Saturday 28 July 2018

On demand: "The War Game"

What goes around comes around. Peter Watkins' The War Game won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1966, in what would today be debated as a potential categorisation flub. This is, after all, less a record of historical actuality than another of British TV and cinema's vivid mid-20th century what-ifs, to be set alongside Brownlow and Mollo's It Happened Here; a supposition, framed like newsreel, of what might occur were the UK to fall subject to the threat of multiple Soviet nuclear strikes. Having commissioned the film, the BBC of the time gave the results a hard pass - labelling it "too horrifying" for broadcast (not an unfair review, given that it goes some distance beyond what the horror cinema of the time could show) - and so, after several decades of half-life on the repertory circuit, it was only screened to terrestrial viewers in July 1985, in that late Cold War dead zone that separated Threads from When the Wind Blows. It's now been made available on the iPlayer, at a point when the world has grown jittery for a multitude of reasons, recurrent nationalism among them.

The film's genius lies in its relentless accumulation of chilling detail. Watkins bombards us with stark facts (many pulled from the still-burning rubble of Dresden and Hiroshima), talking heads that mostly demonstrate the ignorance of the man and woman in the street, and staged interviews in which the cognoscenti rehearse or finesse some political point, all of which give way to aargh-we're-all-gonna-die recreations of the nuclear event itself. Screaming kids incur seared retinas from watching the initial blast. Through thick plumes of smoke, bodies can be seen falling in the road. Hospitals become overrun with corpses. All this comes before we get to the agonies of the irradiated, having to nurse their keloids and tumours on dwindling food supplies and a single bowl of unpolluted water per day. Watkins builds towards a single, loaded question, reportedly asked by Nikita Kruschchev when weighing the consequences of any such attack: "Will the survivors envy the dead?"

You can try and be rational about it, telling yourself that - yes - that's a clever reverse of the negative simulating the blast, and the rest is just a matter of shaking the camera, as they used to on the era's Star Trek episodes. And in the absurdly contrary Britain of 2018, perhaps there will be those who initially harrumph at our narrator's "possibly"s and "almost certainly"s, reasoning "it wouldn't be that bad" and clinging to the Dunkirk spirit as an example of our ability to pull through such crises intact. Even they, though, might eventually find their complacency wiped out by sustained exposure to a full forty-three minutes of these brilliantly forceful, unsentimental images and juxtapositions. CND should ready itself for another flurry of applications, as it has received whenever and wherever the film has been screened; anyone who still comes away from The War Game feeling smugly confident of their own security should know the early-warning siren system that gives these poor sods a measure of time to prepare for the worst was scrapped many years ago. Don't have nightmares.

The War Game is now available to stream here

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