Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The War Game (Watkins, 1965)

I once had a co-worker who could not understand why Americans would honor the anniversary of the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Her reasoning was that Japanese aggression during World War II warranted such a response. She is not alone. I know that there are countless others who feel this way, seemingly divorced from the realities of the devastation and suffering unleashed that day. I wish that each one of them could sit down and watch Peter Watkins’ documentary/cautionary fiction, The War Game. Acting as a kind of antidote to the dopey atomic age propaganda films produced by the American government in the 50’s (in which a whole generation of schoolchildren were led to believe that their desks doubled as makeshift bomb shelters), The War Game uses historical records of the aftermath of bombings in Japan and Germany to make an educated guess about how England would react in a similar situation.

Like Kubrick before him, Watkins discovers that there is something darkly humorous about the gap between the immense horror that can be wreaked during nuclear annihilation and mankind’s struggle to understand just how much danger it has put itself in by opening this particular Pandora’s Box. Hence, The War Game begins as a comedy. In an attempt to evacuate England’s population centers, citizens in other areas of the country are asked to take in as many as eight refugees that arrive unannounced on buses. Government officials pass out slim pamphlets door-to-door that are intended to instruct citizens what actions to take in the event of nuclear conflict. Apparently, these pamphlets suggest the liberal use of sandbags – never mind that at least one poor woman can barely afford enough to cover a single window. We also see several ‘man-on-the-street’ interviews suggesting that efforts to educate the general public on radiation and other grim facts of nuclear warfare have been largely unsuccessful, leaving the populace in an extremely vulnerable situation.

Once the bombs drop, the humor gives way to horror as we see the very serious consequences that can occur following a nuclear attack: horrible burns, blinding light, paralyzing shock. Considering the scale of the production, these scenes are executed in an extremely effective fashion. Watkins captures the events in verité style, his camera shaking with each explosion and the off-screen narrator offering supplementary information in a tone that is level and unaffected. There is no artificial drama inserted in order to win our sympathy. We care for these people for the simple fact that they are humans scrambling to stay alive in the face of something overwhelming and merciless. The following days and months reveal even more negative effects, including radiation, decreased rations and a pervasive feeling of apathy that falls over the citizenry.

The War Game is a film that is not only incredibly engaging and haunting – it is nothing short of honorable. In the midst of the 1960’s, Watkins asked his viewers to seriously imagine themselves in the place of those who lived in countries far away and had faced the most despicable weapon mankind had ever created. Over the course of this brief, but potent film, Watkins makes a passionate argument for the impossibility of ever using such a weapon with nobleness. The War Game is a film that should be shown in high school history classes and perhaps also presidential inaugurations. Beyond that, it is most certainly essential viewing for any serious film fan.



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