Books: Don't ban it - film it

Millennium Movies: End of the World Cinema by Kim Newman Titan pounds 12.99
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The Independent Culture
Film critic and horror novelist Newman's typically exhaustive survey may nod to current concerns in its title, but its true subject is the mushroom cloud on its cover. It traces the Bomb through five decades of cinema. Though there's little of the personal theorising that made the author's horror analysis Nightmare Movies so impressive, his obsessive knowledge of pop culture proves adaptable enough. Within a few pages, he's sketched in such literary apocalyptic antecedents as George Tomkyns Chesney's moving account of Home Counties devastation by Bismarkian invaders, The Battle of Dorking (1871), and H G Wells's predictive extrapolations, which included an incinerating "atomic bomb" as far back as 1914's The World Set Free. But the true focus of a book in which literally hundreds of works are referenced comes when nuclear nightmares reached their twin peaks: the 1950s, and the 1980s. At its best, Millennium Movies explores the Bomb's leakage into the collective subconscious of those two triumphalist, paranoid decades.

Newman's research in forgotten film archives pays particular dividends in the years immediately after Hiroshima, when a broadly conformist Hollywood worked to normalise that shocking eruption. Newman not only analyses the spate of Enola Gay crew hagiographies, complete with straw doll moral qualms from pilots' muddle-headed wives; he also notes the idealisation of all bomber pilots. Strategic Air Command (1955) may linger on eroticised airplane couplings to what now seems a parodic extent, but the righteous calling of B-52 pilot Jimmy Stewart is never questioned. Disquiet, as the reality of nuclear weaponry - and its possession by Russia - sank in, was secreted in apparently innocuous monster movies. Them! (1954), amongst the first and best, in which giant, atom test-mutated ants roamed the LA storm drains, was written from a genuine sense of horror, by a wartime Lieutenant-Colonel who vomited in the street when he heard about Hiroshima. The Japanese Godzilla (1954) was understandably "a far more explicit symbol of the Bomb than any of its American counterparts." But, slowly, reality filtered through. On the Beach (1959) put an A-list cast through a fallout-finished world. By 1962, Hollywood had dared its first unsympathetic US bomber pilot (Steve McQueen). In 1964, Kubrick realised that a world in which Mutually Assured Destruction was seriously discussed could only be a pitch-black comedy, and hired Terry Southern to turn his Dr Strangelove script into satire.

It's a revealing, intricate narrative. But, when a combination of retreat from nuclear rhetoric after the Cuban missile crisis and the more immediate trauma of Vietnam dampened nuclear dreams for 20 years, the weaknesses of Newman's approach become apparent. The tendency to include the name of every film ever touched by the atom, simply because it's there, starts to numb the attention. He seems less exercised by a passion for his subject than by a more general film-junkie fetish, the pleasure of sharing the occasional fresh find amongst much radioactive dross (if you want a detailed analysis of Six-String Samurai,1988, here it is).

It's in the 1980s that Newman's aim returns. In exhuming a pair of all but forgotten, once passionately debated works - The Day After (1983) and Threads (1984) - his writing cuts deep and true. Neither seen since their TV premieres, they are revealed as opposed in the media traditions they utilise (America's The Day After begins as sex-obsessed soap, Britain's Threads with social-realist grit) but united in their unparalleled depiction of nuclear devastation for a mass audience: melting milk bottles, stillborn mutant babies and, in The Day After, the queasy sight of "handsome actors and pretty actresses, familiar from a hundred TV series, los[ing] their blow-dried hair in ragged clumps." In describing such scenes, and the culture they confronted, Newman at last gives a little of his own cinematic passion. If this is elsewhere a sustained magazine piece more than a truly considered book, it still includes enough insight to set the most blase millenarian thinking.