A welcome re-release of Peter Watkins’ two BBC films from the mid-1960s, this disc shows just how much TV has changed since then. It’s impossible to imagine of either of these films being commissioned by a youth demographic-fixated, ratings chasing Beeb today.
Of course, The War Game didn’t actually make it to the airwaves until 20 years after it was made, being subject to a BBC ban* – allegedly for being too horrific to show, but actually pulled at the say-so of the Harold Wilson government, who thought (quite rightly) that the film’s expose of the inadequacy of Britain’s nuclear defence capabilities and the total lack of survivability in the event of full-scale nuclear war would undermine trust in the ‘deterrent’. Indeed it would, but Watkins’ facts were well researched, and his documentary-style film about aftermath of a nuclear war – from the mass death through the initial blasts (even in supposedly ‘safe’ areas that only women and children have been evacuated to – how’s that for sexism?), the lack of preparation among the population thanks to typical British bureaucracy and secrecy and the effects of fall out, starvation and a continual police state mentality (upholding the system even after the country has been effectively wiped out) – remains pretty bleak stuff even now, with genuinely horrific burn images that look distressingly authentic. After all, the Cold War might be over (though Putin seems keen to bring it back), but the threat of nuclear annihilation still hangs over us – especially as rogue states who might be less inclined to be afraid of Mutually Assured Destruction (the threat of death is no deterrent for religiously-inspired suicide bombers, after all) get hold of nuclear weapons.
The War Game is grim, powerful, sobering stuff – the gritty black and white imagery, the dour narration, the complete lack of hope. So it’s good that there are a few inadvertent laughs early on, though these are as much at the expense of a servile population and the ludicrous pronouncements of ‘experts’ as anything, and so hardly what you’d call light relief. There’s no fun to be had from this film.
If there is a downside to the film, it’s simply that Watkins tips his hat towards his own political opinions somewhat, which might give some the excuse to dismiss the film as a lefty polemic and so ignore the important message.
The same could be said for Culloden, his previous BBC film. This feature length story – lasting around the same time as the battle of Culloden itself – tells the story of the 1746 last stand of the Jacobite catholic army against the Protestant English. The film takes the form of a modern newsreel, with the narrator asking questions of the participants, shattering the fourth wall and giving an immediacy to the events. The battle scenes are carefully build up, and then staged with a sense of gritty spectacle – this film doesn’t make war look glamourous or exciting, yet still has a dynamic feel to it.
Early on, Watkins takes an even tone. He doesn’t paint a rosy picture of the doomed Jacobites, and shows how undemocratic, brutal and cruel the feudal Clan system in Scotland was. but as the Scots are routed, the film becomes more openly emotive and angry, as it shows the unquestioned atrocities carried out by the victorious English, who slaughtered and raped their way across the highlands. There’s an obvious parallel to American actions in Vietnam here, but Watkins lays the analogy on rather too thickly for comfort – the narration virtually tells us to be outraged, when we could have probably reached that state ourselves, and only just seems to stop short of screaming “LOOK! IT’S JUST LIKE VIETNAM!”. A more detached style might have actually had more emotive power, though one can hardly fault the director for being angry.
Still, this is a fine and potent film, and one that is unafraid to be political and uncomfortable for its mainly English audience. You’ll never see the like of this again on British TV, I fear.
The BFI disc looks great – both films were thankfully shot on film, not videotape – and comes with decent, if unremarkable extras. The lack of involvement from Watkins himself – a filmmaker who went on to more political, angry cinema that fewer and fewer people have seen – is regrettable, but perhaps inevitable.
That aside, I thoroughly recommend this disc. It might not be easy viewing, but it’s certainly important, and a fine example of what television used to be capable of.
*It’s possible that The War Game was the most widely seen ‘banned’ film of its era. It had a couple of NFT screenings, won the 1967 Oscar for Best Documentary and would play throughout the next two decades at CND-sponsored screenings across the UK.