No More Ashes, No More Sackcloth
Panic in the Year Zero!
By Roy Milland
Ray Milland’s 1962’s Panic in Year Zero! is a film about surviving an atomic war. John Morton and Jay Simms’ script was based (without credit) on Ward Moore’s “Lot” (1953) and “Lot’s Daughter” (1954).
Los Angelinos Harry Baldwin (Ray Milland), wife Ann Baldwin (Jean Hagen), son Rick Baldwin (Frankie Avalon), and daughter Karen Baldwin (Mary Mitchell) set out early one morning for a camping trip at rustic Shibes Meadow, a trip for which Harry seems the main enthusiast. Their timing proves fortunate. Soon after they reach country roads, mysterious bright flashes signal the end of the Baldwin’s comfortable middle-class life.
The mushroom clouds growing over Los Angeles confirm what the bright flashes suggested. America’s enemies have struck with atomic force on Los Angeles. Although Ann’s mother may still be alive in flaming LA, Harry soon gives up any hope of rescuing the superfluous old lady (played by nobody, as she never appears on screen). Instead, he focuses on saving his family from the chaos to come.
The attack came early in the morning. America’s communications, even CONELRAD, have collapsed, at least for the moment. These facts provide Harry with an opportunity. Racing to stay ahead of the news, he stops at stores in out-of-the-way towns to purchase supplies. The hapless store owners, unaware that no further shipments are coming, cheerfully sell Harry what he wants.
Of course eventually the combination of Harry’s shrinking cash supply  and the rumours spreading out across California prove an impediment. All too aware that at any moment even decent Americans might panic and turn to robbery or worse, Harry simply takes what he wants at pistol point, promising to return later with the money he owes. Particularly recalcitrant merchants find themselves on the receiving end of Harry’s haymaker.
Once the family trailer is full of supplies, the Baldwins head to Shibes’ Meadow. Teenager Rick reminds his father that he had found a cave the previous year. It is, Rick assures his father, more than large enough for the family. So housing is handled.
Harry has done what he can to preserve his family (excepting Ann’s mother and probably mothers-in-law don’t count.). Predators are swarming across America, looking for easy prey. They will find the Baldwins. They will not find the suspicious and heavily armed Baldwins easy prey.
Although it seems beyond question that this is meant as a grim examination of the consequences of atomic war, a certain comic element creeps in as Harry, determined to survive the lethal chaos he is convinced is coming, acts just like the people he fears. On route to the cave, he withholds information to convince people to sell him supplies they will later regret selling, robs one merchant, and knocks another one out. When traffic at a crossroads is too heavy for the Baldwins to cross, he pours gasoline across the road and sets fire to it; at least one vehicle goes up in flames as a result. As soon as he reaches the Meadow, he tears down a sign and destroys a bridge to ensure as best he can that nobody else will follow the family to their refuge.
Now, it’s true that hoodlums follow the family and that it is necessary to kill said hoodlums. While that’s going on, the US government restores order, and the US and its allies defeat the nations responsible for the attack. All this seems to take place in fairly short time. The Baldwins contribute absolutely nothing to the international war effort and they manage to hurt a number of innocent people they encounter on the way to the Meadow.
I did not enjoy watching this movie. However, I did find it technically interesting, as example of what a director can do on a limited budget. Aside from the mushroom clouds shown early in the movie, there isn’t much in the way of special effects. Instead, Milland sticks to sequences that can be filmed using what would be readily to hand. The firestorms are off stage. What matters is that we, and the Baldwins, know that they happened. That knowledge drives the plot.
The movie is also interesting as a reminder of life fifty years ago. For those of us who were there fifty years ago at least. Rural stores stock their eggs in cartons out on the shelves, not in a fridge. Nobody ever locks their car doors. One crash scene suggests that seat belt laws are a thing of the future. Modern viewers may take umbrage at the film’s off-handed, condescending sexism. Daughter Karen is treated as luggage, while wife Ann is the butt of tirades from Harry re her inability to grasp the grim reality in which they now live.
Panic in the Year Zero! is available here (Amazon). It does not appear to be available from Chapters-Indigo.
1: Harry does seem to be carrying a pretty respectable wad of cash. It buys what would cost thousands of dollars in 2018 money.