Saturday, November 05, 2005

The Gladiators (Watkins, 1969)

Two years before Peter Watkins made Punishment Park (in which pacifists, dissidents and other enemies of the American government are forced to race across a brutally hot desert as part of an elaborate game) he offered up another politically charged fantasy with far less focus – The Gladiators. The Gladiators has the alternate title of The Peace Game, which is a play on Watkins’ Academy-award winning documentary, The War Game, in which he imagined the aftermath of a nuclear attack on England. The comparison is unfortunate, as The Gladiators lacks much of what made The War Game such a haunting, powerful experience – namely a clear political purpose backed by known facts. Instead, The Gladiators comes across mostly as unconvincing babbling, with moments of genuine insight sprinkled sparsely throughout.

The situation brings world leaders together in Sweden where, instead of mounting large-scale invasions and launching missiles, individual combatants have been selected to represent their countries and run a treacherous obstacle course hoping to find the control room which serves as the finish line. In another room, the leaders gather together for tea and light snacks, watching coldly as the soldiers dodge bullets and explosions which are intentionally triggered through a central computer. As the film was made in the late 60’s, the super-computer intended to be a metaphorical stand-in for the ‘war machine’ unfortunately resembles nothing more than a really malicious typewriter. Even so, the premise could potentially make for an effective platform towards political discussion about the way in which worldwide warfare benefits the wealthy and powerful everywhere more than it does any particular nation. Unfortunately, the rules of Watkins’ cinematic game are never clearly defined, nor are the participants who take part. We have little sense for what is at stake for the fictional characters and thus have little opportunity to find real-world connections. A brief glimpse of the film that could have been is offered in a memorable moment in which violent revolution is contrasted with genuine compassion and humanity; however, it arrives too late to salvage the meandering that proceeds it.

The Gladiators is ambitious and well-intentioned, but ultimately a cinematic misfire. Those wanting to experience Watkins’ original blend of documentary-style filmmaking and political commentary are advised to look elsewhere.



Post a Comment

<< Home