The War Game (1965)

There is nothing more terrifying than watching a “what-if?” film about a nuclear holocaust. If done correctly, such programs can really stir fear in one’s heart and make anyone think about the ramifications of such an event to their lives. I particularly remember watching the American TV movie The Day After some years ago, and while not acted in the best manner, it was disturbing in many ways. First of all it was filmed in my home state, using buildings and town names that I’m used to, and it showed what could happen after a nuclear bomb falls. I can only imagine how messed up it would have been had they had done it as a faux documentary rather than a drama, it would most likely have ended up like BBC’s The War Gamea far superior film, and much more scary. A film like this is only as powerful as the time we live in, and today much like the sixties, we live in fear of idiots flaunting their missiles all over the world. This short black-and-white film was recently added to Netflix instant streaming, so I figured that it would be interesting, little did I know it would also be amazing.

Produced in manner similar to a documentary-styled magazine program, The War Game tells the story of a nuclear crisis in the “near future” of the 1960’s Britain. The whole mess starts when China invades South Vietnam, an act that America sees fitting to retaliate for with a decree of nuclear intentions. This idea angers all of the Communist nations leading to a small-scale nuclear war in Berlin between the two German halves and a handful of allies on either side. Eventually, it all escalates into an all-out World War with Britain getting hammered with over sixty bombs.

This film shows everything thereafter including the collapse of society, sick people, and mental traumas resulting from the bombings. What follows is a scathing look at how the director, Peter Watkins, sees Britain’s preparedness for such an event. All that “stiff upper lip” stoic nature from the blitz goes out the window in this documentary, and everyone turns into animals once things get bad. All Civil service agencies are lampooned as well as church elders, but this is not humorous satire, this is the stuff of nightmares.

One of the most unnerving segments in this film was a series of black cards with white lettering read by the narrator. Throughout the film, these cards come up to show facts, news quotes, maps, and other tidbits that really help this to look like a news show. The most poignant ones were statements from officials such as government workers, press agents, and other high up big-wigs. The card that creeped me out the most concerns the manner in which the church took notice of the bombings, coming together to issue the following odd statement:

“The church must tell the faithful that they should learn to live with, though not love, the nuclear bomb, provided that it is ‘clean’ and of a good family.”

And later:

“During a recent meeting of the Ecumenical Council at The Vatican – a bishop told the press that he was sure “our nuclear weapons will be used with wisdom.”

With how “out of reality” the church tends to be these days, I’m not too convinced that something like this wouldn’t leave the lips of a spokesman at the Vatican today! I’m not sure whether to take stuff like this as black comedy much on the same way that Dr. Strangelove handled such things, or a hard condemnation on how stupid and/or heartless people can be. With our politicians today, I think the latter is most fitting.

The written content found within isn’t the only thing that makes this film so dark. It’s also filmed in a manner reminiscent of actual news footage – meaning that they created staged building collapses and deaths, and filmed it all with a handheld camera to make it far more realistic than many movies of the time. This was Cloverfield, only forty years early. For the 1960’s, these special effects are amazing and would honestly look great if used in a modern production. This isn’t a cardboard walls Doctor Who budget, this was made to look as real as it could to strike fear. I think the only effect that was sort of “iffy” was the way in which they depicted nuclear blasts. Since they didn’t have computer generated effects back then, and stock footage is tiresome, we didn’t see any mushroom clouds. Usually somebody would be outside and the screen would flash white for a moment, leading the actor to cover their eyes and scream. While not great, this effect does its job, and doesn’t look unrealistic, just uninspiring. It was like hearing the sound effects from an off-screen battle in a Lord of the Rings movie, some of the impact is taken away if you can’t see it.

Gritty scenes such as one featuring a group policemen being forced to employ mercy killings on people so severely injured that doctors could not help them seems so out of place for any film made in the 1960’s. I can see why this film was immediately hated by higher-ups at the BBC, as it basically mocked authority on all levels. Also, if people used to call in to complain about things in Doctor Who in the 1970’s being “too scary” this would have given these same people heart attacks. I cannot stress how much this seems like a modern film in terms of tone and nature. The War Game didn’t actually get shown on any TV network until the mid-1980’s, and I’m thankful it didn’t meet the same fate as other 1960’s BBC productions –wiped and junked. It was deemed too dark, it made the British infrastructure look bad, it belittled civil servants, and it stood in the face of over-zealous national pride –things that weren’t cool forty years ago. At least now we can watch it, and enjoy it without any censorship involved.

Another scene that really struck me, on a deja vu level, was one that was used much later for a plotline in a David Tennant era Doctor Who episode called Turn Left. In The War Game, threats of an imminent nuclear strike force the evacuation of millions of people to the country-side. The streets run foul with protests and uncertainty as many households were forced to take in and feed as many as eight guests for the duration of the events. People caught on camera include many that act very selfish; this includes people trying to hoard resources and even bigots. One woman interviewed remarked that she hoped her new lodgers “weren’t colored” as was the norm back in the sixties.

The aforementioned Doctor Who version of this happened in a similar manner. In Turn Left, the Earth fell to utter ruin when the titular character died in an alternate reality. His companion at the time, Donna as played by Catherine Tate, was forced to board with other people when London is totally destroyed in a nuclear accident. The racial sentiment is still jarring now as it was in the sixties, and it really shows that accidents and other catastrophes bring out the worst in people. I’m really surprised that there haven’t been a lot of people that have picked up on this connection between the two shows accidental or intended– then again this movie may be pretty obscure due to its age and its banned status.

If you want to see a great disaster movie that doesn’t resort to over-the-top special effects in lieu of drama, please check this out. For a film that I assumed would be schlocky 1960’s faire, The War Game was awesome. This movie is so dark, violent, pessimistic, and edgy, that one would assume that it came from the brain of a modern director. Since it was shelved so long ago, I feel that many have not seen a true speculative fiction classic. I know this kind of film is not for everyone, it’s sort of depressing, and makes you feel bad. But that shouldn’t stand in the way of the punch in the gut you get watching it.

Here is an excerpt from the film:

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4 thoughts on “The War Game (1965)”

  1. If you can get to see it, for me a more powerful programme was 1984’s Threads (again by the BBC). It is said that this programme is what encouraged Reagan to start his demilitarisation plans.

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    1. oooooh, I just read the wiki page for that, thanks for the heads up! I’ve never heard of it (much like this one before today) but if it’s as good as War Game or better I need to see it. hopefully it’s on DVD in some manner.

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