The War Game (1966) Destruction & Damnation

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In a recent episode we looked at Peter Watkins shocking and timeless docudrama ‘THE WAR GAME’ with Julie McDowell from the ‘Atomic Hobo’ podcast. During our conversation I read excerpts from a 1966 review of the film from the Reading Evening Post. The review detailed the film’s bleak portrayal of the effects of a nuclear strike on Kent. During my search for reviews and promotional materials for the episode I came across many other reviews and articles on the film.

An advert for a CND showing of the film, Harrow Observer – Friday 29 May 1970

Infamously banned by the BBC upon its television debut in early October 1965, the film may not have seen the light of day but the ban imposed did not stop the film being shown in cinemas and it was shown up and down the UK & abroad. It was given an ‘X’ rating by the British film board of censors, this rating restricted the audience to those 16 or over.

A Cinema Advertisement for THE WAR GAME, Belfast Telegraph – Friday 06 June 1969

One article that stood out was from the Hammersmith & Shepherds Bush Gazette from Thursday the 14th July, 1966. The headline of the article reads ‘Censor Your TV Programmes Turn Them Off’. Within the article it their is a small section detailing the BBC ban of the film and has some quotes from Watkins on the ban:

‘They [the public] should be able to discriminate and turn off when they don’t want to watch something’.

Almost all of the reviews I found were from regional British news papers were almost all positive in their appraisal of Watkins film being a harsh reminder of the effects of nuclear war and its obvious disarmament stance.

The Birmingham Daily Post from the 9th February, 1966 review summed up the imagery & bleakness of the feature:

‘Mr Watkins honesty does not flinch from applying similar realism to an imagined nuclear attack. One of his scenes show a child being blinded by the flash of a nuclear explosion 20 miles away: another shows a bucket full of wedding rings collected from burned bodies as the only possible hope of identification.’

However there were two articles that I uncovered during my research that were different to the others. The first comes from the Illustrated London News from April 9th, 1966. The reviewer Alan Dent writes how he thinks that the film somehow isn’t as shocking as it could be:

‘If anything anything it is not quite appalling enough and I doubt very much if the “fire storm” it shows us would no in a matter of seconds decimate all those cool doctors and nurses and obliterate all those medical supplies. Anyhow I doubt still more whether the general public will flock to see his vision of what could conceivably happen before the end of the century, to that general public’

This review is one of the few that have something genuine critical to say about ‘THE WAR GAME’. It is interesting that the proposes that waits could have been even more visceral in his depiction of arguably the most distressing scene within the film.

One of the often shown scenes from the film, in which the flash from a bomb detonation blinds a civil defence worker and a child

The final piece I wish to cover comes from the Kent & Sussex Courier from the 25 February, 1966. The headline instantly drew me in ‘This Film is Biased Says Civil Defence Leader’. A Mr Leonard Lozman, Civil Defence Officer for Tonbridge which had served as a shooting location for the film, did not like the depiction and CND tone of Watkins’ production. Adding how he felt that the actions of the Civil Defence had been played down within the film;

‘Not enough emphasis was placed on ho many lives could be saved by properly trained Civil Defence members on the periphery of a nuclear explosion. It was too negative’

Lozman adds to this later on in the article at his clear distaste for the films stance & hoped another film could be made to show the public about the horror of thermonuclear warfare.

‘I feel there must be a follow up. At present it has a untidy finish, which leaves viewers in mid air without a positive answer’

I would have loved to know what Mr Lozman made of Mick Jacksons ‘Threads’ from 1984. Would he have changed his mind?

A poster for a BFI screening of the film

I hope you enjoyed this retrospective look at some thoughts and articles on THE WAR GAME from the mid 60s. The sentiment of these reviews were bolstered when the BBC finally broadcast the film in 1985 as part of a series of programmes to mark the 40th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima & Nagasaki. It was shown before Threads premiered and had an introduction by the journalist & broadcaster Sir Ludovic Kennedy.

In my view THE WAR GAME serves as Watkins’ magnum opus. His career wavered somewhat after he left the BBC shortly after the ban. His 1967 film Privilege that explored the dangers of totalitarian governments was critically panned. But he collected himself and went on the make more anti-establishment cinema such as 1971’s Punishment Park & the 375 minute epic La Commune.

To quote the late Roger Ebert from his 1967 review.

‘They should string up bedsheets between the trees and show “The War Game” in every public park. It should be shown on television, perhaps right after one of those half-witted war series in which none of the stars ever gets killed.’

Listen to our episode on THE WAR GAME here.

Robbie McGuire

Robbie McGuire

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