Winner of the 1966 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, Peter Watkins’ The War Game was never broadcast by the BBC when it was produced for the Wednesday Play series the previous year. Deemed too unsettling for audiences, it was eventually transmitted in 1985 (a year after the broadcast of Threads amid escalating nuclear tensions) to mark 40 years since the bombing of Hiroshima. Comparisons with Threads are inevitable, and although both films attack similar specific targets, they use markedly different techniques to do so.
A documentary voice is employed by both films, but where Threads allowed its terrifying speculations to unfold as a drama, The War Game comes from a more detached, factual perspective. Threads’ occasional stark captions have their role filled here by an authoritative narrator, one that would be as much at home in a Protect & Survive film. We are led through events by this single guiding voice, and the effect of hearing it underscore the action in contemporary Britain (and occasional illustrative diagrams) is similar to that of a newscast. A crisis is imposed onto everyday reality through one of the most familiar formats to viewers at home.
Those viewers at home can also see themselves reflected in the vox pops that are interspersed throughout the film, offering opinions on the issues, informed or otherwise, and it is these that allow The War Game to take a different path to that taken by Threads decades later. With no single main character, we see a picture painted of wider societal views, and the film can also take the opportunity to break away and offer a clearer international context. Interviews in Britain cut away to scenes of unrest in Berlin – the flashpoint of a worsening crisis. Hypotheses are offered as to the US President and Soviet Premier’s motivations and actions that would lead to a nuclear attack on Britain. The divide between the leaders who would destroy and the people who would be destroyed is stark – a total disconnection.
While this approach creates a contrast with Threads, which largely gives a domestic view, the recipients of The War Game’s criticism are just the same. Narrator and talking heads alike expose the inadequate measures on the part of the government to prepare and protect the public. Safety manuals are overpriced, and people on the street largely ignorant of what to do in the event of an attack, while privilege is shown in some cases to lead to selfishness bordering on paranoia. One of the only people we meet in the film with the means to build a shelter for his family also shows off the shotgun he will use to ensure no one else tries to get in with them. When the attack comes (with just the same horror and dread felt in Threads), all are equally powerless.
After the impact is when these interviews with the public become most significant, as the attitudes on display prior to the bombing in Kent are demolished by the grim reality now facing the people who held them. Before, we saw people casually admitting they would like to see retaliation to any attack, and similar devastation inflicted on another country, not to mention residents’ reluctance to take in evacuated families on our own soil (“Are they coloured?”). In the aftermath, violent crowds grow. Citizens and police kill each other in riots. The narrator comments on Mrs Joyce Fisher, a housewife from Gravesend, as she pilfers armfuls of food retrieved from murdered officers. The scenes of civil unrest in Berlin that viewers might like to imagine could never happen here are shown to duplicate themselves all too easily in Britain.
Prejudices and preoccupations erode in the turmoil never foreseen by those who held them. A film that started with the blasé comments of detached adults on a potential apocalypse ends with parents frightened for their children, and the children themselves saying weakly, “We don’t want to be nothing.” Silent Night plays at the close of the film over scenes of destitution, following graphic descriptions and depictions of melted eyeballs, burned and blinded children, police officers shooting dead those beyond medical help, mass cremations to prevent disease and executions of relatives trying to retrieve bodies.
The imagery is as gruesome as that used in Threads – it is ultimately the ideas behind them that hold the real power. It doesn’t surprise me that the BBC withheld it at the time, although not especially a decision I sympathise with. The War Game is a very unsettling piece of television for a nation that had had questions asked in Parliament about Nigel Kneale’s Nineteen Eighty-Four adaptation only the previous decade. While it was also fortunately mistaken in its prediction that the scenes shown in the film would have happened by 1980, its message is powerfully grim and, as Threads demonstrated twenty years on, still resonates. Tensions diminished slightly in the 1970s, but rose again. Today, they seem to have done so once more, and the people are once again in thrall to the whims of leaders unaccountable to us in other countries. 53 years on, the fear remains of what could be.
The War Game is available to watch on BBC iPlayer now.