Speaking in terms of both style and content, few films have provoked such heated discussion as The War Game. Infamous, influential, revered and reviled in equal measures, it is difficult to review Peter Watkins’s notorious tour de force, without commenting on the effects and controversy that stemmed from the film when the BBC deemed it too contentious to be broadcast in 1965. Nevertheless, it is a testimony to the picture’s power (as well as the current political climate) that the film’s stark, moving images are as striking today as the moment they were shot.
If the aesthetic objective of any director working in the mock-documentary format is to make their finished picture look as authentic and bona fide as possible then Watkins succeeds with undisputed distinction; a point seemingly endorsed by the Academy who rather bizarrely awarded The War Game the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1967. In doing so, Watkins also succeeds in his political objective; to show how ill equipped the British public would be to cope with such an attack. Indeed, the success of The War Game is that not only does it illustrate the physical devastation that such a nuclear attack on the UK would cause but also, and perhaps more powerfully, it examines the social, economic, medical, demographic and psychological effects that would manifest themselves in the weeks and months after the event. That Watkins follows these eventualities through solemnly and unspectacularly, with little change in narrative tone gives them a shocking, matter-of-fact plausibility.
Grounded in gritty realism, Watkins uses real examples of World War Two horrors to emphasise the potential destruction that such a bomb could cause. The War Game frequently hammers home gruesome possibilities with phrases such as ‘it happened in Hiroshima, it could happen here’. Historic footage of atrocities and post-bomb chaos in Hiroshima, Dresden and elsewhere are expertly intertwined with fictional sequences that follow all the rules of such BBC documentary filmmaking: the scientific quotations, illustrations through diagrams, the comments of academic experts, the interviewing of the uninformed general public and crucially, the blatant, and unemotional narration expertly supplied by Peter Graham and Michael Aspel that sounds like a cold, disturbing public service announcement.
As well as benefiting from an enhanced, crisp DVD transfer, this new BFI release also includes Watkins’s difficult to find short film, The Diary of an Unknown Soldier, noteworthy both in its own right and as a prelude to the main feature. Also included are some additional scenes that, like most, are interesting rather than essential but the pick of the DVD extras is a fascinating commentary by Patrick Murphy who explains that it was a secret deal struck up between the British Government and the supposedly impartial BBC that ultimately led to the picture being pulled from the broadcast schedules.
Celebrated by numerous outspoken anti-war figures including John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Kenneth Tynan (the latter described it as ‘the most important film ever made’) and championed by the CND and peace movements everywhere, The War Game remains compulsive and powerful viewing. Certain addresses in London, Washington and Baghdad may benefit from ordering a copy; they might just find what they see too conceivable to ignore.