DVD Review of The War Game

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/31/10


  For anyone who thinks that those 50 pack mega DVD sets of public domain films put out by several different video companies are worthless, I would argue 1) the amount of films you get for the money is worth it, even if all were mediocre, but 2) the truth is that each DVD package will come with at least 8-10 enjoyable films, a few true classics, like Carnival Of Souls or Night Of The Living Dead, and every so often a great little film will pop up, along the way, that makes the package a total steal.

  One such 50 pack I got, called Nightmare Worlds, features one such film, an actual banned documentary from 1965 (not broadcast until 1985), from the BBC, called The War Game. Better yet, it won the Academy Award in 1967 for Best Documentary. Granted, film quality is always an issue with such cheapo DVDs, but having grown up in the era of television with shadows, snowy static, and rabbit ears, even the worst transfer is significantly better than the quality of shows that was prevalent years ago. And, as a documentary (and Iíve seen hundreds from the Silent Era through today), it does one of the best jobs of capturing the zeitgeist of the time and place. Imagine how most of Europe felt, being pawns in the American-Soviet Cold War, liable to total annihilation due to nothing they had any control over. One wonders what a similar documentary made in the last five years, on current ant-Islamic paranoia would feel like. Recall, the Soviet Union was a nation whose nuclear arsenal alone could have made the earth uninhabitable many times over, so the fear felt by many in this time was comprehensible, and something that was not preventable, whereas the irrational fears of Islamic militancy, today, is mostly all borne of post-9/11 paranoia, and knowing that 9/11 was wholly preventable.

  The black and white documentary, was written and directed by Peter Watkins, and runs a scant 47 minutes, but packs a hell of a wallop emotionally. It follows a several months long span prior to and after a nuclear attack on Great Britain, by the Soviet Union, after Red China invades South Vietnam. The U.S. prepares for nuclear retaliation against China, but the Soviets and East Germans (yes, recall when Germany and Vietnam were split nations?) threaten to invade West Berlin. The U.S. fortifies West Berlin, but the Communists attack and repel American forces. Then U.S. President Johnson retaliates with a NATO approved nuclear retaliation against the Warsaw Pact, and the Soviets launch multiple missile strikes against the U.K.

  The film follows hypotheticals that are played out as if real, of a late September nuclear attack. Chaos ensues before the missiles hit. Civil defense authorities lose control of civilians even before the bombs strike. Racial and class tensions reach a boil, as evacueesfrom the cities are resisted by rural dwellers. After hearing of other missile strikes, the film centers on the devastation caused to Rochester, in Kent, when a missile aimed at London veers off course. We then get excruciatingly detailed descriptions (orally and visually) of the blast effects, aftershocks, and resultant firestorms that burn, suffocate, and maim with flying debris, those not initially vaporized by the nuclear blast. As hours, days, weeks and months pass, till filmís end near Christmas. After the limited nuclear exchanges play out, there seems to be a ceasefire, and we follow the aftermath of social anarchy and the turn against authority figures, martial law, radiation poisoning, untreated psychological and physiological damage, food poisoning and/or starvation, and the wan efforts at medical treatment and cadaver disposal.

  The film is interspersed with staged events and archival footage from the Second World War, and seamlessly edited. Rather crude special effects, such as shaking the camera to simulate the winds of a firestorm, are surprisingly effective. Traditional documentary techniques like maps, scrawled epigraphs of information and quotes from civic leaders, recitations of naÔve quotes from public figures, man on the street interviews that show the ignorance of average Brits to nuclear war and civil defense (not knowing the effects of Carbon 14- would you or I?), as well as some yahoo and gung ho American military sorts, are very effective, as well, even if a bit over the top re: American enthusiasm for war (but, recall, this was only a few years after Stanley Kubrickís Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb was a hit, and showed reckless American militarism at its worst). The narration by Michael Aspel and Peter Graham is also very effective at conveying the faux realism of this horror filmís fictive world, in impassive tones, as well as showing how utterly deluded civil defense measures were, then and retrospectively. Given the spate of nuclear Armageddon films made in the 1960s, and up through the early 1980s miniseries The Day After, itís remarkable how such a low budget effort like The War Game retains its effectiveness when almost all other films on the topic seem corny. Itís likely that the reason the film retains its punch is the very reason it was banned for nearly two decades. Scenes of British police shooting civilians (rioters, two men who kill a police officer for food, and also shooting civilians to put them out of immediate post-blast misery) were too much for the still pre-Vietnam War era public. Also, the filmís Ďrealismí and unflinching look at the utter inability of the U.K. government to protect its citizens from an attack, much less handle the response of survivors after an attack, was sure to cause waves.

  When the film was delayed for broadcast, Watkins resigned from the BBC, which was pressured into private screenings for public officials. Many officials denounced the film as anti-British agitprop, until one of the few instances where a critic played a positive role arose. Noted film and drama critic Kenneth Tynan championed the film as possibly the most important film ever made, which spearheaded a letter writing campaign by anti-nuke forces, which forced the film into limited theatrical release on college campuses across Europe and America in 1966.

  Much of the information about a nuclear strike was cannily accurate for its day, if limited. This was pre-the idea of nuclear winter, so most of the information wa staken from reported effects of the two atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the fire bombings of Tokyo, Dresden, and other Japanese and German cities. The effectiveness of the Ďextrasí in makeup (some with severe deformity and scarring) is jolting, but made ever more Ďrealisticí by the film being in black and white. Interestingly, some of the vox populi interviews pull back from the diegetic tale of nuclear horror, to ask real life Britons whether or not the U.K. should retaliate against the USSR in such a scenario, and most unstintingly agree their nation should. This is a nice contrast to some of the intertitle sequences that show often hilariously naÔve comments by British officials written out in full. A voiceover intones, near filmís end, that by 1980, the chances of such a scenario playing out at least once in the world is very high. That it never did is something to seriously pause over, for, despite the filmís accuracy in depicting social and governmental inadequacies in responding to such an attack, as well as its accuracy in claiming over a third of all Britons would die from the attacks or their aftermath, it has to be acknowledged that the film also grossly understates the human will to survive, and whatever role that played at keeping the Cold War nuclear powers at bay for nearly half a century. Still, even though the film is technically a mockumentary (however un-Christopher Guest-like), it can be argued as a documentary, also, since it so perfectly captures its eraís zeitgeist without severely dating itself. Itís really a rare film, in all respects.

  And, aside from its exposure of Cold War Civil Defense failures, the film also slyly comments on the media of the day, and its failings, especially in its depiction of the classism of that era. One wonders if any documentary done today could as readily capture the true and false beliefs we now have of global warming, Islamic terror, the international financial crisis, etc. Regardless, The War Game is a terrific film, and a great documentary- innovative and deep. I recommend its rediscovery to all who want to know what art and journalism can do, if far too rarely.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]


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