In Apocalypse Then, we revisit movies that depict the onset of nuclear war and the immediate aftermath of annihilation. You know—for fun.
From the moment I launched this column, all the comments and Twitter replies have said the same thing. “This movie is nothing compared to Threads.” “When are you going to get to Threads?” “Your refusal to write about Threads tells me you are a coward, one who’s spent their entire life cravenly hiding behind ironic detachment to avoid confronting your very real fears about the world’s irreversible slide toward fiery cataclysm, from which no amount of glib gallows humor or knowledge of pop culture ephemera can save you.” Well, the message behind all these pointed, strangely personal responses has been received. It is high time we discuss the 1984 film Threads, before our eyes become too scabbed over with radiation-induced cataracts to do so.
Airing on the BBC, no doubt through a cloud of tea-splutter, Threads is often considered a transatlantic companion to our first Apocalypse Then subject, 1983’s The Day After. The comparison is unavoidable. Both were born out of Cold War paranoia over escalating U.S./Soviet tensions. Both were made-for-television films that aimed to bring harrowingly realistic depictions of nuclear war into the sanctuary of suburban living rooms. Both told their stories through ordinary people—each of them even centering on families who just happened to be living near strategic military targets (The Day After’s Lawrence, Kansas; Threads’ Sheffield). Each of them even had a shotgun wedding, and a young bride distraught over being separated from her fiancé. And finally, both were mounted by filmmakers who were convinced theirs was an act of civil service, less concerned with entertaining than scaring the shit out of anyone who might be watching—right up to the people who actually had their finger on the proverbial button.
“It seemed to me that people weren’t able to visualize the unthinkable, especially politicians,” Threads director Mick Jackson said in a 2009 interview. “So I thought that if I acted this out for them as a television drama—not as a spectacle or disaster movie—that would give them a workable visual vocabulary for thinking about the unthinkable.” Jackson had already explored the subject matter once before, in an episode of the BBC science series Q.E.D. titled “A Guide To Armageddon.” That had marked a dramatic reversal for the network that had previously banned 1965’s The War Game, a documentary-style depiction of nuclear fallout that had been deemed “too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting” and scuppered for fear it would cause viewers to commit mass suicide. But when Jackson’s Q.E.D. episode didn’t end with people throwing themselves off buildings—and meanwhile, nuclear war only got more newsworthy—the BBC commissioned Jackson to take a crack at dramatizing it again, with a film that would capture this more go-go ’80s version of apocalyptic despair.
Like The Day After’s Nicholas Meyer, Jackson undertook the task with an unusually heavy amount of research, spending a whole year talking to scientists, defense strategists, doctors, and the like—even spending the week embedded in bunkers with the designated “official survivors” training to make sense of post-apocalyptic chaos. But of all his preliminary steps, Jackson’s most prescient was hiring screenwriter Barry Hines.
The author of novels like 1968’s A Kestrel For A Knave, which he then adapted for Ken Loach’s film version, Kes, Hines was a writer who was most passionate about people and the everyday, working-class tragedies they endured. Hines may have despised Jackson’s methods, his middle-class ways, and even his posh white shoes, according to Hines’ wife. But the tension between Hines’ kitchen-sink sensibilities and Jackson’s geopolitical ambitions resulted in a film that was horrifying precisely because of how remarkably small and human it was. Compared to The Day After’s nominally “real” yet slightly corn-fed clichés (Jason Robards’ noble country doctor; the good-hearted, Steve Guttenberg-ian lunk of a college kid), Threads’ characters feel like genuine people who’d just staggered straight out of the neighborhood pubs. You can tell, because you don’t really like them all that much.
Leading this pack of people you don’t particularly mind seeing annihilated is Reece Dinsdale as Jimmy, just your ordinary, aimless punter with nothing on his mind beyond sports and sex. When we first meet Jimmy, he’s thoughtlessly scanning past radio news broadcasts to find the football scores before clumsily putting the moves on his girlfriend, Ruth, played by Karen Meagher. (As with The Day After, Jackson sought to fill Threads with unknowns—though only after contract issues disrupted his plan to use the cast of British soap Coronation Street.) After their little romantic rendezvous turns into an unplanned pregnancy, followed by an equally rushed and fumbling engagement, the young couple suddenly finds themselves stripping wallpaper off their cheap new flat and preparing for a life neither are sure they want. Jimmy, meanwhile, spends his nights drinking with his sleazy work buddy, who prods him to make the most of the time he has left as a single man.
Threads makes explicit those parallels between Jimmy’s impending nuptials and looming Armageddon, both of which threaten to really put a damper on his shagging the local girls, as Jimmy and his friend repeatedly exhort that they “might as well enjoy ourselves.” Of the latter, his buddy even shrugs that, if the bomb does fall, he wants to be “pissed out of my mind and straight underneath it.” Meanwhile, Jackson cleverly frames Jimmy and Ruth’s petty domestic dramas with the nuclear brinksmanship ratcheting up behind them, cutting away to the white-shirt bureaucrats in their shelters, readying supply chains and pushing blast radius charts around, as well as interstitial animated segments from the government’s risibly optimistic “Protect And Survive” series that explained, with calm British politesse, how to store a dead body in plastic until it’s safe to come out.
Again—as in The Day After, as in Miracle Mile—there is the portrayal of people living in hapless ignorance, watching these various warning signs unfold but not knowing what to do about it, so mostly they just put it out of their minds. (Ruth even assures Jimmy that they’re going to have a great future together: “I just know it.”) Threads, at least, depicts anti-nuke protesters taking to the streets, but even these are shouted down by hecklers asking what about factory jobs. Their more single-minded personal concerns are ironically underscored by the film’s constant use of churning, telex-style overlays, rattling off cold statistics about chief local exports and expected casualty counts. The apocalypse approaches slowly and businesslike.
The actual attack, on the other hand, is about as chaotic as has ever been committed to film. A bludgeoning montage of mushroom clouds, panicked rioters, exploding buildings, and faces and milk bottles melting in the flames, it’s a far more graphic affair than The Day After’s tasteful, X-ray freeze frames. Questionably, Jackson even includes a man who’s caught squatting on the toilet (“Bloody hell!”), as well as an extreme close-up of urine pouring from a terrified woman’s pant leg. Still, who can consider matters of taste in the middle of a massacre? Nuclear war is brutal, ugly, and piss-yourself terrifying, Threads argues. Why should its movie depiction be anything different?
For as merciless as that bombing scene is, Threads is primarily remembered for its relentlessly cruel depiction of the aftermath—a grim, hopeless trudge through broken streets littered with grinning corpses and smoldering dead cats, trembling women holding the black, charred remains of tiny babies. As the text dispassionately informs us, burying the bodies is deemed to be impractical, so they’re just left to the rats. Cholera and other diseases run rampant, while radiation-burned victims slop through blood and pus at the local hospital, where the best that doctors can do is saw their limbs off as they bite down on rags.
Later, the military rounds up the able-bodied to work in “reconstruction” camps, while the old and infirm starve to death; in the apocalypse, only the cockroaches and the British class system are guaranteed to survive. And as the food supplies dwindle and atomic dust blots out the sun, Ruth and her fellow refugees (Jimmy is assumed to have died in the blast, though his idiot friend sticks around) stumble off into nearby farm towns, reduced to eating rotting sheep carcasses raw in the freezing cold. Ruth, at least, manages to keep her strength long enough to give birth to her daughter, gnawing the umbilical cord off herself.
As Threads skips over months and years, the population dwindling to medieval levels, the sunlight eventually returns, though the increased levels of ultraviolet radiation leaves Ruth blinded with cataracts and dying of cancer. Her daughter, Jane, like the other children of the apocalypse, grows into a sullen, near-feral creature, capable of only caveman grunts of “Work!” and other bits of broken English. And because there are still a few minutes left in the runtime to squeeze in as much misery as possible, Jane is soon raped, eventually giving birth to her own unplanned baby—a stillborn deformity, whose face causes Jane to scream as the film cuts mercifully to black.
Whereas The Day After provided the salve of pretending that the preceding were just a cautionary tale—John Lithgow’s “Is anybody listening?” benediction an urgent call to heed the film’s dire warnings—there was an aura of bleakly resolute acceptance to Threads that, like its characters, seemed to suggest that we were already fucked. Sure, like Nicholas Meyer, Mick Jackson claimed that Ronald Reagan also watched his film, saying years later that he “likes to imagine” it similarly factored into Reagan’s attempts to broker peace with the Russians. (Though unlike Meyer, he never received a telegram telling him as much.) But its real impact was arguably on the British temperament: Some time after Threads’ premiere, journalist Sue Lloyd Roberts looked at the nation’s dwindling volunteers for civil defense exercises and concluded, “After watching The Day After and Threads, anyone might be forgiven for taking the ‘better to die than to survive’ attitude. So why bother?”
That attitude can be extrapolated to the living, too. Threads’ opening narration, delivered as a spider unspools its light and silvery web, reminds us that civilization only exists thanks to the gossamer human connections that bind it together. Three years after Threads aired, Margaret Thatcher would famously be quoted as saying, “There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.” Threads seemed to argue that this tapestry was all just an illusion, its individual threads easily torn asunder by a sudden hot wind. Or even slowly picked apart, like the blankets being disassembled by Jane and her fellow neo-Neanderthals, by the gradual erosion of our empathy for each other.
The burden of that knowledge—of seeing how flimsy this whole human race racket really is—could explain our persistent attraction to seeing it all blown to shit, time and time again, in the apocalypse films that have become as common a genre as slashers or movies where sports teams lose until they don’t. After all, there’s something undeniably cathartic about just dropping the pretense and reveling in the hopelessness of the modern human condition; like Jimmy and his pal shrugging off World War III in favor of another pint, hey, it’s not like we can do anything about it. The best we can hope is to be drunk and snug inside the blast radius when our own death from above arrives.
But that wasn’t what Jackson or Hines intended, of course. They wanted Threads to spur the international outcry for nuclear disarmament, to become activists for the cause the same way Ruth’s portrayer Karen Meagher did. They wanted us to put down the pint and go do something, to recognize that the ties binding us together needed to be tightened immediately, before they were forever torn. For all its grim hopelessness, Threads had a subtextual faith that people would understand all this before it was too late.
Watching Threads now, in 2017, when the ones holding those strings in their tiny hands only seem to care about yanking them for their own ego-gratifying amusement, well… With apologies to the charred babies and incinerated cats, maybe the scariest thing about Threads is how grimly, hopelessly naive that seems.