Friday, July 17, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Panic in Year Zero"

The early 1960s were the height of the Cold War, when the possibility of nuclear annihilation was a very real thing. We tend to look back on that era with a bashful nostalgia -- duck 'n' cover and all that. But to the people who lived in that time, the idea was pervasive that even if they survived a nuclear war, they'd have to struggle to survive in the chaotic aftermath.

"Panic in Year Zero" exists as a perfect document of those fears and mindset. It has a fairly mild message to it, personified by a typical middle-aged dad who finds himself doing all sorts of terrible and callous things in order to ensure his family's survival. "I went looking for the worst in others, and instead I found it in myself," he realizes near the end.

The father is portrayed by Ray Milland, who also directed the film. Nearing 60, paunchy and with a not very convincing hairpiece, Milland was in 1962 nobody's idea of a matinee idol. But he had a lengthy career, first as an able leading man -- he won the Best Actor Oscar for 1946's "The Lost Weekend" portraying a chronic alcoholic -- and then segueing into roles in cheap, schlocky films, and finally a third act on television. In all, he worked steadily for more than 55 years. Few could say as much.

I haven't been able to find any information on the budget for "Panic," but it's rather obvious that it was a cheapie. The entire cast probably doesn't number even a couple dozen, and most of it was shot outdoors as the family roughs it after the nuclear blast destroys their home in Los Angeles.

I have to admit to a certain affinity for stories like this, where people wander the wasteland after society's rules have broken down, and they must impose a new order of their own making. Stephen King's "The Stand" remains one of my favorite books, and "The Road Warrior" is a film I return to year after year, always finding something new.

The Baldwins were on their way to a weekend getaway when the mushroom cloud appears behind them. The father quickly surmises that they've got to find a safe place to hole up. After dodging insane traffic on the highways, the father takes increasingly desperate steps to protect his wife and teenage son and daughter.

First they buy a ton of groceries. When the hardware store owner won't let the father purchase handguns without a waiting period, he robs him. When a price-gouging gas station owner attempts to charge him $3 per gallon of gas -- how outrageous! -- he punches him out and takes off without paying. Later, he even lights the highway on fire so they can stop traffic and get across. At least one innocent motorist is consumed in the flames.

They finally find a cave, and set about building a stable camp life. Even when radio broadcasts announce that the military has set up refugee camps, Mr. Baldwin refuses to budge. It's more than about safety. The father has seen his world turned upside down, and his own vision of himself as a civilized man, too. At least out here I have some measure of control, he says, even though there are looters and rapists about.

"Panic in Year Zero" isn't a particularly good or bad movie, but the enjoyment in watching it today comes from the peek it gives us into Cold War mindsets of that era. The way people thought probably closely resembles how we all felt in the days after Sept. 11. It's been almost eight years without another large-scale attack on American soil, and it's amazing how fast complacency has crept up on us again. Somewhere in between paranoia and ignorance lies wisdom.

2.5 stars

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