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Movies don’t come much rougher than this BBC production, an unblinking depiction of the effects of a nuclear war upon a British community. This approach was previously utilized by director Peter Watkins in his classic mock-doc THE WAR GAME (also made for the BBC), but THREADS easily matches that film.

The Package
THREADS, with its pseudo-documentary veneer, can be viewed as a sequel of sorts to the abovementioned WAR GAME, which was made in 1965 and banned for two decades by the BBC. The irony is that THREADS, which premiered in 1984, is a far more graphic work than the former film, yet THE WAR GAME was still suppressed at the time of its release (the BBC ban, for the record, wasn’t lifted until 1985).
     THREADS, scripted by novelist Barry Hines and directed by longtime BBC ace (and future Hollywood big shot) Mick Jackson, arrived amid a veritable avalanche of reality-oriented nuke movie downers, such as the famous TV movie THE DAY AFTER, TESTAMENT, the animated WHEN THE WIND BLOWS, the French MALEVIL and the Russian LETTERS FROM A DEAD MAN. THREADS, I believe, outdoes them all.

The Story
     World War Three is clearly imminent. The residents of the British suburb Shepperton go about their business, even though the news on their television sets is extremely upsetting: the United States demands the Soviet Union withdraw its presence from Iran or face “dire consequences.” Those consequences are put into practice when the Soviets ignore the ultimatum, which forces the United States to launch a nuclear missile, thus setting the entire Western world up for an inevitable counter-strike.
     Panic grips Shepperton as its residents take to frantically stocking up on food and supplies, and then it happens: the following afternoon several nuclear missiles hit the United Kingdom (because at that time the US authorities are most likely to be asleep). Deadly firestorms result in which many people are incinerated, with the rest left to fend for themselves in a land suffused by deadly radiation.
     Ruth, a young pregnant woman, finds herself adrift in this nightmarish world. She’s a fragile sort, yet somehow manages to survive mass riots, chronic food and medical shortages, a Gestapo-style purge by increasingly desperate authorities, and an inevitable return to nomadic, stone-age living. Thirteen years after the attack Ruth finally passes on, leaving behind a teenaged daughter who becomes pregnant herself.

The Direction
     The producer and director of THREADS was Mick Jackson, who went on to become a Hollywood big shot with LA STORY, THE BODYGUARD and VOLCANO. In those films Jackson developed a glitzy, self-conscious style that’s virtually the antithesis of the stark and unshowy THREADS, which works precisely because it’s so low-key in its approach. The camerawork is quite concentrated, without a lot of extraneous movement, complementing a stripped-down narrative that features numerous characters and spans an entire decade yet still succeeds in making all the points it needs to make in admirably succinct fashion. There’s also the simple fact that (outside of some background rock and roll in the early scenes) there’s no music in the entire film, which helps to enhance the documentary feel.
     Then there are the “special” effects. Jackson’s budget was limited, which is apparent in the scenes of the nuclear bombs detonating. Peter Watkins had a similar problem in THE WAR GAME, but managed to make it work for rather than against him with his mock-documentary approach. Jackson on the other hand tries, and fails, to get around his non-existent effects with a lot of fast cutting and what look like documentary inserts. One will have to be VERY generous to overlook the flaws in these scenes!
     Yet the rest of the film is skilled enough to stand on its own. It’s easily the most ambitious film of its kind, and even if Jackson doesn’t manage to transcend his low budget, he does pull off some stunning sequences. A glimpse into a post-nuke hospital filled with wounded people screaming in pain (because there aren’t enough doctors on hand to help everyone) is especially powerful, as is the relentless conclusion, leading to a stunner of a final shot that unites the personal and collective effects of nuclear war.
     The net result is a profoundly uncomfortable and depressing film, but also a necessary one. THREADS may be a relic of the cold war-infected eighties, but its lessons are equally relevant in today’s unsettled world--indeed probably even more so.

Vital Statistics

BBC Productions

Director: Mick Jackson
Producer: Mick Jackson
Screenplay: Barry Hines
Cinematography: Andrew Dunn, Paul Morris
Editing: Donna Bickerstaff, Jim Latham
Cast: Karen Meagher, Rita May, David Brierly, Reece Dinsdale, Nicholas Lane, Jane Hazlegrove, Henry Moxon, June Broughton, Sylvia Stoker, Harry Beety, Ruth Holden, Ashley Barker, Michael O’Hagan