UK Teleplay Retro: The War Game
Sometimes the most compelling titles are ones that illicit a response that is usually associated with another genre; in this case Peter Watkins’ The War Game is an entirely terrifying experience exceeding the scare level of any horror film and yet it’s a forty seven minute teleplay designed as an informative docu-drama.
During the tumultuous nuclear arms race, Watkins pitched the idea of a teleplay about the effects of nuclear war and how Britain would be equipped to handle the possibility of a nuclear attack. This pitch sounds like something no one would honor, but Watkins' timing was incidentally crucial as it was coincidental regarding the tenor of the times and the power shifts within the BBC that might be credited for The War Game coming into existence.
The political upheaval in the mid-sixties permeated an expected degree of hesitation toward nuclear arms, and during the unilateral campaign to disarm the nation, there had been a full-scale nuclear program in effect. While Harold Wilson’s 1964 campaign and it’s effect on nuclear diplomacy was a hotbed of intricacies and policymaking, there was little to no visibility of the arms race on British television. Around this time when the BBC was operating without a head of their Documentary Film Department, they reluctantly allotted Watkins a budget for his film, attached with a warning that his film might not be completed.
The War Game was modestly scaled; a microcosm of Britain was shot in Kent, utilizing military barracks in Dover, with a cast of non-actors culled from meetings and interviews held beforehand. In preparation, Watkins had began a communication with the Home Office in order to learn how Civil Defense would be equipped to handle the event of a nuclear attack (hospital beds, staff, medicine etc.) thus prompting the Home Office to contact the BBC as to why a project of this kind was in the works.
Watkins shot The War Game in grainy black and white 16mm film, treating the material with the utmost urgency and the result is a harrowing “what if” chronicle, as well as a terrifying instructional documentary, surveying the all too real hypothesis of what could have been a very realistic outcome.
In its forty-seven minute runtime, The War Game charts a staggering amount of information regarding the locale of Britain as a potential target for nuclear weapons between the major world powers. Statistics are read with a chilling remove by commentators Peter Graham and Michael Aspel and on the spot civilian interviews, further underpin the documentary style realism, but it’s the handheld black and white 16mm film stock that gives this title its edge.
The images depicted are harrowing, living rooms ablaze, makeshift infirmaries, burn victims being executed by police, buckets filled with wedding rings, (another unnerving side note as it recalls images from the Holocaust) armed police dispatched to shoot bereaved relative from trying to remove their families remains before streetside cremation. It’s a bit blunt, and at times aggressive the nature of the time in which it was made weren’t concerned about the finer points of subtlety dealing with the impending threat of nuclear war.
The War Game surpasses anything of it’s kind in its granular blunt force execution; nothing is soft pedaled or distilled, and it’s dedication to conveying the hell bottom of nuclear folly. There’s no question where the filmmakers political sympathies lie, and there isn’t a subtle bone in the body of The War Game which is why it remains a powerful historical record.
While we have staggered out of the Cold War nuclear race, a show like The War Game still carries tension and sadly is still relevant viewing. Given the limited resources, Watkins and production team adhere to their verite portrayal and deliver a fully dimensional depiction of nuclear attack; it’s visceral and entirely believable, the undramatic ordinariness of the cast give the film the awkward simplicity of how we’d imagine the reactions and behavior of people in crisis.
While it’s assuredly bleak, at times hopelessly devoid of emotion or humanity, The War Game is made with vigor, and it’s spirit transcends its thematic structure. Of course, the BBC banned this from broadcast; however there was a loophole that allowed the movie to be shown theatrically. Ironically suppression led to The War Game garnering acclaim and awards going as far as to winning an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature - ironic seeing as it’s a fictional narrative. While the Academy has since reconsidered eligibility for this category, it’s remarkable to think that a BBC teleplay that (at that point) never aired. Upon the debut of another nuclear themed British Television drama Threads, broadcast a week before the fortieth anniversary of the Hiroshima bombings, The War Game was seen in people's home for the first time on broadcast television.
There’s a handful of teleplays that play in the horror genre; The Stone Tape, Ghostwatch, and A Ghost Story for Christmas, but The War Game remains one of the scariest titles to have emerged from the BBC.