Fail Safe (1964 film)

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Fail safe moviep.jpg
theatrical release poster
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Produced by Sidney Lumet
Charles H. Maguire
Max E. Youngstein
Screenplay by Walter Bernstein
Peter George
Based on Fail-Safe
1962 novel 
by Eugene Burdick
Harvey Wheeler
Starring Henry Fonda
Dan O'Herlihy
Walter Matthau
Frank Overton
Larry Hagman
Cinematography Gerald Hirschfeld
Edited by Ralph Rosenblum
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release dates
  • October 7, 1964 (1964-10-07)
Running time
112 minutes
Language English
Box office $1,800,000 (rentals)[1]

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. Larry Hagman, Fritz Weaver, Dom DeLuise and Sorrell Booke appeared in early film roles.

The film is about how Cold War tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States lead to an accidental thermonuclear first-strike. An error sends a group of US bombers (actual Convair B-58 Hustler aircraft) to bomb Moscow.

In 2000 the novel was adapted again as a televised play, starring George Clooney, Richard Dreyfuss and Noah Wyle, and broadcast live in black-and-white on CBS.


The film begins with VIPs visiting the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) at Offutt AFB in Omaha, Nebraska. During the trip, an alert is initiated by USAF's early warning radar that an unidentified flying object is making an unauthorised intrusion into American airspace. Defence protocols dictate that SAC must always keep several bomb groups airborne 24hours-a-day in the event of a nuclear attack on the USA. Following the alert, bombers are ordered to proceed to pre-identified aerial "fail-safe points" to await their final "go" orders before proceeding towards Soviet targets.

Shortly after reaching those points, the alert is canceled because the intruder is identified as an off-course civilian airliner. However a technical error sends an errant "go code" to one bomber group ordering them to attack their predetermined target: Moscow. SAC headquarters begins trying to rescind the order. But this fails because coincidentally and simultaneously a new Russian countermeasure has begun radio jamming communications between the bomber group and SAC. With his orders confirmed, Colonel Jack Grady (Edward Binns), the US bomber group's commander, starts the attack on Russia.

With pressure mounting, 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 Soviet jamming) are acknowledged. The jamming is reversed; however SAC training and protocols cause the crew to reject the counter-orders to abort and continue with their mission.

The US President, realizing the consequences of the situation, desperately seeks a resolution that will stop the Russians from launching a counter-attack that will lead to an all-out nuclear holocaust. Ultimately the President orders an American bomber towards New York City. His reasoning is that it would be destroyed by the Soviets anyway, along with many other American cities, in any reprisal strike.

After the bombers cannot be stopped from destroying Moscow, the President orders General Black (Dan O'Herlihy) — whose wife and children live in New York — to drop the same nuclear payload that struck Moscow on the city. This act, he hopes, will appease the Soviets from attacking. Prior to the mission, the President's advisors in the Pentagon discover that the First Lady is on a visit to New York City. After releasing the bombs, Black, who is flying the bomber, commits suicide.



The film was shot in black and white, in a dramatic, theater-stage-play format with claustrophobic close-ups, use of sharp shadows and ponderous silence occasionally between several characters. There was no musical underscoring nor was any music played, except as radio background during a scene at an Air Force base in Alaska. 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 "Vindicator bomber"). "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 is left freezing in reel time 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[2]


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. Strangelove director Stanley Kubrick, adapting Peter George's novel Red Alert, insisted the studio release his movie first (in January 1964).[4] Fail Safe so closely resembled Red Alert that George filed a plagiarism lawsuit. The case was settled out of court.[5]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ "Big Rental Pictures of 1964". Variety, January 6, 1965, p. 39.
  2. ^ a b "Fail-Safe (Reviews)." Retrieved: September 5, 2012.
  3. ^ Erickson, Hal. "Fail Safe (1964)." The New York Times. Retrieved: October 24, 2009.
  4. ^ Jacobson, Colin. "Review:Fail-Safe: Special Edition (1964).", 2000. Retrieved: November 21, 2010.
  5. ^ Lobrutto 1999, p. 242.


  • Dolan Edward F. Jr. Hollywood Goes to War. London: Bison Books, 1985. ISBN 0-86124-229-7.
  • Evans, Alun. Brassey's Guide to War Films. Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, 2000. ISBN 1-57488-263-5.
  • Harwick, Jack and Ed Schnepf. "A Viewer's Guide to Aviation Movies". The Making of the Great Aviation Films, General Aviation Series, Volume 2, 1989.
  • Lobrutto, Vincent. Stanley Kubrick: A Biography. New York: Da Capo Press, 1999. ISBN 978-0-306-80906-4.

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