Nuclear Violence in Popular Culture

Nuclear weapons have had a presence in popular culture ever since they were first used in 1945, reflecting humanity’s fear of and morbid fascination with these hugely destructive inventions.

Fears about nuclear warfare may seem dated to those born after the cold war such as myself. However in 2007 former Secretary of Defense William Perry quoted the odds of a nuclear terrorist attack over the next ten years as roughly 50-50. In 2011 Judge Weeramantry, formerly Judge at the International Court of Justice, estimated that a nuclear bomb would be detonated within the next ten years whether by design or accident.

Despite these warnings it seems that society is becoming more and more complacent about the existence of nuclear weapons. Whilst depictions of nuclear warfare in popular culture are increasingly prevalent we ask just how accurate and helpful to debate they really are?

It could be said that the proliferation of depictions of nuclear weapons in popular culture just normalizes their existence. Do any of them drive the audience to demand all nuclear weapons be destroyed and their development prohibited once and for all?

This isn’t an impossible dream; it’s a very possible and urgently necessary solution. 80,000 Voices aims to inspire as many people as possible to join the growing abolition movement by bringing communities together through our mass participation events. Follow our blog, Facebook and Twitter (@80kVoices) for more info and updates.

The idea of nuclear violence has been a recurrent theme in the film industry. In previous blog entries we’ve already discussed Stanley Kubrick’s satirical film Dr Strangelove (How Nearly Everything in Doctor Strangelove is True). As pointed out in that post, the seemingly ridiculous events of the film were in fact terrifyingly close to the truth of command and control in the US in the 1960s.

A serious take on dealing the psychological impact of nuclear warfare can be seen in I Live in Fear, the work of another highly regarded filmmaker Akira Kurosawa.

Meanwhile there has been some insightful and humorous commentary on the absurdity of an arms race that can only lead to mutual destruction.

"Who's Next?", Tom Lehrer (1960)

Even Hollywood’s most famous film franchises have featured plots about nuclear weapons. At least five James Bond Films –Thunderball (1965), You Only Live Twice (1967), Diamonds Are Forever (1971), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), Octopussy (1983), Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) and The World Is Not Enough (1999)- show the suave spy prevailing against the nuclear threat, in between martinis of course.

Octopussy (1983) - Soviet Meeting

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) has our hero nearly being killed in an explosion at the Nevada test site.

In Back to the Future, Marty McFly shows the Doc Brown of 1955 a video of them both in 1985 wearing radiation suits, which 1955 Doc Brown assumes are to protect them from the fallout from “all the atomic wars”.

Back to the Future (1985)

Moving to the literary world, the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (George Orwell) is set in the aftermath of a nuclear war, where the seemingly omnipresent Big Brother controls every aspect of society, right down to an individual’s thoughts.

And then there are the children’s books –Doctor Seuss’ The Butter Battle Book introduces us to two warring cultures, the Zooks and the Yooks, who live on opposite sides of a wall. Their main disagreement is which side of their bread to put their butter on. This satirical story shows the conflict between the two communities developing into an arms race, as each side builds increasingly ridiculously named and more dangerous weapons (“Tough-Tufted Prickly Snick-Berry Switch”, Triple-Sling Jigger”, “Jigger-Rock Snatchem”, “Eight-Nozzled Elephant-Toted Boom Blitz”) which culminates in both sides possessing a bomb that would destroy them all, called a “Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo”, a reference to the two bombs dropped by the US on Japan – “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” (Wikipedia). This was made into an animated film, which you can see here.

Doctor Seuss, The Butter Battle, animated film

C.S. Lewis talks about the “Deplorable word” in his fantastical Narnia series, which was a spell from the dead world of Charn which would destroy all except for the one who spoke it.

The theatre has it’s own stories to share, including most notably the play Copenhagen, about a meeting between Danish physicist Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, a Nobel prize winning physicist who was leading the German atomic bomb team.

The threat of nuclear violence is also a recurrent theme in all genres of music , with too many examples to include here. Watch out for our next blog for more.

What does this preoccupation with the portrayal of nuclear warfare in popular media say about us as a people? We have a very real and valid concern about the future of our planet, but why isn’t more action being taken?

What are you going to do about it? How about becoming one of the 80 000 voices to sing for abolition?

Erin Hutching, 80,000 Voices

2 thoughts on “Nuclear Violence in Popular Culture

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