Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Review: The War Game

The War Game (1965)

The Cold War was a two-front war.  On one front, the Free World faced a collection of Communist dictatorships hell-bent on crushing all human liberty in pursuit of a universal tyranny masquerading as a People's Utopia.  On the other there was a collection of Communists, Communist front groups, fellow travellers, sympathisers, "useful idiots", and flat-out traitors who knowingly or unknowingly worked to advance the interests of their masters in Moscow and Peking.  Some of these were straightforward traitors like Kim Philby or the Rosenbergs.  Others were propagandists who did what they could to sap Western morale and make the free peoples unwilling to stand up for Liberty. Some claimed to be working for "peace".  Some may even have believed it.  But what they really worked for was defeat.

And these weren't just disaffected scribblers working mimeograph machines in basements.  Many were respected members of the media and many anti-Western propaganda pieces were made with taxpayers' money in a classic case of a man paying for the rope to hang him.

One example was Peter Watkin's 1965 pseudo-documentary The War Game.  Commissioned by the BBC, The War Game was scheduled to air that year, but was cancelled–partly and officially due to the film's horrific scenes and partly because of government concerns about the state broadcaster essentially giving taxpayer-funded air time to a party political broadcast for the Communist-front Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Ostensibly, The War Game examines the events leading up to and the effects of a nuclear attack on Britain and especially a small town.  Though it uses the format of a documentary and forgoes anything like characters or plot, it is nevertheless a work of outright fiction intended to fulfill a purpose: To convince the British public that nuclear war is horrific, unwinnable, would be the West's fault, and that the government and armed forces are incompetent and evil.  The road to war is laid entirely at the feet of the West.  When the Chinese invade Vietnam, the Americans threaten to use tactical nuclear missiles.  The Soviets respond to this outrage by sealing off Berlin.  NATO tries to break the blockade, face overwhelming Soviet might, and use tactical nuclear weapons.  The Soviets then "have no alternative" but to bomb the wicked and (it's made quite clear) racist English into the stone age.  Never mind that we now know that the USSR planned to destroy all of Eastern Europe with nuclear weapons if war broke out. In Watkin's world, it was the brutish West that wants to light the blue touch paper and let the world burn.

The civil defence plans are shown as less than useless without any balance as to the alternatives, The civilians are idiots when they aren't sheep, grafters, or monsters.  The government are a collection of clueless ninnies, the military are a vengeful Dad's army, and the police are fascists waiting breathlessly for the safeties to come off.  The scenes of nuclear destruction are the best part of the film and Watkins is able to convey a sense of real despair and suffering, but he consistently overplays his hand.  It isn't enough that bombs can level cities, smash civilisations, and kill people by the job lot, they have to drive the survivors insane and destroy all sense of morality.  It isn't enough that infrastructure is gone and that the services that keep society going may be disrupted or even non-existent, it must be the starting gun for "possible" street executions that are depicted like something out of the Holocaust.  We're supposed to feel sympathy, but how can we feel it for a nation of evil sheep?  As to how the Soviets are faring during all of this or what their aims are, a modest silence is drawn.

Worse, some of the "information" in the film is rubbish.  It conveys a lot of the story in the form of pseudo-interviews with actors standing in for the public or government officials.  One sequence has the "interviewer" asking a woman what she knows about carbon-14 and then upbraids her for not knowing that it's "one of the deadliest products of the nuclear bomb."  Sorry, Watkins.  C14 is a beta-emitter with a half life of some 5400 years, so its actually one of the least dangerous.

I won't even bother with the bizarre title cards spouting poetry like this was a memorial about the Somme.

Winning the Oscar for best documentary (?!?!), praised for its imaginative style, and lionised for being banned by the BBC, the message of The War Game  is simple:
Westerners: You are fools blindly lead by evil men.  Surrender or the peace-loving Communists will crush you like ants because they  "have no choice"". 
 Like Fail Safe, On the Beach, Threads, The Day After, and A Guide to Armageddon, this is a film that Moscow must have loved.

And the British people paid for it.

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