Note: Stemming from further useful discussions on social media, I’ve added some additional comment at the end of this piece. The original post remains unchanged.
Recent discussions about ‘trigger warnings’ in higher education have been all over the place, resulting in a predictable mishmash of reasoned argument, straw men, and pointless tosh. Rather than boringly attempt to give yet another take on the issue as a whole, I’d like to address how I see this intersecting with my own teaching of nuclear history. I’d also like to add my support for the term ‘content warning‘ in this context (the linked article usefully discusses this).
The recent, sad death of the great Billie Whitelaw prompted me to divert from the nuclear norm and reflect on a film in which she played a small – but significant – part. Hell Is A City is a frequently overlooked gem of post-war British cinema. An unabashedly commercial crime movie that, nonetheless, contains much to recommend it. It also happens to be one of my favourite pieces of post-war British cinema.
Hell Is A City very much follows the traditional pattern for its type: hardened criminal commits robbery and accidental murder, hard-bitten cop with a terrible home life is determined to track him down, cop trawls through the seedier elements of society to get his man. Yet, there are several things which make the film something apart from the norm.
Having taught classes on The War Game before, I was genuinely fascinated to see if teaching a class that involved the grim and disturbing Threads would be any different.
The fascinating thing about this seminar was the variety of opinions on the film. Some found it deeply disturbing and moving, others realised the impact it must have had, but were less shocked by the visceral imagery and storyline.
One thing that the class allowed me to do was articulate why I ended up teaching a course like this. Threads had a major (and terrifying) impact on me from a young age, and that terror is one of the reasons I ended up studying nuclear issues: a need to understand what made me so scared as a kid. Threads, the Greenham Common protests, post-apocalyptic cinema in general, and the news media all had a significant impact on me growing up. Teaching a course such as this is an outgrowth of that.
The image to the right scared the holy living hell out me. In fact, it still does. The image of the bandaged, badly burned, rifle-wielding traffic warden is one of the enduring images from the film. There’s something peculiarly British about this: the traffic warden as almost universally despised low-level authority figure, made in this case literally faceless and carrying the ultimate symbol of post-apocalyptic authority.
This list of ‘Ten Cold War Films Worth Watching‘ by James Lindsay at the Council on Foreign Relations infuriated me (OK, maybe not infuriated. ‘Mildly irritated’, perhaps). Not because the films aren’t worth watching (indeed, many of them are solid gold classics that you should certainly view) but that the list was so English-language, US-UK focused in its content. But then again, the same blog brought us ‘The Cold War in 40 Quotes‘. 36 of which were by American figures, representing (as does the film list) the highly US-centric view of the Council on Foreign Relations.
I would still encourage people to watch the films on Lindsay’s list, but I think we can look more widely at Cold War cinema in order to gauge how the experience affected film-makers from a much broader spectrum, in terms of nationality, genre, and perspective. Hence, I present my list of ten Cold War films worth watching. I will admit, the list is still horribly Euro-centric and very personal.