The 1986 animated film When The Wind Blows is a brilliant anti-nuclear movie adapted from the book of the same name by Raymond Briggs. The script is written by Briggs himself and is directed by Jimmy T. Murakami, a Japanese American animator whose relatives died in Hiroshima.
The story focuses on Jim and Hilda Bloggs (voiced by John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft) an elderly retired couple living in an isolated country cottage in Sussex. As the pair get on with their day-to-day lives, tensions rise between the NATO countries and Russia, and as the news warns of an impending nuclear strike, the Bloggs obey to the letter, the real-life 1970s and 1980s public information films and leaflets. In doing so, the movie highlights the idiocy of the government’s recommendations.
When The Wind Blows sports a great mixed-media aesthetic; there’s real 3D sets alongside 2D animated characters (there’s a wonderful dolly shot through the hallway with the animated, two-dimensional Jim walking toward the kitchen and removing his three-dimensional coat during the opening). There’s also intermittent shots of a miniature nuclear missile complete with smoke which breaks up the peacefulness of the rural setting. Throughout the film there’s cutaways to the impending attack, from loading the bomb to the plane flying toward its target giving the viewer a sense of foreboding along with the slow building of tension.
The film for me, is most memorable for terms such as “international situation” spoken by John Mills’ character showing his adherence to the government guidance of the day. With Jim constructing his “governmental inner core or refuge” from instructions in a leaflet (by leaning doors against the wall at an angle of 60 degrees and filling it with 14 days worth of food supplies) as a viewer you realise that these tasks are futile in the face of a nuclear bomb. When Jim speaks to his son Ron on the phone and he says “we’ll all go together when we go” and begins to laugh, we’re shown that only certain people believe everything their leaders tell them.
To affirm the Bloggs’ gullibility, the characters feature enlarged heads and their overall body shape and scale is intended (I assume) to resemble children and therefore to convey their innocence. This impressionable personality and naivete also shows the generation they’re from. Having lived through World War II, the couple wrongly assume that all wars follow the same procedure. With Hilda exclaiming “those blasted Germans” to which Jim replies “it’s the Ruskies dear”, the films depicts the couple as confused and detached from the events of the 1980s.
With Jim mixing up “commuters” with “computers”, calling nuclear war “the big bang theory”, the pair are ignorant of the society in which they live. This is a Post-War couple who are stuck in the past trying to protect themselves against a nuclear bomb in the same way you would a conventional bomb, not knowing there’s no defense against a nuclear strike. With Hilda saying “We couldn’t have lost the war… we won the other two”, it never really dawns on them that Nuclear Armageddon is looming, and that the events taking place around them are a lot different to the one they experienced during their childhood.
After the nuclear bomb is dropped, slowly Jim and Hilda begin to get headaches, they start to feel tired. “A nice tea will perk you up dear”, Hilda suggests. Their situation deteriorates; there’s no running water, no electricity but Jim attributes the loss of utilities to the government trying to conserve energy and protect the people. There’s also no radio, no TV, the couple are isolated from the outside world without any form of communication. Slowly they begin to feel feverish, then they stop feeling hungry, and yet even with their deteriorating health, Hilda still wants to clean up and go back to her normal routine.
Oblivious to what is happening to them, the Bloggs think that everything will be fixed as they sit amongst the rubble, in the wasteland of a post-nuclear strike. The Bloggs’ symptoms eventually get much worse; there’s blood in their stools, lesions appear on their skin, their hair and teeth begin to fall out, but they still don’t realise that it’s the effects of the nuclear weapon. During the resolution of the film, the Bloggs crawl into paper bags as per the government’s instructions and coupled with the emotive music and the strobe effect animation, this final scene makes for a very dispiriting finale. The film shows that there is no happy ending to a nuclear war, even praying to god does nothing.
Alongside all the moving scenes in this film, there’s also some brilliantly dark and even sarcastic humour, for instance in the scene where Hilda looks up at the sky and says “they didn’t blow up the sun” Jim replies “of course not, science is still in its infancy”. When speaking about the bomb dropped on Hiroshima Jim says “the powers that be are making much better ones now” adding “science has leaped forward with giant strides”. Sometimes the couple’s reasoning for certain events is also humourous, for instance they think the milkman is late because the road has melted.
I originally watched this film as a child and in many ways it’s just as great now that I’m an an adult. Although I have to say I view this film differently as I’m now dubious about any and all wars. I always believe that preemptive diplomacy is preferable to any kind of conflict and it could be argued that even the second World War may have been avoided without all the countless deaths. To that end, I refuse to accept that the old war was somehow more just, more righteous, or generally “nicer” than modern warfare. With lines like “It was nice in the war really… the shelters, the blackouts, cups of tea… those were the days”, the only criticism of Briggs’ writing I have, is that whilst he’s accurately portraying a typical and specific generation of British people, he’s simultaneously affirming the idea that World War II was not only justifiable but also pleasant, as though old-style ground combat or ground warfare is somehow desirable over nuclear strikes. Briggs ignores that dropping the bomb on Hiroshima was part of World War II, I guess people think something is bad only when they’re the target, which is a blinkered attitude toward the past.
That being said, there are a few lines which discuss the enemy in a measured way. Hilda says “I expect they’re quite nice really… I saw the Russians dancing on the telly once… they seemed nice” but Jim replies “there were supposed to be some nice Germans last time” – like much of the Post-War generation, John Mills’ character still holds a grudge. With Hilda saying in regards to Stalin “I liked him” Jim replies “they were on our side” and in some ways that shows the fickle and pointless concept of war, with yesterday’s allies becoming tomorrow’s enemies and vice versa.
This film is firmly anti-nuclear armament but is also anti-war to an extent, although like I said, there’s a certain rose-tinted outlook on World War II with Hilda reminiscing about her family’s Anderson shelter for instance. This “good ol’ war” mentality, a reinforcement of propaganda, is the only aspect of the film I didn’t enjoy when watching today. The film seems to be saying that a nuclear war will kill everybody not just the evil Jerry’s and Japs and in that respect, When The Wind Blows does not contain a perfect plot and therefore is not a perfect film. But, nevertheless, this movie is poignant and it brings a tear to the eye (at least the first time I watched it, I think I’ve become more jaded about the subject of war so tearing-up no longer happened this time around).
In my opinion, when people watch anything that deliberately or inadvertently glorifies World War II, they should remember that Japanese Americans were made to evacuate their homes and forced into internment camps (or concentration camps) in the U.S. following Pearl Harbor. These innocent Japanese Americans were given a “Loyalty Test”, something that many right-wing people in the U.S. and Europe would like to happen with Muslims today. My point is that every war has its prejudices and regrets, and perpetuating a false idea of how much better the past was actually ignores the wrongdoings of history. Whilst on that topic, I must add that Murakami the director, spent time in these internment camps as a child and yet his film doesn’t show any bias or any ill-will toward a specific foe. He translates Briggs’ story into a brilliantly realised animation without even a hint of his (potential) personal feelings which is a great achievement.
On the topic of nuclear war, even though we’d all like some inventions to be un-invented, now that nuclear missiles exist, we can’t prejudicially pick and chose who should have them. Surely every nation has the right to defend themselves when most nations have nuclear weapons, and with Russia and the United States having the most, maybe the threat shown in the film is a lot more relevant than worrying about the “Axis Of Evil” countries such as North Korea and Iran. The fact also remains that the only nation to ever use a nuclear bomb is America so if you’re viewing this cautionary tale today whilst possibly worrying about the Middle East or the Far East, maybe the biggest threat to the world is a little closer to home than we’d all like to think.
Having aired all of my grievances with the script however, I have to acknowledge that the central theme and overall storyline is still brilliantly constructed and that this film is still a fantastic watch. There’s great voice acting by the late, greats John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft and there’s also the very memorable song which opens the film by the late, great David Bowie which plays along with footage showing actual protests occurring during the transportation of nuclear missiles in the UK.
When The Wind Blows is definitely one of the best films to tackle the issue of nuclear war, alongside other similar TV shows of the time including Threads and The Day After, this is a lot more subtle, it contains more pathos and therefore is more emotive. This film sticks with the short-term effects of nuclear war rather than long-term, overly bleak, Mad Max-style post-nuclear scenarios with feral children devouring sheep. If this picture was shot as a live action film, it may come across as a dreary kitchen sink drama, but because it’s a “cartoon”, the overall look is not as depressing as it could potentially be, thus keeping the viewer entertained with not only the varied animation techniques but also the score, the comedy, and the political commentary.
If you’re a fan of Raymond Brigg’s The Snowman and Father Christmas, this has all the heart and laughs of those two films but with this feature-length animation there’s also poignancy. And with Hilda criticising “Art College” and the like, When The Wind Blows is very much a precursor to the fantastic Ethel & Earnest, a biographical animation about Briggs’ parents (something if you haven’t seen, I’d also encourage you to watch).
The classic film is now available in High Definition on Blu-ray (although the intro includes Standard Definition news footage). With this increase in quality, it’s a great time to view this very pertinent film and with the endless conflicts around the world and the almost constant warmongering on the television and from our politicians, the message of this movie needs to be heeded today more than ever.
The Wind Still Blows.
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