Viewer Guide: Fail-Safe and Men Go to Battle

April 17, 2020 | Richard Peña


Fail-Safe (1964)

This week’s classic is Fail-Safe, the 1964 “what if” dramatic thriller directed by Sidney Lumet.

With the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union well into a deep freeze by the early 60s, national anxiety about the uncontrolled proliferation of nuclear weapons reached a fever pitch with the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. And in addition to fears of an intentional nuclear war, there were also worries about the potential for an accidental nuclear crisis…concerns that haven’t exactly disappeared today. Adapted from the 1962 novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, Fail-Safe dramatizes the angst permeating the era, persuasively imagining an increasingly terrifying scenario of the unthinkable, and how the layers security procedures intended as precautions could tangle up with each other to backfire into the ultimate nuclear nightmare.

With an opening sequence set in different corners of the country, at first it’s just another day in the business of minding the missiles: Strategic Air Command headquarters in Omaha prepares for the visit of a congressman, a late night party of DC insiders winds down, and fighter pilots in Alaska suit up for their customary border patrol. But for General Black, played by Dan O’Herlihy, the day begins with a disturbing recurring dream of a savage bullfight, once again prompting some soul-searching questions about his role in running the nation’s nuclear defense. Could it be time for him to step back from tempting fate? And later that day, when General Black sees an unidentified aircraft straying into US airspace, could this dream be a foretold omen finally coming true?

Among the stars also featured in the large ensemble cast are Henry Fonda as a president faced with making more than one ultimate sacrifice, Walter Matthau as a hawkish academic who dares to wager that the unthinkable can be winnable, and Larry Hagman as a nervous young translator struggling to listen for the humanity between the lines.

Despite receiving positive critical reaction upon its release in October 1964, Fail-Safe was a box office disappointment, suffering in large part due to the release of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove—adapted from the 1958 novel Red Alert—earlier that year. A satirical treatment of the same subject, Strangelove was radically different in style and tone. But when Kubrick learned of the remarkably similar plot of Fail-Safe, he was convinced the two films—both being released by Columbia Pictures—would cancel each other out at the box office. Consequently, Kubrick decided to sue, claiming that Fail-Safe’s source novel had plagiarized Red Alert—despite the fact that Red Alert author Peter George had separately sued Fail-Safe authors Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler and settled out of court. Finding themselves in the strange position of being the distributor for both films, Columbia Pictures’ solution was to keep Fail-Safe on the shelf for nine months, after premiering at the New York Film Festival. But with Strangelove garnering critical and box office success—along with audience laughs—it left Fail-Safe in the hopeless position of trying to retell a similar story, but now with a straight face. Nonetheless, Fail-Safe’s undeniable power secured its position on many critics’ ‘best of’ lists for that year. In 2000, CBS broadcast a live television version directed by Stephen Frears and featuring George Clooney, Richard Dreyfuss, Harvey Keitel and Noah Wylie.


Men Go to Battle (2015)

This week’s indie is Men Go to Battle, a moving Civil War story from 2015 directed by Zachary Treitz.

Set in 1861 during the early days of the Civil War in the border state of Kentucky, Men Go to Battle features David Maloney and Timothy Morton as Francis and Henry Mellon, a pair of hapless brothers barely eking out an existence on a hardscrabble farm.  Or at least what used to be a farm: in its current uncultivated condition, it offers next to nothing in the way of sustenance for Francis and Henry.  After a bad drought in ’54, the brothers just haven’t been able to keep up.  With winter approaching, Francis and Henry are increasingly desperate to sell a parcel of their land, but the friction between them begins to grow.  Henry regards Francis’ more genial nature as careless and spendthrift, while Francis finds the taciturn Henry to be a negative stick in the mud.  The truth is that both are equally ill-equipped to function on their own, as well as prone to questionable lapses in judgment; when a comic attempt to roast a chicken goes dangerously wrong, the duo are forced to seek the assistance of a local doctor, coming face to face with a well-to-do society they can only look upon as outsiders.  Yet wars have a way of turning both countries and individual lives upside down, and when the Civil War breaks out, the lives of both Francis and Henry will veer off in directions neither could have imagined.

Men Go to Battle is that miracle of miracles: a convincing, insightful period film made on next to nothing. Focusing on small incidents and personal relations, the film offers an extraordinary portrait of life in a border state, capturing the dynamics of class, gender and race in simple yet poignant encounters. The battle scenes are especially admirable; debut director Zachary Treitz conveys the terror and confusion of young men facing death on an unimaginable scale. Men Go to Battle was screened at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, winning Treitz a jury award for “Best New Narrative Director.”  Treitz and co-writer Kate Lynn Sheil—who portrays Josephine Small in the film—drew on Treitz’s own family history in writing their script.  Apart from her writing career, Sheil’s extensive acting credits including recurring roles in such series as High Maintenance, Outcast and House of Cards.

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