I have been a fan of filmmaker Peter Watkins for a long time, since I saw his brutal masterpiece Culloden (1964) on public television. Thirty four years before Saving Private Ryan took audiences into the blood and guts of Omaha Beach, Culloden presented an unsparing re-enactment of the slaughter of Scottish rebels by the British Army in 1746. Watkins’ is a pioneer of the docudrama, most of his films are either re-enactments of historical events or speculations on near future developments. He tends to use real people as his actors, and employs the “You are There” style of dramatization.
The War Game (1965) was made for the BBC in the middle of a fierce debate in Great Britain about nuclear disarmament. The War Game is the most harrowing film ever made about nuclear war; it makes The Day After (1983) look like a Disney movie. Drawing directly from government documents and public statements by a variety of establishment figures, it presents a straightforward depiction of what would happen if the Soviets had launched a full nuclear attack on Great Britain. Watkins presents children screaming as their eyes melt, people overcome by fumes falling dead out of an ambulance, police shooting hopeless burn victims in the head to put them out of their misery, and traumatized survivors trembling with shattered minds – among other horrors.
The War Game was so powerful that the BBC freaked out when they saw the finished product. They showed it to the British government, who may or may not have ordered them to shelve it. At any rate, the BBC never put the film on the air. It was released to theaters on a limited basis and won the Academy Award as Best Documentary Feature in 1966.
Watkins was clearly pursuing a pacifist agenda with this movie, but who’s going to argue in favor of nuclear war? The threat of imminent immolation that made The War Game vital in 1964 is no longer quite so present, but the risk of nuclear war is still with us all. The film cannot be dismissed as propaganda, since it’s scenes of death and societal collapse were either taken directly from government documents or accounts of the firebombings of Dresden, Hamburg, or Tokyo in WW2.
Both Culloden and The War Game are available together on DVD; I can’t recommend them strongly enough. They may not be horror movies in the traditional sense, but they present the ultimate horror – War – in stark terms, unencumbered with conventional dramatic narratives where good must triumph over evil. Here, the horrors originate with our own freely elected leaders and we are not just the audience, but the accomplices.