Film Torments: When the Wind Blows (1986)

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ROUNDING off August’s Month of Misery at Torments, Truan takes a look at one of animation’s hardest punches to the gut.

Since the time of the Cold War there’s always been something deeply compelling about nuclear war fantasies that has never really lessened its grip upon the popular imagination. Besides perhaps viral epidemics- most abundantly in the shape of the zombiepocalypse genre- and totalitarian Orwellian governments, it is hard to think of a trope with more mainstream traction in futuristic and alternative reality fiction than that of the nuclear holocaust.

At its core, perhaps this is because people- who, geologically speaking, until so recently had not only to fear other people from outside groups and tribes but also a great many opportunistic beasts and natural predators- continue to have a biologically ingrained fear that no matter how secure we may seem to be at any particular moment, we are always a single step away from that security toppling down around us.

Society, in one sense, is one big safety net; though by no means a very complete one. In ancient Sumeria the first civilisations were formed by tribes of people coming together to divide resources and build walled settlements, which would grow to become the first cities, in order to keep out outside threats. In the modern era we have built walls of a very different nature in borders and defence institutions to guard our security.

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Whereas a classical city-state such as Athens would expect, and, indeed, require, it’s citizens to perform either civil or military service in defence of the state, in the majority of modern western nations this is now the responsibility of a democratically elected government and a taxpayer-funded military and security service. The principle psychological horror of nuclear war then is that no matter how developed our organisational ‘walls’ may be, short of a hugely expensive, and for most, impracticable, comprehensive missile defense system, there is no certain defence against a vast array of modern weaponry which could cause a horrific degree of destruction should international relations ever falter.

The primary answer to this threat has historically in the West been a nuclear deterrent policy of allied nations stockpiling nuclear weapons whilst pledging only to use said weapons in unified retaliation to an aggressor. Even the most determined proponent of a nuclear deterrent policy however must acknowledge that the end result of such a commitment, were it to be carried to its limits, would inevitably entail mutually assured destruction, which of course, is just as MAD as it sounds. (Oh, that’s awful, I’m not sure if it even qualifies as a pun.) If ever there was a trope which was, and continues in many ways to be, pertinent to the concerns and fears of society then, it is that of nuclear warfare.

When the Wind Blows (1986) occupies a special place in the canon of British film-making and animation, highly regarded as one of the most affecting and depressing animated films of all time. A collaboration between director Jimmy Murakami and Raymond Briggs, the film is an uncanny but effective contrast of the soft lines and colours of Brigg’s animation- generally the preserve of children’s illustration and animation- and the affable, touching performances of veteran actors John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft, with the unremittingly dark subject matter of a horribly plausible nuclear attack.

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For Briggs, who is most fondly remembered for his The Snowman which was animated into the widely beloved bbc special in 1982, the stark and, at its core, deeply depressing subject matter of When the Wind Blows was an undeniably daring move. Though the film’s principal, and only, characters James (Mills) and Hilda Bloggs (Ashcroft) have different names to the protagonists of Briggs’ later work Ethel and Ernest, which is drawn directly from the lives of Briggs’ own parents – growing up in the Blitz and coming of age in the Korean War – the obvious similarities between the two sets of characters makes it apparent that James and Hilda are also based on his parents.

Briggs imbues James and Hilda with all the mannerisms, speech patterns and fixed beliefs and principles which will be so familiar to so many British kids with working class parents or grandparents of a certain age. The highly personal nature of the film for Briggs is obvious throughout, as when James calls his son Ron at the beginning of the film and fails to convince him to build a regulation shelter for him and his kids.

Although we only hear one part of the conversation it is obvious James’ son is sceptical to the point of hysterically jovial nihilism about their chances of survival singing ‘we’re all go together when we go’ that the son is clearly a reflection of Briggs himself is made obvious when Hilda complains ‘he was always such a sensible child, it was going to that art college that spoiled him.’ 

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James and Hilda are almost eerily lifelike, to the extent that it makes watching them struggle to comprehend the realities of nuclear war at first comical, and then, increasingly, horrible to watch. It’s a film in which faceless governments, as a result of a poorly-understood power struggle commit to dooming the vast majority of their everyday citizens without the vaguest implication of their assent. The Bloggs, so much a product of their wartime-generation, look back on the War with a naive nostalgic reverie:

“Funny to think they were on our side in the war. Who dear? The Ruskies… with old Joe Stalin. Oh yes! He was a nice chap. I liked him. Like an uncle he was, with his moustache and his pipe. Yeah, Roosevelt was nice too. There was three of them: Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin… All good blokes… You somehow knew who you were then. I don’t even know who half the people are these days! I expect it’s all done by committees dear… Yes, it was nice in the war really, the shelters, blackouts together with cups of tea… The ARP, the evacuees… London kids seeing cows for the first time… Vera Lynn singing away… Those were the days…”

Despite their ‘Britain can take it’ idealism, and their wartime upbringing, it is painfully obvious that the Bloggs cannot truly envision the horror of nuclear war. A haunting score and crosscuts to footage from the War underpins the Blogg’s vision of the world they grew up in for what it is, only half-comprehended and hopelessly black and white. As ignorant as the Bloggs clearly are, Briggs and Murakami apply such a clearly caring brush to them that it is impossible to despise them for their simple unquestioning belief in their country, nurtured in the seemingly straightforward dichotomies of their youth.

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The sequence of the blast itself is a stark, literal bombshell, which serves to divide the foreboding but anti-climactic first half of the film from the dawning horror of the second, as wistfully sketched model brick houses devolve in a matter of seconds and the landscape erodes away with the wildlife blown away like chaff leaving only a skeleton of a landscape behind, it is clear that Britain can’t take it at all, and could never be a green or pleasant land again. The sequence culminates with the Bloggs’ prized wedding photograph, briefly evoking a pencilled montage of treasured memories, is shattered into a thousand irreconcilable pieces.

As the Bloggs recover from the dazzling blast, they are left to view the tattered remains of their home, and to ponder how far they are from the centre of the blast. From there, things get predictably worse and worse, as the Bloggs’ 1001 half-remembered petty precautions fail to stave off the radiation of a nuclear fallout. It’s a true vision of the horrors of nuclear war from a deceptively domestic prospective, with the terrible consequences of the blast being largely implied rather than shown. This is seen when James attempts to find a station on the television or radio only to discover that the channels are ‘all dead’.

If you look closely at the screen of the television, for a few frames you can just make out the effigy of the skull. The operators are clearly ‘all dead’, and even at this stage in the film it is clear no help is coming, making the Bloggs’ optimism and continued obsession with banal aspects of their former life horribly comical: “Well, yes… that’s logical… there’s bound to be delays in this state of national emergency. [Sigh] I’ll miss the serial on woman’s hour.”

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What makes it that much more terrible, is the staunch, unwavering faith the Bloggs place in the good intentions of their government ‘ours’ is not to reason why’, and its almost laughably ineffectual safety recommendations, even whilst their skin wilts and they die a truly awful protracted death from radiation sickness with only each other for company. Despite wasteland and deathly silent isolation that surrounds them, the Bloggs continue to fantasise away the real horror of their situation, imagining themselves toughing out the nuclear holocaust with a stiff upper lip and taking on new community roles as ambulance drivers or firemen in colourful imaginary sequences.

Ultimately though, there is no escaping the awful effects of the sickness and the final stop motion of James and Hilda covering themselves in bags and crawling back into the shelter all the while reassuring each other that soon the emergency services will be there to put things right is at once pathetic and desperately sad. Like the best tragedies, however, there is also something heroic in the Bloggs’ refusal to give into despair, even when staring death in the face, instead devoting their final moments to comforting one another.

These days, When The Wind Blows is a critically well-regarded, but criminally under-watched classic. It’s not always an easy watch, but it’s one I’d thoroughly recommend as an anti-nuclear film with a message as pertinent now as it was at the time of its writing. Also, the title opening track is a special contribution from David Bowie; it’s a far fly from his best work, but it’s still darkly evocative and forceful.

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