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By Phil Hall | May 14, 2013

This award-winning documentary by Adam Jonas Horowitz, which was originally broadcast on PBS, retraces the long-secret U.S. government program known as Project 4.1, which measured the effects of nuclear weapon-born radiation on the people of the Marshall Islands.

Using declassified government films and footage for background, “Nuclear Savage” details how an unexpected development in the 1954 Bikini Atoll nuclear tests resulted in unforeseen radioactive fallout on populated islands outside of the testing range. The U.S. government used the exposed island populations as guinea pigs to measure the effects of the atomic radiation on civilian populations. While the official line of out Washington was pure fabrication – the government insisted that no lingering illnesses had been detected – the Marshall Islanders faced years of cancer, birth defects and other health tragedies. Also impacted were the American servicemen who served as witnesses to the Bikini Atoll tests — their exposure to atomic radiation doomed many of their numbers to cancer and other diseases.

The lack of public outrage during the 1950s is disgusting by contemporary measurement – one newsreel from 1957 describes the Marshall Islanders as “savages by our standards” – and the egregious level of squalor and poverty in today’s Marshall Islands suggests that the dislocations and disruptions created by the post-World War II American military was never property rectified.

The film is wonderfully researched and the interviews are extremely insightful; however, Horowitz’ droning narration and less than compelling on-screen presence gets in the way of an otherwise intriguing and disturbing production. This DVD release has two versions of the film: a 60-minute and 87-minute version. In either format, this documentary is recommended.

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