Fail-Safe is a 1964 Cold war thriller film directed by Sidney Lumet, based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. It portrays a fictional account of a Cold War nuclear crisis. The film features performances by veteran actors Henry Fonda, Dan O'Herlihy, Walter Matthau and Frank Overton. Early film appearances include Fritz Weaver, Dom DeLuise, and Larry Hagman as the President's interpreter.
During the early 1960s, Cold War tensions existing between the Soviet Union and the United States are heightened. An accidental thermonuclear first-strike attack by a group of United States Vindicator bombers (Convair B-58 Hustler aircraft) is launched in a mission against Moscow, the capital of what was then the Soviet Union.
Amidst an ordinary tour for VIPs at the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) at Offutt AFB in Omaha, Nebraska, an alert is initiated when SAC radarindicates an intrusion into American airspace of an unidentified flying object. The standard procedure of SAC is to keep several groups of bombers constantly flying around the clock as an immediate response to any potential nuclear attack on the country. Upon an initial alert from headquarters, these airborne groups proceed to pre-identified aerial points around the globe called "fail-safe points" to await an actual "go code" before proceeding towards Russian targets.
Shortly after reaching those points, the flying object is identified as an off-course airliner and the alert is canceled. However, a technical error sends an errant "go code" to one group of bombers, ordering them to proceed and attack their target. Coincidentally and simultaneously, a new Russian jamming device begins radio jammingcommunications between SAC headquarters and the bomber group with the result that the group commander, Colonel Jack Grady (Edward Binns), begins to lead the attack on Moscow.
Pressure mounts as the President of the United States (Henry Fonda) and his advisers attempt to recall the group or shoot them down. Communications are begun with the Soviet Chairman, whereupon mistakes on both sides (the American accidental launch of the mission and the coincidental Russian jamming) are acknowledged. The jamming is reversed; however, SAC training and protocols cause the crew to reject counter-orders to abort the mission.
Before completion of the accidental attack on Moscow, the President realizes the severity of the situation and seeks a resolution to the matter that will avoid reprisal from the Russians and, ultimately, an all-out nuclear holocaust. With this threat in mind, the President orders an American bomber toward New York City - which otherwise would be destroyed by the Soviets, along with many other American cities, in any counter-attack. Upon failure to stop the destruction of Moscow, the President orders General Black (Dan O'Herlihy), who is flying the bomber, to drop the same nuclear payload which struck Moscow in the hope that it will appease the Soviets. After releasing the bombs, Black commits suicide shortly before they explode and the film ends.
The film was shot in black and white, in a dramatic, theater-stage-play format with claustrophobic close-ups and ponderous silence occasionally between several characters. There were no musical underscoring nor were there any music played in any scenes. With few exceptions, the action takes place largely in the White House underground bunker, the Pentagon war conference room, the SAC war room, and a single bomber cockpit (a B-58 "Hustler"). "Real" world life is seen only after the title opening credits and in the final scene depicting an ordinary New York City day, its residents entirely unsuspecting of their imminent destruction, each scene freezing at the moment of impact. No mushroom clouds appear in the film.
The Soviets are never seen in the film. The progress of the attack is followed almost exclusively on giant, electronic maps overlooking the War Room in the Pentagon and SAC Headquarters. Conversations with the Soviet Premier (Russian language occasionally heard in the background on the "Hot-Line") are translated by an American interpreter (Larry Hagman). Suspense builds through dialog between the President and other officials, significantly including the character representing the advisor to the Department of Defense, Prof. Groeteschele (Walter Matthau), an old college friend, General Black (Dan O'Herlihy), and SAC commander General Bogan (Frank Overton).
The "Vindicator" bombers (an invention of the novelists) are represented in the film by sometimes stock footage of a real U.S. aircraft, the Convair B-58 Hustler, shown in negative. Fighters sent to attack the bombers are illustrated by film clips of the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, Convair F-102 Delta Dagger and McDonnell F-101 Voodoo. Stock footage was used inasmuch as the United States Air Force declined to cooperate with the film's producers fearful of possible negative publicity from a fictional plot predicated on an inability to positively control its nuclear strike forces. The scene depicting Grady's Group Six bombers taking off under afterburner power was stock footage of a single B-58 takeoff edited to look like several bombers taking off in succession.
The film was the second movie role for actor Dom DeLuise. He plays the unfortunate Sgt Collins, who triggers the false go signal by replacing a failed electronic module in the master "fault indicator", a control computer for the entire SAC complex. Later in the film, a reluctant and frightened Collins is forced to give the Soviets information on how to destroy the nuclear tipped air-to-air missiles on the American aircraft by Bogan after Cascio and his immediate subordinate refuse to do so.
When Fail-Safe opened, it garnered excellent reviews, but its box-office performance was poor. Its failure rested with the similarity between it and the mutually assured destruction satire Dr. Strangelove, which appeared in theaters first. Despite this, the film later was applauded as a Cold War thriller. The novel sold through to the 1980s and 1990s, and the film was given high marks for retaining the essence of the novel.Over the years, both the novel and the movie were well-received for their depiction of a nuclear crisis, although garnering a legion of critical reviews that centered on the one fallacy, in that the "fail safe" command sequence was misinterpreted.
Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove were both produced by Columbia Pictures in the period after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when people became much more sensitive to the threat of nuclear war. Director Stanley Kubrick, adapting Peter George's novel Red Alert, insisted the studio release his movie first (in January 1964). "Fail-Safe" so closely resembled Red Alert that George filed a plagiarism lawsuit. The case was settled out of court.