It was 1954, nine years after the first atomic bombs were detonated — first on the testing grounds of New Mexico, then on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — that the fears of nuclear annihilation felt by the Japanese and the world first manifested themselves in the form of a giant lizard monster.
It’s a weird confluence of time, or a sign that history and irony are close companions, that Haruo Nakajima, the 88-year-old former stuntman and actor who wore the monster suit in the original “Godzilla” and 11 sequels, would die just as his country was marking the 72nd anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It’s a further sign of the cruelty of fate that the world would again be thinking about nuclear war — thanks to the pronouncements of the man-babies inexplicably put at the heads of governments of nations that have such weapons.
As Kim Jong-Un watched his experts test missiles, rattling his saber toward Guam and other U.S. targets, and Donald Trump interrupted his golf vacation to shake his fist and warn of “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” it’s worth taking a breath and remembering that we’ve stood on this cliff’s edge before.
“Godzilla,” after all, did not happen in a void, and it wasn’t the only movie of that era that came as a reaction to nuclear terrors. In 1951, three years before “Godzilla,” Robert Wise’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still” cast Michael Rennie as an alien visiting Earth with a dire warning: Give up your atomic weapons, or forces outside your tiny planet will do the job for you.
In 1959, the director Stanley Kramer turned his eye toward the nuclear nightmare, adapting Nevil Shute’s novel “On the Beach” — which imagined the bombs had gone off, and the last remnants of humanity were huddled in Australia waiting for the atomic fallout to arrive.
Another movie of 1959, the comedy “The Mouse That Roared,” feels especially timely today with regards to North Korea. The movie depicts a tiny country, the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, that decides to settle its financial problems by declaring war on the United States — with the intent of losing and receiving bundles of postwar aid. The plan hits a snag when the small invasion force, led by Peter Sellers, arrives in New York and inadvertently gets its hands on a doomsday weapon.
The biggest one-two punch came in 1964 with two movies that centered on a rogue nuclear strike and the feverish attempts by officials in Washington and Moscow to keep it from escalating into global extinction. One of the movies, Sidney Lumet’s “Fail-Safe,” was a tense drama; the other, Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” was a dark satire. Back then, nuclear weapons were such an absurd notion, people didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Science fiction had become so saturated with post-nuclear apocalypse scenarios that it became a cliché. It was so noticeable that one TV producer in 1966 decided to go the opposite direction, setting a series in a multicultural 23rd century in which human beings had figured out, barely, how to avoid blowing themselves to bits in their primitive atomic phase. The producer was Gene Roddenberry, and his idea, “Star Trek,” endures to this day.
Nuclear fears waxed and waned for decades, picking up steam again in the 1980s in the era of Ronald Reagan’s challenges to Mikhail Gorbachev. A fair chunk of America watched a nuclear horror show in their living rooms in 1983, when ABC aired “The Day After,” director Nicholas Meyer’s bleak drama of people in Kansas witnessing the bombs striking home. That year they also saw another TV movie, Edward Zwick’s “Special Bulletin,” which borrowed Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” fake newscast format to depict a terrorist group threatening an American city with a homemade nuke.
The fear wasn’t just about what humans might do to each other intentionally, but what their technology might do by accident. This was the theme of 1983’s “WarGames,” an adventure thriller where a teen (Matthew Broderick) starts up a computer game, not knowing he’s hacked into America’s nuclear arsenal.
The fall of the Soviet Union put nuclear weapons on moviemakers’ back burner, and other fears became fodder for end-of-the-world visions: biological threats (“The Andromeda Strain”), oil shortages (the “Mad Max” franchise), melting polar ice (“Waterworld”) and so on. When “The Day the Earth Stood Still” was remade in 2008, the visiting alien (Keanu Reeves) was not concerned about nuclear weapons but humanity’s environmental self-destruction.
Nuclear war receded in the public imagination, but the weapons are still there. They’re waiting for some idiot with launch codes to think that the unthinkable is a good idea. Here’s hoping there’s time to talk him down and remind all of our leaders that in life, as in the movies, a nuclear exchange doesn’t have a happy ending.