The early to mid-1980s, for those (like me) who lived through it, was a very strange time. On the one hand, we had the ridiculously overblown, gold-plated glamor of Dallas and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous; and on the other hand, we had movies, TV shows, and even pop music bombarding us with low-key messages that nuclear war might be just around the corner and we’d all better be prepared to get wiped off the earth at a moment’s notice. Now that I think about it, maybe the latter attitude fueled the former, but that’s a discussion for another day.
The lingering fears of the Cold War and the possibility of nuclear annihilation, not surprisingly, bled into entertainment in myriad ways, sometimes more overtly than others. In the United States, we had the TV movie The Day After, which aired in 1983 and attempted to show the aftermath of a US-Soviet nuclear exchange filtered through a handful of families in the American Midwest. In Britain, there was the infamous Threads, a much bleaker, grimmer, and more realistic depiction of essentially the same event, this time centered in Northern England.
But a bit of a lesser-known entry in the catalogue of British post-nuclear media was the 1986 animated film When the Wind Blows, which was based on the 1982 graphic novel by Raymond Briggs (who was also responsible for the classic 1978 picture book The Snowman, likewise turned into an excellent animated film by the same team who produced this one).
The overall appearance of the film deserves special mention here, because it is rather unique. While the characters are animated in a cuddly, hand-drawn style similar to what is seen in The Snowman, the backgrounds are actually stop-motion; the environment, mainly the interior of the characters’ cottage, is a three-dimensional space made out of clay and various other materials that the animated characters move through. It gives the film a really interesting look, one that I don’t think I’ve ever seen done in exactly that way. Interspersed with this main animation are more sketchy, dreamlike sequences representing flashbacks, fantasies, or images of the devastation occurring when the missiles fall.
Though When the Wind Blows is a cartoon, it’s really not for children, though it does have a sort of black humor to it; if you’re a fan of other really depressing animated movies exploring the atrocities of war, such as 1988’s Grave of the Fireflies for example, then this should be right up your alley. Its effectiveness, I feel, comes from its very intense focus on just two characters, and while visuals of nuclear destruction are present, much of what is going on outside of the central couple’s home is simply suggested or left to the imagination.
After a brief title sequence consisting of real news footage playing under the titular David Bowie song, we’re introduced to one of our main protagonists, Jim (or James) Blogg. He’s at the library reading the daily newspapers, shaking his head at all of the reports of heightening international tensions. He takes the bus home to his remote Sussex cottage, where his plump, simple wife Hilda is preparing his lunch.
The Bloggs are a somewhat elderly couple, meant to represent the typical British folks of that generation, the ones who had lived through the Blitz and had a very “keep calm and carry on” energy to them. Jim is worried about the threat of nuclear war, even to the extent of grabbing some government pamphlets from the library on his last trip, but Hilda is dismissive, more concerned with keeping her house clean and keeping up with her horoscope than with all those meaningless politics.
A report on the radio warns that there could be a Soviet missile strike in the UK sometime in the next two or three days, and this galvanizes Jim to follow the preparation protocols outlined in the government pamphlets he obtained from the library. He pries off some of the cottage’s doors to make an impromptu lean-to shelter against one wall, he fills bottles with water, he paints the windows white. As he does all these things, Hilda is prattling along behind him, admonishing him not to mess up her wallpaper with the doors or get paint on her nice curtains. Jim also phones his son to tell him to do a few things to get prepared just in case, but the son just laughs it off, saying if the bomb hits, they’ll all go out together.
The black humor is quite evident in this part of the film, because even though Jim does seem to take the threat of nuclear war seriously enough to try to prepare for the worst, it’s also pretty clear that not only are these government guidelines going to be fairly useless if a nuclear missile falls, but also that Jim and Hilda are still thinking of things from a World War II perspective. Once the bombs hit, they believe, then all that will be left to do is put their shoulders to the wheel, stiffen their upper lips, and get their cozy British life back to normal as soon as possible, all with the help of the government authorities, who are surely prepared for such a dire emergency. This was a population who endured bombing raids, blackouts, and rationing, but they beat the Nazis, goddammit, and even though it’s the Russians this time, these stalwart English pensioners have no doubt that they’ll be back to their tea and breakfast telly before too long.
One of the funniest and also saddest bits, at least for me, was when Jim, who was following the government directive to have two weeks’ worth of food at the ready, pops down to the shops for bread, but is surprised that there isn’t any; because of “panic buying,” he reckons. Oh well, mustn’t fuss, he thinks, and returns with their fortnight’s rations, which consist of “two packets of ginger creams, half a jam sponge, a tin of pineapple chunks, and a tin of Christmas pud.” Hilda then realizes she should leave a note for the milkman that they’ll need fourteen days’ worth of milk, and Jim laments that he didn’t purchase any peanut butter like the pamphlet said, even though neither one of them like it.
The fact that these characters are so lovable, yet so utterly clueless about what a nuclear war entails, is where a lot of the poignancy of the film comes in. You laugh at their silly, ignorant conversations about perhaps writing a letter to the Russians to tell them to please not bomb the UK, or romanticizing the “good old days” of the Second World War, but it is their very naïveté and misplaced hope that everything will turn out all right that makes the whole situation that much more tragic. Both of them have every faith that order will be restored, and that all they have to do is keep their chins up until all is sorted out and those pesky Russkies are defeated.
Of course, about thirty minutes into the film, the inevitable happens. Though the radio only gives three minutes’ warning of the impending missile strike, the two oldsters manage to get into Jim’s makeshift shelter. There follows a montage of the aforementioned sketchy animation, showing what appear to be most of the UK being essentially destroyed, and then we return to the remote cottage of the Bloggs. It seems that the couple’s distance from the epicenter of the bomb and their crude preparations did save them from the initial blast, because neither one of them have a scratch on them. At first, Jim insists that they stay in the “inner core or refuge” (which Jim insists on calling their shelter every single time) because of the fallout, but after a day or two, Hilda wants to leave and start tidying up, claiming she doesn’t see any fallout and the bombs have already hit, so what harm could there possibly be?
The rest of the movie, then, is a slow, grimly funny, but also heartbreaking chronicle of the couple dying of radiation poisoning, all while having little to no idea of what is happening to them and downplaying every symptom with increasingly farfetched explanations: Hilda’s bleeding gums are just ill-fitting dentures, that’s all; after everything gets back to normal, just pop down to the dentist and he’ll fix that right up.
The Bloggs can’t understand why there isn’t any electricity, why they can’t reach anyone on the phone, why all the radio stations are dead, why the newspaper and milk haven’t arrived. Jim actually thinks he’s going to walk down to the chemist’s the next morning for some headache pills. The pair go out in the garden, drink the poisonous rainwater, and speculate about buying new curtains and cushions with the insurance money from their wrecked house. It never seems to occur to them that pretty much everyone else is dead; or maybe it does, and they’re desperately trying to stave off that knowledge by leaning REALLY hard into misplaced optimism and denial masked as good cheer.
As far as British post-nuclear films go, this one isn’t as harsh and despair-inducing as Threads, but it has its own, gentler brand of misery, couched in an intimate story that basically shows you what it would be like to watch your endearing but guileless grandparents succumbing to the aftereffects of a nuclear holocaust, all while wondering when they’ll be able to go down the shops for more potting soil to get the garden back up to snuff. It’s amusing, but in a way that highlights the horror rather than diminishing it. For a real fun evening, lay in some tea and chocolate biscuits and watch this and Threads as a double feature.
On second thought, don’t do that, because it might make you want to top yourself.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.
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