The Night Ed Sullivan Scared a Nation with the Apocalyptic Animated Short, A Short Vision (1956)

On May 27, 1956, millions of Americans tuned in to The Ed Sullivan Show, expecting the usual variety of comedians, talents and musical guests. What they weren’t prepared for was a short animated film that Sullivan introduced thusly:

Just last week you read about the H-bomb being dropped. Now two great English writers, two very imaginative writers — I’m gonna tell you if you have youngsters in the living room tell them not to be alarmed at this ‘cause it’s a fantasy, the whole thing is animated — but two English writers, Joan and Peter Foldes, wrote a thing which they called “A Short Vision” in which they wondered what might happen to the animal population of the world if an H-bomb were dropped. It’s produced by George K. Arthur and I’d like you to see it. It is grim, but I think we can all stand it to realize that in war there is no winner.

And with that, he screened the horrific bit of animation you can watch above. At the height of the atomic age, this film was a short sharp shock. Its vision of a nuclear holocaust is told in the style of a fable or storybook, with both animals and humans witnessing their last moments on earth, and ending with the extinguishing of a tiny flame. The mostly static art work is all the more effective when faces melt into skulls.

A Short Vision

Many children didn’t leave the room of course, and the website Conelrad has a wonderful in-depth history of that night and collected memories from people who were traumatized by the short as a child. One child’s hair–or rather a small section of his hair–turned white from fright.

It was as formative a moment as The Day After would be to children of the ‘80s. The papers the next day reported on the short in salacious detail (“Shock Wave From A-Bomb Film Rocks Nation’s TV Audience”) and Sullivan not only defended his decision, but showed the film again on June 10.

The film was created by married couple Peter and Joan Foldes, and shot for little money in their kitchen on a makeshift animation table. Peter was a Hungarian immigrant who had studied at the Slade School of Art and the Courtlaud Institute and apprenticed with John Halas where he learned animation.

(Halas is best known for the animated feature version of Orwell’s Animal Farm.)

A Short Vision would go on in September of that year to win best experimental film at the 17th Venice Film Festival. (Peter Foldes would later make another disturbing and award-winning short called Hunger.)

Once so shocking, A Short Vision fell out of circulation. But a generation grew up remembering that they had seen something horrific on television that night (in black and white, not the color version above.) For a time, it was hard to find a mention of the film on IMDB and a damaged educational print was one of the few copies circulating around. Fortunately the British Film Institute has made a pristine copy available of this important Cold War document.

What we want to know is this: Did Steven Spielberg see this movie that Sunday night in 1956? He would have been 10 years old.

A Short Vision will be added to the Animation section of our collection, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, Documentaries & More.

via A Wasted Life

Related content:

Dick Van Dyke, Paul Lynde & the Original Cast of Bye Bye Birdie Appear on The Ed Sullivan Show (1961)

Animated Films Made During the Cold War Explain Why America is Exceptionally Exceptional

Dizzy Gillespie Worries About Nuclear & Environmental Disaster in Vintage Animated Films

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at and/or watch his films here.

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Comments (7)
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  • Ted Mills says:

    Oh yes! The very depressing When the Wind Blows. I was thinking of making a longer list of “traumatizing films from the nuclear age” but didn’t want to go too far down the rabbit hole.

    Other suggestions:
    On the Beach
    Miracle Mile
    On the 8th Day
    The War Game

  • Dan Colman says:

    Yup, Mark, that is already noted in the post.

  • Eleanor Paul says:

    THANK YOU! I have remembered this for almost 60 years but could remember nothing of its origin other than that it was first shown on the Ed Sullivan show, back in the 1950s (I was one of those astonished, horrified children). Since the arrival of the internet in our homes, I have searched for it from time to time but didn’t know what to say about it, how to describe it for identification — until tonight! Now I have watched it for the first time in 6 decades, & no longer marvel that it stayed lodged in my memory as it did; and my respect for Ed Sullivan went up, even at that time, for daring to show something like that to America’s innocent & largely pampered citizens — although, knowing me, I was probably more impressed & concerned as it showed the damage done to innocent animals by our human folly (I was an animal rights person from birth, I think!). Anyway, many , many thanks for putting this on here! Eleanor.

  • Eleanor Paul says:

    I was 10 years old & did not see this again until I found it on here after a long search — I never forgot it — it is still terrifying. I think the nations of the world need to see it again – it should be shown on television & in schools — at least then we will know what people are talking about when they so glibly advocate war.

  • Nancy Bertelsen says:

    I was 8 years old. Ed Sullivan was always a Family Sunday night favorite. I remember this video as if it was on last night. I was terrified by the clip and being the beginning of the Summer I refused to look up in to the sky at night. I told this story many times in my adulthood and searched the internet to show a few friends who had never heard of it. Even with the technology of the apocalyptic movies of today nothing scares me like this clip did.

  • Richard Ferguson says:

    I was only 7 years old when I saw this film. It was in black and white before color television. I never forgot the film and had nightmares for years afterwards.
    I have lived under the threat of nuclear annihilation my entire life. The threat has never lessened and has now escalated in madness because of proliferation.
    I challenge the maniacs who possess the power to end the world, push those buttons. Get it on. Or…
    Sit down together and end this stupid, idiotic notion that you can win a nuclear war. You can’t win. The more weapons you build the more rubble you will bounce.
    Crawl into your bunkers and fire away. When you’re through and crawl back out, you will realize, too late, that the only thing you won was a dead, radioactive world that is devoid of life. Except for you. And soon you will die also, fighting with yourselves with sticks and rocks.
    You are murderous monsters chocking on your own hate.

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