I do not know anything about the filmmakers.

Jayne Loader has produced a CR-ROM, Public Shelter along similar lines to the film, which contains 30 minutes of video, 200 photographs, 18 original songs, 1200 text files. (Reviewed by Sue Williams, "Pacifist goes from satire to high tech," The Australian, Friday November 17, 1995, p. 18.


Meaning of the Title

A reference to one of the many examples of 1950s "bombthink" which as J. Hoberman observes about the film:

Cunningly mixed and continually funny, The Atomic Cafe's gleeful juxtaposition of official footage (with its sci-fi insistence on the authoritative radio and TV trnasmissions), a a variety of "naïve" folk expressions (an assortment of r&b and country songs on the subject of nuclear obliteration, ads frothing "atomic cocktails", and related forms of counterphobic cultural fallout) does more to evoke the mixed guilt and hysteria that characterized '50s bombthink than any other documentary I've ever, seen. (Sleeve notes to Voyager LD, 1995).

There are a number of films and books which deal with the issue of the Cold War conflict between the Soviet Union and the USA beginning in the late 1940s and extending up to the last few years. Denis Altman's film M*A*S*H*" (1970) deals with the Korean War when the Cold War became "hot." Stanley Kubrick's Dr Stangelove (1964) deals with the issue of nuclear deterrence and the possibility of accidental nuclear war. George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eightyfour (1948) deals with the political oppression which a state of perpetual war makes possible.

The Cold War is the period of tension between 1946-7 to the present when the rivalry between the 2 superpowers was most intense. Began with conflict in eastern Europe following WW2 as the USSR and the USA struggled to dominate the regimes which emerged after the defeat of the Nazis. The US quickly took control of West Germany and Japan. The USSR took control of many eastern European countries with doubtfully legitimate "elections" or outright communist coups. Beyond Europe the Cold War took the form of US or USSR support for a number of Third World regimes of various degrees of oppressiveness, with the USSR typically supporting Marxist revolutionaries and the USA supporting whatever regime was in power. Another front for the Cold War was the "Arms Race" in which both regimes endeavoured to produce increasingly powerful and numerous nuclear weapons and delivery systems (such as bombers and missiles).

Within the US the Cold War took on ominous forms with an obsessive concern with the threat of foreign spies and a climate of fear of nuclear attack. A number of political trials were conducted, the most famous being that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for passing nuclear bomb secrets to the Russians, for which they were executed. During the mid 1950s Senator McCarthy was able to make use of the pervasive fear of communist infiltration to organise a government House Unamerican Affairs Committee before which government employees and those in the arts/film industry were required to answer questions about their political allegiance. Those who failed to answer satisfactorily were blackbanned from further employment. This included a number of prominent filmmakers and screenwriters.

As Orwell predicted, the climate of fear also made possible the expenditure of huge amounts of money on military equipment to constantly outdo the Russians and to impose significant restrictions of individual freedom in the name of "national security." This climate of fear is well captured in the compilation of edited extracts of documentary and training films, "The Atomic Café." On the one hand, people coped with the threat of nuclear annihilation by trivialising or commercialising it by naming cocktails and consumer products after nuclear weapons. On the other hand, Americans were shown in schools and on TV propaganda films which either showed the enemy as inhuman, brutal, ruthless, and deviously clever, or which reassured them that nuclear weapons were nothing to fear. The government was caught between 2 contradictory impulses: the need to heighten the fear in order to justify the continued arms build-up and the legal repression of civil liberties, or to reassure the population that it could protect them from nuclear attack and that it knew best what it was doing. The result is a number of touchingly funny, yet sad documentaries from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s which, in hindsight, show the extraordinary naivete of the civilians who trusted so completely what their governments told them, and the absurd and slightly twisted view of the world held by those in government which was represented in the propaganda films of the time.


1. The "guerrilla" method of editing the film from "found footage" from government sources in a way to undermine the message intended by the government: juxtaposition, black humour, absurdity or inaccuracy in hindsight.

2. Compare with Kubrick's black comedy about accidental nuclear anihilation "Dr Stangelove, or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (1964). Both end with an anthology of images of nuclear explosions or Armageddon.

3. The context in which the film was made: Pres. Reagan's arms build up during the Second Cold War of the ealy 1980s, the Star wars speech and research program, the references to the Soviet Union as "the Evil Empire".

4. Note the difference between the documentary films showing the history of the development of nuclear weapons, their testing and deployment (which are quite factual and straight forward), and the very different sentiments of the training and propaganda films designed for enlisted personnel in the army and the general public.

5. Look for the arguments used by American politicians to justify what America was doing (including James E. Van Zandt - US Congressman from Penn., Lloyd Bentsen - a Democratic candidate for vive-President in the last election campaign, Nixon, Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson).

6. The way the enemy is portrayed: the small town in Wisconsin which stages a mock communist takeover (the film is sponsored by an American shopping mall!); films showing the communist takeover of Korea and eastern Europe.

7. The justification that civilian defense can cope with the threat of nuclear attack.

8. The use of American army personnel and animals as live guinea pigs to discover the effects of radiation.

9. The propaganda designed for use in schools such as the "Duck and Cover" film.

10. The warnings of opponents of nuclear weapons, such as Seymour Melman, concerning fire storms (the central argument of the "nuclear winter hypothesis" developed by Carl Sagan and others in the mid-1980s).

11. The hints about what life might be like after a nuclear war (the need to carry weapons to keep out "undesirables") and the arguments the priest uses to justify this.

12. The generally positive attitude towards those in authority in the propaganda and training films: to trust them implicitly and "to relax."

13. The interview with Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the Enola Gay which dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and his justification for doing what he did. He expresses a commonly held view at the time that the death of 100,000s of Japanese civilians in Horoshima and Nagasaki was justified and necessary in order to save the much greater number of American and Japanese casualties if the Americans had had to fight their way to Tokyo. His comments about selecting "virgin" targets in order to conduct bomb blast studies.

14. The connection between religion and the atom bomb: President Truman thanking God for allowing the US to develop the bomb first and praying to help them use it in "his" way; the narrator of the documentary about the Bikini Atoll tests and the relocation of the islanders "everything being in God's hands it cannot but be good"; the priest asserting that the father is the head of the family and needs "protective devices" (i.e. guns) to protect the family in the post-bomb society, note the way the father directs the family during the "attack" in the training film.

15. The impact of nuclear weapons on popular culture such as pop songs.