The War Game
"This is nuclear war."
Forget for a moment all that's been said about Peter Watkins' "The War Game" being banned from the BBC. Ignore all the behind-the-scenes lunacy that inadvertently helped propel the film from minor television production to must-see infamous work of biting political commentary. Remove the entire legacy that surrounds the film. Strikingly, you still wind up with one of the most disturbing, overwhelming, and downright important films ever produced.
The 1965 film, written and directed by Watkins on the heels of his highly successful production of "Culloden," was one big middle finger to the government, who was busy reassuring citizens that the UK would be quite safe in the event of a nuclear attack. (The US wasn't the only nation getting fed its own line of "Duck and Cover" horsepucky.) Watkins dug deep and found the truth about nuclear scenarios, and what the government knew and what they were telling were too separate for Watkins to keep quiet.
What Watkins gave us was something of a "speculative documentary." Using facts and studies, he films, in docu style, what a nuclear attack on Kent would almost certainly look like. Actors fill the bill, while a pair of cold narrators inform us that what we see is most certainly what will happen.
The result is a work of immense impact - it is simply impossible to watch "The War Game" and not feel crushed by every frame. The sheer hopelessness of it all pervades the entire work, from an opening that informs how England is the nation that contains the most nuclear targets per acre to a closing that interviews children listlessly whispering that they don't want to be anything when they grow up. It feels like a punch to the gut, but it is instead a sturdy shake, a wake-up call for the government to stop worrying about image and start dealing in truths.
Those truths are staggering. Despite a public stance of defense only, the Allies, not the dreaded Communist nations, had all the power (and the likelihood) to "be the first to press the button in a nuclear war." Evacuation plans were entirely useless, with little possibility that plans on hand could ever actually work. Strategies for dealing with a city post-attack were also poorly thought out and destined for failure, with too-small food rations and an overworked police force being no match for a rioting, hungry, dying public. The devastation caused by any bomb (thirty times brighter than the midday sun, the flash is blinding for twenty-seven miles, and that's followed by the wind of an 800-degree firestorm that sucks the oxygen from the air) is nothing compared to the brutal aftermath the survivors must endure; not only do we have the physical damage (a likely scenario includes officers having to kill the unhealable), but there's the psychological fallout to consider as well, as here we have people who have experienced horrors beyond imagination, and now they must live with such things in their mind. The government had no plan to deal with the mental health of survivors. Had they even considered the notion?
As if anticipating response, Watkins is quick to include in the narration how these very things happened in the nuclear assaults of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the firebombings of Germany. Watkins repeats this idea throughout his film, warding off those who aim to debunk him by saying he's only being speculative, "documenting" something that is, technically, fiction. This is what happens in a nuclear attack, yet it does not fit with what the government is telling us, Watkins screams throughout his movie. Why the disconnect?
The truths of the film may not hit as deeply four decades later, long after the Cold War has faded away. Yet the ideas behind "The War Game" remain all too vital. After all, if the British and American governments of the early 1960s were content with doling out disinformation to keep the public away from nuclear panic, what does that mean for the administrations of today, with their duct-tape-will-save-us-all announcements? How many lies are we still being fed?
And yet this distrust is only a portion of "The War Game," which works best as an alarm to those in charge about the very cost of war itself. The most effective anti-war films are the ones that put a face to the violence, and Watkins gives us that face, up close. This is what war means, Watkins tells us - the complete destruction of humanity. Push the button, and you're not sending thousands of faceless soldiers to their doom as cannon fodder in some impersonal game. You're sending people - real people - to an end so brutal it should not be wished upon anyone. And in the context of a potential nuclear conflict, Watkins reminds us all that the devastation would reach beyond the battlefront and into the homes of the very citizens such war is meant to protect.
"The War Game" became infamous almost immediately, as the BBC banned it from broadcast, apparently due to its graphic subject matter, but secretly because of pressure from the government, who wanted it suppressed. When the ban failed to include theatrical showings, Watkins took his film on the road, becoming a bit of a cause célèbre along the way; following success on the festival and art house circuit, it won an Academy Award for Best Documentary and a BAFTA Award for Best Short, and was often hailed by many who saw it as being one of the most important films ever made. (The BBC would finally lift the ban… two decades later.)
This is Watkins at his very best, angry and provocative and desperate to tell the truth, yet not once dipping below anything but sheer greatness from a filmmaking perspective. This is an important film, yes, but it's also a great one, expertly constructed. Despite the disturbing level of horror found within, it is impossible to turn away from this, an unquestionable masterpiece of raw journalism, political commentary, and unrestrained terror.
Remembered these days mostly as a precursor to "The War Game," Watkins' "Culloden" is a less effective but no less remarkable study in anti-war speculative documentary. Broadcast in 1964 to great acclaim, the film takes its cue from the 1950s CBS series "You Are There," which reenacted famous historical events, with Walter Cronkite as your host.
Here, we get reenactment but no slick news anchor as a guide. The idea is that a documentary crew is on hand to witness the 1746 battle between the Duke of Cumberland's army and the Jacobite Highlanders of Scotland, the last battle ever fought on British soil. A scroll at the film's opening sets the tone:
"An account of one of the most mishandled and brutal battles ever fought in Britain. An account of its tragic aftermath. An account of the men responsible for it. An account of the men, women, and children who suffered because of it."
Again, we put a face on war, and it sends shivers. Far more than a mere recreation of history (do not expect the Brit equivalent of Civil War reenactors), this is another outcry from the filmmaker. Watkins has no respect for the events or those on either side who caused them - although he does pity the poor fools caught in the middle of the fight, thanks to disturbing pacts between land owner and peasant that's little more than "human rent." Watkins refuses to flinch from the violence at hand; are we to take comfort that advances in warfare prevent us from meeting the same fates as these 18th century souls?
Where "The War Game" gained effectiveness from its brevity - with no time to waste, everything was harshly to-the-point - the longer running time for "Culloden" (72 minutes, versus 49 minutes for "The War Game") allows the film an opportunity to lose steam from time to time. It is not a permanent loss, yet the extra time does present some slack, and "Culloden" is ultimately not as effective as its follow-up effort.
But only barely. "Culloden" is most certainly an effective, well-made production, and once it hits its true anti-war ground, the film becomes timeless. This is less a study of a horrible battle than it is a cry against war in any form. There is no glory, no honor, no victory to be found within. There is only death and desperation, and, of course, the terrible actions of those in charge.
As part of their series on Peter Watkins' career, New Yorker Video finally brings "The War Game" to DVD Stateside, with "Culloden" as a worthy second feature.
"The War Game" suffers from some print damage throughout - scratch here, marks there - although the excellent transfer does its best to work around such problems, keeping defects to a minimum. "Culloden," on the other hand, is almost perfect in its transfer, crisp and solid, not a sign that it was filmed on cheap 16mm stock. Both are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
The mono tracks for both films are clean and free of any noticeable hiss or other setback. Optional English and French subtitles are offered.
Each film gets its own commentary track: "The War Game" features Patrick Murphy of York St. John University College; "Culloden" features Dr. John Cook of Glasgow Caledonian University. It's welcome and informative discussion from both contributors.
The only other bonus is a booklet that reprints Murphy's article "The War Game: The Controversy," which originally ran in a 2003 issue of Film International. The article tells us everything we need to know about Watkins and the notorious history of his most famous film.
The release seems light on extras, but it's understandable, though - you can only recount the same information so many times, and here, we get our fill with quality, not quantity. New Yorker provides us with a full opportunity to understand these films and their impact without getting in the way of the films themselves. And what films they are. "The War Game" alone is enough to put this in the DVD Talk Collector Series, with "Culloden" merely cementing the deal.