World War III Pop Culture: A Review of Threads Part II


Mike Jackson directed Threads. Before the film project even took off, he and the film’s writer Barry Hines did extensive research on nuclear war, and a number of related topics. The British government at the time was light years ahead of the United States with regards to planning for its populace to be prepared for an attack should it ever come. In this regard, Great Britain was one of the more forward thinking and realistic Western powers when it came to civil defense. Square Leg was a 1980 British government command post and field exercise designed to test the Home Defense roles of the Ministry of Defense during a nuclear attack. The conclusions drawn from the exercise were used by Jackson and Hines to form the basis for projecting the amount of destruction and number of casualties in the film.

The crisis scenario created and used as the lead up to nuclear confrontation in the film, and the attack scenario were built from information found in the book Doomsday: A Nuclear Attack on the UK. The crisis scenario was the instrument responsible for driving the first half of the film. In many ways it was a typical late Cold War scenario: A US-Soviet confrontation in Southwest Asia escalates, expands to Europe and ultimately goes nuclear. It was believable, presented realistically enough, and overall performed its job spectacularly.

The film begins on 20 March, 1988 (Author’s Note: I had assumed the film took place in a generic year 198x until learning differently yesterday.) A civil war is underway in Iran between US and Soviet sponsored proxies. One scene later and time jumps ahead to 5 May. News reports reveal that Soviet forces have been detected slipping into northern Iran following a coup in Tehran the previous week which apparently brought a pro-US government to power.

For the next twenty-one days the crisis escalates and becomes increasingly dangerous. Events in Iran and eventually Europe are presented through television and radio bulletins, and newspaper headlines for the first segment of the film. Additional information about pertinent crisis events is also given through on screen updates. The characters go on with their lives under the shadow of a worsening international situation. As the crisis worsens, it starts to impact their lives to varying degrees. Military preparations become evident as the film goes on. Activity at RAF Finningley increases and one scene very specifically shows the BIKINI alert state being changed from Black to Amber. The BIKINI state is essentially the British version of the US Defense Condition system. Amber is a high alert state that indicates a transition to war is expected or underway.

At a point where US and Soviet forces engage each other with nuclear weapons in Iran, the Emergency Powers Act assumes a larger role in the film. Cities and towns across the UK assemble emergency response teams made up of city council members mostly. Looting and riots take place, along with anti-war demonstrations. Subversives are arrested and detained. The British government assumes control of British Airways and cross-Channel ferries to assist in the movement of troops to Europe.

The crisis timeline is set up below. The conclusion of the Threads review is going to require a third post to discuss the nuclear attack segment of the film and touch upon the long-term effects of the war shown in the film. I’ll have that up very soon.


Crisis Timeline


20 March– Civil War erupts in Iran


5 May– Soviet troops move into northern Iran after a coup the previous week installs a pro-US government in Tehran.

8 May– Tensions increase following the Soviet invasion. The US hints at sending troops into Iran.

11 May– The USS Los Angeles, an attack submarine, goes missing in the Persian Gulf. Incidents between US and Soviet naval units take place in the Persian Gulf. The USS Callaghan and Soviet cruiser Kirov collide and are damaged.

12 May– It is confirmed that the Los Angeles has been sunk and the US holds the Soviets responsible.

17 May– US forces begin moving into Iran.

19 May– The US accuses the Soviets of moving nuclear weapons into Iran.

21 May– A US ultimatum is issued calling for a joint withdrawal from Iran by the following day. Warsaw Pact forces begin mobilizing in Europe, prompting a NATO response. US and UK decide to reinforce Europe.

22 May– Ultimatum expires with no Soviet response. B-52s attack a Soviet base inside of Iran. The Soviets defend it with nuclear-tipped SAMs, destroying many enemy bombers. The US responds by using a battlefield nuclear weapon against the base. Exchange ends at this point.

23 May– US and Soviet naval forces clash.

24 May– Soviets blockade East Berlin. Riots reported in East Germany. The USS Kitty Hawk is sunk in the Persian Gulf. A US blockade of Cuba begins. Anti-Soviet demonstrations take place across the United States.

26 May– Soviet pre-emptive nuclear attack is launched. Single warhead is detonated at the edge of space over the North Sea causing major EMP damage. RAF Finningley and other NATO military installations are struck with nuclear weapons. Exchanges escalate. Sheffield is hit by at least one Soviet ICBM.


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