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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