Fail Safe and The War That Left Its Box Office Cold
There’s an interesting phenomenon in Hollywood: films get made to satisfy a timely cultural zeitgeist, causing a glut of movies with the same topics or themes to come out around the same time. Deep Impact came out so close to Armageddon in 1998 that many misremember it as a cheap imitation despite the fact that it was in production at exactly the same time as the Bruce Willis drilling-in-space classic. In the end, the film that will be revered as the original is simply the one that’s more successful. For every Babe there’s a Gordy, with every Prestige there’s a The Illusionist, and with each A Bugs Life there’s an Antz.
The “twin film” cup runneth over once you get to the early ‘90s onwards, but one of the original circumstances of this phenomenon occurred in 1964, with the release of one of the most critically lauded and beloved films of all time, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. The movie follows the ill-fated launch of a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union and the failed attempts to stop it. The film was a critical and commercial success upon its release and cemented Kubrick as a directorial force to be reckoned with. At the same time Strangelove was in production, another movie was being made called Fail Safe, and it bore a startling resemblance to Kubrick’s dark satire and its source material. The battle of the atomic age parables had begun.
Sidney Lumet’s oft-overlooked yet effective black and white drama based on the novel of the same name focuses on an accidental thermonuclear strike on the Soviet Union. Starring Henry Fonda and directed by someone as legendary as Lumet, the film should’ve been a huge hit. But echoing the film’s focus on the rising tensions between the Soviet Union and America, things were quickly becoming heated at the studio that Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove shared. This boiled over into a court case that led to a plagiarism settlement, setting Fail Safe’s release eight months behind Dr. Strangelove and causing it to be seen as a dryer, less effective imitation.
Fail Safe was designed as a dark, realistic, and terrifying representation of the Cold War era fears of nuclear war. The idea of a simple miscommunication causing a nuclear meltdown played into the fears and lack of understanding that many people felt in relation to the Cuban Missile Crisis. With the luminary director of A View From The Bridge, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and The Fugitive Kind seemed to give the film Oscar potential and gravitas. The inclusion of twice Oscar nominated Henry Fonda, star of the critically acclaimed adaptation of Grapes of Wrath and Lumet’s debut feature film 12 Angry Men, made the film an (almost) certified hit.
Around the same time, Stanley Kubrick was in the middle of production on the film that would end up becoming, for many, his best and most important work. Dr. Strangelove was something that began for Kubrick as a simple idea about “the widespread Cold War fear for survival.” During his research for the film, he was recommended a book called Red Alert, a somber Cold War-era thriller. He was so impressed by the book that he bought the rights and began working on the script in collaboration with the author, Peter George. The fact that Kubrick outright bought the rights would have a big impact on the success of Fail-Safe as the director’s closeness to the source material enabled him to begin legal action when he noticed the similarities between the two pictures.
When compared, the films clearly share a narrative arc. Both deal with thermonuclear weapons launched from the USA, either mistakenly or without the authority to do so. The stark difference in tone and message is what distinctly separates them. Fail Safe is a true warning for the times, playing on the lack of knowledge around the true impact of a nuclear strike. It deals with the paranoia and terror around the entire idea of nuclear war, and Lumet portrays this with tight, suffocating direction and a conscious choice to film on black and white stock.
Kubrick was abjectly horrified when he learned that Columbia Studios was putting out another film that shared such a close resemblance to his own. His fears mounted when he discovered that the movie was helmed by Lumet and a star vehicle for Fonda, he quickly decided to take the creators to court, a move that would ultimately almost completely derail Fail Safe. Kubrick claimed that the novel that Fail Safe was based on had been plagiarized from Red Alert, the Peter George novel which Kubrick had bought the creative rights to during the pre-production of Dr. Strangelove.
When the lawsuit was filed it was filed under the names Stanley Kubrick and Columbia Studios. The very studio that was making Fail Safe had well and truly taken Kubrick’s side. They settled out of court and Columbia agreed to release the film eight months after Dr. Strangelove. Though it was critically acclaimed, Fail Safe’s mediocre box office takings and the success of a film so similar only months before meant it never made its mark, leaving it forever consigned to second place in the war of the atomic age horror stories.
Neither films are experiences that I particularly enjoy, the Cold War-era casting an eager paranoia over the intimate thrills and noiresque atmosphere of Fail Safe, which is its biggest selling point. Lumet’s direction portrays the urgency and fear of the situation, though the script is either bare-boned or overwritten, rarely managing to find a balance between the two. For me, Strangelove is an underwhelming, cruel piece of film that is simply not made for me. It stands alongside other classics that widely do nothing for me, including the ever lauded Citizen Kane. Reveling in its nihilism, the film always leaves me cold, though Peter Sellers is unarguably great in his three roles.
For me, the story of the tussle to release the film, and Kubrick’s star power singularly derailing the work of so many people is far more interesting than either of the finished films. Despite this, Fail Safe is a well crafted and suspenseful, if inaccurate, memento of a strange and terrifying portion of modern history.
This spring we’re looking back at the Cold War through games, movies, comics and books. Check out the rest of our series here.