Peter Watkins made The War Game in 1965. This was only four years after the Bay of Pigs, yet marked 20 years since the attack on Hiroshima. And, as we know, retrospectively, we had decades more of the “Cold War” threatening Thermonuclear War. This film is a staged documentary (before such a thing was its own genre) made for the BBC to staunchly dramatize the realism of what would happen in the aftermath of a nuclear strike on Great Britain (specifically 40 miles away from its location around Kent). The cameramen, Peter Bartlett, was an actual news cameraman (occasionally being literally pushed around by the director with his telephoto lens to capture an air of shaky realism within crowds). The narrator, Michael Aspel, was an actual voice of the BBC. The film was self-banned from broadcast by the BBC, some say for its gruesome depiction of the situation; some say for political reasons (probably for both). It won the BAFTA for Best Short Film and, more noticeably, the Oscar for Best Documentary Film in 1967, despite being a document of events that did not actually happen. Even out of its historical context, it is probably one of the most intentionally damning documents I have ever seen.
Arguing not necessarily against nuclear armament (it seems to realize we are beyond any point of return), it highlights the utter ridiculousness of our assumption that it somehow comes out of a ‘civilized’ world. As the best of art, its purpose is to inform and compel thought. It questions the cultural “silence” on this issue that effects every single person in a war-fearing country. It attempts to persuade its audience of the wrongfulness of nuclear weapons by providing much needed factual information in the context of an emotional depiction. I think it still works.
At a point, one commentator mentions that while we were within the Atomic Age technically, we were (and still are) in the Stone Age, emotionally. The film uses a cross-cutting effect of having dramatization juxtaposed with talking head “interrupters” (as DVD commentator Patrick Murphy terms). This serves to further reinforce its documentary style. This tactic also aides in its realism by cutting away from showing certain actions that would never be shown on television. Though it still shows much more than anyone would ever expect to see on television in 1965; Burnt bodies, mangled limbs, shock and horror on the ashen faces of its people in the background, the film does not shy away from attempting a realistic portrait.
It uses simple effects like overexposure or shaking the camera to dramatize the blast, but they are no less effective than any more complicated contemporary special effect. The “firestorm” scene is created through a combination of effective editing and well-researched and directed movement of actor’s bodies. The makeup used to show burns and blood is that much more effective in the fact that the black-and-white does not need to be fully real, but rather more familiar as television and photojournalist ‘real’.
Before and during the still effective dramatizations, Watkins shows interviews with people to ask their knowledge of what the bombs are made of, if they would want retaliation, etc. It depicts a general ignorance and lack of forethought (and emphasizes this with the fact that readiness literature was not made easily available to the public). Watkins used unprofessional actors throughout. The interviewed people were acting too, but he began asking these questions without a script to prompt a more genuine response. Another stroke of genius in this masterpiece of its time. And I think this is still much more effective than a more blatantly satirical (and overtly political) work like The Gladiators (which is, in a way, like a proto-Hunger Games for adults). I haven’t seen much of Watkins’ work yet, but that will be changing shortly…