Cinema History from the Cold War!

About Fallout
Office of Civil Defense
Wilding Productions
1963


In the opening moments of this film, the title, About Fallout, splashes across the screen in bright red letters.  So bluntly simplistic, and yet so remarkably descriptive, this title would see a greater promotional effort, would see a wider distribution, and would enjoy more official longevity than any other civil defense motion picture.  It would be edited into other productions, it would be cut-up, shortened, re-released under a new title and shown across the United States.  It would be transferred onto new mediums decades after its original release.  It would be translated into foreign languages and sent across the Atlantic for use in Europe.  It would be screened at film festivals.  In short, it would become, as the Office of Civil Defense 1963 Annual Statistical Report heralded, the “definitive film on fallout radiation and how to protect against it.”(1)

The red letters of the title slowly dissolve into tiny particles which swirl into blue atmospheric background.  Creeping music begins as an introductory message crawls up the screen to offer a stark set of facts about nuclear war.  In the event of a nuclear strike on the United States, the scrolling text reveals, many will die instantly from blast and heat in areas of total destruction.  Outside these relatively small areas, many millions more will be in danger of radioactive fallout.  It was this sobering reality, that substantial protective measures would be needed to ensure the safety of Americans who survived the immediate impact of an enemy nuclear missile, which led to the creation of the Nation Fallout Shelter Program in 1961.  Following the implementation of the Program, planners within the Office of Civil Defense sought to create a comprehensive film to inform the general public about the dangers of radioactive fallout.

Such a film would need to simplify the basic principles of radioactivity, explain the deadly effects of fallout on living organisms, and, most importantly, promote the National Fallout Shelter Program as the best form of protection.  Wilding Productions was contracted to shoot the project.  A Chicago-based industrial and instructional filmmaking powerhouse, Wilding boasted a massive production capacity, cranking out hundreds of films annually during its peak years.  With clients as diverse as the World’s Fair and the Chrysler Corporation, its work covered topics ranging from table salt promotions to aggressive anti-communist narratives.(2)  In 1963, likely with veteran Wilding director Jack Tilles at the helm, the company began work on two films for the Office of Civil Defense.  The first was Town of the Times, a highly entertaining and star-studded drama about the value of community fallout shelter planning.  The second, a twenty-three minute blend of live-action and animation, debuted in August of that year under the title About Fallout.(3)

About Fallout begins in an odd location for a civil defense film: the beach.  An attractive woman lounges in the sand, casually sunbathing when the scene suddenly cuts to rays pulsing from a brightly animated sun.  According to a straightforward narrator, Earth is bombarded daily by this solar radiation, indicated onscreen by flashing white streaks, which allows the beachgoing woman to get a suntan.  Along with materials in the Earth’s core, they create a background radiation which all mankind is exposed to.  In a fascinating abstract sequence, painted scraps of paper merge into hippos, ferns, fish, aardvarks, and finally humans, all while radioactive particles sprinkle about them.  The scene cuts once again to a lab where white-coated scientists carefully maneuver highly concentrated radioactive material.  Great scientific potential is possible, the narrator continues, through the study of radiation.  By depicting radiation as a natural component of the environment which science has actively harnessed, the Office of Civil Defense hoped audiences would, in turn, view radioactive fallout as a problem which could be overcome with facts and reason, as opposed to being frightened into apathy by mere mention of it. 

The OCD’s desire to convey this point and reverse the public apathy which had long plagued American civil defense programs, led the agency to develop an elaborate marketing plan for About Fallout.  Short segments, consisting of a few minutes of the film’s most entertaining and informative moments were edited together into preview reels.  These were shipped by the OCD to all state civil defense offices and other emergency management centers.  To further spread the message, 500 prints of the film were sent out to state education offices and an additional 51 prints were delivered to adult education courses and university extension and outreach programs.(4)  The response was enthusiastic.  According to the Office of Civil Defense Annual Statistical Report for 1963, these promotional distributions were so successful in generating interest for About Fallout that another 2,000 prints of the film were ordered as a result.(5)

Aside from natural sources, the film quickly makes clear that radiation is also produced by the detonation of a nuclear weapon.  The explosion of an enemy missile will destroy everything in its immediate vicinity and pull many tons of dirt and debris into the atmosphere, fusing with highly radioactive elements which descend to the earth as fallout particles.  Within one hour of an attack, a targeted city would be inundated with fallout.  Within forty-eight hours, the fallout plume, carried by winds, may cover great swaths of the United States.  Fortunately, time and distance provide two natural defenses to this far-reaching danger.  As time passes, the strength of radioactive fallout weakens considerably and after two weeks, the film hypothesizes, it diminishes to the point it is no longer a threat.  Similarly, the farther a person is from fallout, the less harm it causes.  This true for great distances, where animated maps depict fallout patterns weakening the farther they spread across the United States, and for very small distances.  A skyscraper is shown with fallout accumulating on the roof and on the streets surrounding it.  Persons sheltered in the center of the building, however, far above the street and far below the roof, remain safe from radiating particles.

This straightforward, simplified explanation of how fallout is created, how it spreads, and how it weakens over time and distance helped the film become a hit with critics and audiences alike.  In 1964, just months after its initial release, it was screened at the American Film Festival where it was honored as a finalist.(6)  By 1965, About Fallout was the sixth most requested title from government archives.(7)  By 1967, it was the second most requested, losing only to another Office of Civil Defense production, Though the Earth Be Moved, a highly entertaining re-creation of rescue and recovery efforts conducted in the wake of Alaska’s Good Friday earthquake.(8)  That same year, About Fallout’s influence and reputation had grown to the point that it was attracting the interest of foreign governments. Before the end of the decade, it was translated into both Dutch and French and shipped across the Atlantic for educational use in those countries.(9)     

About Fallout was one of the first films to explain, in detail, how radiation harms the human body.  Searing radioactive rays pierce human cells and if cells are destroyed faster than they can reproduce, sickness or death may occur.  Exposure to 300 or more Roentgens, the unit used to measure radiation, in a short time, may prove fatal.  For those people exposed to fallout without the advantage of time or distance, a third defense, shielding, is necessary.  Until fallout decays or an area is decontaminated, a shelter constructed of dense materials is the ideal protection.  Fallout accumulated in small doses can, according to the film, be washed away, effectively decontaminating objects, persons, and areas.  A woman in a kitchen setting demonstrates that peeling vegetables and rinsing off canned food will eliminate the fallout hazard.  This same principle can, the film theorizes, be applied to whole neighborhoods, where street sweepers and firemen hose fallout dust down storm sewers.  Contaminated farmland presents a more serious problem.  Although previous films strenuously claimed otherwise, About Fallout argues that radiation is not well absorbed by most edible crops, though the narrator does advise that in the most highly contaminated soils, only non-edible plants like cotton should be grown and harvested.

Likely due to time constraints and a desire to focus solely on promoting the National Fallout Shelter Program, all scenes dealing with decontamination and agriculture were deleted from subsequent incarnations of About Fallout.  With a run-time of 23 minutes, the original cut of the film was deemed too long to screen for passing crowds at civil defense exhibits.  Thrifty editors at Wilding Productions solved the problem in 1967, when About Fallout was at the height of its popularity, by trimming the 1963 version down to a brisk 8 minutes.  This shortened production, which also lacks the opening text and many of the artistic scenes dealing with natural radiation, was released under the creative title Briefly, About Fallout.(10)  To promote the shortened film, a special pamphlet was created by the Office Civil Defense Titled "Three Short Films In Color" which offered descriptions of Briefly, About Fallout, Slanting, and Once to Make Ready, all films under 10 minutes dealing with fallout shelters.(11)  An even shorter version of About Fallout was cleverly edited into the 1969 OCD motion picture A Briefing on Civil Defense.  In that highly conceptualized film, new parents sit tensely in a maternity ward waiting room, chatting nervously and absentmindedly watching a news report on fallout shelters.  Halfway through the report, an expert lecturer announces he is going to give a presentation on the dangers of radioactive fallout.  He proceeds to play a 7 minute version of About Fallout, devoid of all titles and credits.

The final moments of the film highlight the efforts the federal government is taking to ensure fallout shelter for every American through the National Fallout Shelter Program.  Initially championed by President John F. Kennedy with the goal of providing “adequate fallout shelter space for every man, woman, and child”, the Program was introduced with great fanfare in 1961.  In addition to identifying and marking buildings suitable to use as shelters, the Office of Civil Defense would also stock each shelter with supplies necessary for survival.  A brief montage is shown depicting the food, water, radiation detection equipment and medical kits which will fill each shelter.  The early optimism for the National Fallout Shelter Program is accentuated nicely onscreen when a picturesque family, complete with smiling daughter, walks through a beautiful park with a black and yellow shelter sign visible in the background.  By the late 1960’s, however, enthusiasm and funding for the Program had diminished significantly and by the early 1970’s, when shelters were no longer being actively identified or stocked, for practical purposes it had ceased to exist.

The quick decline of the National Fallout Shelter Program makes the fate of About Fallout all the more fascinating.  Beginning in 1957, federal civil defense agencies published a list of films deemed “obsolete”.(12)  Claiming that changing protection strategies and advances in military technology had rendered their content unusable, officials pulled obsolete films from circulation.  With each passing year, the list of obsolete films grew larger.  Indeed, by the time of About Fallout’s release in 1963, nearly every civil defense film sponsored by the American government in the 1950’s had been declared obsolete.(13)  This practice would continue for the remainder of the Cold War.  Reflecting the change in Cold War tensions and politics, civil defense films produced during the 1970’s focused on protection from natural disasters and civil unrest while films centered on the atomic threat were, with few exceptions, slowly but steadily labeled obsolete.  About Fallout became the predominant exception.

By the early 1980’s, when the fiery rhetoric of the Ronald Reagan Administration briefly renewed interest in nuclear civil defense, About Fallout could still be rented or purchased on 16mm filmstrip, or, for a slightly higher price, the then new medium of VHS tape.(14)  Admittedly, by this point, the film was available only through increasingly obscure and oddly specific government publications such as the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services Catalog of Films for the Deaf, 1984 Edition.(15)  References to the film in mainstream media were non-existent.  As recently as March of 1986, interested parties could still purchase About Fallout from the Department of the Army’s Audiovisual Catalog: Graphic Devices Audiovisual, a publication with a circulation which appears to have been limited to military personnel stationed in California.  It is listed alongside one other civil defense film, A Day in September.  A very tastefully done production from 1968, A Day in September features federal buildings like Dulles International Airport and the Waterloo, Iowa post office, which serve dual-purposes as public fallout shelters.(16)  The following year’s edition does not list either film under available titles.(17)

Does this mean About Fallout was officially declared obsolete?  No record has yet been unearthed which definitely says so, though by that point, it may because no one cared enough to do so.  The film outlived the agency which ordered its creation and the company which produced it and very nearly outlasted the Cold War which necessitated it.  It could be that by the end of the Cold War, no one had the official capacity, or cared enough, to declare it obsolete.  By the early 1990’s, after civil defense films had been gathering dust on archive shelves for three decades, curious eyes began to screen them again, many for the first time in a post-Cold War world.  Because their content seemed so out-of-date and out-of-touch with reality, many were compiled into collections and sold for comedy purposes, as campy reminders of naive 1950’s and 60’s Americana.  About Fallout did not escape this fate.  It too has been transferred from medium to medium and is now easily available online where it is often derided and mocked by modern viewers.  While the film may not have been officially deemed obsolete, in the minds of the viewing public, it ranges from ridiculously antiquated to dangerously deceptive. 

Sources
1. Office of Civil Defense. 1963 Annual Statistical Report.  United States Government Printing Office, 1963.  99.
2.
Gavin, James. "Chicago Part of Film World: Wilding Productions Having Good Year." Chicago Tribune 22 June 1958: F7.
3.
Office of Civil Defense. 1963 Annual Statistical Report.  United States Government Printing Office, 1963.  99.
4. Office of Civil Defense. 1964 Annual Statistical Report.  United States Government Printing Office, 1964.  71.
5. Office of Civil Defense. 1963 Annual Statistical Report.  United States Government Printing Office, 1963.  99.
6. Office of Civil Defense. Civil Defense Motion Picture Catalog.  United States Government Printing Office, 1965.  7.
7. Office of Civil Defense. 1965 Annual Report. United States Government Printing Office, 1966, 89.
8. Office of Civil Defense. 1967 Annual Report. United States Government Printing Office, 1968, 97.
9.
10. Office of Civil Defense. 1967 Annual Report.  United States Government Printing Office, 1968.  96.
11. Office of Civil Defense. 1968 Annual Report.  United States Government Printing Office, 1969.  89.
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