Peter Watkins' The War Game has become an artifact of its society as well as a film: the cause celebre about nuclear war created by this movie has crystallized certain contemporary problems. For example, a storm broke when the B.B.C. for which the movie had originally been made, refused to show it because it was too horrifying. This uproar dramatized the potentials and weaknesses of the nationalized television industry. On the one hand, the resources of the B.B.C. allowed Watkins to make The War Game. On the other hand, the conservatism of the B.B.C. (which has become to many young Englishmen the perfect symbol of the Establishment) prevented the public from seeing the movie.
The War Game predicts what might happen in Britain during a nuclear war. Filmed in a small English village, it juxtaposes pictures of people being evacuated, people vainly trying to protect their children by pushing them under tables, people being burned--with reassuring comments by political and religious leaders and scientists.
Now that the controversy surrounding it has died down, The War Game can be judged on its own merits as one of the growing number of pacifist films. And it ranks with the best of them. Like Resnais' Night and Fog it uses documentary-like, rough-grained footage as well as rapid cutting between past, present and future. We see a real statement from a church council supporting nuclear war. Then a close-up of the terrified face of a nurse saying, Their bodies are just falling apart. A young couple carrying their son, who has been blinded by the glare. A "firestorm"--blasts of wind so fierce that they crush the firemen and their equipment. Watkins says that nuclear war is unthinkable, beyond the worst nightmares of madmen and fools--and an all-too-possible extension of current problems.
The War Game also fulfills one of the criteria which Paul Goodman lists for pacifist movies: "probably the chief factor of war spirit that must be analyzed is not the military character nor the projection of the enemy, but the paralysis with which the vast majority of people of all countries accept the war..." The film is most effective when it contrasts the woman on the street saying "Yes, we'd have to retaliate if they attacked first" with the terrified, and terrifying blank faces of the children who "survived" the retaliation.
But The War Game is more than just an effective anti-war movie. I suspect that one reason it provoked such criticism is that it is really about the type of society which would play the game. The type of society which may destroy itself completely in a nuclear war--but is destroying itself in so many ways every day. For example, the film highlighted British race prejudice at a time when the English were congratulating themselves on having avoided completely the Americans' dilemma. A policeman asks a middle-aged, middle-class house-wife to house people who have been evacuated. No, she's not putting any colored people in her home.
The quick cutting from past to present to future--from what has happened in wars to what is happening in the world today to what could happen in a new war--can be powerful. But it can also be confusing and annoying. Sometimes the film would have been even more effective without these tricks.
But perhaps the highest tribute to this film is that it discourages such criticism by the overwhelming importance of this film. The heat of the film melts all the classic doubts of the liberal intellectual about war and peace and activism. The War Game shocks you into realizing that the dangers of nuclear war obviate petty quibbles. It asks which side you are on. And you find yourself on the side of peace, peace more important than ideologies. And you feel tired and sick to your stomach, but you feel grateful to Watkins for being on this side and making this film.