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The War Game

Director: Peter Watkins
Cast: Michael Aspel, Peter Graham, Kathy Staff, Peter Watkins

(BBC; US DVD: 25 Jul 2005)

“But whether there was an official ban or not is, to some extent, academic. Had the BBC attempted to broadcast the film in a neutral context it is quite clear that the government would have most certainly banned it. So committed was the West to nuclear deterrent and the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, that the kind of nuclear nightmare depicted with such chilling logic and technical skill in Peter Watkin’s The War Game was an unacceptable truth which threatened to completely undermine the central philosophy of Cold War politics.”—Patrick Murphy, from his essay “The War Game: The Controversy”, included with the DVD


In 1963 Peter Watkins was a young and gifted British filmmaker, taken under the wing of Huw Wheldon, the Head of Documentaries for BBC programming and one of the men behind the then-new BBC2 network. It could be argued that despite Watkins’ unquestioned talent, in signing the young firebrand Wheldon got more than he had initially bargained for. From the very beginning he expressed a desire to break what had been up to that point the most sacred taboo of the postwar era: public debate over the policies of nuclear warfare and the viability of national survival in the wake of a nuclear exchange between superpowers.


This was the era of MAD—Mutually Assured Destruction, the idea that relatively equal nuclear-power states could exist in a state of uneasy peace built on the fact that a sustained nuclear war would destroy all parties, or at least devastate them to such a degree that any further conflict would be a moot issue. On the face of it this was a foolish proposition, predicated as it was on the idea that both sides in a nuclear exchange would be operating under the same good-faith assumptions and long-term strategic goals. This was always a precarious idea in light of the fact that Soviet leadership had long espoused terror and even genocide as acceptable policy tools—we must be thankful that none of the Soviet leadership after Stalin’s death shared his particular fixation with eschatological conflict. But as precarious and seemingly contradictory as MAD seemed, it was essentially the best policy available in light of the circumstances of the postwar balance of power. It was not MAD that brought the world the potentially ruinous nuclear arms race, MAD was merely the logical extension of government intellectuals trying to make sense of the arms policy they had inherited from circumstances.


But whether or not there actually existed a rational alternative to conventional arms strategy, MAD was a deeply flawed policy that had been adopted as a fait accompli after the Soviets developed nuclear weapons in the fifties. To even question the logic of mutual deterrence was considered tantamount to treason in the heightened paranoia of the early Cold War. Wheldon knew that the subject would be considered unacceptable in the political climate of the time, so he steered Watkins towards making another film of a similarly antiwar bent. The result was 1964’s Culloden.


The battle of Culloden Moor was fought on 16 April, 1746. It represented the last pitch battle (to date) on British soil as well as the end of the last serious attempt to overthrow the British monarchy through military force. The coup had been led by “Bonnie” Prince Charlie, in an attempt to oust King George II. At the outset it had almost succeeded, but subsequent misjudgments by Charles’ inept military staff led to the rapid disintegration of his army. Culloden Moor was Charles’ last stand, and represented a singularly devastating rout for both Charles’ cause and the notion of Scottish autonomy. Charles’ army of around 5,000 starving, tired and poorly-armed irregulars, mostly composed of Scottish clan chiefs and their desperately poor tenant farmers (as well as a few battalions of Irishmen and Frenchmen for good measure, always willing to stick a finger in the eye of Rule Brittania) was effectively massacred by a significantly larger army of well-trained British soldiers.


Watkins’ treatment of the battle is riveting. While the feature is limited by the fact that they are using maybe 50 or a 100 actors to replicate the effect of thousands of soldiers, they do a pretty good job of covering up that fact with creative camera work and the judicious application of smoke and fog. More importantly, the film gets the details right. This isn’t what you might expect from a well-turned BBC historical production: everything is filthy, everything is ragged, and there is nothing even remotely romantic in the machinery of warfare. There is nothing noble about seeing dozens of highlanders armed only with sabres being demolished by British cannon set at a safe remove, or the thuggish retaliation of British cavalry as they are set loose on the Scottish countryside to rape and murder innocent civilians. Set at two centuries remove, Watkins could afford to be brutal in his judgment. There can be no doubt that the film’s portrayal of the thuggish British “pacification” of Scotland was meant to parallel the then-escalating military action in Southeast Asia. (This was also, it must be said, a fairly “safe” target for a British filmmaker, as the UK government had steadfastly refused—and would continue to refuse—all American entreaties to join the Vietnam conflict.)


But if Britain chose to sit-out Vietnam, it had not and could not have chosen to sit out the nuclear arms race; furthermore, there was a crucial difference in couching an antiwar allegory 200 years in the past and tearing away the veneer of allegory to make a concrete statement on contemporary politics. There were potentially thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons aimed at the UK, and the conflict between the capitalist West and the communist East had reached a fever pitch—the Berlin standoff and the Cuban Missile Crisis were still fresh in memory. In such a climate, any criticism of nuclear policy would be seen as disastrous by the Powers That Be. Culloden’s success emboldened Watkins, and by threatening resignation he effectively forced the issue. The War Game was filmed under unprecedented scrutiny, both from the higher-ups at the BBC and the government itself, all the way up the cabinet level. That it was essentially suppressed should come as no surprise. That Watkins’ resignation was proffered and accepted in the wake of the affair was also inevitable. But what was somewhat unusual was the fact that the film managed to survive its brush with oblivion, becoming something of a cause celebre and catalyst for the nascent antiwar movement on both sides of the atlantic. In limited showings it began to garner lavish praise from the critical community. The British government eventually released The War Game to theaters. Subsequently it became a source of great embarrassment, winning numerous awards, including Best Documentary at the 1967 Academy Awards. The War Game was still not seen in its intended medium of broadcast television until 1985, when it was finally aired by the BBC.


Seen in the proper historical context, it would be almost too easy to dismiss the film itself. It survives, however, as more than merely a political artifact. The skill and imagination with which it believably crafts a disaster narrative from the days and weeks immediately preceding and following a nuclear attack on Britain are such that it feels convincingly real—a shrewd and somewhat uncharacteristic precedent for the “mockumentary” genre. Painstakingly extrapolated from historical accounts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear tests in the Nevada desert as well as the similarly destructive Dresden firestorms, there is a telling banality to the sheer enormity of desolation left in the wake of the exchange. Thousands are dead and the living are sick, injured, burnt, starving, sterile, and shellshocked. Those structures outside the immediate blast radii are destroyed by calamitous fires that leave entire cities in rubble. Unable to bury the heaps of dead, bodies are burnt—wedding bands are torn from the fingers of the dead to aid in identification. Society as a whole devolves from marshall law into pure chaos—hordes of starving people tear soldiers limb from limb in order to gain access to stores of precious canned food. In the space of a month one of the most technologically advanced and socially progressive countries on the planet has made a violent return to the stone age, emaciated wretches crawling across the ruins of a once proud civilization.


It’s an effective piece of filmmaking. I wouldn’t call Watkins’ style artless, necessarily, but there is no artiface: everything unfolds with a matter-of-fact plausibility that borders on gratuity. But then, this isn’t really a situation where grace or subtlety would have achieved anywhere near the same effect. The goal here is to wallop the viewer, and in this goal Watkins succeeds without a shadow of a doubt.


Watkins has lived in exile from the UK since 1967. Although he has continued to make documentary films, nothing he has ever produced (or, it almost goes without saying, could ever produce) has had the impact of The War Game. It is quite frankly impossible to imagine another film made in this day and age having anywhere near the effect on world audiences—even the similarly disastrous possibility of environmental collapse has proven unable to shock audiences conditioned to decades of progressively bleak agitprop. Global warming has been pasteurized for action movie fodder in The Day After Tomorrow, and even the significantly more sober An Inconvenient Truth is limited in scope by its inability to reach beyond an audience of white, liberal art-house theatergoers. Michael Moore is the closest thing we’ve got to Peter Watkins in this day and age, but his smug, unavoidably partisan and repulsively acerbic films do almost as much damage as they seek to ameliorate—or did I miss it when Fahrenheit 9/11 successfully swayed the 2004 election for the Democrats? Errol Morris may be the best living documentary filmmaker, and at his best he can muster a bit of Watkins’ urgency, but his audience is such a small fraction of Moore’s that it seems perverse.


It is quite probable that we may never see the likes of The War Game again, both in terms of its director’s sober temperament and its potential effect on public consciousness. Consider the impact of The War Game in light of the fact that, in suppressing the film and allowing it to be released only theatrically to a self-selected audience, it was denied all but a fraction of its intended worldwide audience. Just imagine if the film had actually been shown on television.

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Tagged as: peter watkins
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