There’s nothing I love more than a movie that makes me feel really terrible. Sure, feel-good movies are fun to watch, but I prefer those films that keep me up at night worrying about scenarios that will likely never happen, that plant uncomfortable thoughts in my head, that stick with me long after the movie is over. After the initial shock wears off, a good disturbing movie will give the viewer more to chew on. These feelings of dread and paranoia blossom into greater introspection about one’s deepest fears.
I am always looking for movies like this. While quarantining over the summer, I was able to spend lots of time exploring this darker side of my love of cinema. I binge watched movies like High Tension, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Man Bites Dog, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Disturbing as these movies were, nothing comes close to the disgust, anxiety, and sadness I felt from watching the 1986 British animated film When the Wind Blows.
The film follows a retired British couple, Jim and Hilda, living in a small home in the countryside. They are told by the British government that a nuclear bomb may be detonated near their house, and they should take certain precautionary measures to prepare for the worst. The bomb goes off, and the rest of the film is them dealing with the fallout, while insisting that the British government has some greater plan to rescue them.
When the Wind Blows is a deceptive film. Judging by the animation, my introduction about why I love disturbing films may seem completely out of place. How can a film that looks like an episode of Caillou be as teeth-grindingly frightening as a film like Salo: or the 120 Days of Sodom? The thing is, the animation is that very quality that makes the film so astoundingly unsettling.
We Westerners often see animation as an innocent medium specifically aimed at kids. This was especially true at the time of the film’s release. In the 80s, most English language ‘adult’ animated films were unapologetically campy. They mostly followed Ralph Baski’s brand of overly sexual low budget fantasy films. Although these films are good in their own right, they weren’t exactly the most mature films. These ‘mature’ films went out of their way to convince the audience that they were made for adults by featuring gratuitous nudity, over the top violence, and constant drug use. So when this movie has none of that, it’s easy to forget that the movie is not a kids film, which is exactly the kind of tone that the film is going for.
Initially, When The Wind Blows builds an atmosphere of cheerful leisure. The bright, vibrant greens and blues of the British countryside mixed with the simplistic character designs immediately suck you into the world of the film. The deceptively cute animation parallels our protagonists’ view of the world. No matter how dire things get, no matter how foolish and contradictory the orders they are given from their government are, they insist that salvation will come and everything will go back to normal. The animation style is inappropriately cheerful because our protagonists are inappropriately cheerful.
The film wastes no time in establishing this relaxing atmosphere. After a brief montage of clips from the Cold War establishing the film’s time period, we are treated to a relaxing scene where one of our protagonists, Jim, picks up a newspaper and then takes the bus back to his small home in the countryside. This is set to an incredible original song by the rock legend himself, David Bowie. Like the film itself, at first, the song feels cheerful and whimsical at first. Bowie’s angelic vocals work with the mysterious instrumental to create a joyful sounding track. However, on a closer listen, the song alludes to something much darker. In the chorus, Bowie repeatedly sings the line “I dread to think when the wind blows.” This line (and the title of the film) are based on the nursery rhyme “rock-a-bye baby, on the treetop. When the wind blows, the cradle will rock. When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall. And down comes poor baby, cradle and all.” This nursery rhyme plays over the closing credits. In this song, the wind symbolizes nuclear destruction. An unstoppable force that could strike at any moment, completely disrupting both destroying our protagonists’ lives and civilization as we know it. The cheerful melody brings us into the vivid, beautiful world of the British countryside while the grim lyrics give us the feeling that something is off.
Also, the unique animation style is often used to emphasize the disconnect between the characters and the environment. When the bomb does go off and their house is basically destroyed, our protagonists feel out of place. The bright reds and greens have been turned black with soot, and the disconnect between live action and 2D animation now feels much more apparent.
Jim and Hilda’s relationship is the driving force behind what makes this film so powerful. Both characters feel incredibly fleshed out, and much of the tension in this movie comes from a genuine desire to watch these characters overcome their situation. Near the beginning of the film, Hilda stares off into the distance, leading to an incredibly strange daydream sequence. The animation style switches to a more sketched out style. We see Hilda fly naked with butterfly wings through the garden, to a prince and a princess who are kissing. This vision is cut short by the sounds of Jim nailing a door against the wall to create a shelter. Hilda views her marriage with Jim as something out of a fairytale. When the film starts, she has already achieved her “happily ever after.” The sounds of Jim building a shelter bring her out of this fantasy as the realization that her life is about to change forever slowly sinks in. This unique sequence puts us in her perspective and makes us understand why she is so opposed to addressing what is happening.
This couple is brought to life through the delightful voice acting of Oscar winning actors Sir John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft. Both of these Shakespearian actors bring a new level of likability to their characters through their comforting voices and restrained delivery. Both actors deliver their lines very matter of factly. As their health degrades due to the radiation, the voice acting gets much more drowsy but keeps the same polite tone, making their deterioration all the more heartbreaking to watch.
Before the bomb goes off, these scenes of this happy couple are intercut with occasional shots of missiles and other devices of war getting ready to attack. These shots are colored very hellishly. The film will go from a bright green and muted yellow color scheme to something out of a Dario Argento film, emphasizing the difference between the world of the war, and the world of the small little house on the British countryside. These shots make the scenes in between them all the more stressful, as we know that something bad is going to happen soon.
Although the characters are all hand drawn, the environments are mostly realistic models. When a character interacts with their environment, a mix of 2D animation and stop motion is used to blend the two worlds together. The unusual combination of animation and live action, a technique that may polarize some audiences, was effective because of the incredible set design. Jim and Hilda’s house is so vibrantly colored that it almost looks as cartoonish as the actual animation. It looks like a house out of a children’s picture book.
The damage the bomb does is shown through beautiful black and brown sketch art. During this sequence, we don’t see any death or gore, we just see property getting destroyed. We see buildings collapse, trains flying off their rails, and cars crashing. This allows us to get a sense of how powerful the bomb is, without diverting too heavily from the film’s innocent tone. Also, it is later mentioned that Jim and Hilda’s son was driving at the time the bomb hit, which makes the shots of cars crashing into each other harder to watch on a second viewing.
After this, we zoom in on a photograph of Jim and Hilda’s wedding. This transitions to a heartbreaking montage of a youthful couple getting married, playing soccer together, laughing happily on the beach, waltzing together, and eventually getting married. The quality of the animation gets better as time goes on, a clever little detail that allows us to understand the time period. We fade back out to their wedding photo, and the blast from the bomb knocks it off the wall and shatters it, showing that this happy life is now gone forever.
All of this takes place within the first 30 minutes of the film. The rest of the movie is the couple trying to stay as positive as they can even though everything they knew has been wiped out. Hilda keeps insisting that they leave their shelter so she can do things like clean dishes in a dishwasher, let the curtains soak, and sweep the floor. Her main goal throughout the rest of the film is just to go back to normal life, despite their house basically being turned to rubble. Jim insists that they stay in the shelter. He keeps telling his wife that if they follow government orders and stay in their shelter, someone will come for them and everything will be fine. He never loses hope. The dialogue changes very little, even though their life changes massively. As a viewer, you slowly realize just how morbidly irreversible their situation is. But they never do.
When The Wind Blows is a film that I am very hesitant to recommend. It’s repetitive, painful, and very very bleak. But it’s a film for which I am very grateful. It uses the medium of animation in a way that had not been seen before and has not been employed in such a manner since. It’s one of those rare movies that will put you through absolute agony but will give you the desire to rewatch it as soon as you’ve finished it.