Fail-Safe (1964)


A Situation Nobody Wants…

Nuclear war. Nobody wants one. And a lunatic just might start one. But in the early sixties it was a very possible reality. Released in October 1964, it showed us in gritty black and white just how easily the end could come to this planet. The film was based on the book Fail-Safe by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler which was released in serial format at the same time as the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Fail Safe Novel

What makes this film stand out is what it hasn’t got. There’s no soundtrack at all. There are no laughs. Its all deadly serious. If you’ve dealt with any kind of computer for the last ten or fifteen years you will have noticed how much sophisticated new computers are compared to their ten year old counterparts. I’m writing this blog post on a four month old laptop. And it’s so much better than a computer 20 years old. Yet it can’t do what a twenty year computer can do. The mistakes in this new laptop are so subtle compared to its electronic ancestors. Tiny errors slowly pile up, until they cascade down making life very, very, difficult. And that’s what happens this film. A computer develops a tiny error and  sends a signal to a bomber group to target and destroy Moscow. The Russians, who you never see, test a new radio jamming technique. Machines designed to protect us do the opposite – doom us.

Doctor Strangelove and Fail Safe were put out by the same studio. Because of lawsuits it decided to release Doctor Strangelove first. Doctor Strangelove was a dark comedy which did very well at the box office. Fail Safe, a more down to earth suspense/drama, got rave reviews but did poorly at the box office. Its a sad commentary on our society when a comedy about the end of the world is received better than a film that really tries to depict things as they really exist.

The actors in the film deserve all the accolades. For almost all of the film scenes are confined to the presidential bunker, the war room in the Pentagon, Strategic Air Command in Omaha, and the cockpit of a Vindicator bomber. Please see the film.


Henry Fonda as the President of the United States

Henry Fonda is one of only a handful of actors who actually look like they could play the role of the President. Fonda played the secretary of state twice, and the president twice.


Larry Hagman as Buck the translator

Although many sources name this film as Larry Hagmans film debut they are incorrect. It may have been his break-out role, but he first appeared in the The Enemy Below with Robert Mitchum in 1957.


Dom Deluise as Sgt. Collins in a rare non-comedic role had only a handful of lines in the film.


Edward Binns as Col. Jack Grady worked with Fonda on the film 12 Angry Men. In this film he plays a soldier who follows his orders, and almost kills us all.


Walter Matthau as Prof. Groeteschele

The film is special as it is one of the very few filmed performances of Walter Matthau in a rare dramatic role. His role is that of advisor to the Pentagon. Used mainly because of his height (6 foot 3 inches), he is a sinister character with his own agenda.


Fritz Weaver. He made his film debut as Col. Cascio, who tries to be the perfect soldier, and fail because he forgets how to a person.

One thought on “Fail-Safe (1964)

  1. So very sorry for your loss, Tom.

    Maybe the only way to deal with the end of the world is to filter it through the lens of comedy. Because the tragedy, the reality is just too unbearable to contemplate.


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