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Threads, 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, Threads 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 likelythan 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 [Assuming the use of ten ten-megaton hydrogen bombs, the minimum number the report thought needed to render the UK militarily useless in a war] "Blast and heat would be the dominant hazard, accounting for more than 9 million fatal casualties against less than 3 million fatal casualties from radiation [of a total UK population of 51 million]. [...] On the basis of an attack with ten bombs we also reckon that, in addition to casualties, a further 13 million people - many of them suffering from radiation sickness - would be pinned down in their houses or shelters for at least a week. Evacuation would increase this number. [...] It would be quite unrealistic to hope to maintain anything like normal medical standards [...] the chief difficulty would be to distinguish those who, in addition to having received burns or other injuries, had also been exposed to a lethal dose of radiation and who would therefore ultimately die, and on whom it would be wasteful to expend scarce medical resources. [...] An attack upon the largest towns with ten hydrogen bombs would totally disrupt the industrial and commercial life of the country. Direct damage would be concentrated near the points of attack but these are likely to contain about one-third of the population and about half the industry. The normal communication and transport systems would come to a stop and the inability to move food, fuel, and material would also stop ordinary social and economic processes. The whole mechanism of money transactions would be disrupted. [...] Commercial stocks of food would suffer heavy loss. These losses would further deplete available supplies. In the period immediately after the attack the widespread contamination from fall-out would make internal distribution of whatever stocks were available virtually impossible in large parts of the country. People in areas of severe fall-out would, therefore, have to depend for a week or more on the food which they had stored in their shelters and homes at the time the bombs fell. [...] These considerations suggest that those who survive the attack would have to live for a considerable period under siege conditions, and that the risk of starvation would be very real unless as substantial strategic reserve of food had been accumulated and distributed about the country in peace. It would, moreover, be essential that the Government should be in a position to take immediate and effective control over all food stocks and over their distribution. [...] The initial phase of attack would be succeeded by a critical period during which the surviving population would be struggling against disease, starvation, and the unimaginable psychological effects of nuclear bombardment. But provided what was left of the nation could get through that period and the survivors were able to devote their resources to the work of reorganising the country, they should eventually be able to produce a wide enough range of goods to meet ordinary civilian needs. The standard of living of the reduced population, althrough substantially lower than at present, would still be well above that of the greater part of the world. [...] there would be no hope of providing anything approaching peacetime standards of medical care [...] Research should be carried forward into methods of decontaminating water [even today there are no practical ones] [...] Plans should be made for the emergency distribution of limited supplies of drinking water pending the restoration of mains supplies [...] Plans should be prepared to enable the police and the courts to operate quickly and effectively under the conditions foreseen [...] In some parts of the country, particularly if several bombs fell in the same area, there might be complete chaos for a time and civil control would collapse. In such circumstances the local military commander would have to be prepared to take over from the civil authority responsibility for the maintenance of law and order and for the administration of Government. He would, if called upon, exercise his existing common-law powers to take whatever steps, however drastic, he considered necessary to restore order. [...] The ordinary machinery of the courts and prisons could not operate. Plans were made during the last war for "war zone courts" to function in areas which were involved in military operations. These plans should now be examined to see if a simple scheme could be worked out for the prompt dismissal of criminal cases." 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 dystopian world where children are undereducated savages, the ozone layer is depleted to dangerous levels, capital punishment is law 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 Though lots of Scenery Gorn despite the ample opportunities the setting presents. And yet it is one of the scariest films of the 20th century and ninety minutes of condensed Nightmare Fuel.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 technology has made sustaining a viable population extremely difficult, they still retain some technologies. 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).
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.
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.
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 mostly holds and they can givenote useless 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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
Man on Fire: Mrs. Kemp catches fire during the montage of shots after Sheffield is hit by a nuke.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.