HBO’s new miniseries Chernobyl has gotten a lot of attention for its gory realism. Radiation from a nuclear power plant disaster is brutal for the human body, to say the least. But the explicit nature of Chernobyl almost pales in comparison to some of the things that were shown in the 1950s. Like this British short film that was played for parents and kids alike in 1956.
The film is titled “A Short Vision” and has been preserved by the British Film Institute on YouTube. But this isn’t just an artefact for the Brits. This short film first played for American audiences on May 27, 1956, during the extremely popular Ed Sullivan Show.
The short movie opens with the shot of a missile that looks remarkably like an alien spaceship. This was no doubt intentional, as we hear spooky theremin-style music evoking the monster and alien movies of the 1950s.
The missile travels over a number of animals preying on each other—a leopard attacking a deer and an owl attacking a rat. But each time, the predator is just as scared of the missile as anything and runs away.
“When it flew over the city, the people were all asleep,” the narrator says. “But their leaders looked up. And their wise men looked up. But it was too late.”
From there we see the animated nuclear explosion, detonating in the atmosphere and obliterating everything.
“All those who saw it were destroyed,” the narrator continues. “All the leaders and the wise men were destroyed—and the leopard, and the deer, and the rat, and the owl were also destroyed.”
And just when you think there will be some mercy, the narrator goes on to explain that it gets even worse.
“All the people who did not see it were destroyed too.” Needless to say, it doesn’t get any more cheery from there.
As the Cold War-focused blog CONELRAD Adjacent points out, Ed Sullivan’s TV show was enormously popular in the 1950s and this particular episode got a lot of attention at the time, which was Sullivan’s goal, calling it a “plea for peace.” Sullivan saw the film in England and brought it to U.S. audiences over concerns that the U.S. and Soviet Union were escalating their rhetoric too quickly.
“I figured with the H-bomb just being let go of last week it was apropos,” Sullivan reportedly told the May 28, 1956 issue of the New York World-Telegram and Sun newspaper.
Sullivan was, of course, referring to the first hydrogen bomb test on May 20, 1956, in the South Pacific. Sullivan even had a repeat showing of the film the next month on June 10, 1956.
But one thing to keep in mind that makes this TV event even more interesting is that the vast majority of Americans didn’t have colour television sets yet. Even without the colour—the blood dripping from the victim’s eyes and the nuclear explosion a mix of orange and black—this was a jarring piece of TV history for any kids watching at home.
Baby boomers get a lot of shit for ruining everything in America, and that assessment isn’t altogether wrong. But maybe they’re messed up for a good reason. Between this short film and wearing dog tags to school so that they could be identified after a nuclear explosion, you’d probably be scared of everything too if you were a Baby Boomer.
It doesn’t excuse their behaviour, but it might help explain it. An image of that guy with blood streaming down his face is going to be haunting my brain for a while now. And I’m a grown adult.