scene from the show threads 1984'

A Look at 1984’s Post Nuclear World in the British Film ‘Threads’ and its Relevance Today

A collage of scenes from Threads. Clockwise: people watch a T.V. broadcast on nuclear explosions, A nuclear warhead explodes over Sheffield, people work the destroyed land of post-nuclear war Britain, and a survivor holds her newborn baby.
Some images from the 1984 sci-fi horror film Threads. Courtesy ResetEra

Threads is a British horror film that first aired on the BBC in 1984. The film, directed by Mick Jackson, details the effects of a nuclear attack on Britain during a nuclear war. Threads is renowned for its horrifying depiction of a nuclear war. The film also realistically depicts the aftermath of a nuclear explosion: radiation poisoning, birth defects, nuclear winter, fallout, and widespread disease and starvation. Watching Threads can leave the viewer stunned and speechless. The film also makes you appreciate the fact that nuclear war has not occurred. It makes you cherish life.

Despite being released over 30 years ago, Threads surprisingly holds up today. Its frank portrayal of the death and destruction in nuclear war can be applied to any time period, past or present. This article will demonstrate how Threads remains relevant to our current global village. But first, let’s take a look at the movie and the historical context behind it.

Brief Synopsis

The film is centred around a young couple from Sheffield, Ruth and Jimmy. The two plan to marry after Ruth unexpectedly becomes pregnant. While all this is going on, hostilities between the United States and the Soviet Union escalate. As tension between the two sides mounts, the people of Britain become more and more nervous. Demonstrations were held denouncing nuclear war. Panic buying has become rampant. Police arrest peace activists, who are deemed “Subversives”. Eventually, a brief nuclear skirmish between the U.S. and Soviets occurs. This sparks a global nuclear conflict.

Sheffield is targeted for its industry and proximity to NATO and RAF bases. The nuclear warhead that explodes over the city wipes out homes, buildings, and factories. Similar attacks across Britain instantly kill millions of people. Those who survived the initial blast take refuge in basements, makeshift shelters. Many succumb to burns or radiation.

After the Attack

As months and years progress after the attack, Britain deteriorates into an apocalyptic landscape. A nuclear winter destroys many crops, epidemics are widespread, and looting is rampant. As the situation worsens, government and military authorities simply vanish. Decades after the attack, nothing has returned to normal. In fact, things have gotten worse.

Ruth standing in the ruins of Sheffield after the nuclear attack.
Ruth in the aftermath of the nuclear attack on Britain. Courtesy Little White Lies

Ruth acts as the viewer’s guide through the post-apocalyptic land. We see the difficulties in finding food and shelter. We witness the horrors of disease, how unprepared and overrun hospitals become. It’s a dystopian setting in every sense of the term.

A Terrifying Experience

There are many things that make Threads a terrifying film. Here are the main two.

First, the film’s visual style adds to the doom and gloom nature. The majority of the film has a dark and grainy look without much light or colour. In the scenes before the attack, Sheffield weather is largely overcast and grey. Once the attack occurs, the film looks even more dark and dismal. This visual style adds to the sense of foreboding, death, and hopelessness that permeates throughout Threads.


Second, the film’s realism makes the events all too real and plausible. The film’s opening perfectly captures the growing tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union; this is communicated by news broadcasts and wireless bulletins. The news pieces play in the background while people go about their lives. Instead of using war scenes to show growing hostilities, Threads utilizes news media to realistically describe the impending war. In doing so, the film recreates a realistic scenario everyone can relate to.

The Sheffield nuclear attack may the most brutal and horrific section of the film. An air raid siren wails as people run for cover. Then the bomb lands, launching a mushroom cloud high in the air. People scream, while a woman urinates in terror. The sight of the mushroom cloud paired with the sights and sounds of fright (paritcularly the screams) is truly scary. The thermonuclear blast topples houses and buildings, killing millions and injuring countless others.

The nuclear attack scene in Threads.

The post-nuclear world is a land of disease and death. Many die from radiation or diseases like cholera and typhoid. The nuclear winter has uprooted the environment. At first, it’s too cold to plant and harvest sufficient crops. Later, higher UV ratings increase the risk of cataracts and cancer. Women are forced to sell their bodies for food. The children of this world have little to no education; they speak a bizarre form of English. The government installs capital punishment to deal with looters and other criminals.

Survivors storm the gate of a food distribution centre, while soldiers try to fend them off.
Survivors clash with soldiers in the post-attack world. Courtesy BBC

The nuclear attack and aftermath are treated in a realistic manner. A narrator provides facts on nuclear attacks and what their results look like. Scenes are be intercut with text providing further information, such as potential military targets and casualty figures. This gives the film a documentary feel, making Threads seem more real and terrifying.

Not In Control

Lastly, the film shows authority figures being unable to cope with the attack and its aftermath. Officials hunker down in a basement command centre, but they appear totally unprepared for the level of destruction. They are completely helpless in organizing relief efforts. This depiction is a truly scary thought. Many people look to government officials for help and support; the government will maintain control. But when worst come to worst, those officials are human just like every one else.

Extensive Research

Threads’ realism resulted from the research director Mick Jackson conducted for the project. To achieve an accurate depiction of nuclear war and fallout, Jackson met with scientists, doctors, and defence experts. In addition, findings from the 1980 British Government exercise “Square Leg” was used. The project estimated what would happen to Britain in the event of a nuclear attack. Jackson used the findings to project the destruction and number of deaths of the film. The research period lasted several months.

Historical Context

Threads was made during the Cold War. The Cold War was global conflict between the United States and Soviet Union and their allies. The war lasted from 1947 to 1991 when the Soviet Union fell. Unlike previous wars, the two combatants did not directly engage one another. Instead, proxy wars were fought: one side uses a group to fight the enemy. The Vietnam War is an example of this. The Cold War extended to space as both sides competed to be the first nation to land humans on the moon.

An intelligence photo showing a Soviet missile base in Cuba. Objects in the photograph are labelled.
An intelligence photo detailing Soviet missile launching sites located in Cuba. Courtesy

Throughout the Cold War, the threat of nuclear annihilation was ever present. The closest the world ever came to all out nuclear conflict was the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. During this crisis, leaders from the U.S. and Soviet Union engaged in a tense standoff regarding the installation Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. The missiles were only 90 miles from the U.S. shoreline. President John F. Kennedy enacted a naval blockade of Cuba. He also made it clear the U.S. was prepared to use military force if necessary to neutralize the threat.

For 13 days, the world held its breath. Would it come down to nuclear annihilation? Finally, both sides reached an agreement. The Soviet Union would dismantle its Cuban site if the U.S. removed its missiles from Turkey. Both sides agreed on the terms, and the globe was spared nuclear warfare.

The Cold War in ’84

Cold War tensions eased somewhat during the 1970s. However, it climbed back up during the early 1980s. The U.S. was under the Ronald Reagan administration. In 1983, President Reagan launched the Strategic Defense Initiative, a.k.a. “Star Wars”. The program was designed to develop an anti-ballistic missile system to defend against nuclear attacks. At the same time, Reagan labelled the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”.

Former U.S. president Ronald Reagan giving a speech.
In the early 1980s, U.S. president Ronald Reagan heated up the Cold War with his aggressive words. Courtesy The Washington Post.

At the time of Threads’ release, Soviet troops were in Afghanistan; the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The invasion marked an end to the improvement of relations between the Soviet’s and U.S. that occurred throughout the 1970s. This invasion coupled with Reagan’s combative stance on communism heated the Cold War to its warmest point since the 1960s. Director Mark Jackson drew inspiration from this global tension for Threads. The war in the film first erupts in Iran, which directly parallels the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This correlation only heightened the film’s realism; viewers directly related to the film’s scenario.

Relevancy Today

Threads is somewhat a product of its time. The first half of the film looks and feels like the early 1980’s in terms of fashion and culture. The Cold War has long since ended, and the threat of nuclear annihilation has waned as the dangers of global warming and pandemics are pushed to the forefront. But make no mistake, the threat of nuclear holocaust is ever present.

Ever present Danger

A large parade in North Korea celebrating large ballistic missiles. The missiles are being drive on huge military style trucks.
North Korea openly flaunts its nuclear weapon arsenal

Nuclear weapons have not gone the way of the Dodo bird. Even after the Cold War officially ended, several countries continued to test nuclear arms. France, China, and India, and Pakistan have all tested nuclear devices; the latest test for each nation occurred between 1996 to 1998. The most recent tests emanate from North Korea. The country conducted nuclear tests in 2006, 2009, 2013, and 2017. North Korea remains the only country in the world that still conducts nuclear tests. All of these facts demonstrates that nuclear weapons are still present in the post-Cold War era. Their danger remains.

Recent Crisis

The most recent nuclear crisis unfolded in 2017-2018 between the U.S. and North Korea. The crisis stemmed from North Korea’s 2017 nuclear test. North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un claimed his country had nuclear missiles with the capability to reach the U.S. According to Kim Jong-un “This reality, not a threat”. U.S. President Donald Trump was equally tough with his words, both in press conferences and on Twitter. However, the North Korean dictator offered to begin dialogue with South Korea and the U.S. President Trump visited North Korea in 2018, becoming the first sitting president to meet the leader.

A portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un claims his country has the capability to deliver nuclear warheads to the U.S. Courtesy Wikipedia.

The two leaders agreed to deescalate the nuclear weapons. But details were vague, and further progress soon stalled. Further talks have been conducted since. Yet North Korea has continued testing nuclear missile. Reports suggest Kim Jong-un may have dozens of nuclear warheads at his disposal. And they are aimed at South Korea and the U.S.

Nuclear War?

The recent North Korea crisis has been the closest the world has come to nuclear conflict since the Cold War. The authoritarian state has continued to test nuclear weapons and related weapons, the most recent being a ballistics missile test in March 2020. The U.S. and North Korea cannot seem to agree on nuclear deescalation. The U.S. wants a unilateral approach, while Pyongyang favours a step-by-step method. The growing tension between the two countries should be a reminder to the world that nuclear war is till possible in the post-Cold War era.

A Lasting Message

A new poster for threads. The main figure is a scared traffic warden wielding a rifle. The poster capture the post apocalyptic feel of the film.
Threads serves as constant reminder of the death and devastation nuclear weapons create. Courtesy IMDb.

Threads is a frank portrayal of nuclear warfare. There is no bravado or gung-ho patriotism. Instead, millions of people are wiped out in a flash by thermonuclear detonations. The survivors of the blast soon envy the dead. The post-nuclear world is desolate and destroyed. If the police or looters don’t kill you, then it will be from disease, exposure, or radiation fallout.

Director Mick Jackson used his extensive research on the subject to create an accurate depiction of nuclear war. Threads’ realism makes it one of the scariest movies in existence.

Despite coming being a product of the Cold War, Threads still holds relevances today. Nuclear weapons have not vanished. In fact, many countries still hold a sizeable nuclear arsenal. Nuclear war also remains a threat. The recent North Korea crisis is testament to that.

All those facts stress Threads’ importance. Its honest look at nuclear holocaust is a reminder of the horrors of nuclear conflict; The movie should be mandatory viewing for every world leader. The film also demonstrates how quickly worse comes to worst in the event of a nuclear attack. As the opening narration states “the connections that make society strong, also make it vulnerable”. At the snap of a finger, a nuclear weapon can totally unravel our society. And Threads is a testament to that.

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