Tag Archives: Dad Stories

Fun with Nuclear Devastation

Growing up near Washington, DC during the Cold War left an impression on me. It could be that my dad, a physicist, had explained how the U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals were large enough to reduce the world to dust and have nukes left over to shake up the dust.

Okay, that’s a bit of hyperbolae. My dad would probably qualify my sentence by pointing out that the nukes wouldn’t obliterate the entire surface of the earth… and then he’d provide the exact square footage based on what he’d read and complex calculations he’d do in his head on the fly. That’s how he rolled.

But regardless of whether the entire planet would be flattened (it wouldn’t), it was very clear that, should World War III occur, where we lived would disappear in the intense fireball caused by multiple nuclear warheads.

That was pretty heavy to contemplate in elementary school.

There was an air raid siren near where we lived which, at the time, still went through the same monthly tests it probably had done since the Eisenhower administration. Of course, we grade schoolers did not know the finer points of such test schedules. Invariably the siren would roar to life while we were walking home from school and you felt the need to run for cover even though you were probably doomed.

So it probably comes at no surprise I caught many of the nuclear apocalypse-themed films and TV specials from Dr. Strangelove to The Day After to Threads to World War III. And yes, I made a point to see the TV version of Fail Safe live.

Sadly, even though it’s over 25 years since the end of the Cold War, the Doomsday Clock remains very close to midnight. I suppose you could accuse the Atomic Scientists of being dour, but they do more than just watch movies. They’ve put a lot of time and thought into this. And speaking of time and thought, I stumbled across a site created by Alex Wellerstein, a historian of science and technology.

Simply called “NUKEMAP,” it’s a devilishly comprehensive simulator of what would happen when any of a variety of existing nuclear weapons might hit  wherever you’d like Google Maps to specify. You can even project the radioactive fallout based on wind direction. It’s no hyperbolae to say that, had this site existed when I was a kid, I would have spent an afternoon or three going through all the scenarios I could think of… after confirming our family home would be reduced to dust in a full Soviet attack.

Because, if you’re going to contemplate the horrific destructive capacity of nuclear weapons, you might as well have a little fun. General Turgidson would.

You know he would.

A Monster for Every Taste!

As many of my fellow filmmakers know, I’m not overfond of most horror films (apologies to Lonnie and my other filmmaking colleagues who love ’em). At the same time, I do love “creature features.” This is probably due to two reasons.

First, like many kids of my generation, I enjoyed the steady stream of good, bad, and less-than-spectacular kaiju films played endlessly on TV on Saturday afternoons. In our case, it was good ol’ WDCA, Channel 20 that educated us as to Godzilla and his many foes.

Second, my dad loved sharing all sorts of 50s monster movies he grew up with, including Ray Harryhausen classics such as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and other seminal giant monster movies like Them!

And while I will happily check out just about any creature feature (hello, Mongolian Death Worm), it’s clear not all creature features are created equal.

In fact, I have to give my hat off to my dad for pointing out a critical difference most great creature features have over their unremarkable cousins: they make fighting the creature as interesting as discovering the creature — if not more so.

In the “meh” creature features, an undue importance is placed on the discovery of the creature. Characters can spend up to half the movie blundering about the ship, house, ancient temple, or whatever the setting is. Meanwhile, the viewer patiently waits for a solid reveal of the creature. For these underwhelming creature features, the main card up their sleeve is the monster itself. They know it… and so they stall playing that card as long as possible. After that, the only thing they can do to raise the stakes is have more gore, more peril, or possibly more monsters (which usually lead to more gore and more peril). The resulting stories seem invariably random and do not provide the characters little, if any, agency. (This is different from Godzilla or other kaiju moshing on plastic tanks, which is an esteemed tradition).

Contrast that approach to some of the great creature features I just mentioned.

In The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, they

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In Them!, there’s a series of hints leading up to the fact

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In both these cases and others, it’s not only the discovery of the monster, but how to defeat the monster that’s interesting. Not only that, the humans’ efforts to defeat the monster have setbacks. People have incomplete knowledge and incomplete skills, just like in real life. We’re invested in how the characters can possibly win, not simply along for a monster mash ride. (And hint: it’s more exciting if the humans seem to be using what little knowledge they have rather than being complete idiots: I’m looking at you, DeepStar Six).

Now I know my dad isn’t the only one who’s come to this realization. Odds are, many a filmmaker has come to the same conclusion. And some of them have probably made some interesting creature features, dozens of which I have not yet seen.

So, it was with great delight that I discovered that Wikipedia, the modern analog to the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook, has an entire page exhaustively listing just about every creature feature ever made.

Now, technically, they’re defining these as “natural horror” films, but let’s be real: many of these creatures are pure fantasy with just the thinnest veneer of science. For example, the list includes both the presumably possible danger of the great white shark in Jaws along with the ridiculous titular monster of Dinoshark.

In some ways, that makes me love them more.

So dig in, fellow cinemaniacs. Whether you want to see a film with deadly tree monsters, killer sheep, or simply a shark loose in a supermarket, I guarantee you’ll find something.

Feel free to share your favorites in the comments.

Real Vikings Don’t Wear Horns

Being proud of our Norwegian heritage and an above-average amateur historian, our dad made sure we knew from an early age that real Vikings didn’t wear horned helmets.

But why do so many people think so? An article in Vox gets to the root cause. Dang costume designers.

Growing up, we didn’t have a wealth of Viking drama, so it was inevitable that the family would seek out what they could. That inevitably led to that 1958 saga, The Vikings, directed by Richard Fleischer… before 1985’s Red Sonja was a gleam in his eye.

Thrill to its 50s Epic Majesty!

Thrill to its 50s Epic Majesty!

Let’s face it, it’s a Hollywood epic from a certain era when the historical accuracy was inconsistent. On the one hand, get a load of them longships! On the other hand, Tony Curtis.

Sorry Tony, we like you better in "Some Like it Hot"

Sorry Tony, we like you better in “Some Like it Hot”

Indeed, the care and attention paid to the longships made for this film was so meticulous, that the longships went on to star in another picture. Okay, the company was probably just trying to amortize their costs, but they’re still wondrous.

My dad always said these were the real stars of the picture.

My dad always said these were the real stars of the picture. Well, both pictures really.

Both films served to be launching points for many conversations with my dad about historical Vikings, who did much more than simply raid ill-prepared monasteries. We talked of the Danelaw, the Normans, and, Leif Erikson: far more popular in our house than that Columbus guy.

Now, of course, we can seriously scratch that Viking itch with the Vikings TV series. It’s incredibly entertaining, as Michael Hirst’s work tends to be, despite some niggling historical inaccuracies. I am sad my dad is no longer with us to see the show, because although he would surely be the one noting those inaccuracies, there’d be a lot in the show for him to enjoy.

For one thing, these Vikings don’t have time for horned helmets.

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