A woman, who has just survived a nuclear bomb, holding her child, who hasn't
— Barry Hines, screenwriterThreads
, a 1984 docudrama produced by The BBC
, is the United Kingdom's answer to America's The Day After
(which came a year earlier). Britain has quite the history of post-apocalyptic fiction on its DVD and book shelves, and Threads
is amongst the most disturbing examples.
The film depicts the terrifying consequences of nuclear warfare
upon an unsuspecting world. Set mainly in Sheffield
during the height of the Cold War
follows two families, the Becketts and the Kemps, amongst the other members of their town, as they deal with the absolute destruction of their society as a result of nuclear war with the Soviet Union (which at the time of release was somewhat more likely than it is today
). The findings of the 1955 Strath Report
noted that the UK was singularly vulnerable to a nuclear exchange due to the country's small size, high urban population, and dependency upon food-importsnote
The film reflects this fairly accurate assessment of the UK's likely situation with what the uninformed might call a hopeless and pessimistic outset - ending with a medieval world where agriculture predominates, starvation is ever-present, modern medicine doesn't exist, martial law prevails, capital punishment is routine, children are undereducated savages, the ozone layer is gone, and Survival Of The Fittest is the only way to get by.
To any would-be viewers: if you're looking for a story with a happy or hopeful ending this movie is not
the way to go, and a strong stomach is pretty much mandatory. There are no jump scares
, the Body Horror
is tame by the standards of modern SFX, and there is little Gornnote
despite the ample opportunities the setting presents. Yet its strict adherence to a realistic portrayal of nuclear war and its after-effects makes it one of the scariest films ever made
See also Sometime Never: A Fable for Supermen
, When the Wind Blows
, and The Road
Provides Examples Of:
- Angry Guard Dog: Ruth has to get past one guarding a barn so she can have her baby under shelter.
- Anyone Can Die: Played straight; most do. Though it's not always clear who dies, which probably is intentional. Jimmy's sister Allison may be the young blonde woman glimpsed at an internment camp for looting suspects several weeks later. Jimmy himself may be seen near the end of the movie with a scarred face. We just don't know.
- Apocalypse How: The movie ends somewhere between Planetary Societal Disruption and Societal Collapse (though the film mainly concentrates on its effects on Great Britain). Although the human population of the UK is reduced to medieval levels and the nuclear winter, fallout, and loss of modern infrastructure and industry has made sustaining a viable population extremely difficult, they are able to maintain a handful of more primitive tools and devices. A montage of photos suggests that after about ten years post-war Britain is capable of generating some electricity, and is able to manufacture and maintain steam-era technology. It's hinted that conditions may worsen into a Class 4 (Total Exctinction), due to the effects of nuclear winter.
- Threads was in production at the time Carl Sagan, one of the film's advisors, published The Cold and The Dark: The World After Nuclear War (expanding on his pamphlet The Nuclear Winter from 1983)—because of that, Threads takes nuclear winter into account, while The Day After (which was in production when these studies were either not conducted or not publicly available) doesn't. The Day After also only covers at most a few weeks after the war, whereas Threads covers 12-13 years (allowing for the effects of nuclear winter—and its aftermath—to be explored in more detail).
- Auto Erotica:
- A backseat makeout session with Jimmy and a girl he's picked up at the pub is suddenly interrupted by the movement of tanks past their car.
- Jimmy's and Ruth's baby apparently was conceived in a car.
- Away In A Manger: Ruth gives birth in a stable on Christmas Day, unable to reach the farmhouse because there was a guard dog in the way.
- Blooper: Despite having been born after the attacks and having spent her whole life in the primitive postwar "society," Ruth's daughter Jane has a tooth filling and pierced ears for ladies earrings. It's nice to know that, even in a post-nuclear apocolypse world, no girl or woman goes out without some sort of jewelry adorning them.
- Book Ends: Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" plays near the beginning and near the end of the film.
- Break Out the Museum Piece: An antique steam traction engine is seen being used for farming.
- Bring My Brown Pants: When the first mushroom cloud rises, a woman wets herself.
- British Accents: Sheffield specifically.
- Bystander Syndrome: Most Britons response to the potential of attack. One character openly says there's nothing they can do about it. An obviously angry protest not far from the Kemps' couple's house is brushed off as "the pubs letting out". They know that's not the case, but...
- Cold War: The film was set and released during the height of the Cold War. It's deliberately left unclear as to who launched the first attack (although narration stating that the Soviets make their attack "when it's around 2AM in Washington, when the President is asleep and Western response will be slowest" implies the Soviets may have launched first). Television announcements in the background state that the Soviets invaded Iran, and that this led to some sort of escalation from each side using tactical nuclear weapons on bases in the Middle-East to eventually a full-scale strategic nuclear exchange.
- Crapsack World: And how. Basically, from the moment the bomb drops, nothing good happens.
- Cute Kitten: ...except that the kitty in question is shown writhing in agony as it suffocates/burns to death in the massive firestorm following the first bomb detonation.note
- Cycle of Revenge: The escalation scenario that leads to Armageddon in the first place. After a coup in Iran, the Soviet Union invades to gain a toehold in the Middle East. The Americans send in paratroopers and set a deadline for withdrawal, and when the Soviets don't back down they send bombers after their main staging base in Iran. The Soviets destroy most of the aircraft with a nuclear-tipped air defense missile. The Americans then destroy the base with a single battlefield nuke. In return the Soviets nuke the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk, the Americans blockade Cuba, and after that it gets kind of hazy...
- Dead Hand Shot: Numerous bodies sticking out of rubble, many burned beyond recognition.
- Death by Irony: Ruth's parents are in an excellent position to survive the war. They take shelter in the basement of their sturdily built house, which is fairly far from the epicenter of the nearest blast, and they have ample provisions. But then a group of looters break into their house and murder them.
- Death Trap: As soon as things start looking hairy, the Sheffield emergency council meets in the converted basement of the town hall. It's stocked with food, water, comm equipment and an emergency generator - pity that A-bomb had to knock down the entire building on top of the exit. The ceilingnote holds and they can givenote orders via phone and radio, but they're trapped with limited food, water and air. Four weeks later, a squad of soldiers finally dig their way to the bodies.
- Depopulation Bomb: People born after the attack are often mutated. People born before the attack don't last long in general.
- Death from Above: The modus operandi of ICBMs.
- Disaster Scavengers: Just about everyone, naturally.
- Do Not Do This Cool Thing: Averted very soundly.
- Doomed Protagonist: Let's just say, try not to get too attached to anyone.
- Downer Ending: At any given point after the attack, it's hard to imagine that things could get much worse. Until they do. So, just as humanity seems to have limped along into an early industrial age era, narrowly avoiding the complete annihilation of the species, we are given a glimpse of the second generation of post-war babies, which decidedly quells any lingering hope viewers may have been desperately clinging to.
- Dumb Struck: Most of the country, and presumably the rest of the world, too. The traumatized survivors of the attacks in the aftermath of the Nuclear Winter are hardly ever seen to talk.
- Jimmy Kemp's coworker, Bob, exemplifies this during the nuclear exchange. When he first sees the mushroom cloud over RAF Finningley, all he can do is bite his thumb in shock.
Bob: Jesus Christ, they've done it! ... ... They've done it ... !
- Both Bob and Ruth exemplify this trait when they run into each other a few weeks after the attack. They share a meal - a rotting dead sheep - but say little, and soon go their separate ways.
- Dystopia: The world after doomsday. Clearly, somebody is trying to enforce some semblance of order but due to the extreme nature of life on the planet, it proves difficult to do so without crossing over numerous moral boundaries, and most people are too concerned with their own safety to worry about the rest of the world anyway.
- Easy Logistics: Averted. The attempts by the emergency council to do... well, anything at all after the attacks happen are utterly inept. They have no communications (an EMP blast from a nuke detonated over the North Sea wipes out most of their comms before the attacks even start properly, and nobody is in a situation to receive messages when there's no electricity), and attempting to move food and supplies to vital areas when all transport infrastructure has been entirely demolished and fuel supplies are diminished within days is portrayed as about as impossible as it would be.
- The Eighties: Very much a reflection of the early 1980s fear of nuclear war.
- Emergency Broadcast: The constant runnings of "Protect And Survive" are somewhat like this.
- Empathy Doll Shot: Michael's handheld video game. However, Michael's body is shown earlier in a Dead Hand Shot.
- Everybody's Dead, Dave: Not even remotely funny in its execution. In fact, those who were killed instantly during the first nuclear attack got lucky.
- Everybody Smokes: Justified, as this was The Eighties and in the middle of one of the most stressful situations possible. That said, everyone in the underground shelter smoking likely led to an even faster loss of breathable air...
- Faceless Goons: Justified as soldiers are wearing gas masks against airbourne radioactive particles and diseases. A policeman at the detention centre has a burn mask covering his face.
- Fate Worse Than Death: So, you survived the initial bombing? Too bad for you.
- From Bad to Worse: Go to YouTube and you'll probably find the movie in sections. Look down the related features stills on the right side of the screen, section by section. Hint: the images do not get cheerier as you go.
- Get Rich Quick Scheme: Retailers treat the whole situation before the bombs fall as one, vastly inflating prices for basic goods that the government has told people to buy, implying this will help them survive. The bombs then do fall, leaving them with money they can't use.
- Hope Spot: One used at the very end of the film. In a hospital, we see a child being born... except there's no actual crying or any signs of life. The very last thing we see is the mother gasping in horror at what's been born, suggesting humanity may never recover properly.
- Hypocritical Humor: Soldiers arrest some men for looting food, then gripe over the flavour of crisps they've stolen, clearly intending to eat it themselves.
- Ignored Vital News Reports: In the opening scene Jimmy skips past a report of the Soviet invasion of Iran while trying to find a football match on the car radio.
- Incurable Cough of Death: Sort of. A family member trading cigarettes for alcohol in the aftermath of the bombing shows the first signs of the radiation sickness that will soon kill him.
- Just Before the End: Post-nuclear Earth doesn't have a whole lot going for it.
- Man on Fire: Mrs. Kemp catches fire during the montage of shots after Sheffield is hit by a nuke.
- Nightmare Fuel: After "ATTACK WARNING RED", the rest of the film is this.
- Not-So-Omniscient Council of Bickering: The Sheffield emergency council falls to this after the bombs drop. They spend more time shouting and yelling at each other than they do trying to pick up the pieces.
- Oh, Crap:
- "Attack Warning Red. Attack Warning Red." Cue one of the councillors: "It's for bloody real!"
- As the first mushroom cloud rises, the whole country goes into outright panic, and one woman in particular is overcome with fear to the point of wetting herself.
- During production, a smoke bomb was used to simulate the mushroom, actually (But accidentally) causing panic in the area near the set.
- Please Wake Up: Jane's limited vocabulary means she can only say, "Ruth...work...work...up" when trying to rouse her dead mother.
- Potty Failure: This happens in a memorable shot, as noted above.
- Public Service Announcement: The film was made disturbingly realistic by using genuine public information films. During the 1970s, these films would have been publicly disseminated in anticipation of national emergency, concerning what measures to take in the event of nuclear war. Threads demonstrated in horrific detail how fatally ineffective they'd be.
- Rapid Aging: Ruth in her 30s looks like an old woman due to the ravages of radiation and UV light.
- Reduced to Ratburgers: In one of the post-nuclear war scenes, juxtaposed against a Standard Life insurance company ad for Irony. To make matters worse, Ruth apparently traded sexual favors for a few dead rats.
- Scenery Gorn: Much of the harrowing atmosphere of the film comes from the devastated urban landscapes and barren, frozen countryside.
- Screaming Birth: Subverted horrifically at the end with Jane's stillborn, mutated child.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: The last scene is the birth of a severely deformed, stillborn infant, and Jane's look of horror when she realizes it. That is humanity's future in Britain, and probably the world as well.
- Shown Their Work: Thanks to the army of scientific advisers (including Carl Sagan) listed in the end credits. The only really dodgy bit of science is the implied permanent destruction of the ozone layer as a result of the nuclear exchange (it should regenerate itself over time in the absence of pollutants), but even this is something that scientists aren't 100% sure on.
- Spiritual Successor : To the very similar 1965 Docu Drama The War Game — though that movie wasn't shown on TV until a year after Threads because the BBC refused to broadcast it back when it was made.
- Spot of Tea: Mugs of tea proliferate in the council bunker; entirely justified given that this is Britain and the characters are under great stress.
- Storyboarding the Apocalypse: The world's narrated degeneration into chaos. Also the teletype-style printed reports. "80 megatons fall on UK."
- Teens Are Monsters: Well, this is a British production after all; without the comforting kosh of civilisation, the kids become little more than animals, barely capable of speech.
- This Is Not a Drill: The nuclear attack warning sirens sounding over the United Kingdom. The phrase itself comes from a boy rushing to tell his mother that they need to go home right freaking now. A similar one happens when the Sheffield emergency council hears an alarm from the HANDEL Warning Console.
HANDEL Warning Console: Attack warning RED! Attack warning RED!
Food Officer (Roger Fisher): Is it for real?
Accommodation Officer: Attack warning's for bloody real!
Clive Sutton: Right, get to your stations!
- Trans Atlantic Equivalent: The Day After.
- Twenty Minutes into the Future: Intended for the 1980s, this particular scenario seemed very likely right up until the ending of the Cold War. This article by Colonel Sam Gardiner details how escalation and counter-escalation similar to what happened in Threads could result in an India-Pakistan nuclear war. Fortunately, after the crisis in 2002 both sides seem to respect the gravity of the situation a bit more.
- You No Take Candle:
- The speech we hear from the post-war children is broken and uneducated; very little effort is spent on trying to educate the new generations. (A few children are seen watching dodgy recordings of Words and Pictures educational videos, and others are getting some sort of vocational training in clothing repair, but that's about as far as it seems to go). This is a doubly tragic occurrence, as the lack of education for future generations suggests that Earth will never be able to recover on any level. Considering these kids have almost certainly suffered brain damage from early childhood malnutrition, the picture becomes even bleaker. Not to mention all of the kids who likely suffered brain damage because of radiation doses received in utero.
- The English we do hear consists of two boys asking Ruth's daughter for food by saying "Gi's it" over and over again, as well as Ruth's daughter crying out "Babby, coming!" as she goes into labour. The only grammatical English we see anyone trying to speak is a very aged-looking woman reciting the lines from Words and Pictures off by heart.