Cinema History from the Cold War!

Your Chance to Live: Nuclear Disaster

Defense Civil Preparedness Agency
1972

In late 1972, while experimenting with ways to present civil defense advice an increasingly disinterested public, the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency came to develop an informational campaign heralded as Your Chance to Live.  Similar in many respects to the In Time of Emergency crusade just four years prior, Your Chance to Live consisted of pamphlets, recordings and a wide range of films.  Spanning topics from earthquakes to power failures, the films of the series worked to mix common precautions with specialized knowledge for each presented situation.  Today, a quick scan of any online video site often includes several incarnations of the most accessible film of the series, Your Chance to Live: Earthwatch.  Featuring a number of natural disasters, including an earthquake, a flood, and a landslide, the film offers tips for surviving each scenario.  While not specifically relating to nuclear defense, the underlying message of each film is the same, be prepared.  That same year, a creative writer for the series used this idea of preparedness to create Your Chance to Live: Nuclear Disaster, one of the most unique and haunting civil defense productions ever to fall into obscurity.

The theme of preparedness which dominates the Your Chance to Live films becomes twisted almost immediately.  As depicted in the opening sequence, Nuclear Disaster was filmed in a decisively self-reflexive manner, with the production crew and equipment continually visible.  The clip above functions as a series of outtakes involving extras who are to act as though they have been caught unaware when a bomb drops on Washington D.C.  Focusing on the interactions between the director and a young girl, the two have a candid discussion about the effects of an enemy attack and the damage which could occur.  While admitting she is not scared, the girl innocently remarks, a bomb is "a thing that goes up in the air and comes down and kills people".

Following the film crew back to their studio, the camera catches a number of post-production actions including sound synchronization of a siren recording and the addition of voice-over narration.  Judging by the footage and animation appearing on their editing screen, it appears that the crew is working on the 1969 film In Time of Emergency.  While the director and sound editor provide offhand remarks about fallout shelters and supplies, no actual civil defense advice is ever provided.  Even with the arrival of the film's primary narrator Peter Thomas, Nuclear Disaster merely continues to offer glimpses into the backstage world of government film production.



A prominent voice-over narrator who would later work on shows such as NOVA and Biography, Peter Thomas brings a number of personalities to the set of Nuclear Disaster.  As the clip above demonstrates, he keeps up the frank atmosphere of the film by openly discussing with the director what intonation would best be suited for delivering civil defense advice.  Determining that an on-location speech would provide much more impact, Thomas and the crew convene in front of the White House.  As the director notes, the snow in the background gives the visual sensation of post-attack world laced with fallout.  After several takes, Thomas begins his speech only to be cut short by the activation of Washington D.C.'s warning siren system which provides an ironic conclusion to their efforts.  Several knowledgeable viewers have been quick to point out that the sirens sounding in the film do not match the tone of the sirens used by Washington D.C. during the Cold War, leading to the suspicion that this was another post-production addition.  Still, the ending of the film produces a very strange aura, as the crew first laughs about their timing before staring nervously at one another while the film ends.  Although Nuclear Disaster does not promote preparedness in the tradition sense of the genre, it tries to reinforce the notion that, even as late as the 1970's, the threat of an attack was still very real.