When I reviewed Dr. Strangelove, I mentioned that I’d been traumatized as a child by some TV docudramas that depicted “what a nuclear war would actually be like”. The best-known among them is probably The Day After, an American film; but that film pulled its punches a bit to placate some nervous network executives, and a prim title card at the end of the film stated that the actual outcome of a nuclear war would be much, much worse. The two British films I saw had no such self-censor – When The Wind Blows and Threads, both of which are the absolute bleakest films I have ever seen in my life and I am overwhelmingly grateful to the Little Baby Jesus and all of God’s Angels that neither film is included in this list. Especially Threads – while I absolutely think everyone alive today should see it, I also absolutely refuse to watch it again myself. Once was enough.
So I was surprised – and a bit uneasy – to learn that there was a proto-Threads that made it on the list. The War Game was also intended as a telefilm; an hour-long docudrama taking the form of a news magazine show, complete with on-the-street interviews and talking-heads in studios. Only the topic addressed by this magazine was the impact and aftermath of a limited nuclear strike on the United Kingdom, particularly in Cantebury and Sussex.
And….well. You’ve seen the footage, you’ve heard the reports of the impact of a nuclear strike. Or at least you should have. How the flash of the initial blast can blind you. How the heat from the blast can cause instant third-degree burns and cause furniture to spontaneously combust. How the shock wave can level structures. How the firestorm from the blast sucks up all the oxygen, so even if you’re able to escape burning to death, you still will probably suffocate. How the radiation lingers for weeks afterward. How the casualties are so great that any kind of civil service or social program – first aid, shelter, law and order, food relief – is woefully unprepared, under resourced, under-staffed, and overwhelmed. How the people who do manage to survive the blast and the radiation would probably starve. How even the people who don’t starve have absolutely crippling PTSD. How law and order ultimately breaks down altogether amongst the scant few people left.
Still – and fortunately – it wasn’t as graphic and bleak as Threads, and the “news magazine” format of this film was a very welcome buffer. I also appreciated how the filmmakers seemed to point to how ill-prepared and ill-informed both the regular public and the country’s leaders seemed to be; in one scene, our “roving-reporter” films a man going door to door in a Cantebury street delivering copies of a Civil Defense pamphlet, urging everyone to read it immediately and follow its instructions for building a shelter. The recipients are shocked and alarmed – there’s too much to do, and nowhere near enough time to do it. The “reporter” also speaks with a shopkeeper who sells the various tools needed to construct such a shelter – burlap sacks and sand to make sandbags for shoring up windows, boards and metal sheeting to shore up walls – and asks him the various costs of each item. Then the “reporter” next speaks with a worried-looking woman, asking her how much she has to spend on the shelter. For the amount she has, the reporter says in a voiceover, she can buy about eight burlap sacks and two 3×4’s.
There are no mushroom clouds in this film; no extreme gore. They focus on the smaller details; the reporter gets denied access to a building, and a passing soldier waves him over and confides that the army is burning the corpses inside, as there are too many to bury. A man surveys a list of residents’ names, comparing them to the inscriptions inside a bucket full of wedding rings; it’s a desperate attempt to identify the many, many deceased. Early on, a woman listens as the civil defense tests its air-raid siren, and turns to give the reporter a terrified stare. Towards the end, the reporter speaks to a cluster of sad-looking orphans at a refugee center, asking them what they want to be when they grow up; they all say that they “don’t wanna be nothing”. An exhausted nurse tries to tell the story of a little boy with severe burns she tried to save, but is too haunted by what she’s seen to even finish.
Periodically the “reporter” will cut in to discuss some of what we’re seeing; how Dresden suffered a firestorm very similar to the one we see in the film, and how the Los Alamos team had given them the details about radiation poisoning. The use of rings to identify the dead was something that happened in Dresden as well. And the PTSD and nihilism was something they’d seen in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And – how some of the Pollyanna pro-nuke statements made by talking heads towards the beginning of the film were also based on actual statements made by British civil servants, scientists, and priests. “I believe that we live in a system of necessary law and order,” one man says, “and I still believe in the war of the just.”
I had to resist the impulse to punch my screen at that.
When BBC producer Peter Watkins showed his finished work to his superiors, they got cold feet and cancelled its broadcast, stating that “the effect of the film has been judged by the BBC to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting.” Instead, they moved it to a movie theater, screening it for three weeks before sending it on to various international film festivals. It went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1966. It wasn’t until 1985 that it finally appeared on TV – as part of a double-feature with Threads to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.
When he originally reviewed The War Game in the 60s, Roger Ebert suggested that we “should string up bedsheets between the trees and show [it] in every public park.” I agree – I think everyone should see this film, as well as its more graphic descendants like Threads. Especially now that the end of the Cold War is a distant memory and Putin and Kim Jung Il have started rattling those sabers again; looking at these sabers and knowing what they could do to us is the best hope for us all.