“Within this car, a family is burning alive.”

The War Game — Peter Watkins

The War Game FilmPoster

There’s a cognitive deficit that shows up in my family on my father’s side frequently enough that I have wondered from time to time if it’s an example of nature or of nurture. It is an inability to tell if, when an opinion on a matter is solicited, the person or organization asking is actually only interested in a positive answer1. I myself am entirely free of this deficit but I know it when I see it in others. Peter Watkins seems to have at least a touch of it because I would wager that at no point did BBC say to him “please produce a short piece on the subject of nuclear war for The Wednesday Play that both the BBC and the government will conclude is too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting,” and yet that is exactly what he did.

Britain (whether in the 1950s or in the 1960s, when The War Game was made) was in a particularly unfortunate situation. The United Kingdom is within easy reach of Soviet weapons and has a wealth of targets that would be worth the Soviets’ time to destroy — also a population generally found in close proximity to those targets, even if the population itself is not the target. As it is a small island there is no place to run to that will be completely free of the effects of nuclear war. Its food supply is vulnerable to disruption. It is therefore blindingly obvious that nuclear war would not be a jolly time for the British, nor would the aftermath be particularly fun for the handful who survived the war itself.

Filmed in black and white, Watkins’ 48 minute docufiction cuts between person-on-the-street interviews with the people of Britain, various experts (or actors playing experts) and a depiction of a fictional nuclear war. Watkins shows a particular talent for contrasting unrealistically optimistic experts and wildly misinformed passers-by with scenes showing the effects of a limited nuclear war.

The war is triggered by the US decision to react to Chinese intervention in the Vietnam War with battlefield nukes. The Soviets react to this by threatening Berlin, the US reacts badly to this and because neither side wants to back down, the crisis spirals towards a nuclear war.

Because the crisis is a comparatively slow one, at least at first the government is able to evacuate some of the cities that would be targeted. What effect this has on limiting the casualties, I could not say, but the evacuation itself would be disruptive enough to set the British economy back a number of years.

Both sides are aware that many of the Soviet nuclear assets are vulnerable to a first strike, which means both sides have reason to want to strike first: NATO to destroy the Soviet weapons and the Soviets to use their weapons before they are destroyed. This means the situation is an inherently unstable one, with only the participants’ general antipathy towards nuclear war (even a limited one in which only some of the other side’s weapons get through) being a significant deterrent to war.

Sadly, “significant” is not “sufficient”. Happily, the resulting nuclear exchange is comparatively limited. Less happily, the difference from a British point of view between a limited nuclear war and a full scale one is miniscule. Watkins illustrates this with a tour through hell, from the moment people’s eyeballs begin melting to the food riots that follow the decision by the remnants of Her Majesty’s Government — or possibly His Majesty’s, following the exchange — to devote the limited food supplies to the government and the armed men protecting it.

I don’t believe that Watkins would have had access to the Strath Report: Britain Confronts the H‐Bomb, 1954–1955 but it doesn’t matter; enough information was in the public sphere anyone could work it out for themselves. All he needed was a passing knowledge of Britain’s defensive position, a copy of The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, a slide rule, a map of Britain, a ruler and a length of string. Watkins also draws on unclassified information about World War Two.

I assume the passers-by really were passers-by. The various experts appear to be played by actors. The “American Nuclear Strategist” is a particularly neck-beardy version of Herman Kahn. Watkins may be being just a little unfair to Kahn when Watkins juxtaposes snippets from the interview with the American Nuclear Strategist with scenes from the war. As I recall, Kahn generally concerned himself with US nuclear policies; his unrealistically optimistic prognostications were optimistic prognostications about America. I’d like to think Kahn would have been fully aware that in the event of a nuclear war, the United Kingdom was screwed.

Given that his funding appears to have been whatever change he could find under his office couch cushions, Watkins produced a remarkably effective film. Unlike the creators of certain long-running franchises in British television, Watkins had a firm grasp of the limitations imposed on him by his inability to afford extraordinary special effects and knew how to circumvent them. He carefully stuck to effects that he could manage with available resources: horrors that could be conveyed with acting, conventional make-up, a little set-burning, and stock footage. Of particular note is the scene in which category-three patients — too badly injured to save and therefore a waste of limited medical resources — are calmly taken outside and shot in the head. Worse happens off-stage, calmly narrated by the detached-sounding narrator. Viewers are free to fill in for themselves the horrible details not shown. The result is a work that is not just a classic nuclear war film but also an example of what can be accomplished on a limited budget.


  1. It turns out if you work in the US defense industry in the late 1940s, responding to “what do you think of the situation in China?” with “Our guy is clearly doomed” is not a career booster. It also turns out that if someone approaches a consultant to ask if putting a heavy-water plant next to a park is a good idea, the answer they want is “Wow, is it ever!” and not “Assuming a wind blowing from the plant to the park at speeds within observed limits, a hydrogen sulphide leak could provide greater than lethal levels of hydrogen sulphide across the park in less time than it would take to evacuate the park, especially if this happened at night when everyone was asleep. So, unless the purpose is to risk killing an entire park full of people, no, it is not.”

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