American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
The movie begins with an impassive British voice reading news over the radio. The Red Chinese have invaded South Vietnam in support of the Viet Cong. The United States has threatened to use tactical nuclear devices in retaliation. Forced to support China, the Russians have sealed the Berlin corridor in a hawklike gesture.
The Russians and Americans trade threats and bluffs, although neither wants to get involved in a real conflict while the Chinese are acting uncontrollably. Unwilling to move large numbers of troops to Berlin because of the escalation in Vietnam, the United States deploys NATO field nuclear weapons instead.
The Russians call the American bluff, and a limited nuclear exchange takes place. Watkins deliberately ignores the effect of the bombs on America and Russia. Instead, he "documents" the side effects in England, which has 75 or so targets of military consequence.
The British mobilize on an emergency basis and evacuate women and children to rural areas. Hardware and building supply stores are mobbed by householders who want to purchase materials for bomb shelters. One woman tells an interviewer she can only afford 17 shillings and sixpence. "With her money," the voice observes, "she can buy six sandbags and two boards."