The War Game

Movies
5 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars
An amateur film-maker headhunted by the BBC’s Huw Weldon in 1963, Peter Watkins presented his new boss with a list of ‘films which ought to be made’. Top of that list was a documentary on the effects of thermo-nuclear war – about which, Watkins believed, there was a conspiracy of silence. As it turned out, he was right. Weldon persuaded him to tackle Culloden first – the English rout of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Highland uprising, 1746.

If there was some safety in history, no-one told Watkins. He treated it as a piece of live reportage, recreating the battle and interviewing the participants, from the generals down to the cannonfodder. Charles Stuart emerges as an arrogant fool, a disaster for his followers, but the English Duke of Cumberland is indicted of something we might now call ‘ethnic cleansing’, genocide. Shot for just £3,000, ‘Culloden’ (1964) was a triumph, a trailblazer which still exerts considerable influence – and it enabled Watkins to make ‘The War Game’ (1965), which applied a similar ‘you-are-there’ approach, this time to a projected nuclear war. A subtitle might have been: ‘Learn to Start Worrying and Loathe the Bomb’.

Exposing the gross inadequacy of civil defense strategies and  near-universal ignorance about the power of the H-bomb, the film proved far too frightening for the BBC, who declined to broadcast it after consulting with the Home Office and Number 10. Watkins resigned in protest, and embarked on an itinerant independent career. ‘The War Game’ was screened in cinemas, and latterly in schools, but it wasn’t until 1985 that the BBC transmitted it on TV for the first time anywhere in the world. Released on DVD with critical commentaries, and an earlier Watkins short apiece, these remain dynamic, disturbing, committed films from a revolutionary film-maker.

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