After watching Dr. Strangelove, you may find yourself asking what that film would have been like if it had treated its doomsday scenario seriously. Well, you can find out by watching yet another film from 1964, Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe.
What’s Fail-Safe about? Well, basically, it tells the exact same story as Dr. Strangelove, except without the humor. Once again, an American bomber is accidentally ordered to launch a nuclear attack against Russia. Again, the President (played, somewhat inevitably, by Henry Fonda) has to have an awkward conversation with the leader of Russia. Again, a sinister defense advisor (this time played by Walter Matthau) argues that the world can survive a nuclear war.
Admittedly, there is no equivalent to George C. Scott’s Buck Turgidson in Fail-Safe. However, there is a General Black (Dan O’Herilihy) who has a recurring nightmare about watching a bullfight while the sky around him glows with radiation.
Fail-Safe has the same plot as Dr. Strangelove but none of the humor. In fact, Fail-Safe has absolutely no humor at all. It’s one of the most somber films that I’ve ever seen. It has a good opening with General Black’s nightmare and an effective ending that makes excellent use of freeze frames but the middle of the film is basically just a collection of endless debates.
And I’m sure that approach made sense at the time because, after all, Fail-Safe was dealing with a serious theme, it was directed by a serious filmmaker, and it featured a bunch of serious actors. And maybe if I had never seen Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe would not seem like such a slow and boring movie. But I have seen Dr. Strangelove and, as a result, it’s impossible to watch Fail-Safe without wanting to hear Henry Fonda say, “You can’t fight here! This is the war room!”