Ars marks the 75th anniversary of the nuclear bomb with a look at how the complicated legacy of this world-altering event has been reflected in film and television.
Enlarge / Ars marks the 75th anniversary of the nuclear bomb with a look at how the complicated legacy of this world-altering event has been reflected in film and television.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the first atomic bomb. Just before sunrise on July 16, 1945, in a secluded spot in a central New Mexican desert, a prototype bomb nicknamed “Gadget” was hoisted to the top of a 100-foot tower and detonated. The blast vaporized the steel tower and produced a mushroom cloud rising to more than 38,000 feet. The heat from the explosion melted the sandy soil around the tower into a mildly radioactive glassy crust now known as “trinitite.” And the shock wave broke windows as far as 120 miles away.

After the Trinity test, Richard Feynman recalled finding his colleague, Robert Wilson, sitting despondently amid the celebration. “It’s a terrible thing that we made,” Feynman remembered him saying. Hans Bethe famously observed, “The physicists have known sin. And this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.” It’s often said that physicists became so intent on the intellectual challenge of building an atomic bomb that they lost sight of the profound implications of what they were creating.

Those implications became all too clear on August 6, 1945, when a gun-triggered fission bomb dubbed “Little Boy” fell on Hiroshima, killing an estimated 70,000 to 130,000 people. Three days later, the implosion-triggered “Fat Man” was dropped on Nagasaki, adding another 45,000 human casualties. The United States won the war but at a horrific cost. The world has been haunted by the prospect of a devastating nuclear apocalypse ever since—and so has TV and the movies. So to mark this somber occasion, we’ve compiled a watch list of films and shows that we feel best reflect the complicated legacy of the atomic bomb.

(Some spoilers below.)

The Beginning or the End” src=”×427.jpg” width=”640″ height=”427″ >
Enlarge / Brian Donlevy, Henry O’Neill, Joseph Calleia, and Hume Cronyn prepare to test the first atomic bomb in The Beginning or the End

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images

The Beginning or the End (1947)

This docudrama might not be the best cinematic treatment of the development of the atomic bomb, but it has the distinction of being the first, released just two years after the deployment of “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” against Japan. Actress Donna Reed had the idea for the film after conferring with her high school science teacher, who worked as a chemist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Major General Leslie R. Groves Jr. (played by Brian Donlevy in the film) served as a military consultant, and President Harry Truman himself provided the title after a meeting with Reed and producer Samuel Marx. “Tell the people of this nation that for them it is the beginning or the end,” Truman purportedly said.

The filmmakers did their best to retain historically accurate details, and nine of the actors who played the crew of the Enola Gay were World War II veterans. But a scene showing the bomber maneuvering through bursting anti-aircraft shells was inaccurate, and many of the technical details of the atomic bomb were still classified at the time, so those details were highly inaccurate. The film’s references to leaflets being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to warn citizens 10 days before the attack was also fictional. Also, some of the central scientists, including Niels Bohr, refused to grant permission to be depicted in the film (a legal requirement at the time), forcing rewrites.

Hollywood censors insisted on a few cuts, and there was also political meddling. Eleanor Roosevelt objected to the casting of Lionel Barrymore because he had spoken negatively about her husband a few years before. (The actor was replaced by Godfrey Tearle). And an entirely fictional scene showing Truman agonizing over the decision to drop the bomb was added. With all that external meddling, it’s no wonder that the final film proved disappointing and smacked of state-sponsored propaganda. None other than the real Robert Oppenheimer (played by Hume Cronyn in the film) criticizing the script and characters, which he deemed “stilted, lifeless, and without purpose or insight.” (Tell us how you really feel, Oppie.)

Godzilla director Ishirō Honda wanted his monster to “possess the terrifying characteristics of an atomic bomb.”‘ src=”×426.jpg” width=”640″ height=”426″ >
Enlarge / Godzilla director Ishirō Honda wanted his monster to “possess the terrifying characteristics of an atomic bomb.”

Toho Studios

Godzilla (1954)

This is the undisputed king of monster movies. An ancient sea creature is awakened from the ocean depths by underwater tests of a hydrogen bomb, stomping local villages into oblivion and unleashing its deadly atomic breath on those who try to stop it. While the monster is ultimately defeated, Dr. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) predicts that another Godzilla could arise if mankind continues to test nuclear weapons. Audiences loved the monster so much that Godzilla was recast as a hero in many later films in the franchise.

The film was intended almost from the start to be a metaphor for the terror unleashed on the world by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—nature’s way of taking revenge on man for his destructive creation. “If Godzilla had been a dinosaur or some other animal, he would have been killed by just one cannonball,” director Ishirō Honda once said. “But if he were equal to an atomic bomb, we wouldn’t know what to do. So, I took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Godzilla.”

Pro tip: don’t confuse the original Godzilla with the 1956 American version, Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, which is the version most of us watched as kids because the original wasn’t available in North America until 2004. (That includes Steven Spielberg, who credits the film for inspiring him to make Jurassic Park.) This heavily edited version of the earlier film is shorter and includes awkward new footage of Raymond Burr acting opposite body doubles to make it seem like he had been part of the original. Most of the political themes were also cut from this version. Honda was apparently amused by the changes, given that he had been “trying to imitate American monster movies.”

Hiroshima Mon Amour, the bombing of Hiroshima is a metaphor for the wrenching end of an affair.” src=”×427.jpg” width=”640″ height=”427″ >
Enlarge / In Hiroshima Mon Amour, the bombing of Hiroshima is a metaphor for the wrenching end of an affair.

Pathé Films

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

This is the debut feature film of French director Alain Resnais and is considered a classic of French New Wave cinema. It was originally supposed to be a short documentary of the atomic bomb, but Resnais couldn’t figure out what to do with the material to set it apart from his 1956 Holocaust documentary (Night and Fog). He joked that he needed novelist Marguerite Duras to write the screenplay—and Duras helpfully obliged, snagging an Oscar nomination for her trouble.

The entire film consists of a series of conversations between a French actress identified only as “Her” (Emmanuelle Riva) and a Japanese architect, “Him” (Eiji Okada), at the end of their brief affair. The actress compares their failed relationship to the bombing of Hiroshima, something that resonates with the architect, who had served in the Imperial Japanese Army and lost his family in the Hiroshima bombing. His memories are captured via very brief flashback sequences intercut into the present scenes—one of Resnais’ experimental innovations. When it premiered at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, Hiroshima was sadly excluded from the official selection to avoid offending the US government, given its thematic focus on nuclear bombs.