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Saturday, September 17, 2011

The War Game

A dark companion to the Doom genre, which almost didn't see the light of day, is Peter Watkins' 1965 film, The War Game (TWG). It is a story about a fictional nuclear attack on Britain, particularly focused on communities and citizens in the Kent area. Instead of being told in a more conventional fiction style, like Fail Safe, or The Last War, etc., Watkins created a pseudo-documentary form. The BBC "reluctantly approved" the script, according to Watkins, and funded the project. He was warned that it might not get finished. When it was done, it was strong on the horrors of nuclear war and critical of government's planning. The BBC brass forbid it to be shown publicly. Much drama ensued. Despite their ban, TWG won an Academy Award for best documentary.

  Quick Plot Synopsis
A narrator opens, telling how Britain's nuclear deterrent policy is that it's V-force bombers would retaliate. Those bombers were dispersed around England to prevent being an easy target. This then exposed most Britons to danger. The flashpoint is told as American deployment of tactical nukes in South Vietnam. As a show of communist solidarity with the Chinese, Russia surrounded West Berlin. Skirmishes grew. The NATO troops in West Berlin were buckling. President Johnson allows use of tactical nukes on the Russians. This triggers a missile attack from Russia on NATO nations -- such as Britain. Evacuation had already begun as tensions mounted, but wasn't going smoothly. People complained that they were told to make shelters in their homes, but materials, such as sandbags, were in very short supply. Some with adequate shelters were belligerent about sharing. While a doctor is making a house call, a soviet missile explodes nearby. The flash blinds some people. The blast sets homes on fire. Firemen battle a warehouse blaze. The narrator recounts factoids about cities experiencing fire storms, like Dresden did. People tumble in the strong wind towards the flames. People collapse for lack of oxygen. British bombers cross the Russian border to drop bombs on people there. Several man-in-the-street clips have people saying they're all for retaliation. The dead are laid out in rows. Even Kent, which was lightly hit, suffered thousands of casualties. Hospitals could not care for all the wounded. Severely wounded were left to die, or shot in the head to end it quickly. Inadequate food supplies meant rationing, but emergency workers (police, fire and civil defense) were fed first. This set off food riots. Police and troops guarding the food are killed. Looters and those thought to kill policemen were executed. A doctor tells how inadequate vitamin C would mean scurvy would be common in a few months. A priest manually turns a record player, playing Silent Night at Christmas. Gaunt parishioners sit motionless. Children asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, replied. "Nothin'" The narrator recounts how nuclear stockpiles have doubled and continue to grow. He predicts that the scenes just watched are likely to happen before 1980. End text says the film was based on information from the bombings of Dresden, Darmstadt, Hamburg, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The End.

  Armageddon Unavoided
Watkins plays out what he thinks a nuclear strike would be like on the populace. Watkins' conviction was that the British were ill-prepared for what would happen if the unthinkable did happen, so he told his story from point of view of the hapless. Where prior films in the genre stopped at the moment of the blast -- leaving the viewer to imagine the awful outcome -- Watkins showed that outcome. Narrators told of melted eyeballs. A nurse talked of a boy with his legs burned off, etc. Make-up portrayed many facial burns and open sores. TWG would have been the 1960s' shocker film, as The Day After was in the 80s. had the BBC not succeeded in stifling it until much later.

Cold War Spotlight
While not as blatantly propagandistic as Rocket Attack U.S.A. was for the pro-nukes side, TWG was more powerfully propagandistic on the disarmament side. It played out a similar scenario to others in the genre, about how a smaller squabble becomes the flashpoint for WWIII.

It's Only A Movie -- From reading accounts of people who saw TWG as youths, some people at the BBC may have been right. They came away feeling like they had seen actual footage of a nuclear attack. Television, and the documentary, still had some credibility. If it was presented as news, it must be true. Yet, TWG was a work of fiction: actors in make-up, being filmed by a crew, saying lines memorized from the script. It helped that Watkins used no famous actors. He did a brilliant job creating his "what if". People easily forgot they were watching a movie. The documentary style for fiction was not new in 1965, but rare enough to catch viewers off guard. Note Watkin's use of fast cuts and wiggly-cam, intercut with stiff man-in-the-street "interviews". Sprinkle in a few equally stiff "experts" (always unnamed) and some text onscreen. The fabric of the film is so broken that it appears to not have a story line -- but it does.
  Live and Let Die -- Watkins theorizes that a management shake-up at the BBC mean his script got more approval than it might have otherwise. Perhaps finding themselves between ideological rocks and reality hard places, they let his project come to life, but warned that it could get killed later. Sure enough, once complete, the BBC refused to air it, or allow it to be shown. They blew smoke about it being an "artistic failure" but were happy enough to accept the Academy Award for it, nonetheless.
  Awkward Position -- Nuclear disarmament was a hot and divisive issue in the early 60s. Prime Minister Harold Wilson's Labor Party had supported unilateral nuclear disarmament (before his PM-ship) Around three-quarters of the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) were Labor Party members. Things were already unsettled when Wilson's government not only didn't push for disarmament, but expanded Britain's nuclear force. (Perhaps, like other "opposition" politicians, it was easy to promise things which, once in office, were proven to be not nearly so easy, or even a bad idea after all). All this inner turmoil did not help Watkins' project. His pro-disarmament propaganda piece (TWG), which was critical of the government, was doubly embarrassing for Wilson's Labor coalition. Small wonder that politicians pressured the BBC to make it go away quietly.
  Propaganda Spin? -- The label of "propaganda" is usually assigned to views one disagrees with. Watkins' ideology is transmitted by the more subtle directorial arts (as opposed to the ham-fisted writing in Rocket Attack USA). He portray's only exposure victims, not survivors who did take shelter. The British bombers were reported as going to bomb people not military targets. In focusing on the victims, Watkins handily avoids the larger, driving issue of international power, of which nukes are just one tool. He often cites what happened in Hamburg and Dresden for the horrors of war, but skips that those were "conventional" wars resulting from international power struggles. Watkins had the luxury that pre-Prime Minister Wilson had. It's easy to take a bold stand, when you don't have to balance the whole cart.
  Python Moment? -- At one point, about half way in, text on the screen says: "An Ecumenical Council meeting at the Vatican says that the faithful should learn to live with,though need not love, the nuclear bomb, provided it is clean, and of a good family." Given the grim seriousness of the topic, this insertion has a bizarre Monte Python quality to it. One wonders what Watkins was thinking with this.

 Bottom line? TWG is a good example of the disarmament voice in the Cold War era. As a film, it is particularly well done. People forget that they're watching actors reciting lines, wearing "burn" makeup, and think they're watching reality. Watkins' skill as a director can be seen in how much TWG does not look directed. The horror he portrays is that taboo topic everyone back then knew: nuclear war would be terrible. The mood of the day preferred it left unsaid, with mutant monsters standing in as metaphors.

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