The War Game is a 1966 blend of television drama and documentary, that depicts a nuclear war. Written, directed and produced by Peter Watkins for the BBC, it caused dismay within the BBC and also within government, and was subsequently withdrawn before the provisional screening date of 07 October 1965.
The corporation said that “the effect of the film has been judged by the BBC to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting. It will, however, be shown to invited audiences…”
The War Game depicts the prelude to, and the immediate weeks of the aftermath of, a Soviet nuclear attack against Britain. The narrator says that Britain’s current nuclear deterrent policy threatens a would-be aggressor with devastation from Vulcan and Victor nuclear bombers of the British V bomber force.
The film begins on Friday, 16 September (presumably 1966; this date wouldn’t appear again until 1977). A news report tells of a Chinese invasion of South Vietnam; tensions escalate when the United States authorises tactical nuclear warfare against the Chinese. Although Soviet and East German forces threaten to invade West Berlin if the US does not withdraw, the US does not acquiesce to communist demands and the invasion takes place; two US Army divisions attempt to fight their way into Berlin to counter this, but the Russian and East German forces overwhelm them in conventional battle. In order to turn the tide, President Johnson authorises the NATO commanders to use their tactical nuclear weapons, and they soon do so. An escalating nuclear war results, during which larger Soviet strategic IRBMs are launched at Britain. The film remarks that many Soviet missiles were, at the time, believed to be liquid-fuelled and stored above ground, making them vulnerable to attack and bombings. It hypothesises that in any nuclear crisis, the Soviet Union would be obliged to fire all of them as early as possible in order to avoid their destruction by counterattack, hence the rapid progression from tactical to strategic nuclear exchange.
In the chaos just before the attack, towns and cities are evacuated and residents forced to move to the country. On 18 September at 9:11 am, a doctor visits a family with an ill patient. As he finishes checking up on her and steps outside the air-raid sirens start to wail in the distance, followed by a klaxon horn from a police car. The doctor rushes back in with two civil defence workers and starts bringing tables together to create a makeshift shelter. Suddenly, the town of Rochester is struck by an off-target one-megaton Soviet thermonuclear warhead aimed at RAF Manston, a target which, along with the Maidstone barracks, is mentioned in scenes showing the immediate effects of the attack. The missile’s explosion causes instant flash blindness of those nearby, followed by a firestorm caused by the blast wave. The air in the centre of the firestorm is replaced by methane and carbon dioxide and monoxide and the temperature rises to about 500 degrees. The firemen soon pass out from the heat in the chaos. By then the V-bombers carrying green Yellow Sun gravity bombs and blue steel cruise missiles reach the border of the Soviet Union and presumably breach anti-aircraft defences by using a special instrument in their cockpits to jam defending radar signals. They head to their counter-value targets, civilian cities.
Later, society collapses due to overwhelming radiation sickness and the depletion of food and medical supplies. There is widespread psychological damage and consequently a rising occurrence of suicide. The country’s infrastructure is destroyed; the British Army burns corpses, while police shoot looters during food riots. The provisional government becomes increasingly disliked due to its rationing of resources and use of lethal force, and anti-authority uprisings begin. Civil disturbance and obstruction of government officers become capital offences; two men are shown being executed by firing squad for such acts. Several traumatised and bewildered orphan children are briefly featured, questioning whether they have any future and desiring to be “nothing.” The film ends bleakly on the first Christmas Day after the nuclear war, held in a ruined church with a vicar who futilely attempts to provide hope to his traumatised congregation. The closing credits include a version of “Silent Night”.
The story is told in the style of a news magazine programme. It wavers between a pseudo-documentary and a drama film, with characters acknowledging the presence of the camera crew in some segments and others (in particular the nuclear attack) filmed as if the camera wasn’t present. It features several different strands that alternate throughout, including a documentary-style chronology of the main events, featuring reportage-like images of the war, the nuclear strikes, and their effects on civilians; brief contemporary interviews, in which passers-by are interviewed about what turns out to be their general lack of knowledge of nuclear war issues; optimistic commentary from public figures that clashes with the other images in the film; and fictional interviews with key figures as the war unfolds.
The film also features a voice-over narration that describes the events depicted as plausible occurrences during and after a nuclear war. The narration attempts to instil in the viewing audience that the civil defence policies of 1965 have not realistically prepared the public for such events, particularly suggesting that the policies neglected the possibility of panic buying that would occur for building materials to construct improvised fallout shelters.
- The film eventually premiered at the National Film Theatre in London, on 13 April 1966, where it ran until 03 May.
- It was then shown abroad at several film festivals, including the Venice one where it won the Special Prize.
- It also won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1967.
- The film was eventually televised in Great Britain on 31 July 1985, during the week before the fortieth anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, the day before a repeat screening of Threads.
Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): Peter Watkins.
- Producer(s): Peter Watkins.
- Writer(s): Peter Watkins.
- Cinematography: Peter Bartlett and Peter Suschitzky (uncredited).
- Editor(s): Michael Bradsell.
- Production: BBC.
- Distributor(s): British Film Institute.
- Release Date: 13 April 1966.
- Running time: 44 minutes.
- Country: UK.
- Language: English.