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Reviews

The Gladiators

The Gladiators

The Peace Game / Gladiatorerna

Peter Watkins

Sweden, 1969

Credits

Review by Leo Goldsmith

Posted on 11 May 2006

Source Project X / New Yorker DVD

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Features: The Radical Histories of Peter Watkins

In 1896, the Olympic Games were revived after 1500 years of dormancy with the purpose of fostering communication between the nations through spirited, nonviolent athletic competition. World peace is still an explicit aim of the Olympic Charter, an ironic goal as the Games have more frequently functioned as extensions and stagings of the national and ideological conflicts of the last century. And as demonstrated by Riefenstahl’s Olympia and the cloying provincialism of American television coverage, the Games even serve as vehicles for propaganda through the mass media, lionizing individual achievement while claiming it as a product of a strong national character. The Olympics, in short, is a theater of world domination through running, jumping, and table tennis — a world war that all of us can root for.

Peter Watkins’ 1969 film, The Gladiators, takes this notion a step further. Set in an all-too-near future, the film proposes to document The Game, an international competition of military exercises that have, in the interest of world peace, supplanted conventional warfare on a global scale. In the words of the narrator, the competition intends to “divert natural aggressions” in the name of “sportsmanship and dignity.” At a remote location in the countryside of Sweden (a politically unaligned country), first- and second-world powers square off against each other in a controlled match of Capture the Flag, their actions observed on monitor by a panel of their dispassionate superior officers and broadcast all over the world on television (sponsored by a pasta company). The Game is controlled by a highly sophisticated computer system called ICARUS, an all-seeing, all-knowing entity that not only poses obstacles and challenges for the rival teams, but also escalates tension between factions of each team, controls weather, and orchestrates the death and violence precisely. The Game is won when one of the team succeeds in locating the ICARUS control room and taking command of it.

Produced in Sweden for Sandrews AB, The Gladiators marks the first film of Watkins’ self-imposed exile from his native Britain, an exile that has now lasted some forty years. His previous film, 1967’s Privilege, is a scabrous attack on popular culture and music iconography, following the manipulation and the gradual dehumanization of fictitious pop-star Stephen Shorter. Like The Gladiators and Watkins’ next film, Punishment Park, Privilege also imagines a dystopian future just beyond the horizon, one in which the government and the mass media are thoroughly integrated and conspire in the total suppression of individual expression.

What separates this vision from many contemporary dystopias and allegories of authoritarianism — like the ingenious ITV program, The Prisoner, THX-1138, or even A Clockwork Orange, which borrows from Privilege liberally — is that Watkins makes no concession to the fabled indomitability of the human spirit. The players of The Game are all identified by letter-number codes (B-8, C-2, etc.), and any attempt at insubordination or self-expression is summarily quashed by their superiors. The African-American soldier’s indignation and unwillingness to simply get along is placated by the oily promises of a grinning officer. When another officer shows signs of dissent, the computer reassuringly churns out a single word of classification from his file: “Pliant.” There is even a “revolutionary” — a damning appraisal of the May 1968 uprisings in the character of (what else?) a French university student — but even he, unwittingly, is a key pawn in the machinations of The Game. Watkins’ films may seem fatalistic, but it is their central aim to provoke response. Any hope for humanity is demanded of the audience and not consolingly integrated into the film itself.

Like Privilege, The Gladiators employs a type of absurdist humor — one might retrospectively call it a Pythonesque element — that would for the most part drop out of his subsequent work. One does not often think of Watkins’ films as comic, but if one mostly expects a dour or dire tone in Watkins’ films, these two early features provide an interesting counterweight To be sure, the tone of this comedy is markedly bleak, satirizing the expendability of the individual in the modern world order and his suggestibility at the hands of the mass media. But it is absurdist nonetheless, as in Stephen Shorter’s humiliatingly bad advertisement for apples (staged to assist the agricultural ministry’s glut of that crop this season), or in the supernatural powers of the computer ICARUS over The Gladiators’ movements in the Game.

This is not to say that Watkins’ later work wholly jettisons comedy in favor of seriousness, however. But much of the humor of the later work is, at root, deeply unsettling. Watkins usually achieves this through an overt manipulation of time. From The War Game onwards, nearly all of his films employ a deliberate anachronism, either situating the viewer in an indeterminate immediate future (as in these films), or portraying the historical, pre-televisual past through the anachronistic strategies of the modern mass media. The communards of La Commune (Paris, 1871) watch and react to the misrepresentations of their cause on Versailles TV; and the dissidents interred in Punishment Park are subject to government policies that, we are told, President Nixon will shortly put into effect. Herein lies Watkins’ unsettling comedy of urgency, the skewed vision of a world at once familiar and unfamiliar, a disquieting intersection of past, present, and future.

Part of why I think Watkins is now finally reaching his audience, and why his work is finally earning wider recognized, is that the bizarre, hare-brained situations he foresaw for geopolitics and mass media have now been realized. In films like Privilege and The Gladiators, we have scenarios that are at once patently incredible and yet already in place. Of course, pop stars are not quite the direct tools of the government, and American Gladiators has not yet replaced the nightly news, but warfare, to the extent which it is seen at all, has lately been a fully mediated experience. From the American media’s full, embedded compliance with the government at the war’s onset to the largely fashionable and all but ineffectual voices of dissent heard of late, television provides the individual with the spectacle of politics as entertainment, complete with the amusingly combative exchange of opinions and the illusion of consumer and voter choice. If one could only persuade Iran to participate in the Olympics, the spectacle would be complete.

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