A crude Australian animated film “created” in the sense a blocked drain “creates” a sculpture of hair, Go to Hell!! is as cult as you can get without an IV of Kool-Aid. It’s ugly, but fascinating. I want a world where more things like this get made, regardless of how few people watch them.

Essentially a one-man production, Go to Hell!! has the shortest end credits you will ever see in a feature-length 2D animated film. “Character design: Ray Nowland. Storyboards: Ray Nowland. Layouts: Ray Nowland.” Etc. There are digital effects (credited to Leaf Nowland), but we are talking about tens of thousands of drawings, done by hand, by a single man, for a film with commercial prospects beyond hopeless. Nowland really wanted this son of a bitch to exist, and it’s worthy of attention for that reason alone.

It was made in 1997, and licensed to Energee Entertainment in 1998. It played a few times on SBS’s Eat Carpet, which was a late-night revue for strange and outre programming (basically an Australian equivalent of MTV’s Liquid Television). I’ve heard rumors that it was once sold on DVD and VHS: evidence does not support this. More people claim to have been molested by Bigfoot than have watched the film. Little information exists about Go to Hell!! and I cannot answer urgent questions such as “why does the title have two exclamation points and not one or three?”

It is not possible to watch Go to Hell!! legally. If you want to do so anyway, someone uploaded a 240p copy to Youtube (how did they get it…?), and someone else made a typically awful AI “remaster” with wrong colors and part of the frame missing. Pick your poison: both look like shit.

The plot is…interesting. It seeks to describe the arc of the cosmos, and it does so at an incomprehensibly fast gallop. Go to Hell!! has the tone of a drug-addled stranger jabbering conspiracy theories at you on the bus, and a visual style to match.

The movie starts out on a a near-future version of Earth. With an eco-crunch about to hit, a wealthy businessman called GD announces that he will journey into space with a reservoir of Earth’s genetic material to save it from extinction. But there’s a dark side to GD. We see his personal life: he’s a dirtball who hynotically brainwashes attractive young women into sleeping with him (“your nipples will explode with delight when you think of GD!“). His seemingly heroic mission is actually just a way to escape his vengeful wife, who has caught him in flagrante delicto with his new secretary.

This charismatic but sleazy character seems modeled on Kerry Packer, the billionaire media mogul who was famous for his dramatic personal life, including flings with models and Page Three girls (one such relationship ended with the girl committing suicide). Fun fact: a guy who lives down the road from me was actually friends with Packer in the 90s. Well, acquaintances, I suppose. Actually, he was the Telstra IT technician sent to Packer’s hospital ward to wire up his TV with a satellite downlink (when you’re a billionaire media mogul you can afford to do things like that). He was advised by a personal assistant to not speak to Packer, or even make eye contact with him. Other than that, they were best mates.

Anyway, GD arrives at an interstellar space station, accompanied by his son Little Red and his new fuck-bunny Angel. (Red: “are you my new mommy?” Angel: “not in a million years.”) Shortly after, nuclear war breaks out on Earth and the planet is destroyed. I hate it when that happens.

Stranded in space, GD catches a lucky break. He discovers a distant planet which is capable of harboring life. Using genetic experimentation (and a suspended animation chamber that allows him to slow down his own aging), he populates it with ape-like creatures, who he thinks he can bend to his will. But there’s one person he cannot bend to his will: his own son.

Almost from the jump, Little Red is portrayed as a force of corruption. He breaks into a hydroponics garden on the space station and destroys a large quantity of fruit. More seriously, he takes another boy on an unsanctioned space walk: the boy dies in a tragic accident. GD pulls some strings to keep his son out of trouble, but Red has few friends aboard the space station, and he flees to the planet as soon as he can. There, he begins corrupting GD’s apes into disobeying his father’s will and thinking for themselves.

At this point, you’re probably like the detective at the end of The Usual Suspects, noticing fifty obvious clues at once. Like how GD’s name is GD, and his secretary is named Angel, and Angel calls Red “you little devil!” at one point.

There are several ways to view Go to Hell!! One is as an Australian Fritz the Cat: a “counterculture” film aimed at stoners. The tone is sophomoric, and there are fart and dick jokes aplenty. The final shot is of a man taking a piss while wistful piano music plays.

The second is a grand (but cynical) retelling of the Christian eschatological narrative. From Genesis to Exodus to the Gospels to Revelation, it stays the same: GD has a plan to “save” humanity (ie, enslave them), and Red messes everything up. Admittedly, “the Bible, but postmodern” isn’t the most original thought ever thunk, but here it’s done in an ockerish “‘straya, cunt” way that I hadn’t seen before. For example, we see Jesus “walking on water”…by surfing.

The third is as an art film. Go to Hell!! is at it’s most compelling when inner vision and outer form twist together in strange galvanic chemistry, producing confusing but always fascinating animated filmmaking. Large stretches of the film (particularly at the end) are wild expressionistic romps that seem unrelated to the story, yet the movie is much stronger for them. When Red is “tempting” people, cuts rapidly stagger between his smirking face and a diabolic devil face, almost fast enough to trigger epileptic attacks. Maybe it’s for the best that Go to Hell!! aired in the graveyard hours, or it might have a body count.

As mentioned, the film tries to tell virtually the entire story of the Bible, and do plenty of other things in between. It’s wildly overstuffed, and moves breathlessly fast. At times you wish it would slow down, because there are a lot of nice moments that get trampled.

For one thing, the writing is often genuinely witty (GD: “I have risen, as was predicted!” Man 1: “who predicted that?” Man 2: “I don’t know, but he was right.”) For another, it’s smart: probably too smart to be viewed while punching a cone at two in the morning. I wonder if stoners got the joke about GD’s name, which is a reference to the Hebrew practice of dropping out vowels (compare with YHWH). Or the way GD’s “angels” become deformed by generations of inbreeding, and look…well, surprisingly close to the way angels are described in the Bible. Elsewhere, the humor gets a bit broad, such as when GD tries to save humanity with a device called Active Radiation Kills…geddit?

Although Christianity serves as is the scaffolding for the film’s story, the story is unabashedly secular. God is portrayed as a lecherous pervert, and his angels as deformed mutants. The Devil is the only one on humanity’s side. Right through history, we see vignettes of the same pattern playing out, with God (GD) having a plan for us, and the Devil (Red) foiling it. He does what wrestling fans call a “heel turn”, becoming the movie’s heroic figure. As soon as the story enters modern times, we enter overt Ralph Bakshi territory. GD is getting increasingly upset with Hitler, who he regards as evil. We’re obviously meant to note the parallels between Hitler’s camps and GD’s own crimes (he once destroyed every life form on the planet to make way for his apes). This is pretty on-the-nose stuff, and more daring than Bakshi ever got.

There’s a lot I like about Go to Hell!! The style, the vision, the way it takes no prisoners and gives no fucks. The moments of seeping dreamlike weirdness that exist between story beats, the way a snail leaves a glistening trail of slime behind it. All of this works perfectly. The final shot of the movie is eerie and thought-provoking. Maybe GD himself was being manipulated by a power beyond his understanding. Maybe it’s turtles all the way up, as well as down. Who knows?

There are also many things I don’t like. Ironically for a film with an atheist sensibility, it can get a bit didactic and preachy. Red gives a long speech to humanity at the end that’s basically just an Earth Day recruitment ad. We have to save the environment, manage our resources, etc. It’s so self-serious and so tonally out of place that I wonder if it was meant as a joke. After all, it’s the Devil giving that speech.

And the requirement that it follows the Bible’s story means things feel really forced and shoehorned. I was bored through all the parts re-litigating Exodus. I wish Nowland had found a way to tell the core of the Exodus story, instead of just literally making it “GD controls a human called Pharoah, Red controls a human called Moses.” I already know what happens in Exodus. I don’t see the point of making a cheap animated version of The Ten Commandments. Here, the movie is in flight from its strengths.

I haven’t mentioned the animation. As I’ve said, it was made by one man, and looks pretty good, viewed in light of that fact.

The economics of 2D animation are paradoxical. Technically, you can show literally anything in animation: it’s not necessarily harder to draw a planet exploding than it is a man boarding a bus (it might be easier—outlandish subject matter means the audience will forgive more cartoonish cheating.) The downside is an extremely high per-foot production cost. Each minute of 2D animation costs thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.

But this is partly why I enjoy 2D animation. It’s the Twitter of filmmaking. Animated films are tight and focused out of necessity, and they almost always have a clear creative vision. Yes, that vision might be “Reagan-era toy commercial”, or “Mindy Kaling staging a Wehrmacht-style occupation of a beloved franchise and making it all about her”, but there’s no possibility an animated film will devolve into self-indulgent “shoot three hours of nothing and call it a film” auteur rubbish.

Ray Nowland was once a big fish in Australia’s tiny animation industry. He is credited on Marco Polo Jr vs the Dragon (the first Australian ever) and worked for Yoram Gross’s studio (he was principle character animator on several Dot and the Kangaroo films in the 80s, along with Blinky Bill: The Mischievous Koala). He also did some work for Burbank Animation, under the name “Ray Nowland”.

If you’re a fan of Australian animation, you might spot a few easter eggs. Like this shot of a dead koala, which has a Doom 2 “killing Commander Keen” energy.

And while I’m not going to go and check, I strongly suspect that the shot of the kangaroo hopping away is from Dot and the Kangaroo‘s final scene.

[edit: I checked, and it’s not. But given the Blinky Bill reference earlier, it wouldn’t surprise me if we’re supposed to think of Dot. I forgot how sad that movie is: the ending made me tear up a little.]

Watched by few, loved by fewer, Go to Hell!! deserved better than it got, which was apparently nothing at all. Maybe word about it will finally start to spread. It was Ray Nowland’s first and last film as a director. His alpha and omega. Where is he now? Is he even still alive? Who knows. God is in his heaven, and all is right with the world.


If you came here wondering whether that hot new “Pac-Man” game lives up to the hype, then wonder no more. The verdict is in, and Pac-Man gets an epic two thumbs up out of ten!

This game is suitable for children of all ages (stone, bronze, iron, classical, dark, middle, and early modern), teaching them them the only lesson they need to know in life: how to pop pills to keep your persistent spectral hallucinations at bay. Pac-Man is absolutely stuffed with the latest, hottest features we “game-heads” crave. It has graphics! And little plastic buttons you can press! Often, when you press the buttons, things happen on the screen. Cool! You can even eat the buttons, although they don’t taste very good.

I own an original Pac-Man arcade cabinet from the 80s. It belonged to my father, who was into retro gaming gear (well, it wasn’t retro when he bought it, but you get the idea). I think it’s one of the earliest cabinets manufactured by Namco—it has Puck-Man on the front (the game’s original title), and the serial on the base is #341.

It’s in excellent condition, although I had to replace a bad capacitor on the PCB a few years ago. This rare and well-preserved cabinet would be worth a pretty penny if I wanted to sell it, but I like playing the damned thing too much. Your firstborn child would be worth a pretty penny on the open market too, particularly if they still had both kidneys, but does that move the needle? Are you thinking “man, I could totally refinance my mortgage, and it’d be less Paw Patrol I have to listen to”? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Some things are more important than money.

Pac-Man is a look back at a more innocent time. Namco would later attract controversy with poorly-advised spin-offs such as Mrs Pac-Man (your character earns 70% of the points the male Pac-Man does), Frac-Man (you fix leaks on a pipeline while avoiding angry protestors), Blac-Man (you swallow ghosts with your huge red lips), Barebac-Man (the ghosts are HIV viruses), and, most alarmingly, NSDAP-Man (the ghosts are far harder to avoid due to their long, hooked noses and control over the world’s banks), but the original remains a timeless classic. Sometimes all a guy wants is good old-fashioned Pac-Man, the way it was meant to be.

Except, well…

Something’s wrong with my game. It’s hard to explain. Maybe the cabinet is bugged. Maybe it was tampered with by my father or someone else. Maybe it’s not really a Pac-Man cabinet at all. I can’t say for sure, but there’s something a little unusual about the ghosts in my machine.

First, let’s review how Pac-Man’s ghosts work. Puck-Man, like its English counterpart, has four of them. They are called Oikake (追いかけ), Machibuse (待ち伏せ), Kimagure (気まぐれ), and Otoboke (お惚け).

Their purpose is to chase Pac-Man, but Toru Iwatani (the game’s creator) realized that Pac-Man wouldn’t be fun if the ghosts just ran at you blindly. They’d end up following you around in a conga line, and the game would be too easy. In a brilliant masterstroke, he programmed them with unique AIs. Each ghost has a distinct personality, and tries to catch you with a different trick.

Oikake (the red ghost) is the simplest: he charges like a dumbfire missile toward Pac-Man’s current square (path calculated by D = sqrt((x_Pac-Man – x_Oikake)^2 + (y_Pac-Man – y_Oikake)^2)). Otoboke (the orange ghost) behaves like Oikake, but if Pac-Man is equal or less than 8 squares away he runs to the maze’s bottom-left corner. Machibuse (the pink ghost) will take a step to the square four squares in front of Pac-Man’s current direction, seeking to get ahead of Pac-Man and cut off his escape.

This leaves Kimagure (the blue ghost). His behavior is complex. He moves toward a target tile that is calculated based on 1) Pacman’s position 2) Pacman’s orientation 3) Machibuse’s position. It’s like the three-body problem in miniature, if any of the three variables change, so will Kimagure’s target.

Kimagure is often regarded as the “smart” ghost. The most devious and unpredictable. His AI is incredibly sophisticated, to the point where it confounds even experienced Pac-Man players. Oikake is fast but can be corraled like a cow in a chute. Otoboke is barely a threat. Soon you get a sixth sense for Machibuse’s crude sneakiness. You’re a galaxybrain if you can figure out what Kimagure’s doing, though—if he was a chess piece, he’d be the knight, lurking in the back ranks, then flashing unpredictably toward your throat. The others are worthy of respect. Kimagure is worthy of fear.

After playing thousands of hours of Pac-man. I’ve noticed patterns in my cabinet’s Kimagure that I can’t quite explain. He will often move contrary to the game’s rules.

Aside from their AI, Pac-Man ghosts are hard-coded with certain rules. For example, when in a “chase” state, they cannot walk backward. When calculating the matrix of potential ghost paths, the game ignores the tile they just came from. But I’ve observed multiple occasions when Kimagure steps backward.

You can see this in the below gif (note the blue ghost).

There is no way this should happen. I’ve spoken to Pacman aficianados on Reddit. They assure me that I’m describing something explicitly disallowed by the game’s source code! When I show them video evidence, they call it fake.

I’m not sure where to go next with this. A friend who knows electronics took a look at the cabinet’s PCB board and didn’t see anything obviously wrong. A full teardown by a skilled electrical engineer would settle the issue conclusively, but it would be expensive and might destroy the game.

So all I can do is think about it. And think and think some more.

The backtracking is just the start. I’ve documented a large amount of “illegal” play from my Kimagure. For example, there are certain squares (between the pair of T shapes near the bottom) that ghosts will not follow Pac-Man past. But the Kimagure in my cabinet sometimes ignores these. And when Pac-Man eats a ghost, they are supposed to return to the “ghost house” (the little rectangle in the middle of the maze). But my Kimagure will sometimes get “stuck” at the entrance, and will respawn there instead.

Often, his movements are impossible to explain through either his in-built AI or the game’s logic. Which is not to say that they’re random, or meaningless.

Several times, I have seen Kimagura perform a very precise sequence of movements. First, he will go left, then down-left. Second, he’ll return to his original spot and go down, then up-right. Third, he’ll go down-left, then up-right. Fourth, he’ll go left, then up.

I don’t know when it first occurred to me that this the semaphore code for “HELP”. But now that I’ve thought this thought, I can’t unthink it.

Is it just a coincidence? Or is Pac-Man’s blue ghost sending me a message?

I should be clear that this doesn’t always happen. I have played thousands of games where Kimagure behaves properly. The backtracking is fairly rare. It only occurs in about one in a hundred games. And when backtracking does occur, often it seems random—Kimagure’s movements will spell nothing obvious in semaphore or any other vector-based language.

But maybe the messages are getting scrambled. After all, the most famous HELP ever signalled…

…actually doesn’t say HELP. The Fab Four are signaling NUVJ, because the photographer thought it looked more photogenic. If I’d been in his shoes, I would have use the cover to fuck with the “Paul is dead” guys. Maybe send Paul outside for a cig, and then get John, George, and Ringo to signal “RIP”. That’d set the pot boiling.

But back to Pac-Man, other things won’t leave my head. Maybe because I’ve put them there myself.

I got drunk the other night. The alcohol had a weird, oily quality, and as soon as I drank it, I could feel it crawling through me. It seemed to have hairs, the individual ethanol molecules scurrying through my system like furry rodents. It didn’t stimulate me. It made me itchy.

I went to bed early, with my head pounding. Everything about the world seemed too much—every noise too loud, every light too bright. The fields of my senses became mercilessly eviscerative, swinging in on me like blades. I just wanted to lie down, and not get cut anymore. Is that too much to ask?

My bedsheets tangled around me like ropes as I slept, my unconscious thrashing drawing them tighter. Soon I was being choked by sheets, my limbs twisted and incurvate like a rack-strapped victim. I could hardly move. Each twitch pulled the knots tighter. This…constriction flowed through into my nightmares, where it became something physical.

It became walls.

I remember coming awake inside a ghastly shuddering dream. I am walking, slowly and cautiously, through the turns and swerves of a livid maze. The maze walls are alive; perhaps more alive than I am. They squirm and throb and shudder. They are covered in veins, which twist through pink marbled fat, laced tight by muscles flexing and relaxing in peristaltic heaves. I touch a wall in wonder. More than hot, it’s scalding. My fingers come away wet.

I glance around, seeing the walls of the flesh-maze around me, and a clouded sky above. The air is obscure—that word seems correct. It’s not bad, just strange. I suck in breath, and it sits in me like thrilling poison. Wind courses through the maze from some fierce but deep place, from some uncharted continent drawn from my subconscious. A jungle of the mind. A jungle of the mine.

Then, sounds fall like stones.

A thud. A cry. A guttural shriek that freezes the blood. It’s fairly distant—many turns of the maze away—but close enough to make me urgently wonder what made it.

I realize that I have something in my hands: a fire-hardened spear, tipped with a white point. I gaze at the stark barb of bone: watch as light dances across a serrated edge. A weapon. I have a weapon. The question elongates out into space, just like the shriek ringing out its death in my ears. What do I need a weapon for?

Then I hear it: a snuffling, clicking sound. Something’s moving through the maze. The noises weave together into a dense sonic fabric that seems tumescent with stolen blood. The sound of something huge, something swollen with endless, gruesome feeding. Skirling, piercing, rattling like castanets in my bone.

A predator is on the hunt. One so confident in its strength that it doesn’t care that its prey can hear it.

In the next moment, I remember. Knowledge fills me in a heartbeat, overfills me in a second heartbeat. I wish I could escape from awareness, but no escape from anything is possible.

The monster has torn my friends to shreds. Their last moments race through my mind. Skulls dashed open like gourds; entrails steaming; sheets of stripped skin flung across the walls by gnashing teeth, where they seemed to cling and then fuse into place, as though the walls themselves are made from the thousands of times we’ve been killed by it, killed and killed again, with no hope of escaping and…oh my God.

I was cleverer. I hid from it, and thus lived when the other three died.

No. Bullshit. I wasn’t cleverer: I baited my friends into its path, so they were eaten instead of me. Sociopaths die last. But the monster is still hungry, and still coming.

It’s presence looms before me like a wrecking ball. The air seems to sag apart like wet paper before its heaviness. Oblivion approaches. It will eat me, reform me, eat me again, do all of this endlessly into the apotheosis of forever unless I can somehow…

I gaze up, seeing a turbulent sky. Beyond the thunderheads, there might be some ancient god, watching beyond some dense, improbable sky made of dreams and circuits and glass. He could save me, if he wanted to.

But he’s not saving me. Hence, he doesn’t want to.

The snuffling is very close. The walls seem to sweat with the beast’s presence.

From an intersection in the maze, I see a black shadow sweep out across the ground. There’s a sharp snort, olfaction followed by a snort of animal glee. Found you.

I could pray to God. Ask him to help. So why don’t I? Maybe I’m afraid I won’t get an answer. Or that I’ll learn the truth: that I’m already dead. It has already killed me, and this is the final moment that I am condemned to endlessly repeat.

Or maybe there’s a still-worse truth that I’m avoiding: that God is on the monster’s side. That God is the monster.

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It’s 1986. Jim and Hilda Bloggs, an elderly couple in Sussex, hear on the wireless that the Soviet–Afghan conflict is turning rotten; Within a few days, the Cold War will be thermonuclear-hot. They aren’t worried. They have a nuke shelter and a government-issued pamphlet. They lived through the Blitz and will live through this.

Alarms scream, and megatons of white death flash down from the sky. Jim and Hilda survive the bombing and wish they hadn’t—they emerge from their shelter in a shattered, unrecognizable landscape. Everything is ash; foliage-stripped trees stand like skeletal sentinels; and the sun is as grubby-dull as a coin tumbled around in a pocket. The air cannot be breathed, the water cannot be drunk, and there’s no word from the government about what happens next.

Jim and Hilda slowly die from radiation sickness, in one of the most harrowing sequences I’ve ever seen in an animated film. Stiff upper lip is useless. Keep Calm and Carry On is useless. Their preparation was for nothing: they’ve cheated death only to be packed into a coffin and buried alive anyway. As they succumb to ARDS their minds regress to the level of children, and at the end they’re reduced to huddling inside paper sacks, still waiting for grown-ups to save them. Jim tries to say the Lord’s Prayer, but cannot remember the words.

“Propaganda” is the word for When the Wind Blows. Not in the sense that it’s lying, necessarily (I do have comments about the scientific and geopolitical accuracy of some of the movie, and I’ll make them soon), but it’s supposed to sway you toward the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which writer Raymond Briggs personally supported.

Unlike Mick Jackson’s Threads (which was pure blunt-force shock against the limbic system), When the Wind Blows is pointedly satirical, even humorously so. Its real target isn’t nukes but British complacency, enabled by government pamphlets such as Protect and Survive. You can view the handbook Jim follows here (see also EP Thompson’s retaliatory Protest and Survive.)

In the movie’s view, it is irresponsible for the government to tell people they can survive a nuclear holocaust by daubing their windowpanes in emulsive paint. Nukes are a problem twenty levels above our pay grade: an enormous ever-widening death-gyre that even world leaders cannot control, let alone two pensioners in Sussex. Things like malice and evil no longer apply: Thatcher and Reagan and Gorbachev don’t want everyone to die, but as Chernobyl demonstrated it’s the nature of any system—political, social, or mechanical—to degrade and finally fail. At the peak of the missile buildup, multiple gigatons of TNT were ready to be launched across oceans. Whether the button was pushed deliberately or accidentally, the outcome remains the same. Grass dies when elephants fight, but it also dies when an elephant trips and falls. Jim and Hilda are grass.

I discovered When the Wind Blows through David Bowie. He composed the lovely opening song, which is dated in some ways (the dead slap of the snare drum becomes an irritance) but remains one of his greatest works from the period. The chorus soars (F major -> A#/F major), and then starts to writhe in pain (an out-of-key F diminished), like a bird flying into a cloud of poison gas.

Bowie’s previous act of Musically Assured Destruction was “Fantastic Voyage”, which he wrote in 1979 and featured as the lead track on the Lodger album. Its lyric suggests (echoing Dr Strangelove) that the people in charge of the nuclear stockpile are bugfuck crazy, and will someday end the world because of egotistical and psychosexual impulses. When the government tells us to remain calm, they are asking us to a standard that they can never meet themselves. As with many anti-nuke talking points, this might not be fair or accurate, but it’s understandable. One feels for people in the 80s, who must have been sure they would never live to grow old (or up). “I’ll never say anything nice again / How can I?”

The film’s emotional punch comes from the gentle pastoral setting, and the way the Bloggses keep trying to continue their old lives, even when it’s clearly impossible. This is just another trap, like the government pamphlets. The Bloggs are so lulled to sleep by their idyllic lifestyle that they can’t cope when things change. They still go about their routine, deluding themselves that nothing’s different (the postman hasn’t been? Well, obviously he must have lots of important war mail to deliver. The power is off? Well, Britain needs to conserve electricity for the war effort… etc, etc.)

They do foolish things, because that’s what people do. Hilda insists on exposing herself to radiation so she can clean the house. Jim autistically chatters away, repeating rubbish he’s heard on government broadcasts (“Difficulties will be experienced throughout the duration of the emergency period. Normality will only be assumed after the cessation of hostilities!”) and fantasizes about being called up to service. All of their behavior has the same root: they are trying to assert control over a situation that can’t be controlled by anyone.

Jim and Hilda are different, but they both live in a world made of memories. They still half-believe that Churchill is Prime Minister, and the Russians are commanded by Stalin (when they try to remember who the current set of leaders are, they can’t quite do it). They have fond memories of the London Blitz. What’s left unspoken is that they were children when it happened, and presumably their parents shielded them from the worst of the horrors. As Richard Adams pointed out in Watership Down, when someone says “I enjoy the winter”, they actually mean they enjoy being protected from the winter—they like warm food and roaring fires and so on. Find a poor man with holes in his shoes, and ask him what he thinks about the winter.

Their characters are richly painted, and flaws emerge. In a devastating moment, Jim (who until now was as annoyingly pleasant as Postman Pat) calls his wife a “bitch” when she won’t obey an instruction. Their relationship is never the same after that. Hilda has an anti-Semitic streak. Jim mentions that one of her parents was part-Jewish, and she angrily denies it. Again, the illusions are crumbling, whether they admit it or not. They aren’t as safe as they think, and they also aren’t as kind and heroic as they think.

It’s the most agitated of agitprop. It’s not a fun movie to watch, but it’s emotionally moving. If the studio had included a CND badge with the VHS release, likely many viewers would have worn it.

And yet…there’s a trope called Strawman Has a Point, where a fiction writer clearly believes that one point of view is bad, and tries hard to destroy it…but fails. The “bad” viewpoint is resilient enough to survive the sledging, and in fact, we might even regard it as true, despite the writer’s intent. As Ebert once observed, it’s hard to cheer for the hero when the villain is the one who’s making sense.

When the Wind Blows has a little of that. It’s a movie made with passion and moral fury, but I’m not sure it scores the points it thinks its scoring. It wants us to hate the idiotic government, and their silly pamphlets. But even in the movie, those pamphlets kinda…worked? Jim and Hilda survive the bombing because of them! What more could you ask for? Granted, their lives afterward aren’t particularly comfortable, but at least they get to spend a few more days in each other’s company. And if they’d been further away from the epicenter (or “hypocenter”, as Jim calls it) they would probably have recovered.

It’s like those insufferable Redditors who ridicule those 1950s “Duck and Cover” educational films. “Haw haw, they actually thought hiding under a desk will save you from a nuclear bomb!” It will, you dense fucks. As per Alex Wellerstein’s Nuke Map, the overpressure waves of a 1 Mt Minuteman will shatter glass at a range of up to 19.8km. Hiding under a desk stops that glass from getting in your eyes. Broken glass in eyeballs is bad! No broken glass in eyeballs is good! Do you get it?

The devastation of nuclear war is highly overstated in popular media. While Threads predicted a Mad Max-style lawless wasteland, and Dr Strangelove predicted an uninhabitable planet. There is no excuse for this. In 1979, the OTA simulated various nuclear attacks on cities such as Detroit and Leningrad. For a one-Mt explosion directly above an urban center: they calculated a 95% survival rate within the 5 psi cone. At Nagasaki and Hiroshima, there were wooden shelters still standing barely 100 yards from the epicenter! “Nuclear winter” is now regarded as probably a fantasy, driven by flawed assumptions. Dust is heavier than air, and falls over time. Likewise, most of the fallout from a nuclear war would only be lethally radioactive for about a week. So long as they didn’t get dust on their skin, the Bloggs will be fine. Their biggest challenge would be to find a source of unpolluted water. Note the way the film stacks the deck against them by making them sole survivors, and fairly unimaginative ones at that—why don’t they commandeer a car, and check out some neighboring villages?

Additionally, we do not know what a full-scale nuclear war would look like. We are working from zero data points, so we can’t say “oh, this would definitely happen”. Perhaps a limited engagement would be possible. We don’t know. “If one missile is launched, everyone on the planet dies” is alarmist and ill-supported by the data (of which there is none). The CND, in their effort to counter government misinformation, troweled on misinformation very deep themselves. Truly, it’s proof of the adage that reversed stupidity isn’t intelligence.

Opponents of MAD have to confront the reality that the doctrine seems to have worked. After ninety years, only two bombs have been dropped in anger. What can we take from that? Did we just get lucky? Granted, there were some close calls—Vasily Arkhipov being the closest. But there are many other cases of nuclear deterrence successfully deterring. Kennedy almost launched a ground invasion of Cuba, under great pressure from his military advisors. But he didn’t. Why not? He knew that Cuba was defended with tactical nukes.

Moving on, what’s actually happening in the film?

The Russians in the movie are likely firing R-36MUTTKh ICBMs at Great Britain, with five-megaton warheads. Such was their arsenal at the time. Their first targets would have been UK Trident missile bases like HMNB Clyde and AWE Aldermaston. This is the foremost goal of any nuclear strike—to erase the mutual from of mutually assured destruction. Secondary targets would be British military bases such as Portsmouth, Devonport, and Aldershot. Tertiary targets would be British industrial centers such as London. To be blunt, I do not see why Russia is trying to nuke Shitsplat Village, Essex. ICBMs are your crown jewels. Worth more than gold. Why waste them on strategically worthless targets? Are they trying to kill Postman Pat? These dramatic choices make little sense, and take the film deeper into the realm of fantasy.

In short, the film (like Threads before it) is highly unreliable on factual issues. It regards itself as grimly realistic, an antidote to a Pollyannaish government, but it’s largely a tissue of fantasy. If anything, Protect and Survive is probably far better.

I am fascinated by When the Wind Blows as a cultural artifact. It is not made to be enjoyed, but to open your eyes. It opens them too far, severing your optical nerve in the process. Yet it’s still an acute psychological portrayal of two people pushed to the edge, and then pushed off.

We shouldn’t be complacent, though. I’m with Raymond Briggs there. Here’s Winston Churchill, writing to us from a distance of over a century. Of all the words ever written on any tombstone, the deepest might be “No One Would Do Such Things”.

“So now the Admiralty wireless whispers through the ether to the tall masts of ships, and captains pace their decks absorbed in thought. It is nothing. It is less than nothing. It is too foolish, too fantastic to be thought of in the twentieth century. Or is it fire and murder leaping out of the darkness at our throats, torpedoes ripping the bellies of half-awakened ships, a sunrise on a vanished naval supremacy, and an island well-guarded hitherto, at last defenceless? No, it is nothing. No one would do such things. Civilization has climbed above such perils. The interdependence of nations in trade and traffic, the sense of public law, the Hague Convention, Liberal principles, the Labour Party, high finance, Christian charity, common sense have rendered such nightmares impossible. Are you quite sure? It would be a pity to be wrong. Such a mistake could only be made once—once for all.”

Nuclear war might not play out as When the Wind Blows thinks it will, but I don’t doubt it’s nailed the human (non-)response dead on. What will we do when “fire and murder” leaps out of the darkness? Continue. We’ll keep doing what we’ve always done, even at the point of extinction. It’s the British way, after all. Keep Calm and Carry On. Keep Calm and Carrion.

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