Saturday, 20 June 2009

Films to see before you die: When The Wind Blows (1986)

Although it seems an unlikely notion today, back in the 1980s nuclear war seemed a distinct possibility, even a foregone conclusion. The Cold War had pitched the West against the Soviet Union and its allies resulting in a massive arms race and increasingly sinister sabre rattling. After the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when the World was almost thrown into a full scale nuclear conflict, the only defence was deterrence, otherwise known as MAD - Mutually Assured Destruction. Both sides had the capacity to destroy each other several times over, so any attack could be construed as suicide. However in the latter stages of the Cold War, with improving accuracy and missile technology, this deterrent was undermined by the doctrine of First Strike: attempting to destroy as much of the opposition's nuclear arsenal as possible.

This period was full of fear and paranoia, a time when the UK government issued a pamphlet entitled Protect and Survive, which demonstrated that they took the prospect of nuclear war extremely seriously. This document was to be one of the inspirations for Raymond Briggs' comic book, When The Wind Blows.

In the 1970s, Briggs had authored several comic books—Father Christmas, Fungus the Bogeyman and The Snowman—that had found success with both children and adults. During the following decade, his work took a darker, more adult tone, beginning with Gentleman Jim (1980), which followed the fortunes of Jim and Hilda Bloggs, loosely based on Briggs' parents.

Jim and Hilda returned once again for the pessimistic and satirical When The Wind Blows (1982), as the couple survive a nuclear blast—no thanks to the contradictory advice given in various government leaflets—but gradually succumb to the effects of radiation sickness. It's a sad and poignant tale set in the remote Sussex countryside, contrasting Jim's unwavering belief that the government has everything under control and the stark realities surrounding them.

The book was made into a powerful animated feature in 1986 starring Sir John Mills as Jim and Dame Peggy Ashcroft as Hilda. It was directed by Roger Corman protégé Jimmy T Murakami, who previously found fame with Humanoids from the Deep (1980), Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) and a segment in the cult animation Heavy Metal (1981).

Murakami managed to craft an animation that remained an almost panel for panel reproduction of the comic book, but introduced some innovative techniques, such as placing the 2D characters in a 3D environment that was filmed with motion control cameras. The result is probably the closest a British movie has ever come to Japanese anime.

Although the threat of a Nuclear winter has diminished, the film still manages to pack a powerful emotional punch thanks to the flawless script by Briggs and the strong characterisation by Mills and Ashcroft, who are perfect in their role as the naïve, retired couple. The movie is grim and uncompromising, but also very human, and it's impossible to feel unmoved by Jim and Hilda's slow, painful decline.

It's arguably one of the greatest British cartoons ever made, up there with Watership Down (1978) and Yellow Submarine (1968). The DVD release comes with a German-produced documentary made while When The Wind Blows was in production and offers a fascinating insight into how cartoons were made before the introduction of computers.

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