Most American civil defense films were shot on tight budgets with an aim to achieve one of two goals, to inform and motivate viewers to volunteer or to teach technical procedures (such as radiological monitoring or rescue) to specialized audiences. A select few, however, were granted the financing and creative leeway to develop into entertainment productions as well, often with the understating that such films would later be broadcast on national television stations. Such was the intent of the Office of Civil Defense (OCD) when it released Town of the Times in 1963. With an ambitious narrative, use of famous actors and popular music, as well as a willingness to criticize government policy, Town of the Times is incredibly unique in the genre of Cold War preparedness films. Set in a town "just across the county line", the film stars Ralph Meeker as George McCardle and Larry Gates as William Groves, school board members who clash over the implementation of a public fallout shelter system. Each man is portrayed as a pillar of the community and each brings potent arguments to support his respective side.
McCardle, an insurance salesman, sees constant reminders of the threat of nuclear war. The theater across from his office plays The Day the Earth Caught Fire. A news stand features Time Magazine with a furious Nikita Khrushchev on the cover. Area teenagers jive to Peter Scott Peters little known song Fallout Shelter. Acknowledging a cultural immersion with the atomic threat, McCardle, who also narrates, takes a moment to express his disdain for private fallout shelters in the home, which he equates with locking out one's neighbors. Instead, he fiercely advocates for public shelters, the ultimate insurance in the event of disaster. Groves, on the other hand, views fallout shelters, particularly in schools, as an encouragement of war. He argues they are a costly expense, absorbing resources better spent on hiring more teachers and obtaining better educational facilities. The issue comes to a dramatic head when Groves wins over the "town council" by presenting a long list of programs and resources which students will have to do without in order to fund a budget for fallout shelter construction and maintenance. Angry and looking to prove a point, McCardle later refuses to sell Groves an insurance policy, arguing that any man who won't invest in insurance for the survival of the local population's future, doesn't need a personal policy. Later that evening, Groves makes passionate statements to his wife about how the process of seeking shelter is nothing more than humanity abandoning its responsibility to maintain peace. He is finally swayed when his wife admits she will not feel safe until their daughter has somewhere to go if an enemy attack occurred while school was in session. Groves quickly changes his position and addresses a skeptical crowd at town hall to express his support for public shelter.
Neither Ralph Meeker nor Larry Gates were strangers to atomic-themed productions when they went to work on Town of the Times. Meeker is perhaps best remembered for his role in the noir classic Kiss Me Deadly, where he plays a hard-boiled private eye chasing weaponized uranium. Larry Gates previously starred as Dr. Bill Stockton in the infamous Twilight Zone episode "The Shelter". There, he is the only man on his block to build a bomb shelter, and he must deny access to his neighbors upon warning of a possible enemy air raid. When the all clear signal sounds, he tries in vain to motivate his lethargic friends to take steps to ensure their safety. In Town of the Times, Gates' character is unique because he echoes the beliefs of many vocal government critics of the 1960's, particularly the idea that fallout shelters encouraged a false sense of survivability. Characters with such attitudes in most OCD films are portrayed as oafish and ignorant, and often learn hard lessons about the value of civil defense preparation. William Groves, however, is a dignified and well spoken man, with the ability to sway his town's opinion. His conversion to a supporter of public fallout shelters by the end of the films, then, is much more impactfull. The effort and expense which went towards making Town of the Times was well spent. It would enjoy favorable longevity and could still be rented or purchased from government catalogs well into the 1970's.
Town of the Times may be viewed in its entirety, HERE.