Duck And Cover! The Best Movies About The Cold War

Following World War II, the Cold War was a period of severe tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. Although there was no visible large-scale fighting between the two nations, it resulted in an arms race that many believed would turn into World War III and end in a nuclear holocaust. The paranoia surrounding the Cold War inspired new forms of artistic expression across all types of mediums, with film being one of the most prominent. Many people began creating films that warned of the dangers of nuclear weapons and where humanity might end up if we don’t figure out a solution. How many do you remember?

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) Will Make You Question Your Own More

The Manchurian Candidate
United Artists
United Artists

Based on Richard Condon’s 1959 novel of the same name, The Manchurian Candidate is a renowned suspense thriller. It’s about a Korean War veteran who keeps having dreams that one of his subordinates, Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw, shot two United States soldiers.

However, over time, he uncovers the truth that Shaw had been brainwashed by his own mother to kill a US presidential candidate. The film stars Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, and Angela Lansbury and was named the 67th greatest American film of all time.

Bridge Of Spies (2015) Is A Mind Game

Bridge of Spies
Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures

Bridge of Spies is directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, and Adam Alda. The film is set during the Cold War after KGB spy Rudolf Abel is discovered in the US. However, the US government sees that Abel has a fair trial in hopes of saving their own spy who was captured, Francis Gary Powers.

Insurance lawyer James B. Donovan is then charged with representing Abel in a trial in order to make a prisoner exchange with the Soviet Union. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965) Is Full Of Twists

The Spy Who Came From The Cold
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Released in 1965, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is based on the 1963 novel by John le Carré of the same name. British agent Alex Leamus is sent on his last secret mission to East Germany to give false information about an East German intelligence officer.

Pretending to be an ex British agent, he is recruited by East German agents to sell his secrets. However, after his identity is revealed, the true objective of his mission comes to light. The film was a commercial success, winning numerous awards and was selected as one of the top ten films of 1966.

The Hunt For Red October (1990) Is All Suspense

The Hunt For Red October
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

The Hunt For Red October is a spy-thriller starring Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, James Earl Jones, Scott Glenn, and Sam Neill. The film follows a Soviet naval captain who wishes to defect to the United States. He has plans to bring over his officers as well as the Soviet Union’s most impressive nuclear missile submarine, the Red October, with him.

A CIA analyst realizes what he’s doing and then has to convince the US Navy the same before they launch a war against the Soviet Union. The film was well received, taking home an Academy Award for Best Sound Editing.

The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) Puts A Twist On Cold War Films

The Day The Earth Stood Still
20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

Based on the 1940 science fiction story “Farewell to the Master,” The Day the Earth Stood Still is a different kind of Cold War Film. It tells the story of an alien spacecraft called the Ellipse landing in front of the White House. While the United States military believes it to be an attack, a robot named Klatuu exits the ship bearing a device that he intends to give as a gift.

However, the military opens fires, yet their bullets do not harm Klatuu. He warns humanity that their tendency for violence will lead to their downfall, which is precisely what it does. This was one of the many science fiction films that were made during the paranoia of the Cold War.

On The Beach (1959) Is A Post-Apocalyptic Nightmare

On The Beach
United Artists
United Artists

Set five years into the future, On the Beach takes place after World War III has occurred and the entire Northern Hemisphere has been destroyed. The American submarine, the USS Sawfish, manages to survive the war and goes to Melbourne, Australia where it is still habitable.

However, there’s not much time as the radiation is making its way across the globe. When a signal is received from San Diego, California, the USS Sawfish goes to investigate. Unfortunately, they are dismayed with what they find. The film is still as impactful today as it was to audiences in 1959.

Fail-Safe (1964) Is A Worst Case Scenario

Fail-Safe
Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

When the USS Strategic command sees that something undetectable has entered into American airspace, Air Force bombers get into fail-safe positions in case a retaliation is necessary. While everything turns out to be a false alarm, a go-ahead code is accidentally sent to a group of bombers.

When an effort to stop the bombers fails, the President of the United States must decide what to do. Now, he must figure out how to prevent the Soviet Union from starting an all-out nuclear war, and the results are devasting. Strangely, the film was praised by critics but failed to succeed at the box office.

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) Is An Unexpected Journey

Charlie Wilson's War
Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

Based on a true story, Charlie Wilson’s War takes place at the end of the Cold War. It centers on Charlie Wilson, the hard-partying Texas congressman who is more concerned about the pleasures of life rather than doing his civic duty.

However, after being encouraged to help the Afghan people, he teams up with a rebel CIA agent to provide Afghan freedom fighters better weapons to fight against the Soviet Union. Unbelievably, his efforts were a success, and the Soviet Union backed out of Afghanistan. However, the White House seems uninterested in a post-Soviet Afghanistan, foreshadowing conflicts in the future.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) Was A Hit In The UK

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Focus Features
Focus Features

An adaptation of John le Carre’s novel of the same name, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy follows retired spy George Smiley who is called out of retirement to learn if the Soviets have infiltrated Britain’s secret intelligence agency.

However, things aren’t as they seem and Smiley begins to question the people around him, resulting in the ultimate betrayal. The movie was the highest-grossing film at the British box office for three consecutive weeks and had three Academy Award nominations.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964) Provided Some Comic Relief

Dr. Strangelove
Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

Dr. Strangelove is a black comedy directed by Stanley Kubrick, satirizing the Cold War. Based on Peter George’s novel Red Alert, the essence of the film is to poke fun at the politicians who hold humanity in their hands. It follows an unstable United States Air Force General who decides to deliver the first nuclear attack against the Soviet Union.

It is now up to the President and his advisers to recall the bombers to avoid nuclear war. In 1989, the United States Library of Congress included Dr. Strangelove in its first group of films to be selected for preservation.

Red Dawn (1984) Has All The Action

Red Dawn
MGM
MGM

Red Dawn takes place in a time when the United States has been invaded by the Soviet Union, along with their allies Cuba, and Nicaragua. To defend their country, a group of high school students resists the invasion employing guerrilla warfare tactics.

The group calls themselves the “Wolverines” after their school mascot, and although the story is entirely fictional, the background on how World War III started is not far from reality. The film stars Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, among others. Although it touches on Cold War themes, the film is considered to be an action film more than anything.

Thirteen Days (2000) Takes A New Look At The Cuban Missile Crisis

13 Days
New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema

Ironically, Thirteen Days isn’t based on the book of the same name, but The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis, by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow. It is the second docudrama made about the events during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The film features newly declassified information that was not revealed in the 1974 docudrama. However, it takes more liberty with the drama aspect of the film. Although critics seemed to appreciate the movie, it bombed at the box office losing over $20 million.

The Mouse Roared (1959) Is Different Than Most Other Cold War Films

The Mouse That Roared
Sony Pictures
Sony Pictures

Based on Leonard Wibberley’s novel of the same name, The Mouse That Roared was directed by Jack Arnold and is a satirical film. Set in an alternate universe, the fictional Duchy of Grand Fenwick is on the brink of bankruptcy. Out of desperation, the prime minister concludes that his only way out is to declare war on the United States.

Although he knows that he will lose, he hopes the US will provide economic assistance after the war. Yet, somehow, the prime minister acquires a doomsday weapon and is now controlling those who were once in power.

The Lives Of Others (2006) Was A Worldwide Hit

The Lives Of Others
Buena Vista International
Buena Vista International

The debut film of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, The Lives of Others is a German film about the people of East Berlin being monitored by the Stasi, GDR’s secret police. The film really hit home in Germany but was effective across the globe.

The film was incredibly successful, winning the 2006 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. It also set the record for eleven nominations at the Deutscher Filmpreis awards, taking home seven. The film only took $2 million to make although it grossed $77 million worldwide.

The Bedford Incident (1965) Almost Happened In Real Life

The Bedford Incident
Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

A British-American Cold War film, The Bedford Incident follows the American submarine, the USS Bedford, which detects a Soviet submarine near the coast of Greenland. Although the United States and the Soviet Union are not at war, Captain Eric Finlander insists that they hunt the Soviet submarine, a decision that will ultimately result in their demise.

The film is loosely based on the book by Mark Rascovich, who adapted the plot of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. A similar situation had occurred in 1962, which almost led to the start of World War III.

War Games (1983) Is Certainly No Video Game

War Games
MGMUA
MGMUA

War Games is about a young hacker who accidentally gains access to a United States supercomputer that is used to predict the outcome of a nuclear war. Believing the system to be a computer game, he begins to run a nuclear simulation.

However, the computer can’t tell the difference between a simulation and reality and attempts to start World War III. Costing a mere $12 million to make, it grossed over $79 million in just five months in the United States and Canada.

Seven Days In May (1964) Was Loved By President Kennedy

Seven Days In May
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, the Pentagon originally didn’t want the film to be released. However, President Kennedy read the novel and described it as something that could happen in the United States.

The film is about a secret political faction who attempts to take over the United States in response to the president’s disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. The film went on to be nominated for two Academy Awards and was remade in 1994 by HBO as The Enemy Within.

The Third Man (1949) Is Considered The Best British Film Of All Time

The Third Man
British Lion Film
British Lion Film

A British film noir, The Third Man is based on on the novella by the film’s writer Graham Greene in preparation for the script. The film is set in post-World War II Vienna and focuses on Holly Martins, an American who is given a job by his friend named Harry Lime.

However, after Lime is discovered to be dead, Holly must investigate his friend’s death. Being a film noir, the lighting, “Dutch angle” camera technique, music, and other aspects promotes the feelings of the beginning of the Cold War. In 1999, it was voted the best British film of all time.

The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966) Is A Much-Needed Comedy

The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming
United Artists
United Artists

Based on the Nathaniel Benchley novel The Off-Islanders, the film was later adapted into a screenplay by William Rose. The film tells the story of a Soviet submarine that’s beached on the shore of a small New England town during the cold war.

The film is considered to be a comedy as well as an overall success, earning itself an 85% on Rotten Tomatoes. The New York Times critic Robert Alden went on to note that it is “a rousingly funny — and perceptive — motion picture about a desperately unfunny world situation.”

North By Northwest (1959) Is Considered One Of Hitchcock’s Best

North By Northwest
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, North by Northwest was written by Ernest Lehman who claimed he wanted to write “the Hitchcock pictures of all Hitchcock pictures.” The movie is about an innocent man who is hunted by agents of an unknown organization.

Supposedly, they are attempting to prevent him from stopping them from stealing microfilm containing government secrets. Considered one of the greatest films of all time, it was selected for preservation in 1995. Currently, the film has a 99% on Rotten Tomatoes.