“When not close enough to be killed, the atomic bomb is one of the most beautiful sights in the world.”
That quote, from a 1950s military instructional video, sums up not only the American attitude towards nuclear warfare during the Cold War but also our current fascination with mass destruction in blockbuster filmmaking. Audiences are in love with collapsing buildings, with clouds of debris flooding city blocks, with fire and shredded metal blotting out the sky. From the safety of the cinema seat or the couch, it’s all so exciting, rather than the pinnacle of horror.
But when the original Godzilla came out in 1954, its scenes of mass destruction were anything but entertaining. The titular monster’s rampage across Japan was played completely seriously and for all the terror it could muster. It tapped a deep vein of contemporary anxieties in a culture that had been hit with two nuclear weapons and then had to watch as the country that dropped said weapons on them tested even more powerful bombs in the ocean nearby. Godzilla’s first attack is against a fishing vessel, a direct reference to a real-life incident in which a Japanese ship was caught in the fallout of an American nuclear test.
The first of those Pacific tests was Operation Crossroads, in 1946, in which two atom bombs were dropped in the Bikini Atoll. That incident is the subject of Robert Stone’s Oscar-nominated 1988 documentary Radio Bikini, which relates the events through primary footage, with minimal added commentary. The government lied to the citizens of the islands they were bombing and allowed sailors into deeply irradiated zones with no protection. Few understood the full effects of splitting the atom for the purpose of destruction. To this day, Bikini atoll cannot be resettled.