In 1984 a bomb went off on British television.
That bomb was Threads, a well-researched TV movie about nuclear war. Unlike so many other movies, books, and television shows that deal with the subject of nuclear weapons, Threads showed what life was like for normal people on the ground during a nuclear war. It is one of the most horrifying things I’ve ever seen on screen.
Threads traumatized an entire British generation. The BBC only aired it twice—once in 1984 then again in 1985, on the 40th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Japan—then put it in a vault for 20 years. When TBS aired it in the US in 1985, media mogul Ted Turner introduced it personally. “The more we know about what could happen, the less chance it is that it will happen,” the millionaire told Americans before airing the unsettling feature.
Despite its power and enduring relevance, Threads has always been tough to find outside of Britain. That’s about to change. On January 30, a restored Blu-ray and DVD will hit store shelves, complete with new interviews with the cast and crew.
“Severin has actually been trying to license the film for the better part of 10 years, because of our admiration for the film and it's powerful effect,” Josh Johnson of the film distributor Severin Films—the company bringing Threads back—told me via email. “That said, it is coming back at the perfect time because we once again find ourselves in the frightening position of a potential nuclear conflict.”
Threads is set in the British manufacturing city of Sheffield in 1984. It tells the story of a nuclear war as viewed from the normal people of the city. There’s no great military presence, heroes, or moral to the story. The geopolitical reasons for the war happen in the background and quickly stop mattering once the 1-megaton nuke slams into the city.
In the moments after the blast, people die horrifically. One of the great misunderstandings of nuclear war is that it’s over in an instant. There’s a flash of light, and those who disappear into it are lucky. But many survive the initial blast only to slowly perish from radiation poisoning, suffocate under rubble, or feel their own flesh slough off from nuclear heat.
Threads isn’t a movie about humanity's ability to struggle and survive. There’s no message of hope and people don't band together to make it through. This isn't I Am Legend or Armageddon where the brave sacrifice of a single person can save the day.
Instead, society breaks down. Local cops use their fading power to abuse Sheffield’s residents, executing looters and rounding up the sick and infirm. Millions die and Britain regresses and enters a new dark age.
It’s an important movie. The Hawaii nuclear alert false alarm earlier this month was a reminder that we’re still terrified of nuclear war, but rarely do we consider in detail what that war will actually look like. Threads dares to show audiences what they don’t want to consider—that the aftermath of nuclear conflict is far worse than what happens in a flash.