The film is interspersed with staged events and archival footage from the Second World War, and seamlessly edited. Rather crude special effects, such as shaking the camera to simulate the winds of a firestorm, are surprisingly effective. Traditional documentary techniques like maps, scrawled epigraphs of information and quotes from civic leaders, recitations of naïve quotes from public figures, man on the street interviews that show the ignorance of average Brits to nuclear war and civil defense (not knowing the effects of Carbon 14- would you or I?), as well as some yahoo and gung ho American military sorts, are very effective, as well, even if a bit over the top re: American enthusiasm for war (but, recall, this was only a few years after Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb was a hit, and showed reckless American militarism at its worst). The narration by Michael Aspel and Peter Graham is also very effective at conveying the faux realism of this horror film's fictive world, in impassive tones, as well as showing how utterly deluded civil defense measures were, then and retrospectively. Given the spate of nuclear Armageddon films made in the 1960s, and up through the early 1980s miniseries The Day After, it's remarkable how such a low budget effort like The War Game retains its effectiveness when almost all other films on the topic seem corny. It's likely that the reason the film retains its punch is the very reason it was banned for nearly two decades. Scenes of British police shooting civilians (rioters, two men who kill a police officer for food, and also shooting civilians to put them out of immediate post-blast misery) were too much for the still pre-Vietnam War era public. Also, the film's 'realism' and unflinching look at the utter inability of the U.K. government to protect its citizens from an attack, much less handle the response of survivors after an attack, was sure to cause waves.
When the film was delayed for broadcast, Watkins resigned from the BBC, which was pressured into private screenings for public officials. Many officials denounced the film as anti-British agitprop, until one of the few instances where a critic played a positive role arose. Noted film and drama critic Kenneth Tynan championed the film as possibly the most important film ever made, which spearheaded a letter writing campaign by anti-nuke forces, which forced the film into limited theatrical release on college campuses across Europe and America in 1966.
Much of the information about a nuclear strike was cannily accurate for its day, if limited. This was pre-the idea of nuclear winter, so most of the information was taken from reported effects of the two atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the fire bombings of Tokyo, Dresden, and other Japanese and German cities. The effectiveness of the 'extras' in makeup (some with severe deformity and scarring) is jolting, but made ever more 'realistic' by the film being in black and white. Interestingly, some of the vox populi interviews pull back from the diegetic tale of nuclear horror, to ask real life Britons whether or not the U.K. should retaliate against the USSR in such a scenario, and most unstintingly agree their nation should. This is a nice contrast to some of the intertitle sequences that show often hilariously naïve comments by British officials written out in full. A voice-over intones, near film's end, that by 1980, the chances of such a scenario playing out at least once in the world is very high. That it never did is something to seriously pause over, for, despite the film's accuracy in depicting social and governmental inadequacies in responding to such an attack, as well as its accuracy in claiming over a third of all Britons would die from the attacks or their aftermath, it has to be acknowledged that the film also grossly understates the human will to survive, and whatever role that played at keeping the Cold War nuclear powers at bay for nearly half a century. Still, even though the film is technically a mockumentary, it can be argued as a documentary, also, since it so perfectly captures its era's zeitgeist without severely dating itself. It's really a rare film, in all respects.
And, aside from its exposure of Cold War Civil Defense failures, the film also slyly comments on the media of the day, and its failings, especially in its depiction of the classism of that era. One wonders if any documentary done today could as readily capture the true and false beliefs we now have of global warming, Islamic terror, the international financial crisis, etc. Regardless, The War Game is a terrific film, and a great documentary- innovative and deep. I recommend its rediscovery to all who want to know what art and journalism can do, if far too rarely.
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