From Academic Kids

This article is about a literary work; for the device, see Fail-safe.

Fail-Safe (or Fail Safe for the 2000 version) is the title of:

  1. A 1962 novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler.
  2. A 1964 movie based upon the novel and starring Henry Fonda, Dan O'Herlihy, Walter Matthau, Frank Overton, Larry Hagman, Fritz Weaver, and with a cameo by Dom DeLuise, released by Columbia Pictures. It was directed by Sidney Lumet.
  3. A 2000 made-for-television play broadcast live and in black and white on CBS, starring George Clooney, Richard Dreyfuss, Brian Dennehy, Noah Wyle, and Harvey Keitel; apart from a single live episode of ER that had also starred Clooney, this was the only live drama on US television in four decades. It is a remake of the 1964 film.

All three works have the same theme--accidental nuclear war--with the same plot. The TV version is shorter than the movie due to commercial airtime, and omits a number of subplots.


An unknown aircraft approaches North America from Europe. American bombers of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) are scrambled to meet the potential threat. As a fail-safe protection, the bombers have standard orders not to proceed past a certain point without receiving a special attack code. However, due to a technical failure, the attack code is actually transmitted to Group Six, consisting of six Vindicator supersonic bombers, and they advance past their fail-safe point on the way to attack Moscow. Meanwhile the original "threat" is proved innocuous and recall orders are issued, but Soviet jamming prevents the bombers from hearing them.

At meetings in Omaha, the Pentagon, and in the fallout shelter of the White House, American politicians and scholars debate the implications of the attack. Professor Groteschele (played by Walter Matthau in the 1964 movie), who is loosely based on Henry Kissinger, suggests the United States follow this accidental attack with a full-scale attack to force the Soviets to surrender.

The American President contacts the Soviet premier (unnamed in the movie, but whom the book names as Nikita Khrushchev) and offers assistance in attacking the group. The Soviets decline at first.

At SAC headquarters, General Bogan attempts to stop the attack. However, his executive officer, Colonel Cascio, wants the attack to continue. Cascio attempts to take over command of SAC and is stopped by Air Police, but precious time has been wasted.

The Soviets accept American help in attacking the two surviving bombers of Group Six. However, the Soviet commander, Marshal Nevsky, mistrusts General Bogan enough to attack the bomber carrying decoys, guaranteeing the plane piloted by Colonel Grady will be able to finish the attack.

Colonel Grady contacts SAC to inform them that they are about to make the strike. The Soviets fire a barrage of nuclear-tipped missiles to form a fireball to knock the low-flying Vindicator out of the sky. The President and Grady's wife (son in the made-for-television movie) both try to persuade him that there is no war. Under standing orders that such a late recall attempt must be a Soviet trick, Grady ignores them. The Vindicator's defensive systems operator fires two missiles that decoy the Soviet interceptor missiles to detonate at high altitude. Grady tells his crew that "We're not just walking wounded, we're walking dead men" due to radiation from the burst. He intends to fly the aircraft over Moscow and detonate the bombs in the plane. His copilot notes, "There's nothing to go home to."

When it becomes apparent that one bomber will get through Soviet defenses and destroy Moscow, the American President orders an American bomber to destroy New York at the same time. The Soviet leader is appalled but realizes that it is the only way to prevent a worldwide nuclear war which will probably destroy humanity.

The 1964 film version had the misfortune to be released shortly after Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, which shares many obvious plot similarities with Fail-Safe, but adds black humour and satire to the mix. It proved not as successful in the theatres as it might otherwise have been.

Implications of the Book and Movie

Automation and its effect on mankind are the theme of Fail-Safe. Colonel Grady's crewmen show no real emotions as they fly the airplane. They are automatons, carrying out preplanned actions, trained not to alter their course. This is a stark contrast to the conventions of "bomber crew movies" such as Air Force (1943), where the fliers are portrayed as disparate individuals who, by working together, can change the course of history. The action in Fail-Safe is portrayed on giant maps overlooking the War Room in the Pentagon and SAC Headquarters; the Soviets are never seen.

The robotic Colonel Grady, grimly jetting toward Armageddon despite all pleas to turn back, has had relatively few fictional successors. Major characters in Martin Caidin's novel Ju-52, Dale Brown's novel Chains of Command, and the 1995 film Crimson Tide actively resist direct orders to launch nuclear weapons and are presented as heroes for doing so. (In the 2000 version, Colonel Grady is not an automaton following orders to the bitter end: George Clooney played him as a sensitive officer deeply committed to his duty; at the end, when his son speaks to him, begging him not to drop the bomb just moments before the planned launch, Grady tearfully orders the radio link severed and says, under his breath, "I love you, Billy," before giving the order to drop the bombs.)

The novel was published in October 1962, at the same time as the Cuban missile crisis, and influenced popular debate on the controls used by the United States on nuclear weapons.

The real command system used by SAC and its successor, Strategic Command, differs vastly from the system portrayed in the movie and is based on the KISS principle--keep it simple, stupid! Multiple single sideband transmitters around the world broadcast coded Emergency Action Messages by voice, not by machine. Submarines at sea are contacted by longwave Morse code signals.

Additionally, the "Vindicator" bombers were inventions of Burdick and Wheeler; their defensive capabilities similar to those of the B-52 Stratofortress, and their flying characteristics more like the B-58 Hustler. In the 1964 film version, stock footage of B-58s was used to represent the Vindicators. The 2000 TV version used B-1 Lancer bombers.

The title refers to what could be called an "engineer's commandment": "fail safe", meaning, take account of the ways things can go wrong—fail—and ensure as far as possible that the machine, process, etc. will not make things worse. The title's irony is that, in this case, it is assumed failure is caused by enemy attack, and that the "safe" response is to follow the last authenticated orders at all costs.

The term "fail-safe" has entered common speech based on the plot of the movie; it means to allow some sort of modest retaliation, or even perform it yourself, to avoid a greater escalation of


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