Fail Safe – tape 728

Fail Safe is a film based on the same novel which Dr Strangelove was parodying. And because Strangelove got into cinemas first, Fail Safe rather bombed at the box office.

It’s a story about the US nuclear fleet, and much of the opening is taken up with various explanations of how the system works, and how secure it is. “No one can interfere with the fail-safe box Mr Raskob. No one.” says a general confidently.

It’s shot with the same deep shadow black and white as Strangelove, but it looks strangely cheap. Not having Ken Adam to design the sets puts you at a disadvantage.

Walter Matthau runs a military briefing, discussing with a roomful of generals whether it’s possible to wage a limited war when nuclear weapons are involved. All this is taking place while an unknown aircraft is being tracked by central command. They’re relieved when it’s identified as a commercial airline, but one of the bombers, having reached its fail-safe position, can’t receive the all-clear, and has to assume it’s still supposed to deliver its missiles to Moscow.

So President Henry Fonda has to sit in an underground communications room, trying to coordinate the efforts to contact the rogue bomber.

Matthau has a rather melodramatic view of soviet psychology – he counsels that if the Russians know they are being attacked, and they will be destroyed, they would surrender, rather than doom the world to mutually assured destruction. He thinks they should let the flight through and take advantage of the first strike.

President Fonda has to try to persuade the Soviet premier that it really is a horrible mistake. It helps him, as the bombers approach, that the Soviets have to admit that the bombers are being jammed deliberately by them, so at least the situation is partially of their making.

But when the jamming ceases, the President is unable to recall the planes, because their protocol doesn’t allow override by voice command.

The President orders all of his men to help the soviets shoot down the plane – they have to answer the technical questions of the soviets, to explain all their stealth technology – something that some of the US generals have a great difficulty doing.

But in the end, despite all their efforts, one bomber gets through. And, in order to prevent a full-scale retaliation from the soviets, and to prove that this was all a mistake, President Fonda orders one of his nuclear bombers to drop two bombs on New York City.

No happy endings. Except the caption at the end:

THE PRODUCERS OF THIS FILM
WISH TO STRESS THAT IT IS
THE STATED POSITION OF
THE DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE
AND
THE UNITED STATES AIR FORCE
THAT A RIGIDLY ENFORCED
SYSTEM OF SAFEGUARDS AND
CONTROLS INSURE THAT
OCCURRENCES SUCH AS THOSE
DEPICTED IN THIS STORY
CANNOT HAPPEN

So that’s all right then.

Among the very impressive cast, I almost didn’t recognise a young Larry Hagman as the President’s interpreter.

Larry Hagman

There’s a slight continuity glitch after the movie, as they show the tape clock instead of the channel 4 logo, which usefully dates this recording as 22nd May 1989.

C4 clock

Then, there’s the start of Eleventh Hour, a documentary series, and the recording stops a minute or so into it.

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