The story line for this movie is remarkably close to the story line for Dr. Strangelove but this is by no means a comedy, black or otherwise. Fail-Safe didn’t do well at the box office because Columbia Pictures decided to placate Stanley Kubrick, who was upset about the story similarities, and push Dr. Strangelove at the expense of this motion picture. This is, however, a movie that is definitely worth watching.
There are many fine actors in Fail-Safe including Walter Matthau in an uncharacteristically serious role as Professor Groeteschele. You will also see a young Larry Hagman and a young Dom DeLouise. The best performance is by Frank Overton as General Bogan.
Fail-Safe begins in Omaha, Nebraska with Congressman Raskob (Sorrell Booke) being given a tour of the Strategic Air Command’s control facility by General Bogan. What seems to be a minor electronic malfunction occurs during an alert when SAC bombers are flying at their fail-safe points. From there, the situation rapidly worsens. The Omaha staff recall the planes and it looks for a while like they’ve succeeded. They then notice that one group of planes, Group Six, is still flying toward the Soviet Union. The group is unable to receive the recall code because the Russians are experimenting with new radio jamming procedures. The supporting fighter planes are returning to their base in Alaska when they are informed of the dilemma with Group Six. They are ordered to turn around and try to intercept the group and shoot them down if necessary. Everyone involved knows that this is a desperate measure because the fighters are low on fuel. They fall into the Arctic Ocean before even getting close to Group Six. The President and the Omaha people eventually help the Russians try to destroy Group Six.
While there is a disclaimer at the end of the movie stating that the events depicted couldn’t happen because of the safeguards in place, we have, probably more times than we’re aware of, come perilously close to the scenario shown in Fail-Safe. In the sixties, Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line radar sites picked up something coming over the horizon over Norway. Computers said there was a 99% probability that we were under attack by the Soviet Union. The anomaly turned out to be the moon. On another occasion, the entire defensive system of the United States was put on alert when a 95 cent computer component failed. I believe we got to Defcon 3 at that particular time. At one time, during a test of the Civil Defense broadcast alert system, someone put in the wrong tape which said we were under attack and all commercial radio and television stations were ordered to cease broadcasting and go to the Civil Defense system. Very few did. So, despite the disclaimer at the end of the movie, these electronic accidents could and did happen.
Even though the “Cold War” is supposedly over and people have become complacent, there are games still being played by the military. Our fast attack submarines still shadow the Russian submarines and vice versa. We still have the guided missile submarines going out to sit at the bottom of the ocean for a few months at a time and so do the Russians. The threat of accidental nuclear war is diminished but not eliminated.
Fail-Safe is a gripping reminder that something still could happen and it will probably make you stop and think.
The television adaptation of this movie was amazingly close to the original script. Brian Dennehy was excellent as General Bogan while Richard Dreyfuss’ performance as the President was somewhat lacking. All in all, though, it was very well done. It was shown in black and white as was the original.
- Dan O’Herlihy – Brigadier General Warren Black
- Walter Matthau – Professor Groeteschele
- Frank Overton – General Bogan
- Ed Binns – Colonel Jack Grady
- Fritz Weaver – Colonel Cascio
- Henry Fonda – The President
- Larry Hagman – Buck
- William Hansen – Secretary Swenson
- Russell Hardie – General Stark
- Russell Collins – Gordon Knapp
- Sorrell Booke – Congressman Raskob
- Nancy Berg – Ilsa Wolfe
- John Connell – Radioman Thomas
- Frank Simpson – Sullivan
- Hildy Parks – Betty Black