In this often light-hearted article Janet Ford considers the famous 1950s Civil Defense film Duck and Cover. The film uses a turtle, Bert, to teach children – and adults - how to respond in the event of a nuclear bomb.

 

Before you read on, you can watch the film Duck and Cover here.

Bert the Turtle in a still from Duck and Cover.

Bert the Turtle in a still from Duck and Cover.

During the Cold War, but especially during the 1950s and 1960s, the US Federal Civil Defense Administration produced numerous leaflets and films that informed and educated the American public about the atomic bomb, the damage it caused, and what to do if an atomic bomb was dropped. One of the most well-known Civil Defense films is Duck and Cover, which was produced in 1951 and first broadcast in January 1952. It was produced by Archer Productions in co-operation with the Federal Civil Defense Administration and in consultation with the Safety Commission of the National Educational Association.

In this article, we will consider the film and pick out some of the most famous (and infamous) aspects of it.

So before you read on, why not watch the film here?

 

The use of a cartoon

Central to the film is the animation. There is animation in parts throughout the film, but especially at the beginning and end. It was used to get the attention of children, and to make the message of duck and cover easier for them to understand. The animated nature of the film also made it markedly cheaper to show a bomb explosion in the film, as shown in the still from the film below.

Animation showing the destruction of the bomb, with Bert the Turtle in the foreground.

Animation showing the destruction of the bomb, with Bert the Turtle in the foreground.

Unless the Civil Defense Administration visited the Nevada nuclear test site and filmed a bomb going off, it would have been nearly impossible to show a live explosion. Another point to note is that showing the damage the bomb caused can make the animation seem a little darker, but as it is a cartoon the destruction appears less real and more abstract.

The most famous aspect of the animation is the character of Bert the Turtle. He is one of the most famous icons of the Civil Defense Administration, showing the nation how to protect itself from the bomb. The main reason for having Bert in the film was to get the attention of a younger audience.

A still of Bert the Turtle.

A still of Bert the Turtle.

Even though the subject matter itself could not be much darker, there is one other menacing part of the film that is found in the animation. This may not have been seen by all viewers, and it took me a few views to see it, but once you see it, you cannot fail to notice it. In a scene towards the start of the film, Bert the Turtle is minding his own business, and suddenly there is some dynamite following him; it is not a magic piece of dynamite though - it is being held by a monkey in a tree. The dynamite then goes off and Bert ducks and covers; however, the monkey that had been holding the dynamite vanishes. In fact, the monkey is blown up by its own dynamite.

Before the dynamite goes off.

Before the dynamite goes off.

After the dynamite goes off.

After the dynamite goes off.

Music

Another famous aspect of the film is the very catchy theme song and music. Indeed, as I am writing this, the song is in my head, and once you have heard the song, it will be in your head for a long time too.

The music itself is quite cheery and upbeat and even the lyrics are not too negative. The most menacing lyrics are 'when danger threatens him', but then it is followed by 'he never got hurt, he knew just what to do.' The images above with the monkey and the dynamite are shown over this music. This makes the theme song, unintentionally, a little darker as you have the image of a monkey being blown up while listening to the song. The song can also seem to lessen the danger of the bomb and even the process of Civil Defense, as they are linked to a cheery song.

 

How to Duck and Cover

The main purpose of the film was to show the public, and especially children, how to duck and cover in various situations. It shows how to duck and cover in school and at the home. But it also shows you how to protect yourself when there is no shelter around. And this is the most infamous aspect of the film.

One scene in the film features two children, Patty and Paul, who are just walking down the street. The flash of the bomb goes off and they dive into a wall and cover themselves with their coats. What makes this absurd is that ducking and covering would not do much use if the building they were by or other buildings around them fell onto of them. Furthermore, it seems that Paul smashes himself into the wall. 

Patty and Paul ducking and covering by a wall.

Patty and Paul ducking and covering by a wall.

Another seemingly strange part of the film features a young boy called Tony who is riding his bike. He sees the flash, drives into a wall, and covers himself up. The film thus suggests that walls are a good place to go to protect yourself - although the wall would not have given much protection even if a blast was coming from the other side of the wall.

Tony ducking and covering by a wall.

Tony ducking and covering by a wall.

However, even more bizarrely is the scene with a family having a picnic. The family are all having a lovely time until they see the flash. Then the mom and children go under the cloth, while the dad uses the newspaper for protection. It is this idea of using a newspaper or sheet as protection that seems to be the most ridiculous aspect of the film.

The father using a newspaper as protection.

The father using a newspaper as protection.

Walls and covering yourself with a thin object would have given some protection from the bomb, but only if it was miles away and there was not much debris from the blast. In short, they would provide only a very small level of protection. Saying that, while we can of course look back at the film and make fun of it, when nuclear bombs were as big a threat as they were in the 1950s, the idea of an everyday object like a newspaper being used to protect yourself must have given people some hope.

Even so, there would have been those smarter souls who would have realized that a newspaper could never protect you from a nearby nuclear explosion and accepted their sad and inevitable fate.

 

What do you think of the video? Share your thoughts below!

 

References

All stills were taken from the film Duck and Cover here: https://archive.org/details/gov.ntis.ava11109vnb1

Posted
AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones