Fail Safe (1964 film)

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Fail safe moviep.jpg
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
Columbia Pictures
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.

Fail Safe describes 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 unauthorized intrusion into American airspace. Defense protocols dictate that the SAC must always keep several bomber groups airborne 24 hours a day in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States. Following the alert, bombers are ordered to proceed to predetermined aerial "fail-safe points" to await their final "go" orders before proceeding towards Soviet targets.

Shortly after they reach those points, the alert is canceled. 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. It fails because a new Soviet countermeasure has begun radio jamming communications between the bomber group and SAC. With his orders apparently confirmed, Colonel Jack Grady (Edward Binns), the US bomber group's commander, commands the group to continue to their target.

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 in which mistakes on both sides (the American accidental launch of the mission and the Soviet jamming) are acknowledged. The jamming ceases, but the crew follows their SAC training and protocols and dismisses the counterorders as a Soviet ruse.

The US President struggles to find a resolution that will stop the Soviet Union from launching a counterattack; if he fails, an all-out nuclear holocaust will be unavoidable. He offers to sacrifice an American target to appease the Soviets, and he orders an American bomber towards New York City. The President's advisers in the Pentagon discover that the First Lady is visiting New York City.

The rogue bombers devastate Moscow. The President orders General Black (Dan O'Herlihy), whose wife and children live in New York, to drop the same nuclear payload on that city. After releasing the bombs, Black, who is flying the bomber, commits suicide.



The film was shot in black and white, in a dramatic, theatrical style with claustrophobic close-ups, sharp shadows and ponderous silences between several characters. There was no musical underscoring or 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 ending with a freeze-frame shot at the moment of impact.

The Soviets are not depicted in the film. The progress of the attack is followed on giant, electronic maps in the Pentagon War Room 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 an advisor to the Department of Defense, Prof. Groeteschele (Walter Matthau), an old college friend of the President, 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 US aircraft, the Convair B-58 Hustler. 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 because the United States Air Force declined to cooperate with the film's producers, fearful of negative publicity from a premise that implied a lack of control over 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. A nightmare quality is imparted to many of the flying sequences by depicting the planes in photographic negative.

The film was the second movie role for actor Dom DeLuise. He plays Sgt. Collins, who accidentally triggers the false "go" signal by replacing a failed electronic component in the SAC control computer. Later in the film, Bogan orders Collins to tell the Soviets how to destroy the nuclear-tipped air-to-air missiles on the American aircraft when Cascio and his 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. Still, 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 one fallacy: 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 to 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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