*This story is an addendum to an earlier article ‘“If it Flies, it Dies”: Exploring Indiana’s C-47 Nike Missile Site.’ New readers might want to glance through that first.
Before diving into the Hollywood repurposing of these Cold War artifacts, let me clear something up: my fascination for the past, present, and future of Project Nike isn’t born from cynicism or a morbidity in imagining a full-scale nuclear exchange (I once read through a one-inch stack of Hiroshima victims’ firsthand accounts: not even the darkest imagination can reproduce that reality).
It’s that these Nike missile batteries (not silos, which are vertical structures constructed to store and launch medium and long-range ballistic missiles) spent two decades guarding the front door of dozens of American cities and millions of lives. They were entirely defensive in nature, and the radar, missile, and tracking technology utilized at these bases became a kind of “gold standard” in defense systems.
Thankfully, we never had to find out if they would have worked against bombers or a salvo of Soviet ICBMs. Had that day actually come, I think those Nike batteries, and the soldiers manning them, could have put up one hell of a good fight.
As well-designed and well-maintained as they once were, most of the nearly 300 Nike bases have disappeared. Some bases and buildings have been reused and redesigned, but most were razed to make way for American living. Nothing wrong with that, although I wish a few more (Hobart’s C-47 included) would see some TLC in the interest of historic preservation.
A scant handful, however, were immortalized not in history books or museums, but on the big screen. These Nike bases have been used as backdrops or sets in Hollywood movies, although none were exactly Academy Award contenders. Readers may have seen one or two of these obscure films, and this article may inspire you seek them out. Just don’t blame me if the movie stinks. I’m only here for the history.
The Invisible Boy (1957)
Robbie (sometimes spelled Robby) the Robot became the breakout star of 1956’s The Forbidden Planet, but MGM decided that the heavy cost involved in creating Robbie necessitated his starring in another movie. Thus was born the confusing and forgettable science-fiction film The Invisible Boy, released the same year the Soviets launched Sputnik.
The plot is…terrible and I don’t want to summarize it, but during the film’s climax, as Robbie is wading through American military forces to reach his rocket, you can clearly see the line of deployed Nike-Ajax missiles in the foreground. Shooting took place at LA-55, one of the 19 bases surrounding Los Angeles, with the permission of the military, who were much friendlier to film makers during the days of the Hays Code. Bad movie, but it’s fascinating to see a Nike base in its freshly-painted prime.
Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)
The original Planet of the Apes franchise went heavy on social consciousness, and critics revere Escape from the Planet of the Apes, the third of five films, as one of the franchise’s best. In the film, three ape characters are sent back in time to 1973 America, where they are imprisoned and studied by the American military. Although much of the movie is filmed on routine Hollywood sound stages, several key scenes were filmed at the LA-78 Nike missile base, specifically the control and administration areas.
Studio executives loved the idea of the apes arriving in modern America, mostly because it was very cost-effective. The film starred Hollywood heavies Roddy McDowell, Kim Hunter, and Sal Mineo in his final film role.
Strangely enough, I remember this film well because the videocassette cover terrified me when I was a little kid.
Wavelength recycled the E.T. formula (misunderstood alien/big, bad government/wide-eyed young man between) shamelessly. Starring David Carradine and Cherie Currie (of The Runaways), Wavelength’s artwork and soundtrack by Tangerine Dream are generally considered its best elements. Plot? The military has stored and experimented on a group of bald, expressionless aliens whose childlike appearance is meant to tug at our hearts, but instead gives a pretty hefty Village of the Damned vibe.
This film differs in that the abandoned Nike base becomes an active plot element—why does an abandoned base need THAT much power?—but it is unclear if it was actually filmed at a Nike base. My guess is yes. Since so many were still standing and in relatively good shape in the early 80s, there’s no reason not to use one in the filming.
The film is also infamous in that a few former military personnel claim it’s a true story. Of course they have no evidence, but when has that stopped anyone from proselytizing?
Dawn of the Dead (1985)
Probably the most famous movie on this list, 1985’s Day of the Dead holds personal relevance for me because of a video rental mixup. When I was six, my father rented a kids’ film for us, popped it in the VCR, and went to clean the dishes. He returned 15 minutes later to three silent and wide-eyed children.
The store clerk had accidentally switched the films, and three kids (8, 6, and 5) were psychologically imprinted with 15 minutes of zombies lumbering down a dusty street, a headless corpse kicking its legs, a misbehaving zombie brought down with a drill bit to the forehead…And a long launch elevator yawning open to provide shelter for the movie’s heroes.
Three elements made up the abandoned Nike base. The topside shot was constructed for the film itself. Romero used a limestone mine as a stand in for the cavernous shelter, but the scene where the heroes ride the elevator platform down to safety is an actual Nike base outside Pittsburgh.
Finding the references for this handful of movies wasn’t easy. Because of the plentiful number of abandoned bases, and the frequent shifts in ownership, there is no doubt many other bases were used as film locations without acknowledgement. The good news is the American military built their Nike missile defense bases to last; the few bases that remain, as long as they receive even cursory maintenance, should be around for many, many years to come.