Minutes to Midnight: The Cold War Chronicle is just a one-disc DVD release but it is still packed to the gills with over five hours of Cold War-era short films (mostly produced by the U.S. government). 15 short films and one longer documentary are included on this release. As a person who is always interested in historical and film oddities like the ones included on this release, I just had to check it out. While I was looking to learn as well, I was also hoping for some funny moments, ridiculous statements, and scare tactics (all of which are quite common in propaganda and educational shorts). Unfortunately, outside of a few of the shorts included in this set, there isn’t much to riff on here. I did still enjoy six out of the 15 short films in the collection, but that was mainly due to the educational and historical content. After watching each title on this release, here are my thoughts on each inclusion:
Cold War Remembered:
The only film on this release that I wouldn’t consider a short film (it’s 56 minutes long instead of under a half hour like the rest), Cold War Remembered is given special treatment on the back of the box by Mill Creek Entertainment (it’s at the top with two pictures and a longer description than most). Because of this, you would think it is the best video on this set. It is far from that. While it is the meatiest and longest of the programs included in Minutes to Midnight: The Cold War Chronicle, it is also one of the most boring. However, it wasn’t really the reason why I wanted to review this set in the first place; I was in it for the propaganda and informational shorts, not this. For me at least, it was just a throw in.
No air date is included on the back of the box for Cold War Remembered and it doesn’t even have an IMDB page to get more information, but this documentary appears to be from the ’70s or ’80s (based on what it looks like visually at least). While the program is called Cold War Remembered, a title like The Cold War’s Bomber Pilots would have been much more fitting as it is almost exclusively about them instead of the war in general. Cold War Remembered does include interviews with a large amount of veterans but unfortunately, most of their war stories aren’t particularly interesting. War buffs may be more interested in their stories than I was though. Even though I love history, war documentaries are not generally among my favorites.
I was already bored with this documentary ten minutes in and watched the rest of it while doing some busy work. The documentary doesn’t really improve from there. Due to the boring nature of this film, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone but the most diehard fans of war documentaries. 1/5
A Day Called X (1957):
Probably the best and most interesting film in this collection, A Day Called X was produced by CBS and narrated by Glenn Ford. At 27 minutes long, it is also one of the most in-depth and informative programs included in Minutes to Midnight: The Cold War Chronicle. A Day Called X is an almost War of the Worlds-like TV special (though thankfully they learned to put warnings on the screen on multiple occasions) that simulates what the city of Portland would do in the event of an incoming bomb. Viewers get to see how nearly every section of society (the mayor, policemen, and other civil servants) would respond to an attack. This can get a little dull at times but overall, it is a very interesting relic from the past that I’m glad never had to be put into use. There aren’t any actual explosions and they don’t deal with the aftermath of an attack (several other films in this collection do deal with that), but if you are like me and like historical oddities I would definitely recommend watching A Day Called X. 3/5
Duck and Cover (1952):
Duck and Cover is a short nine-minute educational film that was used to help kids know what to do in case of an atomic bomb attack back in the Cold War era. The program starts with a short little tune and animation starring Bert the Turtle but most of the rest of it involves live-action footage of kids displaying the proper way of using the “duck and cover” technique to mitigate the damage done to them by a bomb’s impact. Duck and Cover covers just about any situation kids could possibly be in: in class, outside, in a schoolbus, at a picnic (apparently it involves dramatically taking the tablecloth and spilling all of your food, dishes, etc. all over the place likely leading to a concussion when a dish hits somebody in the head), or even in a moving tractor. Thankfully, the tractor somehow stops itself as this could have ended in disaster as the guy demonstrating decides to position his head right in front of the wheels, something I’m pretty sure is not recommended even if you were able to stop the vehicle.
Duck and Cover was an official civil defense film. It is quite creepy to watch knowing kids of the time had to watch films like this to know what to do in the event of an atomic bomb instead of just learning their ABCs and numbers. All in all, there really isn’t much to talk about with Duck and Cover. It likely did its job pretty well back in the ’50s (other than a few things I doubt would help you like putting a newspaper over your neck to prevent burns) but other than a few small funny moments, it doesn’t really fit as a B-movie today. I do wish there was a bit more animation (as maybe two of the nine minutes are animated and the animation is repeated a few times). Duck and Cover is a decent addition to this release but not really something that will sell you on the whole package. 2.5/5
The Challenge of Ideas (1961):
I know I shouldn’t expect a fair and balanced look at the Cold War from a half-hour Department of Defense propaganda film, but The Challenge of Ideas is one of the most biased things I’ve seen in awhile. Presented by Edward R. Murrow (who should be ashamed of himself for his appearance in this film as well-respected journalists shouldn’t sell themselves out even if they were employed by the government around the time this film came out) and starring John Wayne and Helen Hayes in brief segments, this “film” purports to explain the differences between good old America and those “terrible, horrible” communists in Russia, China, and their allies. It does this by showing all the ways America is great and giving about a minute to showcasing what the communists’ beliefs are (while scary music that totally isn’t supposed to manipulate you into believing they are evil plays in the background).
There are really only two small things going for The Challenge of Ideas. The first is the excessive Americana that may be of interest to some viewers. The other is one segment on ideological penetration that might entertain some people with childish minds (I don’t really have much of one and even I was laughing at this discussion). The following is an exact quote from this broadcast: “Let’s take a look at the reasons why this form of penetration is so important to the communists.” Unfortunately, even with the obvious biases this is really the only funny segment to make fun of. It does still make it one of the funniest shorts to riff on in this collection though.
Otherwise, this is a poor propaganda film that is very nationalist and extremely one-sided. I knew it likely would be going in but even I didn’t think it would be this bad. At times, I almost felt like I was being brainwashed. You won’t even really learn anything from this film, as you can’t believe anything presented in it when it is so one-sided. For example, this film seems to think it was 100% the fault of the Russians in regards to who started the Cold War. Pretty sure that us Americans at least shared a part of the blame. I would only watch The Challenge of Ideas if you want to see the Americana footage or want to laugh at the ideological penetration segment. Otherwise, skip this biased (and boring) propaganda film. 1.5/5
Atomic Alert (1951):
Atomic Alert is very similar to Duck and Cover, though not quite as entertaining. Like that short, this 10-minute video is geared towards elementary school children and they are taught through the eyes of Ted and Sue what to do if a nuclear bomb were to go off. Unfortunately, outside of some of the actors’ reactions to the flashes being completely over the top (especially Ted while he is reading a book), it just isn’t as entertaining as Duck and Cover. It’s close though and still worthy of the same 2.5/5.
Red Chinese Battle Plan (1964):
This short documentary is almost certainly the worst video included on this release. Red Chinese Battle Plan is an extremely boring 25-minute history lesson on how China turned communist with very little information on their actual “battle plan.” It goes into absolutely no detail about the plan, just saying that the Chinese plan to establish satellite nations in all of the different areas of the world to then grow from. Other than that, no military strategies are discussed. Instead, we just get a dull history lesson mixed with some scare tactics against the Chinese (though I don’t think this film is quite as biased as The Challenge of Ideas). There’s really nothing of value here, Red Chinese Battle Plan is even more boring than The Challenge of Ideas and doesn’t even have a funny segment like that film did. It’s also probably the ugliest looking and sounding film in this collection. 1/5
Target: You! (1953):
Another short film about what to do in the event of a bomb going off, this time meant more for adults. Also, instead of telling you how to keep yourself safe (how to duck and cover), it’s more about preparing your home and things you should learn (like first aid) in case of an H-bomb. Unfortunately due to Target: You! being geared towards adults this is far less entertaining than the other shorts in this collection meant to prepare you for nuclear war. I do give it points for having some actually useful knowledge that isn’t really presented in the other shorts though. 1.5/5
Warning Red (1956):
This short is actually one of the highlights of the package. It’s a scripted short about a man caught outside when a bomb goes off, his house destroyed in the blast. While trying to find his family, he learns a few things about what to do when bombs go off. Included in Warning Red is an actual simulation of an attack. Like all of these the effect is just a simple flash but this short also has some real “destruction” and fire effects as well. The best part of the film is the hilariously bad acting from the lead character and especially the other people he meets along the way (including a woman trapped in a collapsed structure that at least to me sounded like a man attempting to do a woman’s voice). Warning Red is reasonably entertaining due to the effects and the terrible acting, but it is also probably one of the least informative shorts in this collection. Still, it’s probably worth watching. 2.5/5
Our Cities Must Fight (1951):
Made by the same production company as Duck and Cover, Our Cities Must Fight is basically an eight-minute lecture on why you should remain in your city in the event of an attack. This lecture consists of a dull conversation between two boring men, who seem to believe that anyone who bugs out and leaves the city (or worries about self preservation) is committing treason and failing their family, friends, and city. This short also seems to think that untrained people should help the firefighters put out fires and do other completely unsafe (and likely detrimental) acts like that. Overall, Our Cities Must Fight is a dull watch that I wouldn’t recommend. 1.5/5
While most of the shorts in Minutes to Midnight: The Cold War Chronicle deal with preparing for or dealing with the aftermath of a nuclear explosion, Bombproof (starring character actor Walter Abel) is a much more niche and in-depth look at a smaller subject. That subject is the importance of our records and how to keep them safe in the event of a bomb going off. While this short feels like an ad for “big microfilm,” it is very informative and actually kind of interesting at times. While I was aware of microfilm, I had no idea how it worked and Bombproof helped me learn quite a bit about it. There are a few minor problems with Bombproof though: at a run time of fourteen minutes it might be a bit too long, it sounds like a bomb is actually going off in the background at some points in the audio, and this video almost seems to think that records are more important than people. Even though I am going to give Bombproof a below average score, it’s at least unique in this collection and I do think some viewers will enjoy this obscure oddity. 2/5
About Fallout (1963):
When I watch titles for review, I always jot down notes for each title. Usually I have at least a few things noted to write about. For About Fallout, I wrote a grand total of two sentences. This is mostly due to the fact that About Fallout is about the fifth “how to prepare for a nuclear bomb” title I watched on this release. It is one of the most informative films in this collection but almost all of the content in it had already been covered in the preceding shorts. About Fallout is a capable short, it’s just dreadfully dull to watch especially if you watch the short films on this release in order. 2/5
Town of the Times (1963):
Another short film about preparing for the event of a nuclear war, Town of the Times focuses mainly on fallout shelters. It almost feels like it was sponsored by one of the companies that made fallout shelters but it was actually produced by the Department of Defense. Town of the Times is scripted and features a mayor getting bullied into building fallout shelters for his town’s schools (even though they have little money to spend on the school in the first place). About half of the 25-minute runtime revolves around a long Q&A session with an expert on nuclear fallout shelters (and boy is this boring). Also of note, the video quality on this short is pretty awful with at least one vertical line going down the screen at most times. It is one of the few programs on this release in color (though it is quite muted). Overall, Town of the Times is watchable but a bit too dull for me (and I’m guessing most viewers). 1.5/5
Let’s Face It (1954):
Even though I don’t have much to write about with Let’s Face It, it was actually one of my favorite things to watch on Minutes to Midnight: The Cold War Chronicle due to one thing. This short film includes actual footage of a test city being constructed to test what would happen to it if an atomic bomb went off. They didn’t just stop there either, we actually get to see what happened to the buildings, cars, and other things via cameras that were set up to capture it. This is some of the most interesting footage on this entire set and absolutely worth a watch. 3/5
What You Should Know About Biological Warfare (1952):
At least this is a unique topic in this collection of Cold War short films (biological warfare instead of nukes). However, at just 7 minutes long (even though it says 15 minutes on the back of the box) there isn’t a lot of information presented and almost all of it is common sense for most people (though back then maybe it wouldn’t have been as obvious). Things like washing exposed food and sending a family member to the hospital if a doctor says so would be pretty common knowledge for most. One problem with this short is the lack of video and audio quality. The biggest issue is that the program stutters and skips a lot at the beginning and while it gets better after those first two minutes or so, it does still do it occasionally throughout the entire film. While the quality of this program isn’t the best and it only really presents blatantly obvious facts, it at least has unique subject matter making it better than at least a few of the short films in this collection. 1.5/5
You Can Beat the A-Bomb (1950):
Based on the title of this short, you can probably tell that You Can Beat the A-Bomb is very similar to a lot of the other films in this collection. However, this film also comes from RKO Pictures, the makers of Citizen Kane and many other very well-known films. Due to that fact, it shouldn’t be too shocking that while this is very similar to many other titles included on this release, it is also much, much better made.
Even the format of You Can Beat the A-Bomb is quite similar to other shorts with the same subject, it features families preparing for an atomic bomb to go off and reacting when their worst fears are actually realized and it hits their community. Most of the titles here that feature scripted content have incredibly poor acting, in You Can Beat the A-Bomb it is actually quite decent. This short also features the typical duck and cover sequences (including a vacuuming granny quickly jumping behind a couch) and some actual “destruction” to simulate what an A-bomb would look like. This is the oldest film in this collection (1950) and it shares a lot in common with other titles in this release, but it is also the best one in its category (informational films about preparing for an A or H-bomb attack) included in Minutes to Midnight: The Cold War Chronicle. 3/5
The House in the Middle (1954):
At least on IMDB, this title appears to be one of B-movie fans’ favorite instructional short films to make fun of. The House in the Middle tries to convince people that if they just keep their home tidy (by throwing away anything entertaining like books and newspapers), don’t litter, and paint their house (only white will do of course), their home can withstand a nuclear bomb. Yes, that is the actual concept of this short film and it is every bit as ridiculous as it sounds. Presented by the National Clean Up, Paint Up, Fix Up Bureau (I’m surprised it wasn’t sponsored by Sherwin-Williams), this short film is twelve minutes of tests actually conducted by the U.S. government “proving” that cleanliness will help prevent your house from burning down in the event of a nuke. The idea is ridiculous but other than that, I don’t really see the humor in this film that others seem to. There just isn’t really anything to poke fun at other than the concept. I did enjoy the two “stop-motion” explosions though, at least those were pretty cool to watch and they are really the only thing going for The House in the Middle. While I didn’t find much to riff on with this title, if you are a fan of poking fun at these sorts of videos it is probably worth a watch. Otherwise, skip it. 1.5/5
Conclusion and Recommendations:
Obviously a title like this is always going to have a very limited potential audience. Minutes to Midnight: The Cold War Chronicle is only for those interested in Cold War oddities or government-made propaganda and informational films. I personally am interested in oddities like this and am somewhat of a history buff as well. However, I found less than half of the films on this release to be of any interest. Highlights include A Day Called X, Duck and Cover, Let’s Face It, and You Can Beat the A-Bomb. There is a lot of repetitive information presented (there are like six shorts about dealing with a hydrogen bomb going off included in this set) and some of the videos are barely holding on visually (though this is understandable due to their age). I wish this release included some more propaganda films instead of some of the nuke preparation films. Many/most of these titles are also in the public domain and can be found online for free. However, for those who love physical media and are really interested in the Cold War and/or film oddities like this, Minutes to Midnight: The Cold War Chronicle might still be worth a pickup. If all of those things don’t apply to you though, you should probably pass on this collection.
Minutes to Midnight: The Cold War Chronicle was released on DVD on April 16, 2019.
Buy Minutes to Midnight: The Cold War Chronicle on Amazon: DVD
We would like to thank Mill Creek Entertainment for the review copy of Minutes to Midnight: The Cold War Chronicle used for this review. Other than receiving the review copy we at Geeky Hobbies received no other compensation. Receiving the review copy had no impact on the content of this review or the final score.