How do films dealing with the relevant socio-political issues of their time withstand the test of time? Are they still applicable to our contemporary mindset, or are they time capsules from yesteryear? New Yorker Video has been releasing the films of Peter Watkins, which remain as trenchant, horrifying, and awakening as they were when he created him. Could it be that his scathing indictment of England’s lack of awareness of what would happen during a nuclear attack in The War Game mirrors a global lack of awareness today? The War Game not only vividly portrays a moment-by-moment account of nuclear war taking place within domestic environments and within the streets of suburban towns; it also proffers documentary interviews with real people on the street.
These interview segments are not part of the dramatization of nuclear war, but spontaneous accounts of English people in the year 1965 responding to questions about the effects of radiation, on whether NATO should retaliate against a nuclear attack, and about the power of the bomb. These individuals are short-sighted about what will happen, and countered against the graphic depiction of nuclear destruction and ironically commented on by inserted title card quotes attributed to the Home Office, the church, and nuclear experts that present a false optimism about survival and morality in the wake of disaster. Of course, one need not look far to see that if a questionnaire were handed out about the Iraq War, most Americans might believe (falsely) that the terrorists who flew the planes into the World Trade Center were from Iraq. And they might not be able to speak beyond the jingo of our leaders about why we are fighting this war, and they also might not comprehend why—to look at our current headlines as of the writing of this review—Lebanon is besieged by Israel. Most people simply don’t know. And that is the true message of The War Game: that we need to be confronted head-on with not only the global significance of our actions and inactions, but also the localized significance.
Watkins’s images are shrewd propaganda: his final shots are of schoolchildren, their faces covered in ash, some of them burned, and staring straight into the camera. It is a bone chilling image, and one that cannot easily be forgotten. Watkins also shows firefighters being swept up by fierce winds when combating a firestorm in London, a homeless victim whose hand is trembling so quickly he can barely bring his soup spoon to his lips, and a food riot that shows how quickly authority would crumble under cataclysmic pressure. The film is shot like newsreel photography, with the handheld camera picking up action and placing the viewer very much in the present tense. The contrast between the “news” photography and the static, locked down images of interview subjects looking into the camera and admitting their lack of knowledge makes for a strong polemic, and in the closing credits Watkins makes a list of his sources, showing his research as if in encouragement for the audience to do the same.
The War Game remains Watkins’s best-known film, perhaps because it affected public discussion to such an extent that despite being banned by the BBC it won an Oscar and placed the director in an international forum. Thankfully, his other work is now being released on DVD by New Yorker Video, where it will hopefully find a larger audience. The War Game is accompanied on DVD by his earlier film Culloden. This no less extraordinary recreation of the final battle between the Jacobite Scottish Highlanders and the English Army on Culloden Moor during the 18th century pretends that documentary film crews could cover the battle on the front lines, with a motion picture camera and sound. The camera picks up the seared, scared faces on both sides of the battle, and its depiction of men killing men and cannons firing across fields has no glory. Instead, it is a slow, sickening vision of ethnic cleansing, and the way men have to shut off parts of their minds in order to commit horrible acts. It takes all of the romance out of historical battles, and creates an analogy between then and now. Is the war about so-called freedom, or for land and money? Watkins continually questions why wars are fought, and what the soldiers believe, and what the authorities say, and whether these things add up. By digging under the surface, Watkins sees the lies perpetuated in history, and how they reveal the lies we face right now.
New Yorker Films has done a superb job in preserving film prints from the mid-1960s, with image and sound quality both optimal.
The DVD is accompanied by a 12-page booklet about the controversy and history surrounding The War Game, providing a context for not only why the film was banned but also why it struck a nerve and survived over the years. The scholars on the audio commentaries for The War Game and Culloden discuss how Watkins frames his shots and uses canny editing techniques to have one sequence comment on another.
The War Game is an ideal starting point for those curious about the cinema of Peter Watkins, and remains essential viewing as a political argument against not only war, but the bureaucracy that believes truth is best kept in the hands of the few than the many.