Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 22 August 2006
Source Project X / New Yorker DVD
Features: The Radical Histories of Peter Watkins
Made for the BBC following the success of Culloden, The War Game imagines the possible outcome of a nuclear attack on Britain, but was banned from the airwaves by the network before it was broadcast. The film received only a minimal theatrical distribution after much protest from Watkins and certain members of the public. In refusing to broadcast the film, the BBC cited the film’s violence, which they distinguished from the “objective presentation” of violence in other documentaries, like Culloden. That the BBC did not consider Culloden to be rather subjective, or at least comprising a series of subjective presentations, suggests that they believed Culloden and The War Game to have very different sets of intentions with respect to the issues of subjectivity and reality in television documentary reportage.
Watkins describes his own intentions in making The War Game as follows:
The second film was the first of my works to deliberately mix opposing cinematic forms (in this case, a series of static, high-key lit, recreated interviews with establishment figures, colliding with jerky scenes of a simulated nuclear attack). Which — if either — was ‘reality’?—the fake interviews in which people quoted actual statements made by existing public figures, or the newsreel-like scenes of a war which had never taken place?
The question of perspective thus resurfaces in Watkins’ second film in a slightly different manner. The film deliberately compares disparate and seemingly incomparable elements (well-researched and -supported dramatizations of the effects of nuclear war and highly artificial, almost parodic readings of quotations from political and religious authorities) in a manner similar to the juxtaposition of anachronistic elements in Culloden. The “man-on-the-street” interviews in the film, quizzing people about the effects of Strontium-90 or whether Britain should retaliate in the event of nuclear attack, are hideously absurd but frequently candid: “People are always thinking that British people are always sort of forgiving and forgetting…. I think we’d have to retaliate.” As Scott MacDonald explains, the effect of this conflation of the real and the staged calls into question the conventionally more subtle combination of these elements in mainstream media:
The War Game foregrounds the fact that both entertainment films and documentaries are fabrications, the function of which is to maintain the system through which more products of both kinds can reach consumers.
As in Watkins’s first film, this juxtaposition of fact and fiction through a complex shifting of narrators, voiceovers, interview subjects, and “expert commentators” problematizes the spectator’s reliance on the conventional, authoritative voiceover narrator of television news.
But The War Game most effectively destabilizes the spectator’s viewpoint in its manipulation of time in a similar, though more complex manner as Culloden. Filmed and edited in the spring and summer of 1965, The War Game was originally scheduled to air on the sixth of August, to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. In the film’s opening scene (after a lengthy introduction, detailing the location of potential nuclear targets scattered around Britain), a voiceover announces the date: “London, Friday the 16th of September.” The film then is intended to situate the viewer in a very near and very specific immediate future. However, the film’s voiceover, which narrates the nuclear attack and its aftermath, switches between past, present, and future conditional tenses as it narrates a future of horrifying potential. The narrator mixes hesitant, conditional phrases (“it is likely that …”, “it is possible that …”, “possibly”, “probably”, “almost inevitably”) with examples from recent historical record (“This happened after the bombing at Hamburg, at Dresden, at Tokyo, and at Hiroshima”) and straight narration of present, “live” action (“Within this car, a family is burning alive”, “These men are dying both of heat-stroke and gassing”, “This is nuclear war”).
Though the film (like Culloden) forcefully situates the viewer in a specific time and place — a harrowing and viscerally immediate present — these temporal disjunctions function to challenge the conventions of television presentation, specifically the appearance of “liveness” that television (and especially television news) offers. This is evident in the film’s first dramatic presentation, a series of long, hand-held shots that begins on the back of a policeman’s motorcycle speeding through central London and ends in the halls of a government office where evacuation plans are being put into place. The scene’s visual style is familiarly one of you-are-there television news, but its depiction of events that have yet to happen has a destabilizing effect upon the viewer. Watkins’ films, in their direct questioning of the spectator’s conception of the security of past, present and future, also challenge the very notions of temporality that television itself inscribes in its form. They function, not only as interrogations of past or potential histories, but also confront the hierarchies of media representation that shape our understanding of them.
What is particularly interesting in Watkins’ early documentary style is not only his indebtedness to the narrative conventions of television news and documentary (hand-held cameras, onscreen text and graphics, offscreen narration, interviews, talking heads) but also his integration of this style with Soviet montage. From his earliest “amateur” films, like The Forgotten Faces, the influence of Eisenstein and his contemporaries is evident in Watkins’ impassioned assertion of a political viewpoint and especially in his dynamic visual style and editing strategies. The War Game in particular is an aggressively dialectical film, both in its endless variety of visual narrational modes (jarring cuts from flat studio-bound talking heads or graphics to handheld, vérité camerawork, freeze-frames and offscreen narration during harrowing recreations of the nuclear attack and its fall-out) and in its constant shifting of time and place.
Interestingly, over the next decade, Watkins would steadily dismantle this confrontational form of montage, perhaps finding it too coercive or propagandistic, like the style of television news it was partly parodying. In its place, evident in later films like La Commune (de Paris, 1871), is a totally open style, dependent on extremely long-takes that lead the viewer through all aspects of the film and its making, fully exposing both their artifice and their basis in reality. But even if this seems completely opposed to his earlier mode of filmmaking, their intentions remain consistent. The War Game is coercive and propagandistic, but it is not didactic and does not attempt to force a single point of view upon its viewer. Part of Watkins’ intention is to bring these different visual styles and temporalities into dialogue with one another and thereby to force the viewer into a questioning of the present state of nuclear armament. Confronting the viewer with this potential future, the film ends with a question:
On almost the entire subject of thermonuclear weapons, on the problems of their possession, on the effects of their use, there is now practically a total silence in the press, in official publications, and on television. There is hope in any unresolved and unpredictable situation. But is there a real hope to be found in this silence?
Whether or not Watkins was hubristic in thinking that his violent, unabashedly biased, and wholly damning documentary would make it to the BBC’s airwaves, his film remains a startling and inflammatory plea against political indifference in all its forms.