By Betsy A. McLane, Ph.D.

Peter Watkins THE WAR GAME is one of the most controversial films ever to win the Academy Awards for Best Documentary Feature. Produced in 1965 by BBC television, it relates the story of a possible Russian missile attack and its aftermath in southeastern England, during a limited nuclear war. This stark and powerful work continues to move audiences and incite debate some forty years after it was made.

There are four major questions to consider when looking at the film today:

1. Is THE WAR GAME a documentary?

Each of Peter Watkins 14 films (both shorts and features) operates in a vein that can be called “staged documentary.” The method used in his films is to address historical and contemporary issues through recreations, using chiefly non-actors. In this case, the participants were selected through a series of public meetings in County Kent where the film is set and where it was primarily shot. His stated purpose, “was to involve ‘ordinary people’ in an extended study of their own history…the subject involved potentially imminent events, for the threat of full-scale nuclear was a very real one at that time.”

Recreations, improvised and scripted, have long been a part of the documentary tradition and have been accepted, if not entirely embraced, by both makers and audiences. Almost all such documentary recreations deal with events contemporary to the film or with events from the past—the recent past as in the works of Robert Flaherty, or the more distant past as in Charles Guggenheim’s Academy Award winning documentary short THE JOHNSTOWN FLOOD. A major difference with THE WAR GAME is that the events portrayed remain only possibilities, not documented facts. Watkins claims that the film’s portrayal of official response to the attack is based on statistical analysis of the government’s acknowledged preparedness plans. Interwoven with the scenes of the attack and its consequences are interviews with authority figures offering “talking head” commentary. These scripted scenes are culled from published records, including those of an Anglican Bishop who supports nuclear weapons. What Watkins does here, however, is to take actual words about nuclear weapons from a Bishop, prior to any attack (excepting Hiroshima-Nagasaki) and recontextualize them into a post-nuclear England.

In using factual records to project possibilities, THE WAR GAME resembles Mitchell Block’s classic staged documentary …NO LIES (1973), which, based on extensive research of rape cases, uses an actress to portray a rape victim. The difference is that there are many rape victims, and as yet there has been no nuclear attack in the Western World. THE WAR GAME can also be likened to Lynne Littman’s TESTAMENT or Nicholas Meyer’s THE DAY AFTER (both 1983). These Hollywood features are much more clearly fictions, as they follow a traditional narrative storyline, focusing on drama among characters to achieve their vision of a post-nuclear attack world. Littman and Meyer use the conventions of Hollywood drama, Block uses the conventions of cinema-verite, but WATKINS uses the conventions of a television news broadcast, perhaps the form audiences were most likely to accept as “true” in the 1960s.

2. What are formal and artistic elements of THE WAR GAME?

Peter Watkins is one of a few British filmmakers to emerge from amateur filmmaking. His early short THE FORGOTTEN FACES (1961) recreates the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the Soviets, based largely on study of news photographs of such events. On the strength of this short he was offered work at the BBC, where his first film CULLODEN (1964) restaged the 1746 Battle of Culloden by which the English King George II’s army destroyed the last of Gaelic clan culture in Scotland. The fact that the battle took place in the distant past allowed Watkins to use the recreation form to draw parallels to what he saw as the American position in Viet Nam at the time. In this film Watkins places the viewer in the subjective position of the confused soldiers, who have no real idea of how the battle is going. Using medium close-ups of soldiers’ faces and few establishing long shots, he refuses to provide a clear overview of the action.

This form, which is also the basis of FORGOTTEN FACES and THE WAR GAME, allowed Watkins to place the action in a context that could not be signposted by familiar landmarks of place or time. The incongruous presence of news cameras on an 18th Century battlefield became irrelevant as viewers were drawn into the conflict. Watkins continues to use this aesthetic throughout his work, filming events from the past, the present, and the possible future as if they were contemporary news events. THE WAR GAME is perhaps Watkins’ most emotionally powerful use of these techniques. Viewers see vague, often hazy or grainy long shots that could be from any number of locations, medium close-ups of individuals, little traditional cross-cutting and preference for random events over psychological character development.

3. Why is there such a longstanding controversy that has made THE WAR GAME a cause celebre for 40 years?

THE WAR GAME was banned by the BBC, which refused to broadcast it until 1985. Due to this and other instances of what he characterizes as blackballing by the television and critical establishments, Watkins has lived and worked in self-imposed exile from England since the mid 1960s. Great public debate surrounded the cancellation of the film’s broadcast. Although BBC is, by charter, free from government influence, it receives this charter and its funding from the central government. THE WAR GAME was screened for government representatives prior to the broadcast date, and pressures were brought to bear to prevent its being shown. Other private screenings were held from which came varied opinions, specifically that the film was too powerfully shocking for audiences to handle and that it played into the hands of England’s anti-nuclear activists who were very prominently in the news at the time. Over the years, BBC did make the film available to film societies, limited theatrical release, educational and festival screenings, but the television public was unable to see THE WAR GAME on television.

Official distress over THE WAR GAME came not only from the realistic treatment of horrific events. The British government maintained and maintains a pro-nuclear weapons defensive strategy. THE WAR GAME is adamantly anti-nuke. The film also portrays the response of the official agencies and individuals as laughably inadequate, and the information given to the public as lies. In this it is similar to the 2005 BBC fictional production DIRTY WAR that dramatizes the inadequacies of response to the explosion of a terrorist dirty bomb in London.

The charges of censorship and suppression may have moved members of the Academy to award an Oscar to THE WAR GAME as much as did its shocking content and challenging form. Obviously, the nominating committee knew that the events portrayed never actually occurred. In recognizing Watkins’ work as a documentary they took a chance at broadening the definition of the term. There was probably also a sentiment that this is one of those films that everyone should have the chance to see and that the award would facilitate that.

Peter Watkins has struggled to have his early films seen, as well as to continue making films. He spent many years developing a critical manifesto against what he calls “Monoform,” the dominant media language of film, television and the web in which audiences are pummeled by endless sounds, images and rapid, seamless editing. He continues to evolve a stylistic critique that questions the “reality” of media images; even to the point of having performers in his later films question the director (Watkins) about the purpose of the work.

4. What is the direct relevance of the film today, fifty years after it was made?

Although it may not be in a Russia vs. NATO war, we face in 2006 a continued, possibly less manageable, threat from nuclear war. Lack of information along with lies to the public in all parts of the globe about the numbers and status of nuclear weapons, defenses, responses and results is the still the norm.

The lack of government preparedness for catastrophic events is more apparent than even in the mid 1960s, when many people harbored complacency about the ability of our bureaucracies to handle any problem. The disaster of the official response to Hurricane Katrina has shown that this faith, like that of the survivability of nuclear war is false.

The staged documentary has been explored and reworked dozens of times since Watkins made THE WAR GAME. even uses the term “Shockumentary” in its headline description of the film. It is not that. Nor can it be classified with most of the other recent films in which documentary conventions are used to trick, ridicule or dramatize life. Almost none of these contain the sophisticated comment on media itself that characterize Watkins’ work. His films comprise an overlooked body of original cinematic works that are hard to categorize. THE WAR GAME is justifiably the most celebrated of these.