Scary and Sadly, Still Very Relevant: Peter Watkins’s THE WAR GAME

THE WAR GAME


(4.5/5)


Pros: Harrowing, realistic, thought-provoking, and still very timely

Cons: There’s a reason why this wasn’t broadcast on British television back in 1965: it is quite disturbing and grim

On this 70th anniversary of the Trinity nuclear test, I present this review of Peter Watkins’s The War Game. 


From the early 1950s onward, it seemed that the threat of nuclear weapons was everywhere one turned at the movie theater. As science fiction films by the dozens used radiation-induced mutation to explain any number of monstrous creatures that threatened mankind, more serious efforts such as Fail-Safe focused on the behind-the-scenes machinations involved in a nuclear strike. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb actually turned the Cold War into a pitch black comedy, but British filmmaker Peter Watkins’s 1965 made-for-television program The War Game stands as one of the most realistic and still-unsettling portraits of thermonuclear war that’s ever been made.

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Unleashing a fictional “what if” scenario that imagines what would happen if a nuclear air burst occurred just outside Kent in England, The War Game also uses straight-forward documentary techniques to explore the potential for and results of a Soviet nuclear strike against the UK. The piece begins by having a narrator reveal a map of hypothetical targets in the country, going on to investigate the official evacuation procedures that would be put into effect should a real nuclear attack seem imminent. The dramatized response of the public to this evacuation order is somewhat alarming and hints at underlying, unforeseen problems: when being told that she has to suddenly house eight refugees, one woman inquires of the commanding official “are they colored?” Meanwhile, the fictionalized portion of the program creates its doomsday scenario by suggesting that tensions in Southeast Asia – very much a reality in 1965 – or even a dispute along the Berlin wall might create a flashpoint that would lead to a full-on nuclear showdown. After a missile is fired, missing its intended military target and heading instead for a populated area, the film transitions to a grim and gritty portrait of the aftermath of an atomic explosion.


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The War Game makes a pronounced effort to explain the real world, on the ground results of a nuclear blast: the inevitable firestorm resulting from the incredible heat generated, the choking clouds of carbon monoxide and methane, the psychological damage caused by seeing so much death and destruction.  Director Watkins’s camera doesn’t shy away from depicting the more graphic and disturbing images: dead bodies are burned en masse (with one military man describing the process of corpse disposal as being similar to “making a grill”), survivors suffering from serious burns are shot by police in an effort to put them out of their misery, civilians looting in an effort to get much-needed supplies are fired upon by military guards. It’s really no surprise that The War Game was initially pulled from television broadcast because authorities believed it to be too horrifying for viewers, and the fact that the film is very critical of official protocol relating to nuclear attacks probably didn’t help matters.

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Even though Watkins never quite says as much in his script, it’s very clear that one of the goals of this film was to shed light on the irresponsible and ignorant approach to nuclear proliferation and war that had been taken by many government, scientific and even church personnel. As the film progresses, various quotes and reenacted interviews with so-called “experts” are related to the viewer, most of which now seem unbelievably naïve and idealistic: after a meeting in the Vatican, one bishop declares that he is sure “our nuclear weapons will be used with wisdom,” implying that there’s any wisdom to using such a device against other human beings in the first place. Watkins also slyly voices his displeasure about the methods used to inform the public about the dangers of radiation – we’re told that a government pamphlet detailing precautionary measures that the public should take “didn’t sell well…it cost ninepence,” and various “man on the street” interviews reveal that efforts to inform the population about the realities of nuclear warfare simply haven’t worked. The average citizen would appear to have precisely no realistic expectation about what a nuclear explosion would entail – I was amused by a moment when a couple “ducks and covers” under a table; surprisingly, this doesn’t seem to offer them any amount of protection from the incoming blast.

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It’s pretty amazing that some fifty years after the making of this film, many of the issues discussed in it are still extremely relevant. Despite the fall of the Soviet Union, nuclear arsenals remain for the most part intact and at the ready not only in the remnants of that country, but in the United States as well. Though I guess it’s encouraging that full-scale nuclear war didn’t happen by 1980 as was predicted in The War Game, it’s unfortunate that the human race still seems to believe that the prospect of mutually assured destruction is the way to go – a thought process that’s perhaps even more dangerous now, in the era of terrorism, than it was during the Cold War. I think it’s important that Watkins reminds the viewer of the Biblical commandment of “Thou shalt not kill” immediately after a segment in which various citizens being interviewed reveal that they believe retaliation following a nuclear strike from an enemy is not only justified but almost necessary. This is a notion that frequently seems to be forgotten by those in positions of power despite the vast majority of them seeming to be “persons of faith”: Watkins suggests that these people have a moral responsibility for their actions even though they’re “working for the good of the country” and should answer for them. If only moral and humanitarian concerns played a bigger part in the way modern governments operate…


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The whole of The War Game is intensely provocative, but a few segments towards its conclusion really stand out. Following a scene in which disorderly citizens and looters are executed, the film asks “Would the survivors envy the dead” following a nuclear event, an idea that’s furthered when a group of children who survived the blast reveal that, as a result of this event, they “don’t want to be nothing” when they grow up. That’s the sort of reality that the world would face in the wake of full-on nuclear destruction: what would really be left in the aftermath, and would it even be worthwhile to carry on?

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Filmed using non-actors in scratchy and shaky black and white, often from a first-person or faux-documentary perspective, The War Game is put together incredibly well. The film boasts a fascinating sound design that at various point emphasizes childrens’ screams or blaring air raid sirens, and I liked the way in which various film techniques were integrated into the finished production. The film is very concise when it comes to making its points, and the unrelentingly bleak and sober tone ensures that the viewer will be paying attention. Though director Peter Watkins has gone on to make various other challenging and sometimes incendiary pictures, none has remained as relevant and unsettling as this. Even though The War Game wasn’t a true documentary, it won the Oscar in that category, and deservedly so I think. I’d urge most anyone to watch this film: without doubt, it’s an incredibly important piece, and one that serves as a reminder of what we as human beings have the power to do to each other and ultimately, ourselves.

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6/10 : Not nearly as outright graphic as today’s films, but this is very gritty and bleak, with some intensely disturbing moments and implications
0/10 : No profanity

0/10 : You’re kidding, right?

7/10 : Very nicely done as a piece of cinema, and about as sober and authentic a portrayal and fascinating an investigation of nuclear war as has been produced
On preparedness for a nuclear strike: “I think extra numbers would’ve made no difference at all toward this, 15 or 20 times the number of civil defense, wouldn’t have stopped the initial attack from killing or maiming exactly the same number of people.”

On survival: “You can’t eat a pound note.”

On almost the entire subject of nuclear weapons, on the problems of their possession, on the effects of their use, there is now practically a total silence in the press, in official publications, and on television. There is hope in any unresolved and unpredictable situation. But is there a real hope to be found in the silence? The world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons has doubled in the last 5 years, and now is the equivalent to almost 20 tons of high explosives to every man, woman, and child on the planet. This stockpile is still steadily growing. ”

Film can be viewed in its entirety at the link below:

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