It is early morning in America. In New York, air force commander General Black (Dan O’Herlihy) is woken by a recurring nightmare and leaves his wife to fly to a Pentagon meeting in Washington DC where Professor Groeteschele (Walter Matthau) leaves a society party to change for the same meeting.
At S.A.C. (Strategic Air Command) headquarters, General Bogan (Frank Overton) and Colonel Cascio (Fritz Weaver) prepare for the visit of a congressman (Sorrell Booke), and in Alaska, Colonel Grady (Edward Binns) boards his plane to pilot another S.A.C. mission.
An unidentified flying object is sighted on the “big board”, and S.A.C. follows the routine alert procedures. But as the crisis passes (it was a stray airliner), a fault develops in the electronic safety system.
When this is corrected, Colonel Grady is seen to be leading his wing of five bombers and one decoy plane towards their target – Moscow.
The bombers have passed their “fail safe” point and can not be recalled or stopped.
The US President (Henry Fonda) gets on the hotline to the Kremlin and he and his Russian counterpart engage in frantic telephone conversations as a solution is sought – including US technicians explaining to Soviet fighters how to shoot down the American bombers – but to no avail. One bomber makes it through unmolested.
Realising Moscow is about to be hit by two 20-megaton hydrogen bombs, the President instructs the US ambassador to Russia to stay by his phone in Moscow and keep talking until the end, which he then describes to defence officials gathered in the Pentagon’s subterranean war room.
“You will hear the sounds of bombs exploding in the distance, and then a shrill shriek as the ambassador’s phone melts from the intense heat. When you hear that sound, you will know that Moscow has been bombed and the ambassador is dead”.
To convince the Soviets that the Moscow attack was purely accidental – and avert a global nuclear holocaust – the President offers the Soviet leader a death swap of cities and orders his own bombers to destroy New York City with two 20-megaton atom bombs, blowing 14 million Americans – including his own wife – to kingdom come.
The production received no cooperation from the Pentagon or US Armed Forces, and the interiors of the Pentagon and Strategic Air Command base were replicated on sound stages of the Fox Movietone Studios on 10th Avenue in New York. Stock footage was used because the Air Force declined to cooperate in the production, disliking the premise of a lack of control over nuclear strike forces.
Unfortunately, Fail Safe was released shortly after Dr Strangelove, and both films have very similar plots. The fact that Strangelove was filmed as a nightmarish comedy impacted negatively on the serious tone of Fail Safe, and the first instinct of cinema audiences was to laugh.