“Threads” Will Melt Your Head

I recently watched one of the most frightening, thought-provoking films I’ve ever seen.

It is called “Threads,” and it’s a 1984 BBC teleplay depicting the after-effects of a massive worldwide nuclear conflict.

The Cold War setting of this film may be a bit dated, and the British lingo may be a bit confusing for the American audience…but neither of these factors detracts from the horror and mind-blowing realism that this film will blast upside your dome.

Pretty much what this film comes down to is that if countries start nuking each other, we are all completely screwed. It doesn’t flinch at showing the effects of megaton blasts, radiation poisoning, and the dark side of human nature as society breaks down. It does not have an ending laden with hope for a brighter future.

The comments on Youtube, where this film has been posted for easy viewing, are filled with British folks talking about how they saw this film as children and were scarred for life.

I warn you, don’t watch this movie if you are a little bitch…you may never recover from the fright.

“Threads” initially focuses on two young lovers, Jimmy and Ruth, who have no idea that their world is about to be ripped apart by geopolitical brinksmanship.

An interesting element of the film is its depiction of civil society’s attempt to manage a post-nuclear crisis event, and the ultimate futility of that enterprise.

As West and East move slowly towards all-out war, some people are closely following the situation, while others just ignore it. Voices of protest are drowned out by patriotic chest-beating. Many people don’t really want to think about what a nuclear war will entail.

The Americans and the Russians begin open combat, and people begin to freak out. Trade unionists are jailed along with other “subversives.” The country braces for nuclear war.

As disaster looms, you may find yourself rooting for the attack to happen: “Let’s DO THIS already!” That’s how I felt, anyway. Trust me, you will regret this emotion soon enough.

(The moment in the previous segment where a woman pees her pants in terror is actually how I came to discover “Threads.” It was recently the subject of a post on The Awl that mentions “the saddest IMDB page in existence.”)

Just in case you thought the worst was over once the nearby RAF base was nuked, the Commies decide to hit Sheffield directly, as 3000 megatons explode worldwide. Bad times.

A Youtube commenter notes that at this point, “Threads” is setting a new standard for disturbing cinema: “This is scary, makes Alien 3 and The Terminator look like Spongebob Squarepants.”

A week after the attack, things have only gotten more effed up. The scene in the hospital in the following clip might be the most brutal part of this entire film.

At this point, all hell has broken loose. Looters raid homes and kill anyone they find. Police summarily execute prisoners. The only valuable goods left are food supplies and the ability to labor. If you can work, you might survive.

This is where it gets incredibly shitty and unfair. Even if your region of the Northern Hemisphere didn’t get nuke or get nuked, you’re still completely screwed because nuclear winter sets in. You’ve heard of “natural childbirth,” but this is as real as shit gets.

The characters we met before the war are almost completely wiped out within a decade after the attack. Language and culture erode to the vanishing point as memories of a time before armageddon are erased.

(I’m pretty sure this segment contains an subtle hint at the mysterious fate of one of the main characters. Listen for a music cue towards the end.)

Ready for a horrifying ending? Here you go.

There’s not a lot to say after watching that, but if you’re like me and enjoy incredibly dark, apocalyptic visions, here’s a high-quality review from DVD Outsider that gives props to the people who created this film. I have excerpted the review here as best I could, there’s so much great info that I didn’t want to cut too much out. Read and be schooled:

Threads takes a very sobering and sometimes harrowing look at the effects of a nuclear war on the people of Sheffield. Though open from the start about its status as drama, it nonetheless utilises many of the codes and conventions of the documentary genre to ground the action in a very persuasive reality. Memorable incidents from Watkins’ film are recreated here – the enforced post-war billeting of homeless survivors with uncooperative house owners, the shooting of looters, the shell-shocked faces of the injured and traumatised, even the extracts from the government’s Protect and Survive information film – but this is hardly surprising given that they were working from largely the same source material and with the same purpose in mind…

The intricate and informed script was by Barry Hines, who writes almost exclusively from a working-class perspective, and this is carried over into the structure and characters of Threads. Those who start the war, who launch the missiles, who attempt to organise what remains in the aftermath are never shown, as Hines concentrates exclusively on the effect events have on ordinary people. The only officials shown are those of the local emergency committee, themselves common folk who quickly discover that they are out of their depth.

This is very effectively illustrated in the build-up, with information of the impending conflict caught in brief glimpses of newspaper headlines and radio and TV broadcasts as a kitchen-sink family drama plays out in the foreground, inevitably recalling Hines’ work with Ken Loach, emphasised by the use of actor Phil Askham, so memorable in The Gamekeeper and Looks and Smiles, in a support role. Like The War Game, Threads also delivers a string of sobering facts and figures through on-screen graphics and voice-over, its ace-in-the-hole here being narrator Paul Vaughan, whose voice was at the time of broadcast familiar to the viewing public through his extensive work on the BBC’s prestigious scientific documentary series Horizon.

Where Threads and The War Game walk hand-in-hand is in their sheer power as persuasive film-making. If Hines provides the structural foundations, then they are built on to extraordinary effect by director Mick Jackson, a man who has since been swallowed up by Hollywood, but who was once one of British TV’s most crucial talents, directing the breezily seductive A Very British Coup in 1988, and what we here at Outsider regard as the very greatest TV movie of all time, Life Story, in 1987. Never wasting a shot, Jackson’s potent but economical use of imagery and sometimes razor-sharp editing (courtesy of Jim Latham and Donna Bickerstaff) communicating the very real horror of the events as much through suggestion as direct exposure.

Individual images linger long after the film has ended – the nuclear explosion seen from the streets of Sheffield, the woman who wets herself in the street in terror, the screaming panic that is cut off halfway by a second blast, the body of a loved one left upstairs to rot, the shell-shocked girl staring directly at the camera cuddling a teddy bear in place of the baby she has presumably lost, the stark gloom of the nuclear winter that follows.

The final third is as dark as any television I can remember, as the population is reduced to medieval numbers and the absolute basics of existence, even language itself mutating into a localised but limited collection of short, monosyllabic survival phrases. A brief flicker of hope towards the end soon fades, grimly upturned in a chillingly suggestive finale that cuts to black just before a scream of horror not just for personal loss, but for the very future of mankind, if indeed it has one. You are left stunned, as you should be, and if the years have distanced us a little from a time when the events described here seemed frighteningly possible, the film contains, tucked away in those half-caught broadcasts in the first half, an all-too pertinent warning. Here the flashpoint for nuclear annihilation is not the Cold War favourite of Berlin, but Iran, the very country that American and British politicians are at this moment issuing guarded warnings to regarding their nuclear programme. The Berlin wall may have fallen, but in too many other respects the world is still too ready for war.

This is why people who play politics in opposition to global nuclear disarmament piss me off…

We should thank our lucky stars that our world isn’t as close to nuclear apocalypse as it used to be, but we are still FAR too close to making “Threads” a reality.

About Alpine McGregor
Just like you, man. I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase. All in the game, though, right?

7 Responses to “Threads” Will Melt Your Head

  1. Rod says:

    Peter Watkins’ “The War Game” is a must-see film on this very topic.

  2. Great call, Rod. The censorship of “The War Game” is a fascinating story in and of itself.


  3. Deaphyenamnet says:

    Boston, MA – Boston Red Sox initial baseman Kevin Youkilis inclination misinterpret the rest of the 2010 ready with a torn abductor muscle in his ethical thumb.

    He will be subjected to surgery at the Cleveland Clinic on Friday to repair the rare injury. His thumb will be immobilized in the service of the next six weeks.

    Youkilis was injured in the split second inning of Monday’s game against the Indians after hitting a Fausto Carmona pitch. He stayed in the game initially, but was pulled in the third.

    He finishes the 2010 edible with a .307 batting undistinguished, 19 homers and 62 RBI to go with a .411 on-base portion in 102 games.

  4. NoVa says:

    I watched the whole thing through. Honestly, out of everything the death, destruction, and mayhem that was involved in the film the one thing that got me irritated was Jimmy cheating on Ruth (farkin’ slimeball). As soon as the fireball visible from space hit that town I was hoping for his death then later got mad a Ruth for whining over losing such a farkin’ looser as Jimmy. Then for the whole rest of the film I felt sorry for her poor kid having to put up with her moping mother. I think somewhere I lost the whole meaning of this film……hmmmmmmm maybe I do have ADHD.

    All in all though for a film being this old it is a pretty good one. I was only four years old or maybe three 1/2 when it came out so I know even if it did get played in the states I wouldn’t of seen it. Although I did get to see Firestarter a couple of times (loved it) sometimes wished I could of been her…..(wonder what that says about me LOL)

  5. An American film called The Day After from 1983 is the exact same movie, nearly. We had to watch it when it was broadcast back when I was in high school; I remember the halls were so quiet the next day, everyone was affected.
    You can watch it here:

  6. Scotty says:

    Is that disfigured guy sat in a cubicle in the clinic at the end scene Jimmy Kemp? The camera focuses on him a couple of times. The irony being if it is Jimmy Kemp then he does not realise that’s his daughter in the next cubicle.

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