It was HG Wells who first conceived the atomic bomb and even gave it its name, in a 1914 novel called The World Set Free. Wells imagined a uranium-based hand grenade that “would continue to explode indefinitely”. He may have got the shape and size wrong, but it became a reality in his lifetime – just over 30 years later.
Popular culture immediately began to grapple with its power. In Japan, where the US military dropped atom bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War Two, atomic energy created or awakened monsters. The original Godzilla (1954) referenced a real event when a Japanese trawler crew suffered radiation after a Pacific Ocean bomb test. The firestorm of destruction wrought on Tokyo in that film looked like documentary, not fiction. The same year saw Hollywood make Them! – a movie in which bomb testing creates giant radioactive ants which go on the rampage in Los Angeles.
Radiation-triggered mutation seeped into the popular imagination. In Richard Matheson’s novel The Shrinking Man, the change is triggered by an encounter with a mysterious radioactive mist at sea and becomes a sophisticated exploration of post-war fears about masculine identity, as the hero is reduced to living in a dollhouse. But in Cold War America, unlike Japan, atomic radiation made superheroes more often than it made monsters: some were obvious like the Incredible Hulk, a scientist accidentally exposed to gamma rays during a bomb test and Spider-man, bitten by a radioactive spider (both 1962). For the Fantastic Four (1961) it was cosmic ray exposure in their rocket ship as they raced to beat the commies into space, while the X-Men (1963) celebrates the concept of mutation as a kind of youth liberation movement.
Britain and The Bomb
In science fiction literature, especially in Britain, where the atomic bomb had first been imagined, the vision was darker from the start. John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids (1955) imagined a return to medieval superstition after a nuclear war and a paranoid hunt to root out mutants as witches.
Post-war British cinema was quick to grapple with the moral dilemmas of the atomic age. In Seven Days to Noon (1950) a British atomic weapons scientist, driven to madness by the horror of the power he has helped unleash, threatens to detonate a stolen device in central London if the government doesn’t close down the weapons programme.
Post-war British cinema was quick to grapple with the moral dilemmas of the atomic age
The film also employs a documentary-style realism; showing the mass evacuation of London in preparation for the detonation. There was a striking willingness in family entertainment just after the horrors of WW2, to face the new possibility of annihilation. Val Guest’s The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1954) documents the breakdown of society and the environment as nuclear tests shift the earth’s axis and humanity hurtles towards doom through accelerated climate change. Even dramas purportedly about outer space and not bombs, such as George Pal’s When Worlds Collide (1951) or the Quatermass serials and films are really exploring the cataclysmic potential of this new power. Pal went on to add the Bomb to his film of The Time Machine (1960) so that HG Wells’ traveller witnesses a nuclear war in 1966. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove still disturbs. And even The Ed Sullivan Show screened A Short Vision – a creepy British animated film about nuclear devastation in 1956, and twice in two weeks at that, traumatising a generation of children who saw it by chance.
A rosy view
But optimism about atomic power coexisted with the fear of the Bomb. Some children’s books, or comics such as Eagle in the UK, celebrated its liberating technological potential. It would be powering our cars and spaceships in a Jetsons or Dan Dare future; just as the manned space programme grew directly out of the technological race to build the Bomb.
Even our leisurewear echoed the bomb
Brightly coloured atom balls featured in mid-century interior design – clocks, coat hooks and furniture. Even our leisurewear echoed the bomb. There was the bikini – itself named after the atoll in the Pacific that served as a nuclear test site. And what were the female sex symbols of the ‘50s – Hitchcock’s icy blondes, not to mention Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe, in their missile-shaped torpedo bras and corset armour – than the embodiment of a kind of sexual arms race towards mutually assured seduction? Blonde ‘bombshells’ indeed.
If there is one key image that has changed our imagination it is the mushroom cloud – seared with that first flash of detonation into our social memory. There it is on The Atomic Count Basie album sleeve in 1958, a nightmare image as American – and genuinely iconic – as Marilyn or the Coca-Cola bottle.
The bomb has inspired entire art movements such as the auto-destructive art of Gustav Metzger, using acid to corrode in the act of creation. Jackson Pollock’s action paintings were, he said himself in 1950, “energy and motion made visible” in an instant, as the modern painter couldn’t express the age of the atom bomb in the old forms of any past culture. In the late ‘60s Tony Price began salvaging materials discarded from the Los Alamos labs to construct his art works, saying: “Los Alamos scrap is a kind of pure art in itself, since you are dealing with a harmonic principle of nuclear physics”.
Fear becomes fancy
Many films and books imagined a post-apocalyptic world, sometimes with a conveniently clean and white-robed new world order. Perhaps HG Wells was to blame. His book and film of Things To Come established this particular kind of futurist aesthetic. Others focused on grim survival such as Mad Max. It’s possible to argue the ultimate and most underappreciated atomic bomb film is Beneath The Planet of the Apes (1970) in which Nasa astronauts from the present find a tribe of mutant survivors in the irradiated remains of Manhattan worshipping the atom bomb itself.
By the 1970s and ‘80s the early optimism of the ‘50s had gone altogether. Fears of nuclear accident and cover-up mutated with the post-Watergate conspiracy thriller in The China Syndrome (1979) – released 12 days before the real Three Mile Island disaster – and Silkwood (1983).
By the 1970s and ‘80s the early optimism of the ‘50s had gone altogether
As the Superpower stand off between the USSR and Nato grew, atomic nightmares infiltrated children’s entertainment. Raymond ‘The Snowman’ Briggs’s deceptively cute graphic novel and film When The Wind Blows was about a sweet elderly couple’s teeth and hair falling out after the bomb drops. As for pop music? It’s hard for modern teenagers to appreciate the disturbing power of pop videos like Blondie’s Atomic (1979), which portrayed a world of irradiated mutants dancing in the aftermath of a nuclear war. There was a revival of realistic dramas about how war might happen: Threads (1984) in Britain and The Day After (1983) in the US. Even the Matthew Broderick teen film War Games (1985), charming as it is, depends on a visceral terror of a nuclear strike at any moment.
It’s not until 1994 that we truly saw how fear of the Bomb had declined. Four years after the fall of the USSR, James Cameron exploded a nuke just in the background of True Lies while Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis kissed; as if deliberately aping without any irony the Reagan and Thatcher Gone With the Wind parody poster that had become an emblem of the anti-nuclear weapons protest movement. It is a moment that shocks for its casualness.
And while baddies with atom bombs have long been a trope in fiction (from Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly and Goldfinger to the recent Melissa McCarthy film Spy) perhaps the biggest terror is that we might have forgotten to be afraid.
HG and the H-Bomb is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday 5 July 2015.
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