Friday, 12 June 2015


d. Ray Milland (1962)

A sombre, tense film about life in America in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear strike, Panic in Year Zero! starts happily enough, with Harry Baldwin (Ray Milland) and his family setting out on a fishing expedition. A couple of hours into the journey, Harry sees a series of flashes in his rear view mirror, and stops the car just in time to see a mushroom cloud billowing over what used to be Los Angeles.

What happens next unfolds slowly and meticulously, as Harry tries to get his family to a safe place in the hills before the world goes crazy. In order to do so, he must become a more ruthless and resourceful man than his wife ever expected him to be, a man of decisive action and no little force: within an hour, for instance, he is holding a shop keeper at gun point for refusing to take a cheque then, a little later, he knocks out a filling station attendant who is trying to charge him $300 for $10 of petrol.

Harry has immediately grasped that the war will not just be between America and its enemies but between ordinary people fighting to live, not to mention an element that will use the bomb as an excuse to let their more anarchic tendencies loose. Harry’s wife very much disapproves of her husband’s methods, even after their teenage daughter is raped by two hoodlums. While she cries and wrings her hands Harry tracks down the rapists and kills them, ably assisted by his son (Frankie Avalon), who is not only seeing his stuffy old man in a totally different light, but also getting quite an apprenticeship in the ancient art of survival.

The army picks up the reins after a few days and things start to return to - well, not normal as most of the cities of the world have been wiped out. It’s been a nightmare, of course, but, secretly, you know that Harry and his son are just a little disappointed that it’s all over. A final caption states 'There must be no end - only a new beginning'. Good luck with that. 

It would be interesting to know what the US government thought of the film, as it’s not a particularly edifying or comforting message. But it is realistic, thought provoking and rather good. 

As a final note, there are a lot of automobiles in this film, and most of them have wood stuck on the side of them. It’s rather a sweet, forgotten detail: human beings used to make their motor vehicles partially out of wood, as if we weren’t quite ready to make the leap from cart to car.

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