I read Raymond Briggs' 1986 book When the Wind Blows when it first came out, a simply drawn pastel-colors comics format hardcover that I was in love with though it made me cry.
I heard when it was made into a film in 1988, but it never played in local theaters nor that I knew on television. So it was all these years later I finally had the chance to see it.
The extreme color of it seemed wrong after experiencing the original, but it is otherwise the same story, the same aging couple Jim & Hilda facing horror, with satirically sorrowful British stiff upper lip naievete & stoicism.
It opens with an awful themesong by David Bowie. But as soon as we get to Jim & Hilda's pleasing rural cottage, it gets quite nice, as who wouldn't want to live there if they could, a great little home without another soul visible to the horizon. Unlike how Brits really live these days in cramped apartments along smelly canals if they're lucky, next to creepy shopping malls if they're not lucky.
Jim's been reading the news & alarmed by the international situation, with threats of a pre-emptive strike against the commies. He & Hilda have sweet banal conversations about how they survived the Blitz so are looking on the bright side of the new threat of nuclear holocaust.
On the radio it's stated that war is inevitable in two or three days. James is so horrified he's ill. He got two leaflets in the public library that very morning on how to survive nuclear war.
Two or three days isn't long to build a proper fallout shelter, but following the printed advice, he takes the doors off the cottage he's able to build a lean-to in the kitchen. Meanwhile Hilda is blowing dandilion fluff in the back yard.
Having complete faith in their government, & equal faith in the usefulness of civil defense leaflets, James does everything the leaflets recommend. Hilda does ironing & other household chores as though her dear old nutter of a husband isn't doing anything important at all, but it's nice that he has things to keep him busy.
One has to bare in mind that the semi-retarded pamphlet Protect & Survive which James relies on was real, the English government being no less demented than the American.
Around the same time as Briggs' book & film, Ronald Reagan's Deputy Undersecretary of Defense, T.K. Jones, advised: "Nuclear war is not nearly as devastating as we have been led to believe. If there are enough shovels to go around, everybody's going to make it. Dig a hole in the ground, cover with with a couple of doors, and then cover the doors with three feet of dirt. It's the dirt that does it."
George Bush would later advise use of duct tape to seal doors & windows, to keep the radiation out. So England's Protect & Survive just followed the American propaganda angle of making the survivial of nuclear war seem easy & okay.
Jim & Hilda even become nostalgic for the war years, "those were the days," rather pleasant really. James decides to "pop out" & get enough food for fourteen days, as the pamphlet recommends, though he gets about by bicycle. Turns out there's no food left at the grocers, as there's been a panic-run on the local businesses, so their emergency provisions amount to a canned christmas pudding & a tin of pineapple chunks.
When he gets to the pamphlet's recommendation to keep the doors shut he can't quite figure how that fits with removing the doors to build a "core shelter" in the middle of the house. But he still just never questions the sensibility of the instructions.
The instructions are to remain in the lean-to for 14 days. Hilda asks such hard questions as how will they empty the chamber pot if they can't come out from behind the doors. As Hilda gets caught up in the National Emergency, she worries about such things as not having any peanut butter, which is on the official list. Neither of them like peanut butter, but it's officially required.
Meanwhile the Yanks & the Ruskies are getting into positions for all out nuclear war, with Britain & Europe smack dab in the way.
It's not in the pamphlets, but James heard that one might be safe by climbing into a large bag just as the bombs go off. He'd thought it was just a joke before, but now that he thinks of it, they do have some big potato bags.
The radio states that enemy missiles will arrive in three minutes. James kind of loses it for a bit, but drags his slow wife into the cubby of leaning doors, their "core shelter."
Mass destruction follows, millions are dead in a flash. James & Hilda's house is so far from anywhere, they get mostly only a good solid dose of high radiation instead of vaporization. "Blimey" says Hilda when it's over in just a few minutes. They're gald to be in one piece. Their house is a wreck, & the sky is still black though it's day.
"I hope the cushions aren't spoiled," says Hilda, & wants to start cleaning up at once, but James reminds her they have to say under the doors for fourteen days. "We must do the correct thing, dear." Doing the correct thing is their mantra throughout.
They stay in the tiny confined space for quite some while, getting sicker & sicker, starting with aches & headaches. "Got to look on the bright side, ducks. It might've been worse." Forgetting about the forteen day rule, they begin to look about their house, discovering that the water they put aside has evaporated, but they do manage enough to put together a proper tea.
No phones or radio or telly, not even static, they've not a clue what if anything is going on in the world. "We'll have to wait for the paper," says Hilda as she tries to sweep up. They putter about the ruins as though everything's pretty much all right, or will be soon at any rate.
Unaware that their rapid decline is radiation sickness, Hilda can barely move, but worries people will arrive & the place will still be a mess. Their appalling naivete never ceases to make them as likeable as they are pitiable. "We won't have to worry about a thing," says James, certain that the mobile cantines are on their way.
Suddenly remembering they're supposed to stay in the inner core, they crawl back into it for the night's rest at least. Hilda is by then awfully sick.
It's only been 48 hours rather than 14 days, but they decide they need fresh air, & go outside expecting to harvest some lettuce. Alas, everything's burnt, even the paint on the house. There seems to be nothing at all alive, though a dog is howling distantly.
When the unseasonal rains come, they collect it in containers. "We'll be all right for a while now dear," says James, convinced there's nothing cleaner than rain water. "I wish we had neighbors," says Hilda. "I'd like to know what's going on."
They're crapping blood but James says "It's a common complaint in middle aged people like ourselves," & their gums are bleeding, but that just means they'll have to get to the dentist after the emergency rescinds. Their skin breaks out in blotchy bruising. James reassures his wife, "That's too much tinned food, that's all that is. They'll soon clear up. I'll pop down to the chemist's in the morning."
They absolutely never face the obvious. Even when immobilized by illness, James says, "I do fancy a nice cup of tea." Hilda says, "I expect we should just lay here & wait for help to arrive."
When Hilda's hair starts coming out, she decides they should start sleeping in the paper bags again, can't be too cautious at a time like this. "Now we know what it feels like to be a potato," says James weakly, & Hilda, "We'd better just wait for the emergency services." "Yes, yes, they'll take good care of us. We won't have to worry about a thing. The governmental authorities will know what to do with us. The powers that be will get to us in the end."
Hilda asks: "Shall we pray dear?" "Who to?" "God of course." "Well, oh, yes, if you think it'd be the right thing." "It can't do any harm, dear."
When the book first came out this tale really dragged me into a depression, it was just the saddest damned thing. As a cartoon it mostly felt less immediate, but by the last few scenes, the dialogue was just so amazingly tragic in its foolish stoicism, I was reduced again to tears.
As voiced by Peggy Ashcroft & John Mills, it's exactly what I heard in my mind when I first read the book. The music does suck at times. The Roger Waters score, though not as bad as Bowie's opening song, is syrupy in the stupidest places, & the end-song is just a competent behind-the-credits number with no great feeling.
By comparison, the music for another animated film based on a Briggs book, The Snowman (1982), was as heartwrenching as the story, but When the Wind Blows is scored no better than an automobile commercial, its sole flaw.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl