by Allan Fish
(UK 1965 49m) DVD1/2
Your protection against nuclear attack
d/w Peter Watkins ph Peter Bartlett
narrated by Michael Aspel, Dick Graham
A film that became a by-word for the BBC’s wranglings with those in the corridors of power, The War Game was green-lighted solely due to the critical success of Watkins’ revolutionary – in more ways than one – film Culloden, made the previous year. It hypothesises and goes into considerable detail, what would happen in the case of a thermonuclear attack from the Soviet Union. Philip Purser wrote that it was shelved because BBC director-general Sir Hugh Greene (brother of Graham) thought that “it might seriously harm the old, the simple or the out of touch who lit upon it without prior warning.” It makes one think he feared a television equivalent of the infamous Orson Welles The War of the Worlds radio broadcast of 1938 which so went down in infamy. In truth, however, it’s open to question how much of the decision was down to Greene’s own judgement. He himself was one of the more lenient director-generals the BBC had, and upon his retirement, was replaced by some severely right-wing censorial types who were to set the Corporation back many years. The decision was probably reached as high up as the government, many prominent members of who, along with several prominent critics from all aspects of the arts media, were allowed to see the film behind closed doors. The fact was that the BBC would not be allowed by the Home Office or the Ministry of Defence to put out a film which went against the wonderfully acronymed Mutually Assured Destruction policy employed against the Communist foe.
The film itself concentrates on what would happen if a bomb aimed at Gatwick airport and London in general missed its target and hit into an area of Kent. It shows how the Garden of England would turn into a graveyard, and goes into explicit detail about the delayed impact, the radiation, the aftershocks, the melting of the eyeballs, the horrendous winds, the first to third degree burns and all the horrifying facts we are now so used to. It documents how there would be mass evacuation and enforced sharing of habitation by many families resentful that some of them may be coloureds. What is more remarkable still is the way it re-enacts what might happen afterwards; the shortages of food, the riots, the almost fascist martial law, the executions by firing squad for those who disobey the authorities, doctors having to decide who can be saved and leaving those who can’t to die slowly in sealed off rooms, police having to shoot various dying people in the streets. Fake surveys are carried out amongst the populace to ask what they know of the dangers, what they would do in the case of such an attack, would they retaliate. Others are asked about their forms of defence, and one memorable fellow is shown building sandbags around his house and in the living room, and even in a makeshift trench shelter in his garden, in which he keeps a shotgun (“and I intend to use it”) to keep potential shelter-seekers at bay.
Most memorable is the sequence describing “the way the last two minutes of peace would be in Britain”, the incredible accuracy and shocking power of which is truly stunning even forty years on. The explosion is equated to the sound of “an enormous door slamming in the depths of hell.” Or how can one forget the incredible poignant rendering of Silent Night in German in a post fallout Christmas of poverty and desolation. Never mind a TV release, it’s almost surprising the BBC were allowed to release it theatrically, where it won awards at film festivals and an Academy Award for best documentary. Roger Ebert summed up the response Stateside when observing “they should string up bed-sheets between the trees and show The War Game in every public park.” All of which reminds one of A Canterbury Tale – also set in Kent – and poor Eric Portman trying to speak about the countryside and national heritage in Hyde Park and being told by Dennis Price “that’s no subject for Hyde Park.” Sadly, he’s right and nor is this. We are too prone to collective hysteria, a fact still exploited ruthlessly by the media to this very day.