When the Wind Blows Review
Jim and Hilda Bloggs (John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft) are a retired couple living in the English countryside. However, international tensions are taking the world to the brink of war. Furnished with advice from the booklets he picked up in the local library, Jim makes preparations for survival in the event of a nuclear strike. And then it happens...
A generation after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for thirteen days in 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of World War III, and many a child and adult feared that nuclear mutual assured destruction was imminent. A generation further on, the mid 1980s were a time when fear of nuclear war was again at the forefront of people's minds. In 1981, women set up a peace camp outside RAF Greenham Common in protest at the then government's allowing American cruise missiles to be based there. Archive video footage of the protests is shown at the start of When the Wind Blows. In 1986, there was an explosion in the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl (then in the USSR, now in Ukraine), the effect of which is felt in that region to this day. Disarmament talks between the USA and the USSR broke down. Four decades on from the only use of nuclear weapons in warfare, the Cold War between East and West was at a height.
Inevitably nuclear fears found their way into the popular culture of the day. You can hear theme reflected in hit singles of the time. You might not notice them by listening to the lyrics of Ultravox's “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes”, but one sight of the accompanying music video on Top of the Pops brought home its message with considerable force. And the longest-running number one hit single in the UK of the whole decade (nine weeks) was Frankie Goes to Hollywood's “Two Tribes”, from 1984, of which a bit more later. On television, The Day After was aired on the ABC network in the USA, and Threads on the BBC in the UK. In 1965, the BBC had banned Peter Watkins's The War Game. In 1985, on the fortieth anniversary of Hiroshima, they showed it for the first and so far only time.
At the start of the decade, Raymond Briggs was an established name for picture books for children, including as Fungus the Bogeyman and The Snowman, the latter being turned into a short animated film which was for many years a Channel 4 Christmas Day perennial in the UK. However, When the Wind Blows, published in 1982, is certainly not for children, and nor is this 1986 animated film, despite its PG certificate. It was in 1980 that Briggs saw a Panorama documentary on the BBC1 detailing how unprepared the UK was for the possibility of nuclear war, and his graphic novel was the result, soon becoming a bestseller, and one of the works in that decade managing to defy the usual presumption that comic strips (or graphic novels) were inevitably merely for children.
Depending on your definition of “British” and “feature film”, When the Wind Blows was just the fifth animated feature to be made in the UK. (It was preceded by, in chronological order, Animal Farm, Yellow Submarine, Watership Down and The Plague Dogs.) The film's producer, John Coates, had been production supervisor on the second of those and, specifically to Briggs, had produced The Snowman. His choice of director was Jimmy T. Murakami, born in the USA of Japanese parents. He had worked in animation in the USA, Japan and the UK, and specifically had been credited as “supervising director” on The Snowman. He also had experience with live-action, directing Battle Beyond the Stars in 1980.
Jim and Hilda Bloggs, based to some extent on Briggs's parents, had previously featured in his 1980 graphic novel Gentleman Jim. They are meant as everyman/woman figures. That is reflected in their surname, which for non-Brits may need a little explaining – it's a little like “your average American” figures being named John or Jane Doe. Briggs sees Jim and Hilda as typifying a certain kind of Englishness, a generation nostalgic about World War II, when they were young, but unprepared for a new and different kind of war, deferent to authority and believing what they are told without question.
And that is a sticking point with this film. You can't fault the production itself, which mixes archive footage (such as the Greenham Common footage mentioned above, also World War II-era newsreel) with models and drawn animation. The last two thirds of the film, with the nuclear attack and our protagonists' slow death from radiation, are undeniably harrowing. Yet, it's hard to avoid a sense of dice being loaded. As with the later The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, novel and film, if the protagonists weren't so naive, complacent and, frankly, not particularly bright, then the story would not exist. Nor would this story exist if Jim and Hilda didn't live in the countryside and hence not be isolated from anyone else. The Protect and Survive leaflets that Jim reads were certainly real, and certainly also of doubtful use either to protect you or to ensure that you survived if the Bomb dropped.
Jim and Hilda were played by John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft, who by that time had careers going back decades, and had been respectively knighted and made a Dame. As another point in common, they had both won Oscars for films directed by David Lean, but remarkably they had never acted together on the screen before this. If the film does patronise its lead characters to some extent – and I think it does – that's not the fault of Mills and Ashcroft, whose performances are impeccable. They are almost the entire voice cast: the only others are Robin Houston's radio announcer and three more voices. One of them is David Dundas, the singer and musician, who was set up for life by composing the four-note fanfare for Channel 4, who were one of the companies financing this film.
When the Wind Blows was released in British cinemas in October 1986, which is when I saw it for the first time. There were questions in Parliament as to whether this film (then as now, PG-rated) could be shown to school children without breaching laws demanding “balance” in the discussion of political issues. David Bowie's title song was released as a single. Roger Waters provided the music score and the closing-credits song “Folded Flags”, which musically and lyrically is very reminiscent of his work for Pink Floyd earlier in the decade on the albums The Wall and The Final Cut. The film was successful in the UK, but was less so in the USA and was not released at all in France, meaning that with its difficult production, resulting in a budget overrun, it did not return a profit on its investment.
The BFI's release of When the Wind Blows is dual-format, comprising a Region B Blu-ray and a Region 2 PAL DVD. A checkdisc of the former was received for review.
The aspect ratio of the film on this disc is 1.37:1 and I would be interested in a source for this being correct as it was certainly not shown in that ratio when I saw it on its release in 1986. Pretty much any cinema showing it then would not have been able to show it in Academy Ratio, including the one I saw it in. While it's true that you won't get lights or microphone booms in shot if you show an animated film open-matte, as you might with a live-action film, it still doesn't mean that the film is composed for 4:3. It certainly seems to me that it wasn't. Other than that, the transfer is fine, with colours much the same as I remember them from the time, and grain natural and filmlike. The video footage at the start is certainly noisy, but then it always was.
When the Wind Blows was released with a Dolby Stereo soundtrack (four-track, i.e. left, centre, right and a single surround), which was pretty close to universal in 1986. This is rendered as LPCM 2.0, playing as surround. The film doesn't have the showiest of sound mixes, with the surround mainly used for the music score and for ambience. English subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing and seemed accurate, even down to Jim's frequent malapropisms. Also available on the disc is an isolated music and effects track.
Some of the extras are brought forward from a previous edition released by Twilight Time in the USA. They begin with a commentary track featuring the film's assistant editor Joe Fordham (and later filmmaker) with film historian Nick Redman. This is a detailed conversation, ably moderated, and shows that someone who after all wasn't the film's writer, producer, director, cinematographer or actor can still be good value for a track like this.
Also brought forward from the Twilight Time release is Jimmy Murakami: Non Alien (76:41) a feature-length documentary profile of the film's director. It was made in 2010, when Murakami was living in Ireland, towards the end of his life. (He died in 2014, aged eighty.) It covers his life from his birth in California in 1933, and his and his family's internment in the wake of Pearl Harbor and the USA's entry into World War II against Japan. We meet his family, including his brother, the Oscar-winning production designer James J. Murakami. Murakami discusses his sense of not being at home in the USA or anywhere else, and he is clearly angry at the Americans' treatment of its Japanese nationals, but it also explores the outlets he found in animation and film direction. The documentary ends with Murakami and other Japanese-Americans revisiting Tule Lake War Recreation Center, where they had been interned.
Raymond Briggs turns up in an interview made by Channel 4 in 2005 (13:50), when he was, as he tells us, seventy-one. This covers his whole career, so there's as much about The Snowman (book and film) as there is about When the Wind Blows. Briggs talks about the inspiration for the latter and his working methods.
The Wind and the Bomb (25:23) is a making-of documentary for When the Wind Blows, dating back to the year of the film's release. It includes interviews with Raymond Briggs, Jimmy Murakami and others not otherwise represented on this disc, including the late John Coates. It does cover much of the ground that other items do, but there's quite a bit of footage of the animators at work, and will certainly be of interest to animation aficionados.
“When you hear the air attack warning, you and your family must take cover.” Patrick Allen's stentorian voice will be instantly familiar to those of us of a certain age, as it kicked off Frankie Goes to Hollywood's “Two Tribes”. It was however, lifted from Protect and Survive (49:58), which is presented here in its entirety. This public information film was made by the Central Office of Information in 1975, and was designed to prepare the British public for the possibility of nuclear war. Although the whole thing is fifty minutes long, it was clearly designed to be broken up into many smaller segments, possibly for television broadcast in case the worst happened. There was also a booklet accompanying it, which would have been posted to every home in the land. Every so often, the Protect and Survive logo comes up, and there is noticeable repetition from segment to segment. Inevitably, the advice the film gives is now out of date, and, as When the Wind Blows demonstrates, often inadequate.
The BFI's booklet runs to twenty-eight pages plus covers, It begins with a short introduction by Raymond Briggs and a longer piece by executive producer Iain Harvey. Next is Jez Stewart's “A World on the Brink”, discussing the film and its context in the history of British animation. This piece contains a spoiler warning, though I suspect very few people don't know what happens in this film. Claire Kitson's “The Channel 4 Factor” overlaps to some extent. It covers the film's inception, with John Coates ill in bed one Christmas reading Briggs's book. The essay discusses the film's production and its cinema release, leading up to its television premiere on Channel 4 in 1990. It also refers to its commercial success, which as mentioned above was not enough to put the film into profit. “Music for the End of the World” by Bella Todd takes a look at the film's music, the contributions by David Bowie and Roger Waters especially. The booklet also has full film credits, credits for and notes on the extras, transfer notes and disc credits, and several stills.