US Release Date: 10-07-1964
Directed by: Sidney Lumet
- Henry Fonda, as
- The President
- Walter Matthau, as
- Larry Hagman, as
- Dan O'Herlihy, as
- General Black
- Frank Overton, as
- General Bogan
- Edward Binns, as
- Colonel Grady
- Fritz Weaver, as
- Colonel Cascio
- Dom DeLuise, as
- Sgt. Collins
- William Hansen, as
- Secretary Swenson
- Russell Hardie, as
- General Stark
- Russell Collins, as
- Sorrell Booke, as
- Congressman Raskob
- Nancy Berg, as
- Ilsa Wolfe
- John Connell, as
- Frank Simpson, as
- Hildy Parks, as
- Betty Black
- Janet Ward, as
- Mrs. Grady
- Dana Elcar, as
- Stewart Germain, as
- Mr. Cascio
- Louise Larabee, as
- Mrs. Cascio
- Frieda Altman as
Henry Fonda in Fail Safe.
After the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the Cold War was threatening to get hot. World War III didn't just seem possible, it seemed inevitable. 1964 saw the release of two movies related to that concept, both from Columbia and each helmed by a famous director near the beginning of his career. Stanley Kubrick directed the darkly comic masterpiece Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, and was able to convince the studio to release his movie first. Sydney Lumet's grimly toned Fail Safe wouldn't be released until months later, leaving it in the shadow of its more famous predecessor. Although it received warm reviews, audiences stayed away, perhaps unable to take it as seriously as they should have after the similarly plotted Strangelove. Even Henry Fonda, who starred in Fail Safe, has said that he didn't think he could have played his scenes as the President with a straight face if he'd performed them after watching Strangelove. Decades away from its release date however, it's long past time for Fail Safe to be viewed independently as a taut, claustrophobic, thriller and to take its place as a Cold War classic.
After a few opening scenes that introduce the audience to the main characters, the action starts when an off-course commercial airliner triggers an alert in the American nuclear command center. Fighter jets race to identify the UFO while American bombers fly to their fail safe positions just outside Soviet Union airspace. Once the plane is safely identified, an all clear is sent to all flight groups, but a mechanical failure coupled with a jamming transmission, causes an erroneous attack code to be transmitted to one of the bomber groups. Unable to communicate with base and with their attack codes confirmed, the flight of bombers sets course for their target, which has been verified as Moscow. This sets the stage for some tense negotiations between the President and the Russian Premier as the President tries to assure his Soviet counterpart that this is not the beginning of full scale attack and that everything that can be done to stop the bombers is being done.
Apart from those opening scenes and a montage at the climax, almost the entire film takes place inside just three rooms. The President is in a bunker under the White House and in constant contact with the nuclear command center and the Pentagon and it is from these three locations that the future of mankind is debated. Some in the Pentagon, lead by Professor Groeteschele (Matthau), want to take advantage of the current situation to launch a first strike war, while others lean more toward cooperation. Members of the military, even those who don't wish to start a war, bristle and strain under the pressure of cooperating with the Russians in an effort to stop planes carrying American soldiers. After all the talk and debate, the weight of responsibility comes down on the President and his solution to the problem is an audacious one. It's one that's impossible to imagine any American President actually making, but given the alternative, what else is there to do that won't result in the total destruction of all life on Earth?
The cast features quite a few recognizable faces. Fonda makes the perfect movie president. He's personable, but commanding at the same time. He's the voice of reason and responsibility. A young Larry Hagman is quite good as the president's Russian translator. Matthau, famous for his comedies, started his career in darker roles like this one. He is cold and calculating as the statistician, arguing vociferously for an aggressive stance, "Where do you draw the line once you know what the enemy is? How long would the Nazis have kept it up, General, if every Jew they came after had met them with a gun in his hand? But I learned from them, General Black. Oh, I learned." Dom DeLuise pops up in a small and surprisingly serious role.
In many ways this movie reminded me of a disaster movie of the 1970s. You have the large number of familiar faces (although many of them are only familiar with the benefit of hindsight and would have been unknown at the time) who we are introduced to before the action starts. Then once disaster strikes--in this case the ultimate disaster not confined to one building, ship, or airplane, but the entire world--the tension is ratcheted up quickly and remains that way right through the film's climax.
The biggest difference between this movie and Dr. Strangelove, besides the tone, is that here the attack is caused by a mechanical failure, while in Strangelove, it's caused by a man. The mechanical failure feels a little like a cop out and puts too much of the blame on technology. It's an idea that would be revisited 20 years later in the similarly themed War Games.
Although it may not be revered as much as Dr. Strangelove, this movie and the novel it is based on are remembered well enough that it was remade for television in 2000. Like most remakes though, it was completely unnecessary. Who needs a remake when the original is this good?
Larry Hagman and Henry Fonda in Fail Safe.
I agree, Fail Safe didn't need a remake. Sidney Lumet's original version holds up remarkably well. Since the end of the Second World War the possibility of nuclear annihilation has hung over mankind's head like a mushroom cloud. This movie shows one possible scenario about how our government's leaders would handle just such a catastrophe.
As the disaster unfolds the one question I had was why didn't the government think to install self-destruct mechanisms on these bomber jets that could only be activated by the President? I see Scott's point about the script blaming the international crisis depicted in the film on a technical glitch rather than on a human failing. In some ways this can be seen as a cop out but it accomplishes two things. It demonstrates the foolhardy system mankind has set up in terms of its most destructive weapons, while avoiding laying the blame on either an American or a Soviet individual.
The Walter Matthau character is around to represent the bloodthirsty side of humanity. He's willing to have 100 million American casualties if it means winning the war against Russia. He's a man for whom beating the enemy is more important than the number of human lives it costs. He is smart enough to know that very few -if any- humans would survive a large scale nuclear conflict, which renders him morally bankrupt.
The cast is uniformly terrific, with Fonda, Matthau and Larry Hagman being the standouts. As Scott wrote, Henry Fonda was the perfect choice to play the President. My brother called him the voice of reason and responsibility and it's true. He displayed those very attributes more clearly than just about any other actor. He had performed a similar role in Lumet's iconic courtroom drama 12 Angry Men. Walter Matthau is despicable as the warmongering Groeteschele. Although he's primarily remembered today as a comic actor his unpleasant physiognomy caused him to be cast in unsympathetic roles early in his career. A very young looking Larry Hagman holds his own with Fonda. Nearly all of his scenes are with the president as he translates the Russian Premier's words for the commander-in-chief (see photo).
There are certain actors that I always associate with their role in a specific movie. When General Bogen (Frank Overton) makes his first appearance I immediately thought, oh there's Sheriff Heck Tate from To Kill a Mockingbird. The sight of Dom Deluise playing such a serious role is now unintentionally funny – although he does nothing overtly humorous.
Lumet brought several innovative camera tricks and visual effects to mainstream Hollywood with Fail Safe. These include zoom shots, freeze frames, and even negative images. The movie is entirely lacking in music. It has no background score. The director also made good use of extreme closeups. Henry Fonda's intensely worried visage fills the screen on more than one occasion and the men flying the bomber are shown in closeup too.
If you are paying attention the ending of the movie is foreshadowed at the very beginning in a nightmare. Scott called the President's solution audacious and I agree. For anyone who's never seen this movie I won't give away the ending. Let's just say it's pretty intense and Fail Safe is a real nail-biting war thriller that doesn't contain a single battle scene.
Walter Matthau in Fail Safe
Scott and Patrick mentioned the script blaming the crisis on a technical glitch rather than on a human failing. Patrick questioned why the government did not think to install self-destruct mechanisms on these bombers that could only be activated by the President. That in itself erases the point that it was a mechanical error. Men made the machines and put the process in place, thus I never found the crisis to be anything but one of human failing. Even the film acknowledges this when one General states, “Something failed, a man, a machine…it was bound to happen and it did.”
Although much of the film is dated, some of the situations depicted still resonate. The scene in which it is decided to use our own jets to shoot down the bomber group weighs a heavy heart on the officers repeating the president’s order to do so. How many times in real life have such similar orders been given? I imagined a similar scenario happened during the attack on the American ambassador in Benghazi when two brave SEALS were fighting for their lives while someone in Washington made the decision not to send military help in, even as a drone flew overhead watching it all play out. What must the SEALS commander felt waiting to hear from Washington, not knowing why he was not given the go ahead to help his own men who were then killed in action? Clearly something else was at play that is not common knowledge. I truly wonder how many times a President or a General has given an order knowing it would directly result in an American’s death, because they found it to be for the greater good?
That is the very theme of this film. What sacrifices are worth making in order to stop a worse catastrophe? I was reminded of Clark Gable playing a general in the aptly titled Command Decision (1948).
Professor Groeteschele, played by Walter Matthau, is not so much bloodthirsty as he is simply cold to what is war. He sees statistics and numbers from an intellectual perspective. When he sees the Russian missiles in action he responds with fascination on their performance while showing no concern for the people those missiles just killed. The beginning of the film shows him discussing how many deaths are acceptable in war. He is more concerned with the economy and culture than the actual lives that would make up that culture and economy.
I truly do not understand what the scene in the car with the girl who grabs Groeteschele dick has to do with anything. He slaps her and states slow and clear, “I am not your kind.” What is he talking about; social class, political opinion, sexuality? That scene felt out of place, just as was the one where the general is picked up in the bad neighborhood.
I agree with my brothers that Henry Fonda is perfect in the role. He shows so much on his face even as he tries to put up a brave front for the translator. He and the Russian president hold the world’s fate in their hands. Their translated conversations are some of the film’s best moments. The President and his translator sweat out some very gripping scenes.
Where we are not shown a conversation that we should have is the one between the pilots of the bomber. They have been trained to never question their orders. However, considering what they are being told to do, I imagine they would have all kinds of talks on that flight. They are never shown asking each other what they think is going on. For all they know a third World War has started. Even after the President talks to them and the pilot’s wife we get nothing from them. The President sweats his decision. A General has an emotional meltdown. The professor and the officers debate the situation, yet we get very little from the actual men pulling the trigger.
I enjoyed how this movie presented leaders faced with big decisions and how they must make them knowing the possible repercussions. My brothers may likely be annoyed that I mentioned Benghazi but for me, it is a good thing when a movie makes us think of real events. Is that not what Fail Safe is trying to do? It wants us to rethink our paranoia, our sometimes rush to action and most importantly just why decisions are made.
Photos © Copyright Columbia Pictures (1964)