Catching Up: When the Wind Blows

We all have gaps in our cinematic knowledge, films which, if we confess our ignorance of, someone, somewhere will say, “How have you not seen that?!” Catching Up is about these films, and viewing them so long after seemingly everyone else has. Some of these entries may be shocking, some are embarrassing, but all of them are classics.

But When the Wind Blows is quite a different classic from the other films I’ve covered in this column. While my stated goal with Catching Up is to finally get around to watching movies that it seems everyone else has already seen, a lot of people haven’t seen this one. This is because they’ve never had the chance; since its original release in 1986, the film has never been put out on video or DVD in the US. But I’ve heard such strong word-of-mouth from those who have experienced it that I wanted badly to see it for myself, and I finally got the chance this past Friday at the American Cinematheque, where it played as the second half of a double feature with Dr. Strangelove. The tonal shift from the dry wackiness of Strangelove to this movie was jarring. Like the former film, this one deals with nuclear war. The similarities end there.

When the Wind Blows is an animated film produced in the UK. It was directed by Jimmy Murakami, based on a graphic novel by Raymond Briggs. This same collaboration produced the holiday classic The Snowman. I own and love the comic the film was adapted from, so nothing about the story was going to surprise me. But the way Murakami translates the story from page to screen is riveting. I earlier referred to my desiring to “experience” this film, and that was a deliberate choice of words, because this is an experience. A grim, searing, unforgettable experience.

The movie follows a retired couple, James and Hilda Bloggs (Voiced by John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft, respectively), as they experience World War III in their remote country home. Following official protocol as outlined in government pamphlets, the pair struggle to survive, but it’s an utterly futile effort. They attempt to maintain the stiff upper lip as they slowly succumb to radiation poisoning. This movie will deeply upset anyone with the mindset that animation is only meant for children’s fare.

Actually, this film will deeply upset pretty much anyone. James and Hilda are a sympathetic, likable duo. All they want is to enjoy their retirement, and watching them get brusquely swept away by the shock waves of some ineffable foreign conflict is heartbreaking. What makes it worse is their complete inability to comprehend what is happening to them. They don’t know the current global situation. They don’t understand what “fallout” is, nor radiation. They can’t grasp the enormity of what nuclear conflict really entails. They place their heedless faith in “the powers that be” and their useless guidebooks, following absurd, contradictory instructions telling them to paint their windows and build a shelter from doors. Even as their conditions deteriorate, they keep the faith. They are a stand-in for innocents the world over, a symbol of what is at stake in the fight to avoid the use of nuclear weapons.

When the Wind Blows has quite possibly the strangest tone of any film that I’ve ever seen (yes, yes, there are many films I haven’t seen). In addition to being absolutely depressing, the movie is really, really funny. I didn’t count, but my audience laughed at it just as much if not more than at Dr. Strangelove. James and Hilda’s blithe ignorance of how much danger they are in leads to dozens of moments of rich irony. They both are still thinking in terms of the Second World War, and believe this one will be more of the same. They can’t remember whether they’re supposed to be worried about “Jerries” or “Russkies” and bungle the names of every contemporary world leader. A bitterly ironic black heart beats in this film’s chest. What’s even stranger is that it completely pulls it off.

The humorous moments serve to make the sad moments all the more potent. They also illustrate the complete absurdity intrinsic to every level of the Cold War. The useless government pamphlets that James and Hilda trust were real, as is every ludicrous action they take based on their advocacy. This is satire at its most vicious, skewering the sociopathy of nuclear geopolitics with a vengeance. There’s also more than a few jabs at James and Hilda’s rather rosy view of WWII. It’s rather odd how they remember a brutal war in which tens of millions died so fondly. The suggestion seems to be that humanity can’t learn from its past, and that the consequences of this have now become final.

But really, all politics are in the background. This is a story about two sweet old people dying. The film is divided into two parts, taking place before and after the dropping of a bomb near the couple’s house. The first half is all build up, as James and Hilda go about their regular business while, in distant places, rockets and submarines are readied for battle. The second half sees the pair come to the agonizingly slow realization that their situation is hopeless. This is never voiced by either of them, but James’ repeated refrain of “ours is not to reason why” becomes increasingly hollow each time. As the effects of radiation sickness manifest, every minute watching becomes a punch in the gut. Soon, no one in the audience laughs at the duo’s malapropisms or misconceptions. And when the movie finally fades to black on an empty prayer, it feels less like it’s ending than it’s being put out of its misery.

The film has a completely unique look. It features hand-drawn characters interacting with stop-motion environments and objects. In his book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud talks about the “masking effect” in cartooning, drawing characters with simplistic designs against realistic backgrounds. You can see it most obviously in anime. This technique allows the reader/viewer to more easily identify with the characters, whose exaggerated facial and body expressions might otherwise alienate. When the Wind Blows takes this idea to the next level by essentially putting its characters in a “real” world. It also allows Murakami to use framing and blocking in ways not normally seen in animation. It creates a very “3D” feel that’s more involving than any gimmicky glasses effect.

As the deuteragonists, Mills and Ashcroft give two all-time great vocal performances. They almost archetypically represent pleasant and stalwart middle-aged British people. They are your sweet English grandparents. Their casual affability makes their characters wonderfully empathetic. And as the world grows darker around them, both actors convey a terrific sense of uneasy optimism that gradually morphs into barely-contained despair. They are the film, and the reason it sticks in me like a tack days after seeing it.

Despite the pastoral setting and elderly characters, When the Wind Blows is a punk rock film through and through. The brazen anti-establishment message and dark subject matter more than qualify it. Of course, a score featuring songs by David Bowie, Roger Waters, and Genesis, among others, helps a lot. It’s a singularly powerful movie that cannot be easily shaken. Despite its unavailability in the US, I urge you to see the film if ever the opportunity arises. There is truly nothing else like it.

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