________________ CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 8. . . .October 21, 2011


Mysteries in the Archives: 1946 A-Bomb Tests in Bikini.

Serge Viallet (Director). Florence Fanelli (Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2008.
26 min., DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: 153B 9909 276.

Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.

Review by Joanne Peters.

**½ /4


Say the word “bikini” and you will probably envision a rather skimpy two-piece swimsuit. But, until the middle of 1946, the word referred only to Bikini Atoll, one of the many small islands which now comprise the Republic of the Marshall Islands. During July of 1946, the United States Air Force dropped two atomic bombs over the atoll, the culmination of Operation Crossroads, a military endeavour with multiple objectives. It was (a) a warning to the USSR that its former WWII ally had nuclear technology and was prepared to demonstrate its might, (b) an opportunity to advance and obtain mastery of nuclear technology, and (c) a chance for a successful filming of an atomic bomb detonation and then, to use that film for propaganda purposes.

      Like other films in the “Mysteries in the Archives” series, A-Bomb Tests on Bikini provides the viewer with a strong sense of how governments use media in the service of foreign and domestic policy. In order for the detonation to take place, the inhabitants of Bikini Island were relocated to another island in the Marshalls. United News, an agency created by the American government for the purpose of generating news footage portraying such initiatives in a positive light, took great care in the filming of meetings between the U. S. military representatives and the island’s chief and inhabitants. In fact, the filmed meetings were staged more than a month after the “real” meeting had taken place, and the subsequent newsreel footage suggests that the local populace were happy with their move.

      A successfully filmed atomic bomb blast had obvious propaganda value in the quickly developing Cold War. The U. S. government had stationed a huge naval flotilla nearby in order to study the effects of the bomb on the vessels, and two target boats were launched from Tokyo. While previous atomic bomb detonations had been filmed, none had the quality nor the dramatic impact desired. As a result, more than 700 cameramen and photographers took part in the filming of the Bikini Atoll bomb blast. Scientific investigation was also a part of the event; various animals were placed on the ships to study the bomb’s after-effects, and drone planes were sent up to take samples of the gases formed in the mushroom cloud generated by the bomb. However, the first blast didn’t work quite as planned, and so, a second explosion took place on July 23rd, 1946. This time, huge destruction of the target ships provided the necessary message of military might, a huge column of water lifted from the ocean, and, of course, the iconic mushroom cloud billowed above. It was great cinema, and newsreel footage was seen around the world.

      It also inspired a French fashion designer to create a two-piece swimsuit, which he dubbed “the anatomic bomb”. This new “a-bomb” soon became known by the name of the island, and thus, the eponymous bikini bathing suit debuted. At first, the bikini was deemed so daring that it was impossible to find a fashion model willing to expose so much flesh, even in the service of “haute couture.”

      Well, if you ever wondered how itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny bathing suits of all colours and fabric designs came to be known as “bikinis”, now you know. And, if it seems odd that such pains were taken to film atomic bomb explosions so soon after the explosion of the two bombs which devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, A-Bomb Tests on Bikini will make clear the intentions of the U. S. government for having done so. It’s unlikely that senior high school students of the early twenty-first century will have seen much film footage of atomic bomb blasts, nor can they begin to imagine the visceral fear that was once created by images of the dreaded mushroom cloud. For senior high school students (Grades 11 and 12) of Modern World History, this film can provide an interesting perspective on the global politics of the post-World War II years.

      However, while the film footage resulting from the explosions in Bikini is certainly dramatic, is it enough to engage the attention of a high school audience for 26 minutes? Preview before deciding if this documentary will have enough use to justify its purchase.

Recommended with reservations.

Joanne Peters, a recently retired high school teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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