If you haven’t seen Duck and Cover, and you can find it in even the remotest corners of the Internet, you should. Duck and Cover is an educational film from 1951, featuring an animated turtle named Bert, using his shell to protect his soft bits from an atomic blast. The animated Bert scenes open and close the film, with a heavy dose of them sprinkled into the live action as well. Because, kids, anthropomorphized turtles + atomic bombs = duh. The film showcases children reenacting saving themselves from an atomic bomb blast in several different scenarios, plucked directly from the everyday life of the American child of the Fifties. The whole thing is narrated by Robert Middleton, of The Big Valley, Rawhide and Bonanza fame, in this clipped, chain-smoking, John Wayne-ish voice. The overall effect is pretty… horrible? The film was produced by the Civil Defense Commission in conjunction with the usual acronymned government agencies. The idea behind the film was, well I’m not really sure.
The whole film clocks in at around ten minutes.
Kicking things off, we’re introduced to Bert the animated turtle, who for some reason, walks on his hind legs and wear a pith helmet. A lady-chorus, straight out of a synchronized swimming movie, starts off with, “Yum-Dum, Deedle Dum-Dum,” and then continues on, introducing Bert in song, noting, “When danger threatened him he never got hurt, he knew just what to do. He’d duck [beat]1 and cover.” This is all floating on top of an animated Bert walking across a Disney-ish landscape, a stick of lit dynamite of the Looney Toons variety dangling behind him on a fishing line. The dynamite goes BOOM!, Bert ducks into his shell, all to the tune of the sing-songy ladies explaining duck and cover.
Robert the narrator tries to coax Bert out of his shell in the next scene, but he relents noting that sometimes Bert’s staying in his shell, “even saves his life.”
The animated sequence fades to a live action shot of a stereotypical2 Fifties classroom with a stern looking teacher, ruler in-hand, instructing the students to duck and cover, or basically collapse into the smallest ball they possibly can and hide under their desks, making sure that their heads are pulled-under very tightly and that their bare necks are covered at least with their hands. Robert pipes-up and tells us that an “atomic bomb is very dangerous” and that it might be used against us.
Robert likens our need to prepare for an atomic bomb to that of other more mundane dangers like fires (which can “burn whole buildings if someone is careless”) and car accidents. Atomic bombing, dude running a stop sign, same diff.
So, tell us Robert, where do we go from here?
Well, now we’ve got to be ready for a new danger, the atomic bomb, he says. “First you have to know what happens when an atomic bomb explodes.” He continues, saying, “You’ll know when it comes. We hope it never comes, but we must be ready,” his voice trailing off at the end with him thinking, who the fuck am I kidding? Or that’s what I hear, anyway. We’re then shown an animated atomic blast, which is essentially a very bright flash coming in from the left, and destroying a farm, in all the cartoon glory you can imagine. Oh, and Bert is alive and well in this scene, ducked inside his shell, when we all know that in reality, he would be on his way to becoming a cup of hot turtle soup.
According to Robert, if you’re not ready, and don’t know what to do when the bomb explodes, it can hurt you in different ways. “It could knock you down—hard,” says Robert, “Or throw you against a tree, or a wall.” Yeah. In the face of thermonuclear destruction, my number one concern is being knocked down—hard. Robert goes on to ask, “You know how bad sunburn can feel?” explaining that, “Atomic bomb flash can burn you worse than a terrible sunburn.” OMGIDON’TEVENKNOW. The sunburn bit plays over a scene of a mother rubbing what looks like mineral oil (oil’s bad for burns, lady!) on a shirtless boy, who might have the best resting bitch-face I’ve ever seen.
The resting bitch-faced boy scene fades to a classroom, where Ms. Wool Gabardine (you should see her suit!) points to a spot-on chalk drawing of Bert, while the students dive under their desks, and Robert explains that we don’t have shells, like Bert, so we have to cover-up in our own way.
We’re then shown Betty’s classroom. Betty is a pig-nosed little girl (she seriously looks like one of the characters from the “Eye of the Beholder” episode of The Twilight Zone) in a frilly dress, with a bow perfectly centered on her head. She stands up and asks her teacher, “How can we tell when the atomic bomb may explode?” Lord. Can you even imagine being a third grade teacher and one of your students asking this? Like a champ, Mrs. Floral Dress points to the chalkboard while Robert explains that there are two kinds of attack: With warning and Without warning. Aren’t there really two types of everything, guys? With pickles or without pickles.
Robert tells us, “We think that most of the time, we will be warned before the bomb explodes.” The Civil Defense folks, and men in uniform (which includes a lady soldier in this shot) will do everything to warn us before an enemy plane brings a bomb to us (what about a Jericho scenario guys?). The film then shows children of various ages engaged in kid activities like playing baseball, jumping rope and riding their bikes to Cub Scouts (shout out to the Atomic Energy Merit Badge, yo), when the air raid siren sounds and they all duck and cover. Some of the kids, particularly the Cub Scout (who is wearing an awesome coon-skin hat), look like they were actually injured when diving to the nearest curb at the director’s cue; I swear Cubby looks like he broke his arm. Robert is of course talking over this montage emphasizing that “a flash of an atomic bomb can come at any time,” and that you need to get in the house—fast!—where your parents have fixed a safe place for you to go (have they really, Bob?), when the air raid siren sounds. He also explains that if you’re not at home or school, “You know the places marked with the ‘S’ sign? (No, Robert, I don’t.) They’re safe places to go when you hear the alarm.” Helpfully, he explains, “If there is warning, you will hear it before the bomb explodes.” That’s kind of the definition of warning, no?
Robert’s tone becomes somber and confidential, letting the kids in on a secret: “Sometimes—and this is very, very important—sometimes the bomb might explode without any warning. Then the first thing we know about the atomic bomb is the flash. There is no time to look around!” Robert sounds Hindenburg-film-narrator-dude panicked at this point, and spits, “Be like Bert. When there is a flash, duck and cover—and fast!”
The next scene takes place between classes in the corridor (which Robert says in a way I’ve never before heard it pronounced), with older boys showing younger kids how to appropriately duck and cover, even showing how to roll your body all roly-poly style, rolling right into a wall. This scene looks like slam dancing of the Atomic Age or Fifties parkour gone wrong. Robert chimes-in and explains that if you’re at lunchtime, be sure to duck and cover under a table, because if the explosion makes anything in the room fall down, it can’t fall on you. Unless the whole fucking building goes.
The film then shows another montage of children and teenagers ducking and covering in various situations. Probably the best one is where a family is at a picnic. Dad’s manning the fire-pit while everyone else is sitting on the blanket. The flash happens and everyone leaps up, throws themselves to the ground and quickly covers with the blanket, pretty much like that Mad Men scene from the first or second season, where post-picnic, Betty simply shakes the picnic mess off the blanket into the grass and heads out.
Except for Dad. Dad, I swear to god, ducks and covers and rolls himself into the fire-pit. That poor actor. There’s also a pretty swell scene with a hot farmer sitting atop his tractor, sexily plowing his field (you can turn my rows anytime, hot farmer) when the flash happens, then throwing himself from the moving tractor into the freshly turned earth. It’s a goddamned miracle that the hot actor didn’t get plowed-over, or at the very least get one of his overall straps caught in the giant tractor wheel, strangling his sexy neck.
Robert, always there to cheer us, mentions something about “grownups not always being around,” and we are then again greeted with Bert, and Robert asks us, “What are we supposed to do friend?” A gaggle of children yell, “Duck and Cover!”
Radiation is completely absent from this film. And that’s kind of the point of an atomic bomb? What the hell, Robert?
I mean sure, an atomic bomb makes a bigger blast all around, but radiation is what makes it so deadly. Why didn’t we learn about that, Robert? Hiding under a desk in my classroom, when the window’s been blown out by the blast wave isn’t going to protect me from the fallout headed my direction, which is surely going to lead to some horrible, wasting death, with my insides essentially liquefied or some sort of weird cancer or at least a severe bout of bathroom time or radiation burns covering skin left bare during the blast.
Oh, and if I covered-up with that tablecloth, just ahead of the flash? I’d likely have the lovely floral pattern forever singed into my skin, as if a photograph was taken of the fabric with my skin acting as the plate. Memories. Or the fabric simply would have fused into my flesh, creating some new Space Age bio-fabric, except unspeakably horrible. I mean, you’ve seen the post-bombing photographs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, right, Robert?
And why didn’t you mention that in many school districts, students wore dog tags. And the whole duck and cover thing? We knew a schoolroom desk wasn’t going to protect anyone. It was simply easier to identify the bodies. A place for everything and everything in its place.
And why, oh why didn’t we mention that you probably don’t want to survive an atomic blast. It might be better to meet the brighter-than-a-thousand-suns blast head-on, instantly becoming part of the charred atmosphere rather than cowered under a desk waiting for a tomorrow that no ever wants to see.
Not great, Bob.
1 This beat between duck and cover is one of the most disturbing aspects of this film. There’s this weird, whistley sound that is faint, but definitely audible, that is in my mind the sucking-in of the bomb before it releases its horrific breath, destroying everything within reach. It’s pretty damned disturbing.
2 Except the classroom is pretty diverse. There are kids of several different ethnicities, sitting together, not just the WASPy ones you’d expect in a film of this era. Yay, 1951 Civil Defense film?