the best way to regard these alarmist dramas, even the exploitative ones, is as public service films.
Too important to be listed as just an extra is this disc's second feature, Sé Merry Doyle's 2010 documentary Jimmy Murakami: Non-Alien. A designer, animator and director with a varied career, Murakami is famed for the marvelous animated short subject The Snowman (1982) and even directed for Roger Corman's New World company. His attitude toward international politics and war is a dark one, as he spent some of his teenage years interned at Tule Lake with thousands of Japanese-Americans, all deprived of their citizenship. Later in his life Murakami moved to Ireland, which he found preferable to living in a country that, against its own principles, continues to foster racism. At the finish he returns to Tule Lake to try to put closure to his anger. The film reminds us that a concentration camp is a concentration camp even when its avowed purpose is to isolate and protect its prisoners. The title refers to way interns were classified as 'non-aliens' as a semantic dodge to ignore their Constitutional rights as citizens. Murakami passed away in February of 2014, leaving this docu as a powerful testament to a person born in America, who nevertheless considered himself a man without a country.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of When the Wind Blows is an immaculate presentation of a very special animated drama. The main feature retains the delicate color and textures of its unusual animation, and the extra docu feature is in high-quality widesceen HD.
We notice that the disc has not been licensed from MGM, Sony or Fox; Twilight Time is branching out and we'd guess that this particular title was a special acquisition. It's been given special attention in the extras department. An Isolated Music and Effects Track gives us the compositions of Roger Waters (of Pink Floyd), with other songs and vocals by David Bowie, Genesis, Squeeze, and Hugh Cornwell. TT's house writer Julie Kirgo interprets the show's '80s context. She explains that she shielded her young children from few movies, but made an exception in this case.
TT producer Nick Redman accompanies First assistant editor Joe Fordham on a commentary track that's just terrific. A witness to almost the entire production of the film, Fordham gives another point of view on director Murakami and explains John Coates and Pete Turner's A.R.S. dimensional background system for moving shots. It required that a large color photo blow-up be printed of every frame of live-action film, and then converted into an animated background for the rostrum camera. The making-of featurette The Wind and The Bomb shows a varied crew of artists working in 'mixed media animation' -- traditional cels, direct-drawn images, stop-motion with miniature sets, and primitive computer animation. At the conclusion the various artists talk about what they would do if the bombs fell.
Author Raymond Briggs is interviewed in The Wind and The Bomb but gets his own interview piece to himself, filmed in his rural workroom packed with books, artwork tools and images of his beloved mother and father. Briggs' emotions are more on the surface than we might expect -- he has used his long-gone, beloved parents in much of his work. The endearingly 'dim' characters in When the Wind Blows are of course based on them -- they become symbols of an essential human gentleness. In the show, Jim Bloggs invents a sweet little message he'd like to send to the Russians, suggesting that each side just take care of its business and leave the other in peace to get along as they can. Hilda waves her arms in approval and gives her husband a little kiss.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
When the Wind Blows Blu-ray rates:
1. Each of us has our own atomic nightmare, and for each there's a corresponding film. I'm fascinated by them all but most affected by Frank and Eleanor Perry's 1963 Ladybug Ladybug, a small-scale horror story that would be a timeless classic had its makers been a little better in their direction of children. Based on a real event at a rural school, a newly installed atom attack alarm system malfunctions, leaving the principal and teachers unsure of what to do. Other coincidences result in each teacher being asked to walk a group of children home. Unaware of follow-up bulletins cancelling the alarm, the panic level slowly rises until a group of kids are cowering in a barn, expecting to die at any moment. One traumatized child locked outside runs madly for her life.
The show no longer screens and its studio has never given it a proper transfer. Its leading players include the respected William Daniels, Jane Connell, Nancy Marchand, Estelle Parsons and others. The ending packs a genuinely horrifying shock. Are such dramatics effective as message carriers, or do they just scare people away from the problem?
As for animated films that no longer screen, 1982's The Plague Dogs takes the cake. The story of the doomed escape and flight of a pair of dogs being used for medical experiments disappeared almost immediately, almost never to be seen again (at least in America). It reportedly was very good; I may have passed up a chance to see it on Los Angeles' legendary "Z" cable channel.
Note from reader Tim Hulsey, 11.19.14:
"Re: Plague Dogs. Yes, it's very much worth seeing, and reviewing. It's only available in the US in a severely abridged 80-minute cut, but an Australian DVD has the full 103-minute version. The added scenes improve the film considerably. Brad Bird was an animator on the feature. -- Tim Hulsey
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
T'was Ever Thus.