A young man in a suit is picking flowers in a meadow when suddenly a whole army battalion turns up - including a helicopter. Our hero, who has no name, no past and no mission, is simply the wrong man in the wrong place. Suddenly he comes into possession of a suitcase, which in all appearances looks to contain an atomic bomb, and all at once the villains of the world are after him. A surreal chase begins.
A Bomb Was Stolen / S-a furat o bombă opens in a deserted wasteland, which resembles a mysterious no-man's-land. The main character appears. He picks the only flower he can find, then suddenly he's surrounded by military forces: a helicopter lands, special units in shining silver suits encircle him and he´s temporarily taken into custody, as an atom bomb is about to be tested. Back in the city, the young man goes looking for work, but by mistake – for this is a comedy! – he picks up a briefcase containing an atom bomb. Not realising what he's done, he carries it around the town, hotly pursued by a gang of criminals, who originally stole it and want it back, and uniformed guards from the XOX Company, from whom it was stolen and who also want to get it back. Whilst the two groups chase each other back and forth, each trying to stop the other getting hold of the bomb, and they end up in a grand finale of fisticuffs, our young hero, meanwhile, falls in love with a bus conductress. She falls for him, too, and, by virtue of their mutual love, the film ends as they convert the destructive bomb into small energy-radiating pieces, which they distribute to the townspeople. The final scene takes us back to where the film began: the bomb test has turned the wasteland into a flower-strewn meadow.
About the MovieA Bomb Was Stolen
Original Title: S-a furat o bombă
Romania 1961, 72 min.
Director: Ion Popescu-Gopo
Cast: Iurie Darie, Emil Botta, Haralambie Boroș et al.
A Bomb Was Stolen is an allegory of the nuclear arms race during the Cold War, reflecting the determination of both sides to 'get the bomb', and their mutual fears about its destructive potential. Two opposing factions, which symbolise Wealth and Power, fight for control of the bomb. They race against each other to get the bomb back from the unwitting young man: but the members of the gangster mob are so afraid of what the bomb represents, that their courage fails them at the decisive moment and they fumble their chance. The nerdy lock-picker's lips tremble and twitch; the cowboy's forehead is bathed in sweat and the fat man in the gang sneezes at the top of his voice from sheer terror. High comedy apart, however, the film has a serious message: that the true danger of the bomb lies less in its explosive power but more in the competition between the Rich and the Powerful to get hold of it. The film has a ready solution to the problem at its end: neither the gangsters nor the XOX Company will have it for their warlike ends. Instead, the energy potential of the bomb will be turned to peaceful uses and be made available to everyone, irrespective of race or origin.
The hero-without-a-name, who picks the flower in the opening scene, is the cinematic alter ego of a cartoon character, the 'little man – created by director Ion Popescu-Gopo – who had previously appeared in his animated cartoons and almost always carried a flower. In A Bomb Was Stolen the young man in the rumpled suit is at the same time the most unthreatening and the most dangerous character in the film. His peaceable nature is underlined at the outset by his act of picking the flower. Although he harbours no evil intentions and is only looking for work, he very soon becomes a threat to the whole city: the slightest knock could set off the bomb in the briefcase... and so, quite unwittingly, he runs through the town, literally a ticking time-bomb.
A Bomb Was Stolen offers one of the least theatrical treatments of the debate about the nuclear arms race. It has no dialogue as such: it's made like a silent film with elements of slapstick, and it parodies the style of both the spy film specifically and American cinema generally. The surreal nature of the screenplay is apparent from the very first scene: the featureless, unidentifiable landscape, the innocuous act of picking a flower, the strange, futuristic suits worn by the military, all create an unreal atmosphere which persists throughout the film. The comedy stems mainly from the hero's ignorance of what's in the briefcase and thus from the contradictions inherent in his role.
A Bomb Was Stolen stands out from the run-of-the-mill spy films of the period because, although it adapts the conventional characters and style of the genre, it above all breaks these conventions, and shifts their significance from serious to comic. As in any spy film, the hero is on a dangerous mission... he just doesn't know it. The most sophisticated tools for breaking and entering are available to the gangsters... but prove to be useless. The two rival groups do not, as would be expected, symbolise good and evil, us and them, but each is shown as being as reprehensible as the other.
A Bomb Was Stolen uses techniques familiar from the era of silent films: it creates picture-language to express emotions and dialogue without words. The ringleaders of the rival groups, the gangsters and XOX, communicate via electronic means, one of them using a brain-operated typewriter. The audience understands the love affair between the hero and the bus conductress not just from his lingering, blissful gazes at her, but also from the angel's wings she grows in his daydreams. The slapstick elements in A Bomb Was Stolen are strongly reminiscent of those used by the French actor / director, Jacques Tati: situation comedy without words, backed by jazzy music, was the hallmark of Monsieur Hulot's Holiday / Les vacances de M. Hulot (France, 1953). There were close links from the earliest days of cinema between Romanian and French film-makers, partly based on the similarity of the two languages; there were French directors working in the Buftea Studios in the 1950s and 1960s, and it's quite possible some of Popescu-Gopo's comedy ideas came from his familiarity with Tati's film.
Moreover, there are a number of hommages to other famous directors: in the dream sequence, there's an obvious reference to the king of slapstick, Charlie Chaplin. The scene, where the young man dreams of living within his own four walls and eating a meal with his beloved, is almost identical to that in Modern Times (USA, 1935) – another sound film which was also produced like a silent film. In the same way, the opening scene, where the young man is caught unawares in the empty wasteland by a military helicopter, has strong overtones of the classic scene in Hitchcock's North By Northwest (USA, 1959), where Cary Grant is pursued by an aeroplane across bare, empty fields. The Hitchcock film was released just two years before A Bomb Was Stolen.
Popescu-Gopo's film was made at the height of the Cold War, when the arms race between the USA and the USSR was in its most intense phase. Nuclear arsenals on both sides of the Iron Curtain were growing apace: their deployment was, at this stage, clearly intended for possible use in war. 1961, when A Bomb Was Stolen was made, was just four years on from the declaration of NATO's deterrent policy of massive retaliation. A first strike by the USSR – nuclear or conventional – would produce a NATO response of total war, which would necessarily include nuclear weapons. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the two superpowers were locked in an arms race based on the use of strategic weapons with nuclear warheads. The Russians' success in launching the Sputnik satellite in 1957 suggested an intercontinental rocket strike on the USA was a real possibility, an event often described as 'sputnik shock' by historians. The arms race then broadened into a superpower 'race into space': the silver suits worn by the special units in A Bomb Was Stolen can be taken as alluding to this race to the moon.
1961 was also the year the USA began to deploy its B-52 bombers armed with nuclear missiles on 24 / 7 patrols across Europe, the Mediterranean and the Pacific Ocean: if war broke out, these could rapidly be launched at pre-arranged targets in the Soviet Union. Indeed, one year after A Bomb Was Stolen was released, the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. The Americans regarded the stationing of Soviet mid-range nuclear missiles in Cuba as an extreme provocation and they blockaded the Soviet military transport vessels taking them there. Days of negotiations, threats and counter-threats finally ended with the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, backing down and withdrawing the rockets.
Ion Popescu-Gopo (1923-1989) brings A Bomb Was Stolen to a close with the utopian idea that atomic energy is put to peaceful uses and made generally available for the betterment of human knowledge. This film is one of the best-known of his output. Popescu-Gopo was given art lessons by his father and went on to study at the Bucharest Academy of Fine Arts (though he never graduated). From 1939, he worked as a cartoonist and book illustrator, then in 1950 he joined the Bucharest Cinematographic Studio, in their animation division. There, in collaboration with his father, he made his first animated films, such as The Disobedient Duck (1950), and The Bee and the Dove (1951). These animations reveal his admiration for the work of Walt Disney, though his own animated figures are simpler than Disney's and generally black-and-white. In 1956 he made the first of several films featuring a character he invented, the 'little man': a 10-minute short called A Brief History, which won the Palme d´Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1957. He made many more animated films as well as three full-length features, of which A Bomb Was Stolen was the first. With this curious deviation from the conventions of the spy film, he succeeded in bringing to the screen a finely crafted argument against the madness of the nuclear arms race, which rings as true today as it did then.