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'The War Game' Movie Review: Nuclear Holocaust in England

The War Game by Peter Watkins

For anyone who thinks that those 50-pack mega-DVD sets of public domain films put out by several different video companies are worthless, I would argue that the amount of films you get for the money is worth it, even if all were mediocre. I would also add that each DVD package comes with at least 8-10 enjoyable films, a few true classics like Carnival of Souls or Night of the Living Dead, and every so often a great little film will pop up that makes the package a total steal.

One such 50-pack I got, “Nightmare Worlds,” features one such film: Peter Watkins' 1965 BBC documentary (not broadcast until 1985) The War Game, winner of the Best Feature Documentary Academy Award in 1967.

Granted, film quality is always an issue with such cheapo DVDs, but having grown up in the era of television with shadows, snowy static, and rabbit ears, even the worst transfer is significantly better than the prevalent quality of shows years ago. [Note from the editor: New Yorker / Project X offered a good transfer of The War Game on DVD.]

As a plus, The War Game does one of the best jobs I've seen in terms of capturing the zeitgeist of a time and place – and I've sat through hundreds of documentaries, from the silent era to today's crop.

Imagine how most of Europe felt, as pawns in the American-Soviet Cold War, being liable to total annihilation due to nothing they had any control over. One wonders what a similar documentary made in the last five years – on current ant-Islamic paranoia – would feel like. And remember, the Soviet Union was a nation whose nuclear arsenal alone could have made the Earth uninhabitable many times over; so, the fear felt by many in those days was comprehensible, whereas the irrational fears of Islamic militancy today is mostly all borne of post-9/11 paranoia.

The War Game by Peter Watkins

Written and directed by Watkins, the black-and-white The War Game runs a scant 47 minutes; even so, it packs a hell of a wallop emotionally. The film follows a hypothetical scenario for several months: after China invades South Vietnam, the U.S. prepares for nuclear retaliation, but the Soviets and East Germans (remember when Germany and Vietnam were split nations?) threaten to invade West Berlin. The U.S. fortifies West Berlin, but the Communists attack and repel American forces. Then U.S. president Lyndon Johnson retaliates with a NATO-approved nuclear attack against the Warsaw Pact; as a result, the Soviets launch multiple missile strikes against the United Kingdom.

Chaos rules before the missiles hit. Civil defense authorities lose control of civilians, racial and class tensions reach a boil, evacuees from the cities are resisted by rural dwellers. After we hear of other missile strikes, The War Game centers on the devastation caused to Rochester, in Kent County, when a missile aimed at London veers off course. We then get excruciatingly detailed descriptions (orally and visually) of the blast effects, aftershocks, and resultant firestorms that burn, suffocate, and maim with flying debris those not initially vaporized by the nuclear blast.

The War Game by Peter WatkinsHours, days, weeks, and months pass until the film ends near Christmastime. After the limited nuclear exchanges play out, there seems to be a ceasefire. In the aftermath, we have social anarchy, revolt against authority figures, martial law, radiation poisoning, untreated psychological and physiological damage, food poisoning, starvation, and the wan efforts at medical treatment and cadaver disposal.

The War Game by Peter WatkinsIn The War Game, seamlessly edited staged events are interspersed with archival footage from the Second World War. Rather crude special effects, such as shaking the camera to simulate the winds of a firestorm, are surprisingly effective. Watkins also makes use of traditional documentary techniques such as maps, scrawled epigraphs of information, recitations of (naïve) quotes from public figures, and man-on-the-street interviews that show the ignorance of average Britons regarding nuclear war and civil defense – e.g., not knowing the effects of Carbon 14 (but would you or I?).

The film also features some yahoo American military sorts in an effective – even if a bit over the top – manner to demonstrate the American enthusiasm for war. But remember, The War Game was made only a couple of years after Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove showed reckless American militarism at its worst. As a plus, Michael Aspel and Peter Graham's impassive narration fully conveys the faux realism of the film's fictive world while also showing how utterly deluded civil defense measures were.

The War Game by Peter Watkins
Peter Watkins' The War Game

Given the spate of nuclear Armageddon films made in the 1960s – e.g., Sidney Lumet's Fail Safe, Franklin J. Schaffner's Planet of the Apes – and up through the early 1980s television production The Day After, it's remarkable how such a low-budget effort like The War Game retains its effectiveness when almost all other films on the topic seem corny.

In fact, it's likely that the timelessness of Watkins' film is the very reason it was banned for nearly two decades. Scenes of British police shooting civilians were probably deemed too disturbing. Worse yet, the film's realistic feel and unflinching look at the total inability of the U.K. government to protect its citizens from a nuclear attack – or to care for them following one such attack – surely caused waves.

When The War Game was delayed for broadcast, Watkins resigned from the BBC, which had been pressured into private screenings for public officials. Many of those denounced Watkins' film as anti-British agitprop. Film critic Kenneth Tynan, however, championed the documentary as possibly the most important film ever made, a gesture that spearheaded a letter-writing campaign by anti-nuke forces. (That was one of the relatively few instances when a film critic played a positive role.) The War Game then received limited theatrical release on college campuses across Europe and America in 1966.

Although limited, much of the film's information about a nuclear strike was cannily accurate for its day, including the claim that over a third of all Britons would die in the attacks and their aftermath. The War Game was made before the “nuclear winter” concept, so most of the information was taken from the reported effects of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the fire bombings of Tokyo, Dresden, and other Japanese and German cities.

The War Game by Peter WatkinsThe effectiveness of the extras in make-up, some with severe deformity and scarring, is jolting, but made even more realistic by the film being in black and white. Curiously, some of the vox populi interviews pull back from the tale of nuclear horror to ask Britons whether or not the U.K. should retaliate against the USSR in such a scenario – most unstintingly agree their nation should. This is a nice contrast to some of the intertitle sequences that show often hilariously naïve comments by British officials written out in full.

Near film's end, a voiceover intones that by 1980 the chances of such a scenario playing out at least once in the world is very high. That it never did is something to seriously pause over, for despite the film's accuracy in depicting governmental inadequacies in responding to such an attack it has to be acknowledged that Peter Watkins grossly underestimated the human will to survive – whatever role that played at keeping the Cold War nuclear powers at bay for nearly half a century.

Now, even though The War Game is technically a mockumentary – however un-Christopher Guest-like – one could argue that it is also a documentary since it so perfectly captures its era's zeitgeist without seriously dating itself. Besides exposing Cold War Civil Defense failures, Watkins' film slyly comments on the failings of the media of the day, especially in their approach to the classism of that era. One wonders if any documentary made today could as readily capture the true and false beliefs we now have regarding global warming, Islamic terror, the international financial crisis, etc.

In sum, The War Game is a terrific, innovative, and profound film. I recommend its rediscovery to all who want to know what art and journalism can do, even if that only happens far too rarely. In fact, The War Game is a truly rare film, in all respects.

© Dan Schneider

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide. A version of this The War Game review was initially posted in November 2009.

THE WAR GAME (1965). Dir. / Scr.: Peter Watkins. Narration: Michael Aspel and Peter Graham.

1 Academy Award Win (1966)

Best Documentary Feature: Peter Watkins

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2 Comments to 'The War Game' Movie Review: Nuclear Holocaust in England

  1. Mongo

    I'm surprised there's no mention of the 1984 BBC docudrama, “Threads”, written by Barry Hines and directed by Mick Jackson (principally known for directing Costner and Houston in 'The Bodyguard').

    I always assumed that (since it appeared at roughly the same time) it was the UK's variation on the same nuclear war theme as America's made-for-ABC-TV movie, The Day After, or the slightly later U.S. film, 'Testament'.

    Like The War Game, 'Threads' focused on the fate of a single British city near a NATO air base, Sheffield, and two families: The upper-middle-class Becketts, whose daughter Ruth has been going with (and now pregnant by) the eldest son of the working-class Kemps. World War III leaves almost everyone dead — except for the pregnant Ruth, who gives birth in a stable during a thunderstorm, while a chained dog barks frantically.

    Decades pass; the postwar population of the British Isles is lower than that of Midieval England. Ruth is now a white-haired crone in her forties, dying of cancer, blinded by cataracts caused by increased UV exposure. Her daughter, now twentysomething, is pregnant and delivers her child in a makeshift hospital; in the last scene, a midwife casually drops her newborn baby on her stomach, and the daughter gasps — the child was born with deformities, due to radiation-induced damage to her DNA (hence, the 'Threads' in the title).

    This production was, to me, more affecting than its Hollywood cousins because its horror was more understated than cinematic, and so had higher production values — again, my opinion. I'm not sure why, but the scene of fire engines, silently deploying in the darkness to predetermined 'safe areas' outside Sheffield, the night before the war begins was chilling enough that it has always stayed with me as emblematic of impending disaster.

  2. Terry Christie

    The War Game by Peter Watkins is about the nuclear attack on Britain banned by the BBC in 1965 until 20 years later on Wednesday July 31st 1985.

    The Voiceovers are Dick Graham & Michael Aspel provide the commentators.

    The War Game is the great douc-drama awards for the best black & white film and once again to the producer of course is
    Peter Watkins.

    Terry Christie
    From Sunderland
    Tyne & Wear