The War Game (1965)
Banned by the BBC for over 20 years, The War Game (1965) is an Oscar-winning, short documentary that remains one of the most potent anti-war, anti-nuclear films ever made, but to understand why Peter Watkins' film was rejected and suppressed, one has to flip back and do a tally of all the horrible things that had occurred within a few years prior to its making: the erection of the Berlin Wall after Communist and Western troops had tank barrels aimed at each other across Berlin's borders; the beginnings Indochina conflicts that led to the Vietnam War; the Cuban Missile Crisis; and a Red Menace paranoia that evolved from fear of Soviet spies and moles infiltrating western countries, as well as the steeping of nuclear bombs and more Soviet dominance in central Europe.
That's an over-simplification, but Watkins' film was part of several contemporary critical assaults by conscientious filmmakers to dramatize the real danger of wiping out entire nations by pressing a few switches, and dropping less cargo than the barrage of TNT that turned whole cities into infernos during WWII.
On the American side, there was Sidney Lumet's Fail Safe (1964), which had a U.S. President trying every reasonable tactic to avoid sending a nuclear payload to the U.S.S.R., and Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern's brutal 1964 satire, Dr. Strangelove, which used caricatures of right wing nutjobs and eccentrics to illustrate the attitudes and crippling paranoia of leaders who controlled the fate of the planet.
(One could also cite Stanley Kramer's 1959 adaptation of Nevil Shute's On the Beach. Kramer's depiction of a doomsday scenario is potent, but also rather sterile. The exclusive use of “Waltzing Matilda” in the score was a bad choice, as it made the melodrama even more pungent.)
Watkins' background was docu-drama, and the British government's stance on nuclear technology, in the director's eyes, was rooted in deceitful techniques which included archaic WWII crowd control and disinformation to handle the populace for a kind of warfare where no one wins; George Orwell's 1984, but in less prosaic terms.
The director's research into basic facts of the government's battle plans, effects of a bomb, surviving a hit, and peoples' attitudes on the justness of sending nuclear payload to Russia resulted in information and interview clips that could've formed a standard news item, but Watkins knew the documentary format could go further by applying dramatizations to factual narrations, title cards, and graphs, and using makeup, editing, and camera techniques from WWII combat and documentary films to create a film that shocks, educates, ridicules, and smacks viewers in the head for harboring some very naïve beliefs.
One suspects the film was awarded the Oscar for technique and emotional impact rather than its message, or perhaps the Academy genuinely felt The War Game was the next evolutionary phase in filmic political criticism while the bulk of major studio product was mindless fodder peppered with aging fifties celebrities; gritty intellectualism and responsible filmmaking in a sea of widescreen mediocrity.
Watkins basically used standard BBC news gathering techniques to craft a documentary on the impossibility of planning for, coping with, and surviving a nuclear assault in a standard industrialized country, and he combines montages and facts (often delivered through bland title cards and crawls) with bloody dramatizations of people in the throes of death to gradually make the point that, in the case of the British government, official defensive measures are naïve if not stupid; and as it occurred in WWII, when a functional city becomes a burnt-out shell inhabited by radiation-poisoned survivors with few human and medical resources to heal wounds, if not souls, rebuilding a society is impossible, if not folly.
The guilty are the bureaucrats who doodled half-assed plans as official policy in case of a bomb attack, and the populace for gulping down whatever fallacies were being circulated in the media by politicians and government media outlets like the BBC. With that closing stance, it's no wonder The War Game raised the ire of the government, and Watkins' film was shelved.
The War Game remains relevant because more countries possess and aspire to develop their own nuclear arsenal, and the film's impact (and more so of Culloden) has only been slightly weakened not by contemporary politics, but by its BBC-styled news format, which was soon after used by the Monty Python troupe to assault social idiocies using narration, dramatizations, and docu-styled segments on very silly behaviour.
Watkins' film hasn't otherwise dated very much, and one could argue it set the stage, particularly in Britain, for a less politicized but still potent anti-nuclear drama, the grungy Threads (1984). During Ronald Reagan's regime, four films attacked the escalation of nuclear arms by the superpowers: Threads, set after the bomb drop; The Day After (1983), an American network equivalent;Testament (1983), the quiet PBS/Paramount drama that focused on an ordinary family's survival after a blast; and the Oscar-winning NFB documentary which probably made it safe to address nuclear war in the commercial media, If You Love This Planet (1982), wherein director Terre Nash basically filmed a factual lecture on the effects of radiation by pediatrician Dr. Helen Caldicott, and intercut archival footage of bomb tests, the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and U.S. Army colour film (rarely seen by the general public) of what nuclear bombs do to human flesh.
Nash's film was cold, factual, and seemed to bring Watkins' technique full circle; the madness of applying a nuclear bomb no longer needed dramatizations when real footage was finally released from the vaults, and one could see the city-wide, nation-wide trauma that recapped most of Watkins' messages in very lean, stark terms.
Watkins himself would revist the debate in The Journey / Resan (1987), a 14-hour mini-series that documented everything missed or left undone after nuclear fear within the media started to wane.
Although The War Game gets top billing in this important DVD release, Watkins' professional debut was Culloden, another docu-drama named after the marshy field where Bonnie Prince Charlie lost his chance to reclaim the throne of England from King George II on behalf of the House of Stuart, then in exile.
Watkins had done a ‘proficiency' doc (now deemed more or less “lost”) for the BBC prior to getting the green light for Culloden, as well as two amateur films, The Diary of an Unknown Soldier (1959), and The Forgotten Faces (1961). Culloden was already an ambitious production because Watkins sought to recreate the before, during, and post- battle chapters on a fairly tight budget with amateur actors on location in the Scottish Highlands. The script was a daring attempt to break the barrier between historical drama and documentary by dramatizing events based on a wealth of research, and presented through the eyes of a news crew in 1746 – a novel approach that's since become a common venue to help tech-savvy students of all ages learn about dry historical events.
The film, however, is more than a chronicle of Bonnie Prince Charlie's disastrous campaign to reclaim power. Culloden is a study of ordinary people brutalized by war, and poor men forced into conscription by wealthy landlords wanting a bit of glory for themselves.
Watkins has his ‘camera crew' move between the lines and take snapshots of the leaders, or get candid comments before, during, and after the battle, which allows him to offer all kinds of historical apocrypha he wouldn't be able to convey through narration without rendering it into a dry, dull verbal essay. It's one of the director's chief strengths – conveying a maximum amount of information through diverse technical and dramatic tricks – that make Watkins' films so rewarding for viewers, and filmmakers searching for the means to deliver information, nuances, and subtext without offsetting a film's dramatic structure.
A good example are the interviews with highlanders who speak in Gaelic. An off-screen translator flips between the languages, but the Q&A clips have multiple functions: they show poor folks forced into situations they don't want; and the scenes later pay off when a Highlander's pleas for medical help in Gaelic are ignored after being captured, and the language and clothes are samples of a culture King George II wanted to obliterate.
The loss of culture is another of the film's themes, and Watkins' closing narration is a harsh condemnation of the Diaspora that ensued, leaving Scotland a little less richer in its tribal heritage.
The performances by the amateur actors are by and large extremely strong. Watkins seems to have chosen his cast for the right period look and ability to live out moments of anxiety, hatred, and fear, and his use of bloody violence – onscreen, and conveyed through narration – was very potent for TV in 1964.
One character who apparently drew some criticisms from viewers was the wig maker/historian, who provides play-by-play commentary to the camera crew from behind a protective wall to the right of the battlefield. On the one hand, he's like a sports commentator for radio and TV, but he's also no different than the commentaries by antiquity authors who penned detailed (and heroically zaftig) accounts of lengthy conquests, historic battles, and bio sketches of famous leaders at work. Watkins simply used the medium of his own era, and it works beautifully.
During the film's editing, Watkins' film was praised by a BBC suit as ‘the best assembly edit he'd ever seen,' and the film earned a solid round of praise from critics after it was given a prime time slot on BBC 1 – the main network – and a rebroadcast soon after.
Lauded as the network's “golden boy,” the director subsequently fell into disfavor when the BBC banned The War Game from the airwaves. Watkins chose to quit the network in 1965, and directed Privilege (1967), after which he never made another film or TV production in England.
As with prior entries in Project X's Peter Watkins series, both films come with important extras designed to place the films in their historical context, as well as why they're important works of the cinema, and TV.
The best of the lot is the commentary track by Dr. John Cook of Glasgow Caledonian University, who provides a sterling, tight, beautifully measured and informative portrait of the film within Watkins' canon, as well as bio material on the director's career during his BBC stage. A co-author of a book on the director, Cook provides production details, as well as comparative ties to Watkins' later war film, The Commune / La Commune (2000), where he chose a similar storytelling style, albeit without the heavier violence applied in Culloden.
Like Cook, Patrick Murphy's commentary for The War Game also singles out stylistic innovations which are consistent with the director's style. Cook pays particular note to Watkins' use of close-ups that are framed for the eyes and visage instead of the more Hollywood/commercial framing of an actor's full head. Cook also notes particular similarities between both BBC films, whereas Murphy furthers details Watkins' heavy research in getting right the style of WWII news footage, and tying the past with the present.
Culloden remains a 1746 event, whereas The War Game has narration and interviews where the effects of a nuclear bomb are related to events experienced by still living Britishers, namely the London Blitz and the harrowing infernos that blew firefighters around like rag dolls when flaming buildings created torrents of heat winds. That sequence, perhaps discretely, also infers that, should Britain be slammed with a nuclear bomb, the lessons of WWII were clearly ignored by a foolish government. Watkins knows that history and hindsight provide moral lessons that should teach societies to progress, and both films are reminders of how the lives of every day citizens can be destroyed by negligent governments.
Culloden is differently affective because the horrible battle that saw brutalities inflicted upon local people wasn't any different than Roman armies killing off the family males, making slaves of the kids, and raping the wives and servants. Branded as ‘sport' by George II's son, the viciousness of victorious Royal soldiers on the vanquished Highlanders was common wartime behaviour that's changed little over centuries, albeit in more isolated and insular form.
Patrick Murphy's essay, “The War Game – The Controversy,” originally published in the May 2003 issue of Film International, is reproduced in the DVD booklet, and it provides further details on the government's desire to have the film banned, and the officials who were involved in trying to ruin the film's chances at reaching any audiences. After a series of limited screenings in 1966, the film made the film festival rounds, after which it won an Oscar, and left a lot egg sauce dripping from the BBC's face.
Twenty years later, Watkins and his work have been arguably given a reverse-Orwellian revision by the BBC, and as noted by Cook in his closing Culloden commentary, in spite of the about-face and deserved praise, Watkins is still regarded as an outsider whose future projects major networks still don't want to fund.
The print sources for both films are adequate, but it's clear these films have done the rounds through the decades. The transfers are very good, though, and aren't steeped in heavy compression or digital cleansing; the grain is still very tactile, and the mono sound mixes feature a dense mélange of vivid effects, sterile narration, and periodic bits of camera noise which give the films further verisimilitude as actual news reports.
Films by Peter Watkins available on DVD from Project X / New Yorker Video include Diary of an Unknown Soldier (1959), The Forgotten Faces (1961), Cullodan (1964), The War Game (1965), Privilege (1967), The Gladiators (1969), Punishment Park (1971), Edvard Munch (1974), and The Freethinker (1994), and La Commune (2000) from First Run Features.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan