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  War Game, The Envy The Dead
Year: 1965
Director: Peter Watkins
Stars: Peter Graham, Michael Aspel
Genre: War, Documentary, Science FictionBuy from Amazon
Rating:  8 (from 1 vote)
Review: The United Kingdom has more targets for a nuclear attack than any other country of its size. The Soviet Union takes over the whole of Berlin in protest at the United States using nuclear weapons against the Chinese, who have invaded Vietnam, and global war is inevitable. This is what happens to the United Kingdom: it is devastated.

Written by producer and director Peter Watkins as a follow-up to his successful TV dramatisation Culloden, The War Game was made for the BBC who balked at the idea of broadcasting it and essentially it was banned. The film was so controversial and provocative that questions were asked about it in Parliament, and eventually the BBC allowed it to be shown in cinemas; it soon won an Oscar for best documentary feature.

The film was not shown on television for twenty years, until the fear of nuclear war once more captured the mood of the nation, and the BBC showed a new drama that owed much to Watkins' work: Threads. In the meantime The War Game had been held up by anti-war campaigners as the most graphic condemnation of the notion that nuclear war would be anything but a complete disaster for all concerned.

By using the documentary format, the film has an air of authority that makes the staged horrors we are seeing quite convincing. At first, potential hotspots are evacuated, illustrated by footage of uncooperative citizens complaining about having to take in the homeless ("Are they coloured?" asks one man). Reminders of the Second World War, surely fresh in the minds of the public at the time, are presented throughout, starting with the reintroduction of rationing and continuing with references to Dresden and Hiroshima.

Distrust of those in power is evident: we are told that our side could just as easily fire the first missile as the other side. In fact the whole tone is accusatory: what do the governements think they are doing getting us into this situation in the first place? Vox pops with the Great British Public show they are just as ignorant of the reality of nuclear war as the authorities (although I don't know how many ordinary people these days would know what Strontium 90 is).

Then the bombs drop. By using handheld cameras, Watkins creates a vivid sense of chaos on a tiny budget. After that, there is no hope: fires run out of control, charred bodies lie in the streets, disease and starvation spreads, law and order breaks down. Mixed in with these scenes are ironic interviews and quotes about "a just war" or simply chilling statistics. After we see bobbies gunning down protestors and executing looters, and terrified children saying they don't want to grow up, we know that it's pretty much impossible to prepare for the end of civilisation. The War Game is asking, "Do you still think this is a good idea?"
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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Peter Watkins  (1935 - )

Critical, socially-conscious British filmmaker whose short films like Diary of an Unknown Soldier led to work at the BBC, making Culloden and The War Game, the latter proving so controversial that it was banned. He turned to cinema features with Privilege and Punishment Park, then went to Scandinavia to create incredibly long dramatic documentaries such as Edvard Munch.

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