The films of Peter Watkins have been undermined, banned, and buried by distributors since his verité dramatization of nuclear war in his 1965 BBC project The War Game, simply because he trenchantly questions authority and doesn’t pull his punches. The release of his superb feature film Punishment Park on DVD showed the ways a right-wing government can brutalize and humiliate so-called undesirables and extremists without access to trial or amnesty, and it hasn’t aged a day since 1971. In fact, it may cut closer to the bone now because the subjects Watkins addresses have only become further exacerbated in recent years, as evidenced by reportage in both the sanitized mainstream news and the dwindling alternative press. If ever we needed a voice of controlled, clear-eyed, articulate anger at social injustice that time is now. While it’s highly unlikely the cinema of Peter Watkins will find a huge audience through New Yorker Video, it’s good to see his work at least getting out there and being made available to open-minded viewers.
The latest Watkins film to be released is The Gladiators, which was made in 1969 and at first seems like a rough draft of the superior political allegory Punishment Park, made two years later. In the near future, governments have decided to stage their wars in the form of televised games depicting 10-man teams of soldiers pitted against each other within a selected location (“staged at various sites in non-aligned countries around the world,” in this case Sweden). The irony is that these games are organized by an International Peace Games Commission and involve the players attempting to kill each other, while a computer-controlled monitor constantly changes the rules on them. These battles are presented to an audience of millions, are corporate sponsored, and take the concept of war into the realm of entertainment.
Watkins was reacting against Vietnam, but his assessment can easily be translated into today’s hotbed political climate. The war in Iraq is costly in terms of economic price, human life, and the global balance, and those who control the game constantly shift gears to say things are going well, even when it is spinning out of control on the front lines. Viewers accept this passively, even receptively, since they’re misguided into believing it’s all about national pride. Watkins shows a platoon of allied soldiers marching through a rough, muddy landscape, and a series of abandoned factory buildings, thinking they’re engaged in a game of “capture the flag” that they can win if they play by the rules, then intercuts the footage of them fighting and dying for a game that changes the rules whenever it feels like with the generals and control room programmers who are more concerned about the drama of the game (keep the viewers entertained) and their own comfort level. In the film’s most outrageous moment, the generals eat spaghetti while their soldiers are getting blown to pieces.
Told in the faux documentary style of many of his films, the cameras feel like observers in a reality TV show, stuck in the faces of the contestants and watching them suffer. If we can step outside of comparisons to Iraq for a moment, the cutting down of individuals for audience amusement is a staple of reality television. American Idol is about as close to gladiator school as we can get without physical murder on-screen, because we’re seeing individuals perform only to be cut down and embarrassed and harassed by Simon Cowell. We’re watching individual people transformed into stereotypes, then verbally abused, and thus we are allowed to feel smugly superior on the comfort of our sofas. It’s all about the spectator’s erosion of empathy. Translate that into The Gladiators and it’s easy to see why when the soldiers are getting killed, or the system pits the black soldiers against the white soldiers within the allied platoon (baiting the black guy by saying over loudspeaker that he could be “the first of your race to make it to the finish line”), the generals watch with lazy amusement. No doubt, the viewers at home are too. Watkins pushes this spectatorship into the realm of actual murder and bloodletting in order to get a reaction from the viewer—which, in effect, says that it takes a hell of a lot to get anyone to react. To his credit, he pushes as far as he can go.
The Gladiators was shot on 35mm, a format Watkins rarely used because it limited his ability to rove around the action with handheld cameras. The action within the film seems more staged, perhaps because the cameras Watkins used here were heavy and difficult to lug around. He adapted to this format by shooting with clipped, locked-down precision, but it is an inactive style that doesn’t suit his fiery, aggressive temperament. The stillness of the filmmaking works against him, and sometimes the flatness of the composition makes the characters play out as broad caricatures. Cutaway shots to the Nigerian general covered in medals nodding in assent, as well as the Swedish general falling asleep in his chair during the game play make valid points, as do political cartoons in the editorial section, but stretched out to feature length they play a little broad.
One of the finest and most cutting points Watkins makes in The Gladiators is his use of a French student from Paris (Jean-Pierre Delamour) who is technically a member of the allied team but breaks away from the game to find the control room, destroy the game, and theoretically smash the system in order to replace it with his counter-revolutionary party. In any other hand-wringing left-wing film, this character would undoubtedly be the hero. He’s certainly set up that way, running through the abandoned buildings on his own, navigating his way to home base, and frequently interviewed by the camera speaking the language of insurrection and revolt. What’s chilling about the depiction of this student is that Watkins says he is simply a part of the system, and that revolutionary action can actually become immersed within said system itself. Indeed, Hot Topic is a store that sells punk-rock goods that used to be found in thrift stores and assembled at home using Mom’s clothes pins, and 1960s anti-war songs have been reconstructed to sell car commercials.
When the French student arrives at his destination speaking rhetoric, he is coolly told to have a seat, check out the computer, and learn about the system from the inside before he destroys it, thus getting indoctrinated into that world. “You were never a threat to the system,” he is told. Indeed, the only threat to the system is hatched by the old-fashioned collective idea, where two soldiers from opposing teams link forces to escape the game. Watkins offers a pessimistic viewpoint about that as well, his final images being a riot group of police officers descending upon the dissenting ranks with billy clubs and teargas, but it also offers his firm belief that if two people take action, perhaps two more will, and “two people equals a valve, and four people equal two valves, and if it goes on like this, we won’t have any machine left, will we?” That idealism is not cynical, and if not exactly optimistic at least gives a way for the individual to consider how to deal with a global crisis that seems much bigger than they are. Does Watkins espouse anarchy? The king can be taken down, but the true question to be considered has to be: what happens next?