Fail Safe -1964 (A movie review)

Released in theaters

  • 1964


  • 95% – Rotten Tomatoes Critics
  • 91% – Rotten Tomatoes Movie Goers
  • 100% – Roger Koehler


  • Henry Fonda, Larry Hagman, Walter Matthau, Edward Binns, Dan O’Herlihy

Directed by

  • Sidney Lumet

Roger’s Review of the Original Motion Picture

This is the original motion picture that was released theatrically in black and white in 1964.  It is based upon the 1962 book by the same name which was written by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler.

Please also see my review of the 2000 live television remake by the same name.

Released not long after the Cuban missile crisis, this movie had much the same real-life relevance that The China Syndrome had in 1979 when it was released less than two weeks prior to the actual nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.

This is just a completely great movie.  I rank it number 5 in my all-time list of top 25 movies which means it gets a 100% rating from me, as do the other top 4 movies on my all-time list – Field of Dreams, The Day the Earth Stood Still, To Catch a Thief  and the Sixth Sense.  To see my entire top 25 list, go to my online blog  From the top of the left sidebar, select the following fly-out …

       Entertainment > Movies > Pearl’s Top 25 Movies

The movie explores what would happen if a communication mishap occurred and a nuclear armed bomber squadron received mistaken instructions to drop its bombs on Moscow.  The movie describes the many processes that the President and his military and civilian advisors go through to try and recall the bombers, in spite of all of the procedures that the bomber crew follows to the letter which are designed to prevent the enemy from calling off their mission once it has been authorized.

The original motion picture trailer …

Henry Fonda, who initially became my favorite actor based upon this role, plays the very cool President and Larry Hagman (Col. Nelson of I Dream of Jeannie and J.R. Ewing of Dallas) plays his Russian interpreter for his negotiations with the Soviet Premier.  When it looks like at least one of the bombers will complete its mission, the President must make an unimaginable decision to prevent the world from being destroyed.

Fail Safe - Ed Binns Cap 811

Other key characters in the movie include Col. Grady – the commander of the bomber that receives the mistaken instructions.  He is played in the movie by Edward Binns.  Another primary character is Gen. Black (Blackie).  He is a trusted friend, and military advisor to the President.  He is played by Dan O’Herlihy.

Walter Matthau explaining how a nuclear war can be “winnable” …

This movie was released about the same time as the 1964 movie Dr. Strangelove, which had a very similar plot and look to it, except with Peter Sellers in the lead, the movie was a satire, and had a very dark humor to it, rather than the dead seriousness of this movie.  Dr. Strangelove also appeared in theaters first.  Even though both Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove were received very high marks from critics (note the Rotten Tomatoes scores of each), Fail Safe  did not do nearly as well at the box office.  Dr. Strangelove was also nominated for four, Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor.  It did not win any.  Fail Safe, on the other hand, was not nominated for any Academy Awards.

The original movie trailer for Dr. Strangelove

Slim Pickens in arguably the most famous scene from Dr. Strangelove …

One other note about the relationship between Fail Safe  and Dr. Strangelove, Dr. Strangelove was based on the book, Red Alert, by Peter George.  There are striking similarities between the books and the movies, even though one is a satire and the other quite obviously not.  Peter George filed a plagiarism lawsuit against Fail Safe, which was settled out of court.

Fail Safe - Henry Fonda.jpg

The full movie (1:33:07) is available on You Tube …


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