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The War Game

The War Game

New Yorker / Project X

Written, Produced and Directed by
Peter Watkins

1:37 flat full frame
Street Date
July 25, 2006

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

For the past couple of years Project X has been releasing the film catalog of the fascinating rebel director Peter Watkins: Punishment Park, The Gladiators, Edvard Munch. All of those films were produced abroad after Watkins found that he was unwelcome in the British film and television industries. This new disc release combines Watkins' roughly hour-long Culloden and The War Game, his two earlier controversial BBC programs that combined fictional storytelling with You-Are-There documentary techniques. The first show was a critical and popular success but the second resulted in a two-way scandal: The supposedly independent BBC refused to air it for unclear reasons and never admitted that governmental pressure was responsible for its suppression.

The War Game
1965 / 48 min.
Cinematography Peter Bartlett, Peter Suschitzky
Design Tony Cornell and Anne Davey
Film Editor Michael Bradsell
Action sequences Derek Ware
Presented by the British Broadcasting Corporation
Written, Produced and Directed by Peter Watkins

The War Game came second but I'm covering it first ... this is the original Nuclear War Aftermath movie that the BBC (abetted by representatives of the British government) banned from the airwaves and tried to suppress completely. Previously assured of his freedom of speech and already having taken the film through a round or two of censorship reviews, filmmaker Peter Watkins did what no BBC producer had done before and publicly aired the entire scandal. Luckily, the BBC ban had no power to limit theatrical screenings, and The War Game became a liberal cause movie the next year. Critics and politicians voiced approval despite its tone of outrage toward government policy on civil defense. The film was banned from British television for decades. The Thatcher and Reagan "Star Wars" era miniseries The Day After showed that the media had finally caught up with Watkins' vision .... eighteen years later.


A B&W handheld news film camera captures telling details of a national crisis, interrupted by stark informational maps, inter-titles and authoritative quotes: Tensions in Vietnam lead to a battlefield nuclear exchange in Germany, followed by nuclear war. Focusing only on Kent, we see the pitiful attempts at evacuation and civil defense in a country where a nuclear target is never more than thirty miles away. Although not directly hit, civilian areas feel the blast and heat effects and are hit by firestorms. Government and law and order vanish as the post-attack suffering begins. The numbers of horribly injured overwhelm the filthy and shell-shocked survivors. The police resort to brutal tactics to keep order. In just an afternoon, it looks as if all of English civilization has been destroyed.

When shocked BBC officials (and the government representatives they 'invited' to make political evaluations) tried to dismiss The War Game, they found that they had no real basis to reject it for airing. Peter Watkins had produced his film properly and everything in it was well-researched truth. The government's official line was that a Nuclear War would be like the Blitz, with an orderly populace bracing itself in a unified response. Watkins filled his show with direct quotes from civil defense manuals, and politicians to show that there was no coherent policy. His newsreel-like recreations using non-actors were (and are) incredibly convincing. We see citizens being hustled onto buses for evacuation and forced into already packed Kent households. "Man in the street" interviews point up the fact that the public has not been educated (implication: purposely kept ignorant) about radiation or the effects of a nuclear war. Given only a few hours or minutes to prepare, citizens either cannot find materials to build a shelter or cannot afford them. Pundits repeat American 'religious' propaganda about defending shelter space, while a foolish citizen brandishes a shotgun and pronounces himself ready for anything that comes.

It's true that nothing could have prepared Brit audiences for what follows: Nuclear air blasts sear and blind a teacher's children and the shock wave blows in their house. Closer to the blast area firemen and dazed survivors are cremated alive when a firestorm raises temperatures to 2,000 degrees. The narration stresses that it's not an exaggeration, but facts gleaned from experience bombing German and Japanese cities in WW2.

Watkins keeps his camera views intimate -- there are few spectacular scenes -- but we're completely convinced. His 'stunt arrangers' provide excellent images of panic and bodies tumbling in the 100 mph firestorm winds. The gritty B&W photography shows pleasant people reduced to grimy survivors with wounds, horrible burns and smashed teeth. Some of the best interviews are with convincing police officials, shamefully blocking the camera crew from terrible scenes like the mass burning of corpses. In some ways it's a ghostly revisit of WW2, with buckets of wedding rings being used in a weak attempt to allow later identification of the dead. The conclusion has a gaggle of orphaned, filthy children. They stare into the camera with numbed eyes and mumble that they don't want to be anything when they grow up.

The War Game succeeds marvelously at its task -- to show that the government has no viable plan to deal with a nuclear war and that war policy, the Mutually Assured Destruction standoff, is madness. Well, no government or administration wants that kind of publicity and The War Game was suppressed on the grounds that it would disturb the public and compromise national morale. Actually, bureaucratic games insured that no really specific reason was given why the British public should be denied access to the truth about their security situation. It's impossible to know where such a path might lead -- people might start asking questions.

The ultimate result was that Peter Watkins was no longer welcome in the BBC, even though all there would agree that he was the most brilliant and relevant social documentarian at a time when Britain was packed with progressive filmmakers and the economy was booming. His next movie Privilege would be a political science-fiction story that offers the idea that British despots would manufacture a messiah-like Rock Star to control and subdue youth rebellion. Privilege became a typical Watkins feature release -- in and out of theaters quickly and soon made almost completely unavailable. It's a Rank / Universal picture and has apparently been buried, with the fact that it's largely forgotten offered as 'proof' that there is no reason to revive it. After that Watkins' brand of social criticism was tolerated mostly in Scandinavian countries.

The War Game is a good antidote to the glamorous extermination soap opera On the Beach. It follows through on the dark promises of the science fiction films These are the Damned and The Day the Earth Caught Fire, and of course the black comedy Dr. Strangelove. Nobody who sees The War Game forgets it; it has more impact than The Day After or Threads or all of those masochistic post-apocalypse movies. It's an underappreciated fact that all one need to do to make a memorable film, fiction or non-fiction, is to tell the truth. Watkins told an unpopular truth and was officially treated as an Enemy of the People. Perhaps that's what makes him an angry artist.

1964 / 72 min.
Cinematography Dick Bush
Design Anne Davey, Brendon Woods, Colin MacLeod, John Shaw
Film Editor Michael Bradsell
Battle Coordinator Derek Ware
Historical Advisor John Prebble
Produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation
Written, Directed and Produced by Peter Watkins

Culloden came out the year before the War Game debacle and its success shot Peter Watkins to the top rank of progressive non-fiction filmmakers. Culloden looks at the last 18th century land battle fought in Britain as if it could be covered by modern-day newsreel techniques. The concept had originated ten years before with CBS' You Are There, a popular show hosted by Walter Cronkite, directed by future notables like John Frankenheimer, Bernard Girard and Sidney Lumet, and that hired uncredited blacklisted writers like Walter Bernstein and Abraham Polonsky. Noted newsmen 'reported' on events like the Hindenburg crash and the Gettysburg Address. The Internet Movie Database tells us that Frankenheimer's episode was called "The Plot Against King Solomon."

Critics and educators lauded Culloden, which updated the same idea with 1960s news film techniques for added realism. Audiences were shocked by the historical brutality and cruelty. Hardly anybody inferred that the show was a veiled critique of modern political-military attitudes.


1746. Bonnie Prince Charlie leads a group of Jacobite Scottish Highlanders (rebels) into battle near Inverness, against a much larger English army led by his cousin, the Duke of Cumberland. Charlie's troops are bands of independent clansmen and Catholic supporters along with some Irish volunteers and plenty of peons forced to fight under the clan system. Charlie's leaders are incompetent and Charlie himself has no battle plan or appreciation of strategy whatsoever. Even his choice of the open moor of Culloden for a battleground favors the enemy and their greater number of horsemen and cannon. The battle is a shambles. Charlie gives no orders while English cannon blast his lines. The few survivors press on with a completely uncoordinated attack. The English kill 1200 Highlanders with a loss of fewer than fifty of their own. The aftermath is far worse. Using the pretext that rebellion must be put down, the Duke encourages his men to murder the remaining wounded and captured and then sets them loose for over a year, systematically rooting out and slaughtering the entire Highlander population - men, women children. Thus a 'generation of rebellion' will be stamped out. The result is the elimination of the entire Highlander culture -- treachery and forced emigration to the West Indies and Australia do the rest.

It wasn't until well into the Vietnam war that anybody was doing anti-war films of any importance, and even those were "in historical disguise", like Little Big Man. Peter Watkins was invited to join the BBC but told to put his ideal project about nuclear war aside in favor of something else, and Culloden resulted. Although the events pictured are 200 years old Watkins brings them forth with an immediacy that makes viewers realize that nothing has changed in war -- most conflicts are promoted as honorable fights but are really routs and slaughters by whatever aggressor has the advantage. Culloden was both a national and religious dispute started by a snotty royal willing to let his followers be butchered in an attempt to regain a mighty throne. Disorganized and incompetent, Bonnie Prince Charlie refuses to delegate the battle into capable hands. The royals are even worse. Capitalizing on a so-called glorious victory, the Duke basically officiates over an 'ethnic cleansing', a wholesale mass murder of every Highlander, rebel or not, that his troops can find. The poor and homeless are slaughtered right down to babies while the rich and corrupt find ways to profit or make careers.

It's fairly obvious that Watkins overturns the myths about glorious historical warfare for a purpose: To suggest that the messy and inconvenient struggles of the 20th century are no more based on ideals or honor than the ragged slaughter of Culloden. And he doesn't have to produce propaganda to make his point. Every detail comes right out of the history books and is backed by solid research. If one wants to criticize the powers that be, using the conventions of an established genre or putting one's story at a historical remove are highly recommended strategies.

Culloden is a very impressive production. Watkins presents a convincing battle even though he has perhaps only a hundred (if that many) costumed performers to re-create a battle involving perhaps 4,000 (?) participants. The costumes and details are so good that we quickly forgive the picture for not presenting acres of massed troops and long lines of musket-carriers. Watkins' newsreel-like directorial style helps in that a newsman covering the battle from within the troops themselves would likely not have a bird's eye view. The best part of the movie are the numerous close-ups of frightened, hungry and cold faces of men and children preparing to fight, and then suffering unattended with grievous wounds.

There are plenty of cannonades and pyrotechnics while the unruffled Brits blow the ragged Highlanders to bits from afar, and Bonnie Prince Charlie frets because God is so slow to rally to his side. Culloden's version of a reporter is to have a royal witness with a spyglass and writing implements hunker down behind a wall and shout out his amazement at the horrible beating the Highlanders are taking. Meanwhile, the narrator points out the personal backgrounds of the participants --- noting that a British private would have to serve for two years to earn enough to buy the hat and wig worn by the officer in front of him.

In a way, the remarkable Culloden set Peter Watkins up for a fall. It won acclaim and awards from all quarters and earned him the right to do more ambitious and important work, the kind for which they said Television was perfectly suited. Movies were so expensive that they had to be entertainment, but Television held out a greater hope. It could encompass a vast spectrum of ideas and points of view, bringing important subjects to the common people and informing them so that Democracy could do its job. "Independent" Television outlets in England and American boast that their freedom of content represents the ultimate success of our Democratic institutions. When The War Game presented a message that the government wanted to suppress, all of that Democratic talk was shoved aside. Peter Watkins' movie work is important because it provoked Authority, and proved the lie of a free media.

Project X and New Yorker's handsome DVD of Culloden and The War Game are presented on one disc in their original B&W full frame television format. The Culloden transfer is spotless and that for The War Game in fine shape but marred with water spots and other imperfections. The War Game has more of a high contrast look, with those same official-looking scrolling inter-titles as seen in Dr. Strangelove.

Both pictures are given full commentaries. Culloden is made even more fascinating by the observations of Dr. John Cook, a Senior Lecturer at the Glasgow Caledonian University of Scotland. The War Game is accompanied by the very pro-Watkins commentary of Senior Lecturer Patrick Murphy of York St. John University College in England. Murphy also contributes a lengthy essay on The War Game reprinted from a 2003 issue of Film International magazine. It details the exact chronology of the near-conspiracy required to keep The War Game from 'harming' the British public.

In closing I'd like to say that all of these Peter Watkins movies have been revelations, even when they had weaknesses. Project X has made them available on DVDs of excellent quality. If you aren't the type to buy this kind of movie, I recommend giving a couple a rental ... The War Game is definitely the kind of picture that alters one's perceptions.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The War Game and Culloden rate:
Movies: Excellent
Video: WG Very Good, C Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Culloden Audio Commentary by Dr. John Cook, The War Game Audio Commentary by Patrick Murphy; booklet with essay on The War Game by Patrick Murphy
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 16, 2006

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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