New recruit Dylan Spicer revisits a 1960s classic about a nuclear-ravaged Britain.
Who made it?: Peter Watkins (Writer/Director/Producer), BBC.
Who’s in it?: Michael Aspel, Peter Graham, Kathy Staff, Peter Watkins.
Tagline: “BBC TV’s film about a nuclear attack on Britain.”
IMDb rating: 8.1/10.
One of the hardest aspects of moviemaking can be creating a film that is timeless. With cultural attitudes shifting so rapidly, it can be hard to keep the impact of your movie alive. This is especially true in political cinema, which can be so heavy-handed and direct that any message can appear outdated even five years later. How relevant still is Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? But one film I feel has kept its impact to this day is Peter Watkins’ The War Game, infamous and forgotten in the same breath.
This 1965 quasi-documentary deals with then current day Britain in the run-up and aftermath of a nuclear war. It’s a movie that pulls no punches, dealing with the impact on adults as much as children, and creating a vision of a Britain in utter shell-shock. There are no specific heroes or villains, or even central main characters, just the remnants of a shattered society. Originally commissioned by the BBC, the final result shocked them so much that it was instantly banned from broadcast. All this did was send it into the cinemas, where it was received well enough to win Best Documentary at the Oscars, and reportedly dramatically increased CND membership.
Watkins uses the documentary style to great effect. As a fictional piece he captures shots almost impossible to grab in real life, such as the impact thirty seconds after a nuclear bomb going off, and what life would be like several months down the road when starvation starts to kick in. Most importantly he grabs a lot of shots of humans just staring into the camera. It mixes long, silent pans over catatonic people with vox pops from everyone from an exhausted priest to monosyllabic children, all with an equally distressing story to tell.
Although clearly fiction, Watkins’ main aim is to show that The War Game is extremely plausible, and this constant reminder makes the film all the more gruelling. He often uses Hiroshima or the firebombing of Dresden as real examples of what has occurred in real life, and intersperses the film with clinical narrations from Watkins and cue-cards with various facts about nuclear war. An immersive picture of the crisis builds up, with Watkins refusing to paint a decent picture of the human race. As the crisis unfolds, the prices of sandbags and other essential protective gear increase dramatically. When refugees start to pour in from the countryside, the main concern for some is the colour of their skin. The police and military are seen to be brutal in their methods, albeit under incredible strain.
This builds up to a nightmare portrait of a Britain that could have been, its population sitting in its own filth, waiting to die. A nuclear war is shown as something that simply must be avoided at all costs. Considering what a real, tangible threat this would have been at the time it is hardly surprising that this wasn’t chosen for Saturday tea-time broadcast.
As you can imagine, The War Game is a very harrowing watch. However, it really demonstrates what we as a society have to lose. Its documentary style brings a real power to the piece, and shows that a political movie can have impact years after its release. Those who are a fan of movies dealing with the apocalypse will find some very interesting themes here, and those looking to demonstrate the horror of nuclear war should start here.
You can watch the full film here.
As the bomb hits, all the flaws and human error in government planning unravel in the first thirty seconds as the whole of Britain becomes a mass of people hiding under tables in burning sitting rooms.
- The only fictional film to win Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars – it even led to a rule change so it couldn’t happen again.
- The start of a directorial career for Watkins that lasted until 2000.