Nuclear apocalypse through the eyes of Western filmmakers of the Cold War period

On 19 May, the Centre for Comparative History and Political Studies hosted a lecture by Mikhail Agapov titled “Nuclear apocalypse through the eyes of Western filmmakers of the Cold War period”.

  • Mikhail Agapov - Doctor of History, Director of the Social Anthropology Department, Institute for the Study of Northern Development (Siberian Branch of the RAS, Tyumen).


Mikhail Agapov started with the idea that the 20th century has presented films as a new source for historical research. According to him, films as a historical source are particularly important for scholars as they are directly related to the people’s needs. Furthermore, films reflect people’s expectations.

According to Agapov, nuclear apocalypse has been one of the dominant images in Western mass culture in the second half of the twentieth century. In his study, he tried to figure out how it was formed, transformed and interpreted by Western filmmakers.

Agapov claimed that until 1949, the adjective “nuclear” had a special place in the American public mind and on the market. The atomic mushroom was a kind of victory symbol. Furthermore, the word “atomic” was used for the positive characteristics of goods and services. However, since the test of the USSR’s nuclear bomb, the situation had changed drastically: scenarios of possible nuclear war, guides on how to survive in such a situation and stories about the possible consequences of nuclear war were created. The sample of a nuclear apocalypse films that Agapov chose started with productions from 1949 and were divided into three periods. The sample included films from the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, Italy and Greece.

The first period included films from 1949 to the the Cuban Missile Crisis. This period was characterized by the fact that the characters were ordinary people: plumbers, drivers etc., who accidentally survived and found themselves in a world without any people. According to these films, an “atomic wave” or “atomic poison” caused the devastation. It is also noteworthy that films from this period often raised the topic of the last man on earth but not the problem of a nuclear war.

During the second period, the focus of attention was on the problem of nuclear arms control. The most common plot was about automated systems of guaranteed nuclear retaliation (the so-called “doomsday machines of the day”) getting out of the control.

The third period, beginning in the mid-1970s and ending with the collapse of the Soviet Union, raised the issue of a nuclear winter. It was characterized by a focus on all sorts of calculations and the tactical use of weapons for nuclear strikes. Furthermore, it touched upon the topic of warfare stimulation by a third party. Acording to Agapov, it is also noteworthy that in contrast to British films of this period, the US had an optimistic future outlook.

The list of the most interesting films according to Mikhail Agapov

• 1950-s

Five (USA, 1951)

Day the World Ended (USA, 1955)

On the Beach (USA, 1959)

The World, the Flesh and the Devil (USA, 1959)

• 1960-s

This is Not a Test (USA, 1962)

Panic in Year Zero! (USA, 1962)

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (USA, UK, 1963)

Fail-Safe (USA, 1964)

The War Game (UK, 1965)

The Bed Sitting Room (UK, 1969)

Planet of the Apes (USA, 1968)

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (USA, 1970)

Colossus: The Forbin Project (USA, 1970)

• 1970-1980-s

Damnation Alley (USA, 1977)

WarGames (USA, 1983)

Testament (USA, 1983)

The Day After (1983)

Threads (UK, Australia, USA, 1984)

Def-Con 4 (Canada, 1985)

When the Wind Blows (UK, 1986)

Miracle Mile (USA, 1988)

By Dawn's Early Light (USA, 1990)