Sunday, September 20, 2015

When the Wind Blows

When the Wind Blows; animated drama / disaster movie, UK, 1986; D: Jimmy Murakami, S: John Mills, Peggy Ashcroft

Jim and Hilda are a retired couple in their 60s, living peacefully in a rural area in England. Disturbed by an unknown crisis during the Cold war, Jim decides to put several boards leaned on to the wall, hoping to serve as an improvised shelter, together with food supplies, pursuant to instruction found in the government leaflets. Just then, the Soviet Union bombs England with an atomic bomb, in order to perpetrate a nuclear Holodomor. Because they were on the edge of the explosion, they survive, but stay in the shelter for 48 hours. Afterwards, they exit, sweep away the debris in their damaged home and have some tea. However, the radiation causes more and more health concerns to them, until they eventually die in their bed.

One of the best movies from the 80s, a wonderfully simple and unassuming little story, an adaptation of Raymond Briggs' eponymous comic book, Jimmy Murakami's "When the Wind Blows" is a bitter-sweet essay on the indestructible human spirit, which refuses to bend even when faced with death. Unlike other films about nuclear war, which tend to present a wide picture of events and characters, "Wind" takes the opposite, intimate approach: it is presented only from the perspective of two characters, the retired couple Jim and Hilda, who stoically carry on with their life routine in order to at least mentally escape from blood and carnage that comes knocking on their home door. Jim is such a nice man, always a sweet and polite gentleman, voiced perfectly by the brilliant John Mills, as is his caring wife Hilda, and thus it is heart-breaking watching them slowly die for the whole second half of the movie. At the opening, when Jim enters the house and says: "I'm afraid there's going to be a war, dear", Hilda just continues preparing lunch, and benignly asks: "Mashed or chips?" - "Chips, thanks." The sole sequence of the nuclear strike is intense stuff: the radio announcer just says that a missile will hit in 3 minutes, just as that, and in all the chaos, where Jim pushes Hilda in the shelter, she only worries if the cake in the oven will be burned.

The images of the effects of a nuclear wave sweeping across the green meadow, destroying houses and trees, is heart-breaking, but is only overshadowed itself by a camera drive through the meadow into the house, zooming in onto Jim's and Hilda's wedding photo, which for a second comes to life, showing all the vignettes from their life up to that point (exiting the church, smiling, walking down the meadow, dancing...) - and then breaking and falling down from the wall, in one of the most poetic illustrations of interrupted life ever put on film. Even after half of their house has been demolished, they give a perfect act of pretending to continue ("I need to get one of those with a stereo. I've only got two years to go." - "I hope Ron and Beryl got back all right." - "Oh yes, they will be all right. Our Ron is a very careful driver." - "I didn't mean the driving so much. More the bomb.") As such, these two protagonists become a synecdoche for all the victims of Goreshist Russia in the last 300 years: they are the deported Circassians. The last survival of the Ubykh people. The slaughtered Poles in Katyn. The starved Ukrainians in Holodomor. The massacred Chechens. The bombed Georgians... This is a rare kind of an intelligent, sophisticated doomsday drama: while so many others are going only for gore and melodrama, this one is remarkably subtle, sustained and humorous: so subtle, in fact, you do not even notice that your pleasant smile has been turned into tears at the end, which makes it all the more emotional.



Christopher Sobieniak said...

Excellent article, though I was a little surprised you didn't mention the original author of the book the film was based on, Raymond Briggs, perhaps best known for his holiday classic "The Snowman" which itself also had a very bittersweet ending to a tale of a child's brief time with a snowman. Raymond Briggs purposely wrote "When The Wind Blows" in graphic novel form as his take on the nonsense of nuclear war and showing how blatantly obvious the measures that were in place in the UK at the time (the "Protect and Survive" brochure) were rubbish. The futility of war is on full display in the book as well as this film.

Incidentally, this wouldn't be the first UK readers came to know of Jim and Hilda Bloggs, as they also appeared previously in another book Briggs wrote called "Gentleman Jim", chronicling Jim's high aspirations despite his go-nowhere job of being a bathroom attendee.

When the film got a DVD release a decade back, it included this nifty interview with Briggs that's worth including here.

Much of the film stays very true to Briggs' dialogue and pacing, with the exception of a few moments like Jim's calling to his son Ron, which was added in the film, one moment removed from the original book had Hilda asking Jim about some extra garbage bags that I think was around the same lines as the box of sand she didn't want to go to the bathroom in.

The film was produced by TVC (TeeVee Cartoons) Ltd., who was no stranger to Briggs' work, having produced "The Snowman" some years prior to "When The Wind Blows" and would again adapt another Briggs' story as a half-hour special in the early 90's, "Father Christmas". The studio might be best remembered for the 1968 Beatles film "Yellow Submarine" (directed by its founder George Dunning), but had went on to adapt several literary properties to animation such as Beatrix Potter's "The World of Peter Rabbit & Friends" as well as Kenneth Grahame's "The Wind in The Willows", doing painstaking work to replicate the original illustrations of those books as animated characters and backgrounds.

Christopher Sobieniak said...

One thing of interest I like to point out was the unique art direction and approach used in the film itself. While the exteriors are depicted as flat ink & and watercolor renderings of fields, flowers, trees and homes, the interiors is literally a three-dimensional scale model that was build specifically to film every nook and cranny of the main floor from the beginning and end of the story. Every detail is very exact and calculated so that the characters aren't clashing with a part of the background or foreground element they're not suppose to be in. The plot of the film itself mostly stays within four particular rooms of the house, their living room, the dining room, the kitchen and another room they have their shelter in (I wasn't sure if that was the dining room or not). We never do see the upstairs much besides when Jim unscrews one of the door frames he used for the shelter and when Hilda went up now and then when she had to go. Some live action was also employed at several moments, but is not too distracting or takes you out of the moment as they were able to match the atmosphere and ambiance with the coloring of the characters themselves, especially after they leave their shelter in two days to find their home still covered in soot and smoke.

I will say where When The Wind Blows trumps all the rest is certainly in staying within the perspective of the couple itself, and never leaves this viewpoint other than to show the destruction that occurs for an instant. It's this approach that makes us feel for these characters as we have no other distractions or cutaways to further complicate the matter such as in a more familiar film like "The Day After" or "Threads". We're concentrating on Jim, his wife and nothing else. It's this simplification that has made "When The Wind Blows" also an excellent 2-person stage play for many years I've read.

Incidentally, next year will see another of Briggs' stories come to animated life, his autobiographical "Ethyl & Ernest", about the lives of his parents who were also the inspiration for Jim and Hilda.

Marin Mandir said...

Great observations. I'm sorry for the omission of author Raymond Briggs, the 'mastermind' behind this - I have corrected it and added him in the meantime. The film certainly is untypical, and deliberately takes an unspectacular approach at a spectacular theme, yet watching only this nice couple all of the time makes it all the more emotional. There are dozens of fine touches and stylistic ideas throughout. I will try to check out some of these links, they seem interesting.