Great Cold War Movies

December 14th, 2007

For no particular reason, here are my favorite Cold War themed films. What is not included are movies featuring a prominent espionage theme (The Ipcress File, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, Bond films, etc.) because that would inevitably lead to list bloat.

Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Jeez, where do I start; this film is awesome in so many ways. The over-the-top performances from Peter Sellars and George C. Scott. The cheesy special effects. The spot on replication of a B-52 interior. The classic one liners. It’s all pretty awesome. I could watch this film a hundred times and never grow tired of it.

World War III (1982)
I saw this on TV back when I was an elementary school and I seem to recall it being one of those made-for-TV affairs…maybe a mini-series? Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to locate a DVD copy to review, so I’ll have to rack my brains to recall the plot. If I remember correctly, the storyline involved Soviet troops invading Alaska to capture the massive pipeline in that state. A small ill equipped National Guard unit tries to hold them at bay in the dead of winter while the US President (Rock Hudson) negotiates with Russian leaders. It seemed like a cool movie at the time, but I bet if I watched it now, it would probably suck. Anyway, still looking for a copy, either VHS or DVD. IMDB claims the film was made in Oregon and the director died here in a helicopter accident during production.

K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)
This is a fairly recent film and often overlooked, which is too bad because I consider it superior to other recent submarine films like The Hunt for Red October and Red Tide. Unlike those films, K-19 charts a steady, riveting, historically accurate course. Director Katherine Bigelow is one of my favorite contemporary big budget filmmakers and she does a competent job here telling a story of sacrifice and courage set against the backdrop of the Cold War. The film didn’t do well at the theaters, probably because there are no big explosions and Harrison Ford doesn’t kill anyone.

Red Dawn (1984)
I’m sure there are a few readers of this blog who have a soft spot in their heart for this film, but I’ve always had trouble buying the premise Cubans (and Soviets) could actually parachute into Colorado. And how would they get all those tanks and into the heart of America? By air dropping them or moving them up by train from Mexico? This movie mixes equal parts cornpone patriotism with latent American prejudices, like the fear of Latinos streaming over our border unchecked. Still, the whole running to the hills and fighting the commies partisan style is still pretty cool, so the movie remains one of my favorites despite its more cringeworthy aspects. That and the fact Jennifer Grey firing an RPG is totally hot.

Fail-Safe (1964)
Wow, this movie has a totally trippy opening. Some kind of wacky dream sequence featuring a surreal bull fight. This movie follows a premise similar to Dr. Strangelove, but strikes a far more somber tone. While totally depressing, it’s still possible to enjoy this film on an intellectual level. And it has B-58 Hustler bombers, which is totally hot.

By Dawn’s Early Light (1990)
This is another often overlooked Cold War gem (another made for TV movie?). It certainly has its cheesy moments, but it does a pretty good job of showing what would have happened during the first few hours of World War III. The story follows the crew of a B-52 bomber, the crew of a Looking Glass flying command post, and Air Force One. And like Dr. Strangelove, James Earl Jones spends the entire movie stuck on a plane.

WarGames (1983)
I didn’t know anything about computer hacking before I saw this movie. It was a complete revelation just seeing Mathew Broderick hooking his Commodore 64 up to his phone. Up till then, I thought computers were just for playing games, which is of course the theme of this movie I guess. The NORAD war room is rendered impressively even by today’s standards. In actuality, NORAD was not nearly as impressive as it is in the film since it didn’t really have two story video screens.

Honorable Mentions

Ice Station Zebra (1969)
This film starts off promising, but slides off the rails about halfway through. It does have Ernest Borgnine and the guy from The Prisoner though, which is awesome.

The Bedford Incident (1965)
This movie would have been great if the ‘special effects’ were a bit better. Good story though. It’s totally the kind of movie that kid from Rushmore would have turned into a stage play.

Firefox (1982)
This movie is painfully boring until Clint Eastwood steals the Soviet jet; from there it kicks some mild ass.

Gotcha! (1985)
I saw this on video w/ Matt Mattecheck back in High School. It’s notable for the presences of Anthony Edwards mainly, in his preTop Gun glory. While super cheesy, this movie does a good job portraying a divided Berlin. The film also featured the newly popular sport of paintball.

The Beast (1988)
A little known film from the ’80s directed by Kevin Reynolds (who wrote Red Dawn), the movie is memorable for its subject matter: the Soviet experience fighting in Afghanistan during ’80s. The plot involves a tank crew and its cat and mouse game with a group of rebels. Are those tanks firing live rounds in the film?

The Day After (1983)
Supposedly, this made for TV movie changed the way President Reagan thought about nuclear weapons and brought about some of the limitation on nuclear weapons in the mid ‘80s. Although the horrid special effects detracted from the authenticity of the movie,it still had a powerful effect on the public by showing just how devastating a nuclear war would be.

Entry Filed under: The Cold War

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jesse  |  December 16th, 2007 at 1:04 am

    If you haven’t done so already, you may want to check out Threads (1984) which could be called Britain’s version of The Day After.

    Also, don’t miss the Protect and Survive public information films.

  • 2. Brain  |  December 18th, 2007 at 2:08 pm

    How about going way back to 1954? The Bridges at Toko Ri. Awesome actual carrier footage and lots of Grumman Panther shots. Could do without Mickey Rourke, but mostly a good cast, many of whom later showed up in Bridge Over The River Kwai.

    One of only a few Korean War films.

  • 3. JC  |  December 19th, 2007 at 12:54 pm

    Agree on Threads. It’s pretty intense as is “The War Game,” another UK film from 1965. Of course, there are numerous Twilight Zone episodes dealing with the same theme [”Time Enough at Last,” “The Shelter,” etc.] that I also love.

    Then there’s “The World, the Flesh and the Devil,” with Harry Belefonte. Less cold war and more post-apocalyptic, which I can rant about all day long [e.g., “The Omega Man” is way better than “I am Legend.”]


  • 4. Ben  |  December 19th, 2007 at 9:45 pm

    “Seven Days in May” is a pretty great period film you might want to check out.

    There’s also “Testament”, which eschews planes, warrooms and generals but focuses on a family in the days/weeks after.

  • 5. DGVC  |  October 15th, 2009 at 5:48 pm

    I think a little more research is in order… three BBC productions John Le Carre’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” “Smiley’s People” and “A Perfect Spy” are all excellent from the small screen and the grand daddy of all cold war films “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” should all be very high on any list of films… not to mention the TBS production of “The Company” and the 2007 movie “The Good Shepard”. Any of these films/series give a far more accurate view of cold war era espionage… Shame on me also the the series “Cambridge Spies”

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