This is a little, rarely-seen gem of the paranoid we're-all-going-to-die '60s, though one thankfully free of much of the fake patriotism and unrealistic silver linings of so many Cold War-era films of the same genre. This is Not a Test came out around the same time as the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and the lesser-known but just as potentially apocalyptic 1961 Berlin Crisis, and reflects the nation's front-and-center obsession with nuclear war and the pointlessness of Mutual Assured Destruction. It's a great topic ruined by the horrendous video quality of my print. While the miserable pan-and-scan transfer cuts off 20% of the image, sound is swamp-murky, the picture is fuzzy, and it skips in places, it's still worth watching for its dour slice of American history if nothing else. It might have been filmed in two or three nights at the most, with some later pick-ups and a couple minutes of stock footage, and it might have taken less than a week total to get in the can, but it's still a good product.
On to the show...
The setting is in Del Oro County, California, a fake name but all dialogue places it in the Central California valley, somewhere south of Sacramento. The whole movie takes place on one deserted stretch of highway in the dark on one fateful night.
Let's meet Deputy Dan Colter, not exactly our hero, but certainly the one character who drives most of the plot along. He's alone out on this lonesome two-lane highway at 4am, just doing what bored county cops do on the graveyard shift. Like all the other actors and actresses here, his real name is not important, just know that our cast is full of one-shot bit part actors and blink-and-miss television background extras.
Deputy Colter (and let it be known here and now that these screen caps will be uniformly lousy, sorry).
The car's dispatch radio provides our only link to the outside world on this isolated roadway, and we hear it call to the Deputy that a "Code 1305" is in effect and he should go to "Point 7" to set up a roadblock to keep the roads to and from "the city" open. Clearly, international relations with Mother Russia have reached a tipping-point and the end is near. Deputy Colter has orders to stop cars at this point and keep them from leaving, for their own safety and to keep the roads clear for potential evacuations. Eventually nine other people in five vehicles are stopped by Deputy Colter at this roadblock, and the entire movie revolves around their interactions. As such, this is a different kind of after-the-bomb film that what you usually see, not a bunch of people trapped in a bunker (overdone), but stuck on an open road in the middle of nowhere, no less trapped than their cinematic brothers and sisters in their underground fallout shelter.
First to be stopped are Country Bumpkin and his scandalously over-affectionate granddaughter Elly May Clampett, who drive up in his old beater truck with a load of live chickens. Country Bumpkin will be the voice of homespun reason for the film, an old man who has lived enough to not be too phased by what is about to happen. They represent the simple country folk, salt-of-the-earth types who don't know nuttin' about no nookleer bombs and stuff.
Elly May and Country Bumpkin (insert yee and haw here).
Next come two sleazy grifters in a high-finned Cadillac convertible full of empty whiskey bottles and hopeless dreams of a better life. Natalie Cole the star-eyed bimbo and Dean Martin the gritty hood have just swindled someone out of $175k and are on their way to Hawaii to try and buy the American Dream. They represent the disaffected youth, wild and crazy here in the first half of the 1960s, full of idealism and arrogance.
Natalie Cole and Dean Martin, couldn't hardly find a single cap where they weren't squabbling with each other.
Next to come along are a typical 1960s Mad Men married couple. Frumpy husband Mr. Suburbia is controlling and demanding, too-hot-for-him wife Mrs. Suburbia is ignored and treated like chattel (though he can afford to buy her a nice house in the suburbs and a new Buick). They also have a poodle named Timmy, who simply must die. They are on their way to catch a vacation flight, and Mr. Suburbia in particular can't seem to shake off this unplanned disruption both in his carefully detailed vacation and his country club-and-scotch lifestyle. They represent the typical vanilla white toast middle-class American, seemingly oblivious to the real world and its horrible dangers.
Mr. and Mrs. Suburbia.
Next to venture along the highway is Average Joe the truck driver, hauling a load of merchandise to "Discount World" in Sacramento. He has recently picked up a hitchhiker named Clint, a disturbed young man who has a shady past and disheveled hair. With his out-of-place Long Island accent and his rugged stubbled chin, Average Joe represents the typical aw-shucks working class beer-and-pretzels stiff, while Clint represents the 16.3% of the American population that is batshit crazy.
Average Joe (b) and Clint (f).
Last to our block party beside the road is a youngish kid who shows up mid-movie on a Vespa scooter wearing a Justin Timberlake fedora and a stylin' sweater-vest. I'm not sure his name is ever mentioned on-screen, and he doesn't do much until the very end, so I'll just call him the New Kid. Like Heroes, this movie already has too many characters and his role could have been easily cut and we wouldn't have even noticed. My guess is that he's the underwriter's retarded nephew or something, and he wouldn't hand over the check unless the kid had a role so his sister down in Pasadena would get off his back.
The New Kid chats with Elly May, hey, where are the minorities? It's California!
Deputy Colter stops them all, tells them to pull to the side but doesn't offer much info about what's going on. He tells Country Bumpkin to get some road flares out of his patrol car (I can't imagine a cop from 2009 telling a civilian to do this) and makes it clear he's the sole voice at this time and place. It's not that the cop has any direct authority other than his status as police officer, it's more the force of his personality. In reality, he can't stop anyone from leaving if they really, really are determined to do so. Sure, he could shoot a few, but if they really wanted to leave they could bumrush him or just all flee, hoping to get away while he chases others. And it's not even clear if Deputy Colter would even bother trying to stop anyone from leaving anyway, though he might just because his sense of duty might call for it.
I'd listen to him, he kinda scares me.
As it turns out, Clint is a mentally-unbalanced escaped murderer, a local boy known to Deputy Colter. When the cop first sees him, Clint runs off into hills after pulling a knife and frothing at the mouth for a bit. He hides up there in the dark for the rest of the movie, he won't leave because his suitcase is still there (he ain't right in the head). I have to agree with other reviewers that this character is badly misused here, and perhaps with some more time to massage the script they might have realized that Clint represents man's ability to forgive each other of sins and find common ground in a time of great crisis. As it is, however, he's just a paint chip-eating nutjob squatting behind a rock in the dark.
Clint (good lord, is that Chuck Bass from Gossip Girl?).
The intermittent radio chatter continues, "Situation 1310! Condition Yellow! Air Raid Alert! Conduct Operation Eager!" Clearly, war is imminent. Everyone is antsy and wants to leave this road, but Deputy Colter has orders to keep them here and that's what he's a-gonna do come hell or high-water.
In a personally awesome bit they try checking the Conelrad civil defense radio station (640 on the dial!) for news, but the thick ridgeline prevents reception. Few things are more kitschy Cold War than Conelrad, echoes of Duck and Cover and Better Dead Than Red and all that.
Elly May's expression is shared by nearly everyone.
Deputy Colter gets out his duty shotgun, fires a shell into the air to get everyone's attention, and firmly reminds them all that he's in charge and what he says goes. He will have no panic, no dissent, and no runaways, so he takes all their keys away to remove the temptation to flee. He does have a brief fight with Dean Martin, who ends up temporarily cuffed to the bumper of this car until he cools down. Dean Martin would rather find a bar somewhere and pound away at cocktails until the clouds part with holy fire, he's just not the type to run and hide from anything, even WWIII. Arrogant? Certainly. Selfish? Maybe, but everyone handles stress in different ways so it's hard to really blame him for falling back on what he knows best (martinis and cannolis).
The Deputy has had about enough of this cool-man hipster wannabe and his jive-talkin' ways.
The radio squawks, "Condition Red! Evacuation Order Scatter! Local law officers have full authority! Execute severe measures to keep roads open! Martial Law imposed!" They all gather around and talk about the coming nuclear war, about roads jammed with fleeing citizens and the insanity of mass evacuation from a major metropolitan city in a nuclear attack scenario. While they are not happy about it, it's true that they are smart to stay out here. They do mention that they are between the city, the Western Air Defense HQ and some big defense plant, meaning they are in a triangle of death! Colter still says they stay here, his orders are orders.
Inflexibility will be the end of them all.
Deputy Colter's next brilliant plan is to empty out the semi trailer and use it as an impromptu bomb shelter. Not the best idea, but in a pinch it will do and no one has any better ideas. They do note that they will have to hole up inside there for two weeks until the radiation dies down (assuming the overpressure blastwave doesn't squash them flat, or that the radiation-mutated killer lizards don't get them first). While unloading the truck, Deputy Colter is gruff and demanding beyond need, Natalie Cole gets a fur coat for her and Mrs. Suburbia, Dean Martin finds a case of bourbon and has to talk down a critically emotional Natalie Cole with the empty promise of marriage, Mr. and Mrs. Suburbia fight over what a tool he's been, and Deputy Colter ruins all the fun by breaking the bottles of booze (which is really a smart move under the circumstances).
Unloading truck, not enough food in there to last two weeks, might have to draw straws and eat someone.
Natalie Cole takes a break from humping boxes of detergent and lampshades to get roaring drunk on a pilfered bottle of hooch. She even tries to get apparently pure-as-the-driven-snow Elly May to loosen up a bit and have a throat-scalding drink. They make an odd couple, Natalie Cole is the emotional sort and she breaks down and cries at the drop of a hat, probably did so even before this night. She's one of those world-weary women that life has beaten down and dragged through the mud, and it's hard to see how she would have anything other than chromosomes in common with Elly May, who just is all Amish-ish innocence and simplicity.
"Come on, all the cool kids are doing it. You want to be cool, don't you?"
Later, while Average Joe is off away from the group on guard duty (still watching for Clint), Mrs. Suburbia approaches and sits beside him. There has been some chemistry between them since the first second they met and now that they have a minute alone, they have an honest talk about their feelings. It's not sappy or overly gushy, just two people in a bad situation trying to make something good happen. "Put your arms around me." she says. "You know what you're doing?" he asks to be sure. "I think I do." she replies and they embrace. They share a rather tender kiss (free of the typical 1960s mashing/twisting/mauling) and presumably make love on her fur coat.
Call me a softy, but this is my favorite scene of the movie.
This tryst is seen by Mr. Suburbia, who has already given up all hope and doesn't seem to care anymore anyway. As he walks away, Average Joe intones, "It really doesn't make a difference, does it?" And he's right, all bets are off in love and war.
You lost her a long time ago, buddy, she's just now showing you.
Elly May is claustrophobic and she can't stand the thought of being in that trailer, so she starts panting and panicking and runs off. She doesn't get far before she bumps into Clint, who is still hiding in the woods. He's nuts, of course, but kind to her because she is kind to him (he does come across as quite a sympathetic Lennie Small-kind of character, though again I wish more had been done with him). He lets Elly May go after admonishing her to, "Next time bring my suitcase."
Elly May and Clint.
With the trailer now empty, it and the police car move a quarter-mile up the road to a more secluded spot.
As soon as they are gone, Clint comes down and grabs his suitcase. He tries to use one of the abandoned cars to escape but has no keys. Clint totally loses it now, running around screaming and waving his arms about. He goes to Country Bumpkin's truck and trashes his chicken cages, even grabbing and tossing the chickens, kicking a few more for good measure (all for real, no stunt chickens, call PETA!). He eventually passes out from the exertion.
The radio begins to blare now, "Code 1320! Missiles! Missiles! Missiles!" Hints are dropped in the garbled transmission that Seattle and San Francisco are already nuked with more to follow. Major freak-out now as the end is clearly near. Deputy Colter, who apparently has been reading his Civil Defense booklets nightly, has them put mud over the trailer's air vents to keep the fallout from getting in. Sure this will make it stifling hot in there and they might just survive without growing a third leg or anything, but I'd probably not be able to take it for that long without going crazy. Mr. Suburbia has right idea and before getting into the trailer with the wife that just left him, he mans-up and shoots himself in the head with the cop's shotgun. Now I'm beginning to think Deputy Colter's plan is bogus. Staying in this triangle of death doesn't seem so wise after all, especially when they could all drive like bats out of hell west into the mountains and away from any targets. But still, maybe this is the best way to survive. All that talk of fireballs and blast waves and such must take into account the sad state of rocket science in the 1960s. That atomic warhead with "Sacramento" scrawled on it might explode on the launch pad, blow its gyroscope and spin out, fail to separate from the missile bus and wobble into orbit, or even fall prey to a lucky Nike-Hercules interceptor. And even if it did make it to the city, the CEP of those early systems was notoriously wide, and it could always dud, shattering on impact without triggering that terrible dance of protons and neutrons. I'm just saying that even though WWIII has started, you still stand a chance of outrunning the worst of it if you are in a suitable location to start with (like they are). Better than just sitting there and waiting for the flash-bang and the pall of strontium and cesium to turn the survivors into blood-craving mindless zombies (it could happen). [Editor Pam: You've got a point, but I still think they'd be better off getting away from the three targets. Maybe the deputy's reasoning is that at least they'll have some shelter in the trailer, but they do seem awfully close to where bombs are likely to fall.]
Happiness is a warm gun.
In the confusion, the Country Bumpkin, Elly May, and the New Kid sneak off to find their own way in this world gone mad. They talk about an old mine shaft nearby where the kids could hide and play Adam and Eve once the fires die out. Country Bumpkin is just going to go up to the ridgetop and watch it happen, he's too old to hide.
However, there's not enough time to make it in the end, and the two youngsters are presumably dead.
Just delaying the inevitable, folks.
Inside the trailer just five are left; Deputy Colter, Average Joe and Mrs. Suburbia, and Dean Martin and Natalie Cole. Not five minutes pass in the heat and the darkness and things start to break down. Dean Martin has given up any pretense of being anything other than a raging dickaholic, Average Joe is shocked (shocked!) to hear that he can't smoke in a enclosed space without ventilation (the horror!), Natalie Cole overheats and strips down to a very censor-proof camisole before breaking down into tears yet again, Mrs. Suburbia just hugs her dog and whimpers, and Deputy Colter broods with impotence. Now that I think of it, they missed a chance to give the cop some background, just a few lines of dialogue to explain his rock-solid devotion to authority and the command structure. Was he a former soldier? Did something happen in the war(s) to make him so rigid? Perhaps in a longer movie.
She's hella cute, but way too over-emotional to survive the apocalypse.
In a final act of misguided rage, Deputy Colter strangles the little dog Timmy! Colter is now clearly losing it, though still doing what he thinks is best. Myself, I would have kept the puppy alive a while, you're going to need some fresh meat at some point.
Oh, come on, don't look at me that way.
Suddenly, outside arrives a dozen or so refugees from the city, first out in a bus. They are out of gas and need some right now, and it's plain to see that they don't care what the Deputy says about anything. They tell them about how he city is a madhouse and everyone is freaking out, "Ain't no law, everyone for himself!" The radio sputters to life one last time, "Missiles three minutes out!" The marauders beat up Deputy Colter and steal his keys as one kidnaps Mrs. Suburbia before they roar off in the police car.
Marauders (is that Mister Rogers?).
Deputy Colter wakes up and tries to get into the trailer, but is too late as the first bomb bursts nearby, atomizing him, the trailer, and everything in between. Kudos to the producers for not using stock footage nuke blasts, really nice. I don't mind a downbeat ending to a movie with a desperately dour tone, and this one really needed to end this way and not with some tacked-on, appease-the-studio happy ending that would undermine all the tension and fear that has built up to this point. [Editor Pam: I'm not sure what purpose the roadblock served. It appears it was part of a plan set up ahead of time, judging from the radio message the Deputy received at the beginning of the movie. I can see why it would be a good idea to keep the roads open to allow evacuation and to permit emergency personnel to reach the area, but is one man supposed to be able to do this? We saw what happened when a few fugitives showed up, and it didn't take them long to overwhelm the Deputy. Besides, once it's known that missiles are actually coming, it's too late to evacuate the city in an orderly fashion, so they might as well let everybody through. Does anybody know if real civil defense plans to the time actually called for roadblocks to be set up on all roads, even narrow two-lane roads like the one in the movie? It occurs to me that if this movie was based on real civil defense plans, the true purpose might have been to bottle up everybody who was already in the cities, since they were doomed anyway, and as much as possible prevent desperate refugees from looting unbombed areas. Of course, it's also possible that the writers were making up their own version of civil defense to produce a more dramatic movie. I liked the ending, which is a much more realistic one than most similar movies of the period had.]
Not going to happen.
Just an aside, but those who know me know my unhealthy fascination with Cold War-era jets. In the pursuit of knowledge, over the years I've learned some very interesting things about the supposed Soviet nuclear threat to America and the myths surrounding the alleged "missile gap". Specific to our movie, in 1962, when we Americans were sure that any war with the Soviet Union would lead to thousands of atomic missiles raining down upon us, the truth is that Mother Russia might not have been able to touch us at all. Thanks to an astoundingly successful disinformation campaign by the Soviets, we grossly overestimated their nuclear arsenal for most of the 1950s and 60s. Had the Cuban Crisis of '62 turned ugly, Russia would have been obliterated and may very well have not been able to scratch us back at all. In 1962 they had perhaps as few as four (4) operational ICBMs on the low end and maybe 20 or so at the ultimate maximum. Even those were of the type that took hours to prepare to launch, making them easy targets for USAF bombers and ICBMs to take them out on the launch pads. They had maybe three dozen nuclear-capable bombers with enough range to reach the continental US, but would have had to fight their way past thousands (literally) of US and Canadian jet interceptors, guided by four tiers of sophisticated radar systems, an almost impossible feat for the unescorted, slow-flying, mostly piston-driven Soviet bombers. At sea it was even more lopsided, as they had just a handful of old, slow, diesel-powered submarines armed with nuclear missiles, which would have had to approach to within a few miles of their target, surface and spend an inordinate amount of time exposed to prepare their missiles. The US Navy was at its absolute strongest in this time period, and the likelihood of this occurring would be remote. In comparison, America in 1962 had hundreds of ICBMs, hundreds of sea-based SLBMs, thousands of air-dropped bombs on hundreds of jet bombers, plus hundreds of intermediate-ranged missiles surrounding Russia's borders. If used to the fullest (as LeMay would insist), the Soviet Union would cease to exist as a nation within hours. It would not be until the late 1970s/early 1980s that the Russians would achieve parity with us in nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Anyway, just thought I'd mention that.
Written in October 2009 by Nathan Decker and edited by Pam Burda.