After the hostile critical reception of his movie Privilege, Peter Watkins tried unsuccessfully to initiate a project about the American west and then accepted an offer to make a film in Sweden. The Gladiators applies his 'false documentary' style to fantastic political science fiction. The story involves a computer-controlled "Peace Game" (with real bullets and real casualties) organized by the U.N. by to keep belligerent nations from resorting to outright war. The games are televised worldwide, presumably to provide a 'safe' outlet for hostile impulses. In 1969 this was a very novel concept.
Peter Watkins' The Gladiators has the makings of an exciting Science Fiction thriller but escapism is the last thing on this director's mind. His film satirizes the arrogance of the military powers behind The Peace Game and encourages thought about the struggle against what rebels in 1968 called "the system." A violent combination of television, sports and combat, The Peace Game's true purpose is to control an unhappy citizenry and stifle dissent by means of civilization's most effective "bread and circuses" entertainment: War.
Like most of Peter Watkins' films, The Gladiators received little or no distribution beyond festival and special screenings. Savant saw it as a Freshman at UCLA, projected in Ackerman Union and possibly attended by Watkins himself. 1970 was a highly politicized time in the UC system and we average undergraduates were as split by the Vietnam war as were our parents. It took witnessing the Ronald Reagan-ordered Police action during the Cambodia protests (Spring '71?) to make me realize that the anti-war movement wasn't a game.
At that time, Watkins' film was far too advanced to connect with his rapt student audience; the movie was experimental in ways that would appeal to a film theoretician with an interest in political scientist. I'm fairly sure that the percentage of people capable of appreciating Watkins' cinematic game has increased, but we have lived through 35 more years of stylistic evolution. Time has caught up with some of Watkins' ideas, even if they've been watered down for commercial purposes.
The main audience challenge in The Gladiators is Watkins' refusal to deliver an action film, a suspense thriller or a character study -- any of the entertainment implied by a short description of the film's content. We learn only enough about the Allied fighting squad to realize that it is hopelessly dysfunctional. It's like a hopeless Boy Scout troop -- the soldiers don't like the game and they hate each other. When the officer in charge tries to motivate them with rah-rah platitudes, he looks like a fool.
The rules of the game don't seem to make any sense, so we can't follow the combat as an entertainment in itself. To win, the group is supposed to reach a goal by following a string of red lights, and the Chinese supposedly wait in ambush for them. The fighting (like most real combat) consists of incoming gunfire that's never pinpointed. The generals sit around sipping tea and being snippy with each other like a Monty Python sketch done completely seriously. They have no real connection with their troops, showing concern only for their own personal comfort and status relative to their peers. In the control room, sober Swedish officer Davidsson (Hans Bendrik, an actor with a temperment reminiscent of Max von Sydow) runs the show like a TV director, arbitrarily pushing buttons with enigmatic markings: "TRIAL OF STRENGTH", "EXTERNAL THREAT", "SLOW MOTION MURDER". Instead of a coherent competition The Peace Game becomes an absurd spectacle that will frustrate viewers looking for typical war movie content: There is no group camaraderie, no efficient killing action. The film doesn't affirm aggression as a positive quality.
The Allied forces are said to be highly trained but then turn out to be a mis-matched pack of unmotivated, frightened strangers who seem to have been conscripted and thrown together at the last minute. We're told that soldiers can quit at any time by follow a different-colored string of lights to an 'exit,' but although everybody wants to quit, nobody mentions this option again. The wild-card student member of the team B-3 isn't integrated well into the action - he wanders slowly on his own toward the control room with nothing barring his progress but one electrified doorknob.
Finally, the activity in the control room is purposely confusing. The generals issue orders that we don't see carried out. Captain Davidsson hits buttons at random. We can't see what effect they're having. We're obviously not meant to know how the rules work.
Some of the Peace Game's narrator announcements raise hopes for a comic undercurrent that never surfaces, although audiences tend to laugh at images of the Chinese squad running in perfect synchronization or eating quietly as a group while reading from the Little Red Book of Chairman Mao. As the desperate squad commander screams into his field telephone, the cold narrator tells us that there is nobody listening at the other end. The voiceovers are delivered with the same portentious gravity as the horrifying facts in Watkins' The War Game. We're told several times that the soldiers we see are shortly going to die, but that information that doesn't seem to be true. -- the 'voice of authority' betrays us as well. The worldwide audience for The Peace Game is never visualized, probably because Watkins means for his filmic audience to 'play' that role. This part of the film is seriously underdeveloped. 83% of the human race is said to watch The Peace Game but the only evidence that appears in the movie is an announcer's mention of a commercial sponsor. The film's concept reads exactly like today's pernicous 'reality television," but it's not on the screen. We viewers are apparently supposed to represent that worldwide audience.
The one filmic precursor to this concept that I can remember is a subplot in Francois Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451, where wanted criminals are apparently allowed to 'escape' to provide TV networks with a 'reality' show. Between 1968 and now we've been offered a number of exploitation movies with similar premises involving televised crime or combat:The Running Man with Arnold Schwarzengger, Robot Jox, Rollerball. They deserve mention only to show how Watkins' film makes no attempt to be commercial or connect with audience expectations.
Watkins' interests lie entirely elsewhere. His political fantasy is meant to present a series of radical concepts ignored by the news and movies: Unjust wars like Vietnam are made possible by the control of media images. The real conflict in the world is not between competing ideologies, because (in Watkins' view) they're interchangeable power systems sharing the same goal: Self-perpetuation. For Watkins The Peace Games, like any international war, are a fraud. A citizenry distracted with highly-publicized interests like sports and entertainment is disinclined to question the 'men behind the curtain.'
The message of The Gladiators is more sophisticated than the idealistic drivel that was being sold in American counterculture pap like Easy Rider. But Watkins eventually gives us a statement of the kind that might show up in a High School civics debate. The rebel student B-3 successfully infiltrates the control center but is stymied by the compassionate arguments of the Swedish overseers. Captain Davidsson calms B-3 with sobering ideas: "Join us and change the system from within," Davidsson reasons. "If you destroy the system, what do you propose to take its place?" 1
Allied soldier B-6 (a man) offers compassion to Chinese prisoner C-2 (a woman). They make the briefest of personal contact. Watkins doesn't allow them a single additional moment of character development, as his aim is decidedly anti-drama. An ICARUS announcement alerts the generals that the two have 'collaborated', and it is decreed that an example must be set. The unlucky pair are beaten to death by ordinary policemen, as befits a movie made during the Prague Spring and Paris May Day Riots of 1968. Cowardice, dereliction of duty and murder can be overlooked by the system but communications between opposing teams is an abomination that must be dealt with harshly. If ordinary soldiers began talking with each other, why, the whole system might collapse! 2
The Gladiators 'works' inasmuch as it presents a tangled problem, encouraging us to ponder its premises. It was originally panned and dismissed by most critics, although Pauline Kael gave it a positive review.
In The Gladiators we intuit that budgetary restrictions determined the film's form. All we really see are a dozen nattily uniformed officers and perhaps twenty more combat troops battling in a disused Swedish factory. The sum total of production extras are some lights, smoke bombs and pyrotechnics. The buttons on the ICARUS panel include one for "SNOW", which Watkins invented when snow fell shortly after shooting began. A teletype machine makes a funny vocal babble noise.
Instead of mulling Watkins' valid messages, audiences are more likely to see the limitations of his 'war game' metaphor. Then as now, countries use armed force primarily to gain a strategic advantage for their economy or their ideology -- or their particular religion. When they wage combat for propaganda or image purposes, it's a rigged game -- they wouldn't risk losing face in an organized game. The big idea is to convince all concerned that their fighting is not a game. It is true that the media already treat the supposedly idealistic Olympics as a nationalistic competition, with a home team (our wonderful athletes) 'fighting' those other competitors (the enemy).
As always, Peter Watkins is a cinematic prophet with an unpopular message. Audiences don't want disturbing messages to interfere with their enjoyment of movie combat. Even Saving Private Ryan boils down to "war is bad" and "veterans are good." As an audience, we're insufficiently intellectual to deal with Watkins' conceptual challenges. What we really think while watching The Gladiators is that we'd rather see a simpleminded feel-good fable about B-6 and C-3 escaping to live a happy non-ideological life. If those darn warmongers would just go away!
What we remember most from The Gladiators are some of Watkins' striking individual images, especially the confrontation with the Red Chinese woman. The narrator solemnly intones that, "This is the first time any of these men have seen a person from the Communist Chinese mainland." In 1970 the image of the frightened Chinese woman carried a powerful charge -- all we knew of the Red Chinese were scary stories of implacable hordes hypnotized by Communist ideology. To us pampered UCLA students, they might as well have been aliens from space.
In the final analysis, every angry political film made during the Vietnam war was a positive step, and The Gladiators has much more intelligence behind its anger than most. I think it has a much bigger potential audience now, when all of us consider issues of war on a daily basis.
New Yorker's presentation of Project X's DVD of The Gladiators is a fine enhanced transfer of a brightly colored print. It's not as clean as it could be, with some shots of snow before a reel change showing a lot more dirt and hair than we're used to seeing. The photography departs from Peter Watkins' usual handheld style because the cameras afforded by his Swedish producers were old-fashioned, heavy studio machines that just couldn't be carried about. Watkins' next production Punishment Park would allow him to use his preferred docu methods, on a story scaled better to his production resources.
As an extra, we're given Watkins' 1959 amateur film about trench warfare, The Diary of an Unknown Soldier, an accomplished minimalist production with a poetic voiceover. Dr. Joseph Gomez, film educator and author of a book-length study on Peter Watkins, provides an analytical academic commentary track.
The insert booklet contains another Watkins self-interview in which he stresses the film, his political ideas about globalization & nationalist hypocrisy and the marginalization of his film work over the past 35 years. He complains about poor treatment by his Swedish producers and then reminds us all that the proudly neutral Swedes quietly profited from arms sales in most of the wars of the 20th century, including the Vietnam war. Artistic honesty, sadly, can often be misinterpreted as spite.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Gladiators rates:
1. Movie expressions of counterculture idealism often ended with admissions of failure. The dope-dealing bikers of Easy Rider 'win' the game but proclaim themselves to be losers. The stealth-conservative Wild in the Streets preaches that if moronic youth is allowed to tear down the system, they'll replace it with something worse. Even Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross at the end of The Graduate point up the aimlessness of rebellion: They've overturned marriage and 'escaped' bourgeois tyranny, and are left alone with each other in the back of a bus. They're strangers, spoiled kids unequipped to do anything without parental support. They laugh at their triumph but we can't see any reason to believe they will stay together when their ready cash holds out.
2. For all the cynical wisdom in The Gladiators, the famous Christmas truce between French and German trenches in WW1 expresses this sentiment much more simply. It's been pictured in Richard Attenborough's Oh, What a Lovely War!, and rather wickedly as Nazi propaganda in Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo's It Happened Here.