Fail-Safe (1964 film)

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Fail-Safe is a 1964 film about a technical malfunction that sends American planes to Moscow to deliver a nuclear attack and the subsequent frantic attempt to avert all-out war.

Directed by Sidney Lumet. Written by Walter Bernstein and Peter George, based on the novel 'Fail-Safe' by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler.
'Fail-Safe' will have you sitting on the brink of eternity! taglines


Female Party Guest: Two hours ago, you said a hundred million dead. Now you say sixty million.
Prof. Groeteschele: I say sixty million is perhaps the highest price we should be prepared to pay in a war.
Mr. Foster: And what's the difference between sixty million dead and a hundred million?
Prof. Groeteschele: forty million.
Mr. Foster: Some difference!
Prof. Groeteschele: Are you prepared to say the saving of forty million lives is of no importance?
Mr. Foster: You miss the point, Professor! The saving of those sixty million lives is what's important!
Prof. Groeteschele: Face facts, Mr. Foster. We're talking about war. I say every war, including thermonuclear war, must have a winner and a loser. Which would you rather be?
Mr. Foster: In a nuclear war, everyone loses! War isn't what it used to be.
Prof. Groeteschele: It's the resolution of economic and political conflict.
Mr. Foster: But what kind of resolution with a hundred million dead?!
Prof. Groeteschele: It doesn't have to be a hundred million.
Mr. Foster: Even sixty!
Prof. Groeteschele: The same as a thousand years ago, sir. We also had wars that wiped out whole peoples. The point is still who wins and who loses, the survival of a culture.
Mr. Foster: A culture?! With most of its people dead?! The rest dying, the food poisoned! The air unfit to breathe! You call that a culture?!
Prof. Groeteschele: Yes, I do, Mr. Foster. I am not a poet. I am a political scientist, who would rather have an American culture survive than a Russian one.
Female Party Guest: But what would it be like? I mean, really like?! Who would survive?
Prof. Groeteschele: Who would survive? That's an interesting question. I would predict... convicts and file clerks. [A male guest laughs.] The worst convicts. Those deep down in solitary confinement. And the most ordinary file clerks. Probably for large insurance companies, because they would be in fire-proof rooms, protected by tons of the best insulator in the world: paper. And imagine what will happen. The small group of vicious criminals will fight the army of file clerks for the remaining means of life. The convicts will know violence, but the file clerks will know organization. Who do think'll win? [There is a long pause, and then he laughs.] It's all hypotheses of course, but fun to play around with.

Ilsa Woolfe: You could joke about the convicts and file clerks because you know there won't be any survivors, will there?
Prof. Groeteschele: Not many.
Ilsa Woolfe: None. None at all. That's the beauty of it.
Prof. Groeteschele: I've heard nuclear war called a lotta things, Miss Woolfe. Never beautiful.
Ilsa Woolfe: People are afraid to call it that, but that's what they feel.
Prof. Groeteschele: The beauty of death?
Ilsa Woolfe: Don't patronize me. What else but that are you selling, Professor? And we all know we're going to die, but you make a game out of it, a marvelous game that includes the whole world. You make it seem possible.
Prof. Groeteschele: It is possible. Even probable.
Ilsa Woolfe: You make death and entertainment something that can be played in a living room.
Prof. Groeteschele: As good a place as any.
Ilsa Woolfe: No. No, there's an even better place. Turn in there. [Professor Groeteschele steers his car into that road and stops the car.]
Prof. Groeteschele: This where you live?
Ilsa Woolfe: [laughs] Don't joke.
Prof. Groeteschele:: Why not? I'm a joker. I make death into a game for people like you to get excited about. I watched you tonight. You'd love making it possible, wouldn't you? You'd love pressing that button. What a thrill that would be, knowing you have to die to have the power to take everyone else with you. The mob of them with their plans, their little hopes, born to be murdered. Turning away from it, closing their eyes to it, and you could be the one to make it true. Do it to them. But you're afraid, so you look for the thrill someplace else. And who better than a man who isn't afraid? [Ilsa Woolfe tries seducing him, and he slaps her.] I'm not your kind.

Billy Flynn: Ploesti. That was the rough one. We lost half our group.
Col. Grady: Regensburg was the worst one for us.
Billy Flynn: I never flew the B-17. Only 24s.
Col. Grady: Good airplane, the 24. Least you knew you were flying the airplane, not the other way around, like today's things.
Billy Flynn: Eh, you still have to fly the Vindicator, Grady.
Col. Grady: We're the last of the lot, Flynn. Don't kid yourself about that. The next airplanes, they won't need men.
Billy Flynn: You'll be too old, anyway.
Col. Grady: After us, the machines. We're halfway there already. Look at those kids. Remember the crews you had on the 24s? Jews, Italians, all kinds. You could tell them apart. They were all people. These kids. You open them up, you find they run on transistors.
Billy Flynn: Nah, they're good kids, I tell you.
Col. Grady: Sure, you know they're at their jobs, but you don't know them. How can you? Get a different crew every time we go up.
Billy Flynn: That's policy, Grady. Eliminates the personal factor. Everything's more complicated now. Reaction time's faster. You can't depend on people the same way.
Col. Grady: Who do you depend on?
Officer: Alright, gentleman. The sky awaits.
Col. Grady: You know something, Billy? I like the personal factor.

[The beeping noise of the Fail-Safe box activates]
Col. Grady: There must be some mistake. Check Omaha.
Airman Thomas: (activating the radio, and getting nothing) Can't get through, Colonel. Interference.
Col. Grady: What do you mean you can't get through? What kind of interference?
Airman Thomas: I don't know, Sir, it's a kind I've never heard before.
Col. Grady: Well try another band! Try all of them!
Airman Thomas: [after futile effort to get through] Can't get through, Colonel!
Airman Sullivan: They must be trying to keep us from getting our Go signal.
Airman Thomas: Well they're too late for that.

[On the reliability of computers.]
General Bogan: Mr. Knapp here knows as much about electronic gear as anyone. He'd like to say something.
Gordon Knapp: The more complex an electronic system gets, the more accident prone it is. Sooner or later it breaks down.
Secretary Swenson: What breaks down?
Gordon Knapp: A transistor blows... a condenser burns out... sometimes they just get tired--like people.
Professor Groeteschele: Mr. Knapp overlooks one factor, the machines are supervised by humans. Even if the machine fails a human can always correct the mistake.
Gordon Knapp: I wish you were right. The fact is, the machines work so fast... they are so intricate... the mistakes they make are so subtle... that very often a human being just can't know whether a machine is lying or telling the truth.

Gen. Stark: They're good men, we've seen to that. If their orders are attack, the only way you're going to stop them is to shoot them down.
Brig. Gen. Black: We've got no alternative! This minute the Russians are watching their boards, trying to figure out what we're up to. If we can't convince them it's an accident we're trying to correct by any means, we're going to have something on our hands that nobody bargained for, and only a lunatic wants!

Prof. Groeteschele: In my opinion they will take no action at all.
Gen. Stark: They're not going to just sit there, Professor
Prof. Groeteschele: I think if our bombers get through the Russians will surrender.
Gen. Bogan: Who's this professor, Mr. Secretary? What's he doing there?
Defense Secretary Swenson: Professor Groeteschele is a civilian advisor to the Pentagon, General. Will you explain your statement, Professor?
Prof. Groeteschele: The Russian aim is to dominate the world. They think that Communism must succeed eventually if the Soviet Union is left reasonably intact. They know that a war would leave the Soviet Union utterly destroyed. Therefore, they would surrender.
Gen. Stark: But suppose they feel they can knock us off first?
Prof. Groeteschele: They know we might have a doomsday system, missiles that would go into action days, even weeks after a war is over and destroy an enemy even after that enemy has already destroyed us.
Brig. Gen. Black: Maybe they'll think that even capitalists aren't that insane, to want to kill after they themselves have been killed.
Prof. Groeteschele: These are Marxist fanatics, not normal people. They do not reason they way you reason, General Black. They're not motivated by human emotions such as rage and pity. They are calculating machines. They will look at the balance sheet, and they will see they cannot win.
Defense Secretary Swenson: Then you suggest doing what?
Prof. Groeteschele: Nothing.
Defense Secretary Swenson: Nothing?
Prof. Groeteschele: The Russians will surrender, and the threat of Communism will be over, forever.
Gen. Bogan: That's a lot of hogwash. Don't kid yourself, there'll be Russian generals who will react just as I would - the best defense is a good offense. They see trouble coming up, take my word for it, they'll attack, and they won't give a damn what Marx said.
Prof. Groeteschele: Mr. Secretary, I am convinced that the moment the Russians know bombs will fall on Moscow, they will surrender. They know that whatever they do then, they cannot escape destruction. Don't you see, sir, this our chance. We never would have made the first move deliberately, but Group 6 has made it for us, by accident. We must take advantage of it - history demands it. We must advise the President not to recall those planes.

Defense Secretary Swenson: The President says he may have to order our fighters to shoot down Group Six. He wants our opinion.
Prof. Groeteschele: I oppose it, sir, on the grounds that it's premature. Our planes have not yet reached Soviet territory, they're still hundreds of miles away.
Brig. Gen. Black: We've got to do it, and fast! Right now before it's too late!
Gen. Stark: It might be too late anyway. Those fighters swung away from the bombers when they got the all-clear signal, they've been flying in opposite directions.

Marshall Nevsky: [over the hotline] General Bogan, can you explain this maneuver? One of your planes has just appeared again.
Gen. Bogan: It's standard procedure, Marshal Nevsky. That's our number six plane, the decoy plane. It's trying to draw your fighters away from our other plane carrying the bombs. It carries only defensive equipment. You don't have to worry about it.
Marshall Nevsky: Thank you. We shall try for a kill in any case.
Gen. Bogan: You'll scatter your forces. You don't have time for that. [watches helplessly as Russian planes focus on the decoy Vindicator] I tell you, it doesn't carry any bombs. You don't have to worry about it! [shouting] You're letting our other plane get through! [the Russians destroy the decoy Vindicator, allowing the armed plane to elude them] I told you!
Voice on the other end of the Russian hotline: There has been a... Marshal Nevsky has collapsed. It appears... Well, I don't know. General Koniev is now in command.
The President: Bogan, what's happened?
Gen. Bogan: Marshal Nevsky sent his fighters after a plane that carried no bombs. That means our number one plane will almost certainly get through. The marshal realized that. It was too much for him.

Prof. Groeteschele: Excuse me. Every minute we wait works against us. Now, Mr. Secretary, now is when we must send in a first strike.
Gen. Stark: We don't go in for sneak attacks. We had that done to us at Pearl Harbor.
Prof. Groeteschele: And the Japanese were right to do it. From their point of view, we were their mortal enemy. As long as we existed, we were a deadly threat to them. Their only mistake was that they failed to finish us at the start, and they paid for that mistake at Hiroshima.
Gen. Stark: You're talking about a different kind of war.
Prof. Groeteschele: Exactly. This time, *we* can finish what *we* start. And if we act now, right now, our casualties will be minimal.
Brig. Gen. Black: You know what you're saying?
Prof. Groeteschele: Do you believe that Communism is not our mortal enemy?
Brig. Gen. Black: You're justifying murder.
Prof. Groeteschele: Yes, to keep from being murdered!
Brig. Gen. Black: In the name of what? To preserve what? Even if we do survive, what are we? Better than what we say they are? What gives us the right to live, then? What makes us worth surviving, Groeteschele? That we are ruthless enough to strike first?
Prof. Groeteschele: Yes! Those who can survive are the only ones worth surviving.
Brig. Gen. Black: Fighting for your life isn't the same as murder.
Prof. Groeteschele: Where do you draw the line once you know what the enemy is? How long would the Nazis have kept it up, General, if every Jew they came after had met them with a gun in his hand? But I learned from them, General Black. Oh, I learned.
Brig. Gen. Black: You learned too well, Professor. You learned so well that now there's no difference between you and what you want to kill.

Defense Secretary Swenson: General Stark, are there any papers or documents in New York which are absolutely essential to the running of the United States? General Stark?
Gen. Stark: No sir. There are important documents, but none of them absolutely essential.
Admiral Wilcox: Will there be any warning given? A lot of lives could be saved if people had a few minutes.
Defense Secretary Swenson: On this short notice, an alert to a big city would do more harm than good. It only produces panic.
Admiral Wilcox: What about this?
[Wilcox tosses a newspaper onto the table, showing the First Lady in NYC, prominently featured on the main page. Swenson sees it, then gives the paper to General Stark]
Gen. Stark: Maybe... maybe he doesn't know his wife is there.
Defense Secretary Swenson: [shaking his head] He knows.
[Groeteschele finishes writing something onto some paper]
Prof. Groeteschele: Gentlemen, we are wasting time. [walking to the podium] I've been making a few rough calculations based on the effect of two twenty megaton bombs dropped on New York City in the middle of a normal workday. I estimate the immediate dead at about three million. I include in that figure those buried beneath the collapsed buildings. It would make no difference, Admiral Wilcox, whether they reached a shelter or not. They would die just the same. Add another million or two who will die within about five weeks. Now our immediate problem will be the joint one of fire control and excavation. Excavation not of the dead, the effort would be wasted there. But even though there are no irreplaceable government documents in the city, many of our largest corporations keep their records there. It will be necessary to... rescue as many of those records as we can. Our economy depends on this. [pause] Our economy depends on this. [pause] And the Lord said, gentlemen, "He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone."

Gen. Bogan: Sergeant Collins! On the double!
[Collins races to General Bogan at the main communication board of SAC headquarters]
Gen. Bogan: You're backup man on fire control, aren't you?
TSgt. Collins: Yes sir.
Gen. Bogan: Do our Vindicator missiles have both infrared and radar-seeking capacity?
TSgt. Collins: [tentatively] Yes sir.
Gen. Bogan: [grabbing Collins forcefully toward the radio mike] Loud and clear! They've got to know we're on the level!
TSgt. Collins: [fearfully] It has both capacities, sir!
Marshall Nevsky: [Over the radio] Can the radar-seeking mechanism be overloaded by increasing the strength of the signal?
Gen. Bogan: Tell him!
TSgt. Collins: [fearfully] Yes, sir. It can be overloaded, by increasing the power output and sliding through radar frequencies as fast as possible, what happens is the firing mechanism reads the higher amperage as proximity to the target, and detonates the warhead.
Marshall Nevsky: [Over the radio] Thank you General Bogan, we will get back to you.
Gen. Bogan: [quietly] That's all, Sergeant.
[Collins slowly returns to his station within the mammoth bunker, head bowed down in shame]
Congressman Raskob: What does it mean?
Gordon Knapp: We've told them how to blow up our air-to-air missiles, and with them our planes.

U.S. Ambassador to Moscow: Mr. President!
The President: Yes, Jay?
U.S. Ambassador to Moscow: I can hear the sound of explosions from the northeast! The sky is very bright, all lit up- [he is cut off by high, shrill sound of the Ambassador's phone melting from the nuclear blast]
The President: [on the intercom] Put me through to General Black.
General Black: Yes, Mr. President?
The President: Blackie...
General Black: [obviously upset] Yes, Mr. President?
The President: [sighing in resignation] Moscow's been destroyed. Drop your bombs according to plan.
General Black: [pause] Yes, sir.

The President: How did you get to be a translator, Buck? You don't seem the academic type.
Buck: [nervously] I guess I have a talent for languages, sir. I hear a language once I pick it right up. I don't even know how. They found out about it in the Army.
The President: You sound sorry they did.
Buck: No, sir. It's a very interesting job. [pauses] That is, most of the time.
The President: Well, you did a good job today, Buck.
Buck: Thank you, sir. All I did was repeat what he said.
The President: You didn't freeze up. Another man might have.
Buck: You're the one who didn't, sir.
The President: I wonder what it's like outside? Looked like rain before.
Buck: The radio said it would clear by the afternoon.


  • 'Fail Safe' Will Have You Sitting on the Brink of Eternity!
  • The screen zeros in on the most suspenseful adventure drama of our age!
  • It will have you sitting on the brink of eternity!


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