Strangely, I don't remember this film perturbing any of us much at all. I think it seemed too much like fiction.
I'm looking at it again now because I've just finished reading the Doomsday Men by P.D. Smith, and now, because of this book, I see it with an increased awareness. There are descriptions in the book about what happened in Hiroshima that resonate and then horrify: the initial flash that fries eyes and removes skin, and then shock wave and the firestorm before the fall out.
'Fall out' was a term I've thought about a lot but the concept of a 'firestorm' is new to me. I'd heard the word, but now that I've read the Doomsday Men I know what it really means to those unfortunate enough to be caught sheltering in a confined space like a cellar in the midst of a conflagration. The oxygen was catastrophically replaced by gases like carbon monoxide and methane and so tens of thousands of people died in firestorms caused by incendiary attack in Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo. After reading that I thought of the time I went to Hamburg and spoke to people there. Some of them were old enough to remember. I wonder now how we could look at each other in the eye.
The Doomsday Men is the full history of the twentieth century's obsession with weapons of mass destruction: not just the nuclear arms race but the advent of chemical warfare and biological warfare. It has impressive range and depth, but that is just one part of the book. The other part is how society and media (in particular writers and film-makers) reacted, interacted and sometimes even initiated these dreams of annihilation. It includes not just the literary, highly regarded fiction and film, but the pulp. The pulp is perhaps the more important of the two
when reflecting the reaction of society, because this is what most people read; and from that we can guess that the concept of a man-made doomsday seemed to be preoccupying everyone. These two aspects of the book are married together very neatly by the question who were the real Doomsday Men (as typified by Peter Sellers' depiction of Dr Strangelove in Kubrick's masterpiece) - as well as a repeating motif, it makes an excellent narrative hook.
It turns out there were three Dr Strangeloves - one for each scientific discipline. For chemistry there is the German genius Fritz Haber who successfully deployed chlorine gas in the first world war trenches; for biology there is the Japanese scientist Shiro Ishii who killed tens of thousands of people in occupied China with his experiments into germ warfare ; but electing who is to be the Dr Strangelove of physics is more problematic because there are various contenders. I suppose, after reading P. D. Smith's account, if I had to chose one I would chose Edward Teller. Enrico Fermi said he was 'the only monomaniac he knew with a number of manias', and in press reports of the time he was dubbed 'Mr H-Bomb.'
I suppose the story of the Doomsday Men has been a constant background to my life. Most of the time I have successfully pushed it to the back of my mind because it seemed too frightening and too impossible to be true. But reading the Doomsday Men has forced me to confront it and understand. Recently the threat of weapons of mass destruction has been overshadowed by natural plagues, global warming and economic crisis, but it is still there. It can still happen. And in the Doomsday Men there is a gripping account of when, in 1962, it nearly did.
I was too young to be aware of the Cuban crisis but after reading about this story I remember another time, slightly later, when there was something on the car radio and my parents discussed it in worried tones. I think they thought that I hadn't heard them, but I had. We were on our way to a big department store in the middle of Leicester. It was the most solid and dependable thing in my world. Then, soon after we got there, I found myself alone.
It was not the unexpected isolation that worried me, but the realisation that the floor was shaking. Something was coming and no one could stop it. I stood still and looked around me. All this could go. The walls could fall away and it would be as though none of us had ever existed. Even this huge edifice to mammon could be vapourised - and not by an act of God, but by a human finger touching a button. For those few paralyzing seconds, before I realised that the shaking signified little more than heavy machinery, I appreciated the fragility of us all, and how dependent we are on the sanity of a few others. Even though the world has changed a lot since then we are still dependent on such restraint.
It took me close to a week to read the Doomsday Men but I am glad that I did (and glad too that I came across its author, Peter Smith, through the web - we now share an agent). It is a tremendously rich and rewarding book, a magnificent accomplishment - and, I think, an important one.