As a child in the eighties one of the things that could keep me awake at night was the fear of nuclear war. It was one of those horrors, unlike ghost stories, that you could not just shake off as unreal or exaggerated. So, I would lie there and hope no-one would start throwing nukes at us.
When Peter Watson made his documentary “The War Game” in 1965 the BBC and the British government banned it from television, ostensibly because it was too scary for the public. While I am not a fan of censure, having now watched “The War Game” I am inclined to agree. This is friggin’ scary and public panic seems a likely outcome of public screening. On the other hand, given how serious an affair even a limited nuclear war is, you really have to understand what you are in for if you are advocating this.
“The War Game” is a dramatized documentary that combines two styles: An informative documentary about possible future scenarios and a dramatized reporting from the scene of a nuclear attack. It is an odd mix of future and present form that can be quite disorienting, but works surprisingly well. A combination style Peter Watson brought with him from the 1964 film “Culloden”.
The topic of this documentary is what would happen if Britain came under a limited nuclear attack. Limited in the sense that strategic targets would be hit and leave survivors to live a few more years in misery and pain as opposed to an outright wipeout. It is divided into three stages: The preparation for the attack with people being evacuated from the larger cities and encouraged to find or build shelter, both of which the British were hopelessly unprepared for given the massive numbers involved. In interviews with ordinary people they seem completely unaware of what they are in for.
The second phase is the attack itself. This is a terrible horror show. Flashes burning the eyes of children, shockwaves blasting houses, firestorms sucking people into the furnaces and misery all round. As the narrator tells us, these are not speculations but things that actually happened in Germany and Japan during the second world war.
However, this is nothing against the absolute terror of the aftermath. The few survivors have nothing left. No food, no shelter, no future, no life as radiation is slowly killing them. This is the apocalypse.
This is the most terrifying movie so far on the List. The only one I can compare it to is “Nuit et Brouillard” about the Holocaust. The realism makes it shocking, you are an eyewitness to individual suffering, not just statistics. In fact, there is only little statistics in this movie, instead we have to assume that what we see is valid for the entire country. We also understand that this is not some far out hypothetical possibility, but a scenario that is openly considered as a strategic option by the military and politicians. The policy of nuclear deterrent means that we threat to waste the opposition if they dare to attack us in a mutual apocalypse.
“The War Game” also holds up very well today, mainly because the threat is no less now than it was fifty years ago. We still have plenty bombs to kill us all and while we may not have two superpowers threatening each other with obliteration, nuclear weapons are now widely spread to many countries, some of which have leaderships that may consider personal gain and gratification about the future of mankind.
“The War Game” is still a must-see to understand what is implied when we casually talk about nuclear weapons. The horror is still staggering.