Fail-Safe (1964 film)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Fail-Safe is a 1964 film directed by Sidney Lumet, based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. It tells the story of a fictional Cold War nuclear crisis, and the US President's attempt to end it.



The film takes place during the Cold War, when tensions with the Soviet Union were at their height. As the movie starts, an unknown aircraft approaches North America from Europe. American bomber planes of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) are deployed to meet the potential threat. As a fail-safe protection, the bombers have standard orders not to proceed past a certain geographical point without receiving a special attack code. The original "threat" is proven to be innocuous, and recall orders are issued to the American bombers. However, due to a technical failure, the attack code (rather than the recall order) is transmitted to Group Six, which consists of six Vindicator supersonic bombers. Colonel Grady, the head of the group, tries to contact mission control in Omaha to verify the fail-safe order (called Positive Check), but due to Soviet radio jamming, Grady cannot hear Omaha. Concluding that the fail-safe order and the radio jamming could only mean nuclear war, Grady commands the Group Six crew towards Moscow, their intended destination. At this point, a series of disastrous fail-safe orders come into play: the bombers are trained that upon receiving an attack code, there is virtually no way to supersede it; they are trained to ignore all communicated orders, on the assumption that once an attack is directed, any attempts to stop it must be Soviet trickery.

At meetings in Omaha, the Pentagon, and in the fallout shelter of the White House, American politicians and scholars debate the implications of the attack. Professor Groeteschele (played by Walter Matthau), who is loosely based on Herman Kahn, suggests the United States follow this accidental attack with a full-scale attack to force the Soviets to surrender.

Following procedures, the military sends out six fighter jets in an attempt to shoot down the Vindicators. The attempt is to show to the Soviets that the Vindicator attack is an accident, not a full-scale nuclear assault. The Vindicators are too far away, and all six fighters fire their missiles and fail to hit the Vindicators.

The President of the United States contacts the Soviet premier and offers assistance in attacking the group. The Soviets decline at first but soon decide to accept it.

With the radio open, the President attempts to persuade Grady that there is no war. Grady responds that he cannot accept voice orders at this stage (because it could be Soviet agents imitating the President's voice, or the Soviets could have successfully invaded and captured the President).

At SAC headquarters, General Bogan attempts to stop the attack by supplying the Soviets with tactical information about the Vindicators. Bogan's executive officer, Colonel Cascio, believes the Soviets are playing a trick. Cascio strikes Bogan and pulls the cord from the phone, then attempts to take over command of SAC, falsely claiming that he is acting under the authority of the President. Cascio is apprehended by security officers and Bogan's authority is restored, but precious time has been wasted.

Meanwhile, the Soviet PVO Strany air defense corps has managed to shoot down two of the six planes. With information provided by the Americans, the Soviets shoot down two more planes. One bomber and a support plane remain on course to Moscow. General Bogan tells Marshal Nyevsky, the Soviet commander, to ignore Plane #6 (the support plane) because it has no weapons. Nyevsky, who mistrusts Bogan, instead orders his Soviet aircraft to attack all the remaining planes. Plane #6's last feint guarantees that the remaining bomber can successfully attack. Following the failure, Nyevsky collapses.

As the final plane approaches Moscow, Colonel Grady opens up the radio to contact SAC to inform them that they are about to make the strike. As a last-minute measure, the Soviets fire a barrage of rockets to form a thermonuclear barrier in an attempt knock the low-flying Vindicator out of the sky. The Vindicator shoots up two missiles, which successfully lead the Soviet rockets high in the air. Colonel Grady's plane survives.

Grady's wife is put on the radio and attempts to convince him to abort his mission, that the United States has not been attacked. Under standing orders that such a late recall attempt must be a Soviet trick, Grady ignores them. Grady tells his crew that "We're not just walking wounded, we're walking dead men", due to radiation from the burst. He intends to fly the aircraft over Moscow and detonate the bombs in the plane. His navigator notes, "There's nothing to go home to anyway".

When it becomes apparent one bomber made it through Soviet defenses and destroyed Moscow (evidenced by the loss of communication with the American ambassador, whose telephone produces a high-pitched whine as it melts in the blast), the President orders an American bomber to destroy New York City, arguing that this is the only way to convince the Soviets that the Moscow attack was a mistake, and to prevent a worldwide nuclear war which will probably destroy humanity. The First Lady happens to be visiting New York at the time, and presumably is killed in the blast.

The New York attack is carried out by General Warren Abraham "Blackie" Black (Dan O'Herlihy) who himself lives in the city and does it knowing that his wife and children will be among those killed; he commits suicide (by injection) immediately afterwards.


The film is constructed so that the Soviets are never seen. The action is portrayed only on the giant maps overlooking the War Room in the Pentagon and SAC Headquarters, and the Soviet Premier's words are spoken through an American interpreter (played by Larry Hagman).

Colonel Grady's crewmen show no real emotions as they fly their airplane. They are carrying out preplanned actions, trained not to alter their course. This is a stark contrast to the conventions of "bomber crew movies" such as Air Force (1943), where the fliers are portrayed as disparate individuals who, by working together, can change the course of history. The robotic Colonel Grady, grimly flying toward Armageddon despite all pleas to turn back, has had relatively few fictional successors. Major characters in Martin Caidin's novel Ju-52, Dale Brown's novel Chains of Command, the Tom Clancy book The Sum of All Fears and the 1995 film Crimson Tide actively resist direct orders to launch nuclear weapons and are presented as heroes for doing so.

The "Vindicator" bombers (an invention of the novelists) are represented by stock footage of a B-58 Hustler.



The book so closely resembled the novel Red Alert by Peter George, that George filed a plagiarism lawsuit. The case was settled out of court.

Connections with other films and TV

The 1964 film version was released shortly after Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, which shares many plot similarities with Fail-Safe, but adds black humour and satire to the mix.

This movie influenced the story of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Defiant". There are similar scenes in the episode, such as those between Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) and Dukat (Marc Alaimo) who coordinate the search for the stolen Defiant from a war room on Cardassia Prime. Fritz Weaver (Buck) also appeared in the series, in the earlier episode "Tribunal". (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion)

This movie was also parodied on the show Sealab 2021 in the episode "Red Dawn", with a reference to the phone melting.

2000 adaptation

In 2000, the novel was adapted again as a televised play also titled Fail Safe, starring George Clooney, Richard Dreyfuss, and Noah Wyle and broadcast live in black and white on CBS.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Fail-Safe (1964 film)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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