Before Hollywood began cranking out movies about the atomic bomb, one radio star put together an impressive take on a post-apocalyptic world.
If you’re anything like me, two thoughts went through your head when you heard that Donald Trump had threatened North Korea with thermonuclear war: “Oh God, we’re all going to die!” and “Man, if we don’t, we’re about 18 months out from some really good apocalyptic science fiction.” Nuclear war was once the world-ender of choice for Hollywood: countless movies were made about radioactive monsters emerging from the ocean’s depths or post-apocalyptic wastelands populated by armies of mutants. As our social anxieties shifted, however, so did our apocalyptic fiction. Plague, population crash, and the reanimated dead all assumed the place of the atomic blast as our fear of choice, and nuclear fiction faded into the background.
With new fears comes new films, though, and Trump’s comments will undoubtedly inspire a handful of new screenplays – or the resurgence of a few old ones – depicting a world where nuclear war brings humanity to the brink of distinction. In times like this, it’s always good to look back at the history of an old genre. Our own Christopher Campbell gave us a wonderful overview of films about nuclear war earlier this week, but I thought we might look closer at one particular movie: Arch Oboler’s Five, the first film to depict the aftermath of a nuclear war.
The most readily available history for Five comes, unsurprisingly, from Turner Classic Movies, which wrote up the film in great detail on its site. The film was the brainchild of long-time radio producer Arch Oboler, regarded by some as radio’s answer to Orson Welles; his midnight horror series Lights Out has been credited as an influence by horror legends like Rod Sterling, Stephen King, and Don Coscarelli. “Oboler produced, wrote, and directed Five,” explained TCM author John M. Miller, “shot it largely on his own property, and hired a small, inexpensive crew made up of recent graduates from The University of Southern California film school.” As Miller notes, this, combined with Oboler’s small cast of unknown actors, allowed the filmmaker to make the film for only $75,000, which he then sold to Columbia Pictures “for a tidy profit.”
Five opens with a bible passage – Psalm 103:16 – and a sinister warning that this movie takes place “the day after tomorrow.” We are introduced to Roseanne (Susan Douglas), a pregnant woman who stumbles upon the home of Michael (William Phipps), a man struggling to survive in the California hillside. As the two carve out some semblance of a new life together, they encounter three additional survivors: Eric (James Anderson), a racist mountain climber; Charles (Charles Lampkin), a former security guard; and Mr. Barnstaple (Earl Lee), a bank employee. Together, the five survivors attempt to build some semblance of a new life while rising above the violence of the previous world, often to – oh, let’s be gentle here – mixed results.
Those looking for an accurate depiction of nuclear fallout will have a difficult time with Five. Oboler presents each of his survival stories as an “individual miracle,” and they are pretty fantastic: the man who survived because he was at the peak of Everest, the man who was shielded by a bank vault, the woman locked in the examination room. Barnstaple, the short-lived fifth members of the ensemble, does succumb to radiation poisoning, but even that science is obscure at best/ Barnstaple is described as just quietly keeling over dead on the California beach, with few physical or mental symptoms to fully explain his death. The closest thing Five has to an explanation for its science is Eric’s diatribe on immunity, where he compares the atomic blast to the Black Death and notes that a small portion of humanity remained alive in the face of all odds. Radiation poisoning is all about your constitution.
That being said, Five is not a film you watch for its scientific accuracies. Despite a few flashes of melodrama, Oboler’s film offers an incredibly restrained vision of our post-apocalyptic future. Oboler’s writing was decades ahead of its time; rather than focus on the spectacle of the bomb, Oboler’s characters quietly (and sadly) attempt to adjust to the new world while butting up against the trauma of the world left behind. There’s Michael’s sad reflections on working at the Empire State Building, once hailed as the pinnacle of scientific progress and now standing empty on the island of Manhattan. There’s both Michael and Roseanne’s discomfort at discovering a box of “Atomic Suds: The New Wonder Washer” at the local county store, harkening back to a time when humanity had reduce the awesome power of the atomic bomb to a catchphrase for laundry marketing. Finally, there are the little humane touches of an empty Earth: storefronts that bear placards of when the owner will return, nursing schedules still posted in an abandoned hospital. Even the scene where the character restore power and listen to music seems like it could’ve been lifted from a film of the last decade. For a filmmaker effectively beginning a genre, Oboler demonstrates a strong understanding of the genre’s full potential.
For a while, the film also takes a stab at a post-racial construction of America, too. Charles and Michael form a strong friendship around their unspoken appreciation for a quieter way of living; the two men built shelters and install power generators while adjusting to their new sense of family. It isn’t until Eric is introduced that a wedge is driven between the survivors. Eric, of dubious European descent, claims to stand for modernity and progress in the face of Michael’s back-to-nature approach; he also brings with him the prejudices and bigotry of his past life. Charles remains an impressive equal of Michael and Roseanne until the film moves into its violent endgame, killing Charles to expedite the conflict between the film’s two leads. As historian Bob Stephens notes in an essay in the Science Fiction Reader, this undermines any good that Oboler and company set out to do with the film, adhering to an “unfortunate trend” of ’50s cinema and treating the death of a black character as a way of “[removing] the complication of race from the white protagonist’s life.”
Despite these missteps, the film ends on an incredibly powerful note: Eric and Roseanne, trapped in a dead city, the former quickly succumbing to radiation poisoning. Oboler saves the most powerful images for the film’s finale, offering deserted city streets populated only by the skeletons of the dead. When Roseanne goes into the building, the film’s soundtrack overwhelms the scene, transferring from a lingering air raid siren to a bombastic musical cue. Wise to his characters to the very end, Oboler does not show us Eric’s death, choosing instead to send him babbling off into the night as a doomed man. The film’s boldest move, though, is the sudden death of Roseanne’s infant child. It’s an unexpected – and powerful – way to mark the closing of one era in human history, and bold in a way that even contemporary films may not approach.
What is the place of Five within the pantheon of atomic cinema? Oboler’s film certainly lacks the spectacle of some of the decade’s biggest apocalyptic films, and its laughable take on nuclear fallout would spawn a thousand “What Five Gets Wrong About the Atomic Blast” if the film were released in theaters today. But the film’s grim depiction of our future, tackling of race, and art house sensibilities make it as notable in its own right as George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. “Five was the first celluloid vision of an atomic apocalypse on Earth,” the aforementioned Stephens wrote, “and I believe it is still the greatest.” I see little reason to disagree.