The War Game (1965)

I’m a huge fan of the horror fiction of British author James Herbert, who unfortunately passed away in 2013. I have the vast majority of his books in my library, including the first two novels of his notorious ‘Rats Trilogy’; ‘The Rats’ (1974) and ‘Lair’ (1979). These two unapologetically horrific stories really made their mark on me when I first read them and I knew that ONE DAY I would get around to reading the 3rd entry, ‘Domain’ (1984). Well, I again heard the siren song of and FINALLY got a copy on order. It arrived two days later…and I dug right in, putting aside two other books I’m reading in favor of Herbert’s trademark no-holds-barred approach to his ‘horror’, especially when it again focused on those evil, 2 foot long mutant Black Rats (who crave living human flesh…on an instinctive level!) and the blood-splattered ruckus they cause around the UK. While the previous two books have the vicious vermin attacking first around London, then around a large forested park…this one went in a bit of a different direction. The first chapter of the book is dedicated to unflinching descriptions of the harrowing final moments of a number of random, unconnected characters…as WW3 places 5 nuclear warheads into the Greater London area, annihilating the city and forcing a small collection of survivors into a bomb shelter hidden in the underground ‘Tube’ system. By now you’re probably wondering why the hell I’m going off about a book almost competely unrelated to the film I’m reviewing here. Well, Kind Reader…the nasty attention to detail in the descriptions of the terror and the atrocity of a full nuclear strike on a ‘modern’ metropolitan centre got under my skin and hooked me good. It probably also helped that recent news has featured too many stories about that dangerous fucking child of a US President, ignorantly thumping his overweight chest with his tiny fists and threatening nuclear holocaust on the upstart and equally delusional little shit Kim Jong Un, in North Korea. So that global tension and the vivid detailing of the terrible and merciless ways that innocent people are destroyed in this book…led me to consider other anti- World War 3 media from the early 80s; a time when tensions were high, riding on the backdrop of the Cold War. Media that didn’t bother to sugarcoat the possibilities of the irreversible and catastrophic damage that a nuclear exchange would force upon friend and foe alike. For movies in this vein, I always come back to the BBC TV Movie ‘Threads’ ( read my review here: ); a bleak and realistic hypothesis imagining a nuclear strike on the UK industrial city of Sheffield. With my mind in a dark, nihilistic place, images of Worst Case Scenario playing through my thoughts and dreams (no bullshit), I went back to read up on the making of ‘Threads’, to see if I could find any little bits of trivia that may have eluded me, and in my search, I came across mention of this other British film, from 1965, that apparently made one hell of an impression when it was banned for being too nasty in it’s unrelenting depiction of potential reality by the very studio that made it, with a good dose of Government pressure too, I’m sure, though it was eventually shown in a limited theatrical release. This renowned and infamous docu-drama (and I suppose, science fiction) film is called ‘The War Game’ and the more I read up on it…the more I was morbidly intrigued to check it out. So again… to the rescue…and soon my DVD copy was on it’s way.
‘The War Game’ is presented as documentary footage showing the lead-up and preparation for war as world tensions mount, followed by the devastation brought on when the nukes finally fly, and then the collapse of what remains of society in the hard aftermath. There are no ‘main characters’. We just see what this documentary has to show us about what’s happened through the government officials, the authorities, the common people / victims and the military.
One of the things I read, from more than one source, was that it was banned due to the graphic and all-too-realistic portrayal of the harsh and probably necessary actions of the government in a time of extreme crisis, not to mention the more accurate assessment (than the government was willing to impart) of what actually surviving a nuclear strike would be like…and THAT, would probably have a ripple effect on morale through the paranoid masses already dealing with their own Cold War nuclear weapons threat…despite the brutal honesty that the film shows about the likely human suffering. Having now just finished seeing it for the first time…and taking what I know about the attitudes of the time period…I can see why The Powers That Be may have been a little squeamish about beaming THIS film directly into British living rooms. So on a scorching hot Saturday, I sealed myself into our dark and cool library, with a beer and a notepad…and hit PLAY. These are the notes I scribbled as the 48 minute, B/W cautionary tale played out:

Very nice long shot for opening scene. On a technical level, this film is VERY impressive and I was instantly engaged through a long shot riding up with a motorbike courier and then following him into a large, tense government meeting, where we trade him out for officials reacting to the message.

-Interesting narrative style (narration, hand-held, b/w). The documentary style of this film is so convincing that I had to remind myself that none of what I was watching was real, it’s merely a cautious yet fearless hypothesis for the Unthinkable…which made the whole movie all the more impressive.

-Realistic. That one word about sums it up…this flick seems VERY well-researched and realistic. The same can be said of the acting as well. I don’t know how Writer/ Director Peter Watkins managed it, but he got his cast of Nobodies to commit to the material and take it seriously…which they certainly did. There is ‘gravity’ to all the performances and it’s impressive.

– Very detailed, researched. As previously mentioned, this is plainly evident throughout this one’s run-time. Right from the first scene, the information and theory being doled out seems very credible.

-Tense, stark, unapologetic in its seriousness, brutally honest. Descriptions like this can be slapped on any and every part of this film.

-Should be ‘Required Viewing’ for everyone in the Nuclear Age. This is even more relevant with the orange buffoon being a dick in the Oval Office these days with his mindless threats to other countries, but given that Nuclear Weapons are one of absolute worst creations Mankind had EVER dreamed up to use against one another…we should ALL be made to clearly understand what’s truly at stake if someone pulls the trigger. Films like this and ‘Threads’ will help that message.

– No dramatic score helps the ‘punch’. I’ve mentioned this in previous reviews, but I really appreciate it when a director and editor know how to practice restraint and do not artificially bolster a scene with emotionally-manipulative music score. As this is just supposed to be documentary footage…there is no music to be heard as we are lead through the bleak narrative.

-Harsh! Sidewalk execution scene. One of the details that gave the censors the heebie jeebies back in ’65 was scenes showing British civilians, either those too sick or hurt to be saved or those caught looting, being shot to death by police and military in the streets, piled up dead on the sidewalk and awaiting transport by cargo truck to a burn facility. The camera did not shy away.

-People look haggard…appropriately. Another testament to the effort put in by the Direction and Production Design.

– Grim look at the psychological effects of Nuclear Holocaust. There’s a segment that delves into the terrible mental breakdowns that would plague survivors, especially orphaned children. Ugly and depressing.

– Really paints the hopelessness of Nuclear War. It’s aspects like this that get me thinking that everyone everywhere SHOULD see this…to make sure that Nuclear War isn’t just some far-off abstract concept to them that COULDN’T POSSIBLY HAPPEN HERE…where ever ‘here’ may be.

– Impressive production value. For a b/w TV movie from the mid-60s, everything on screen looks believable, realistic. I don’t know what their budget was, but it was well-used. Bravo!

– Doesn’t hold back on the ‘ugly’. I’m sure you get what I mean by now, about the ‘ugly’. They don’t skimp on truth here and that means ‘ugly’ is needed, considering the sobering subject matter and it’s applied VERY liberally. Not pleasant…but well done.

– Shows not just the destruction of material objects + people, but also the ruin of society / civilization. One of the themes that leaped out at me was the idea that Nuclear War destroys EVERYTHING…even Society itself. That idea comes through loud and clear in ‘The War Game’

– Not a cautionary tale…it’s THE Cautionary Tale! Even though this came out 40+ years ago, it’s just as relevant today as it was in ’65. Again…REQUIRED VIEWING! Nuclear Holocaust will NOT be a slightly romanticized ‘Mad Max’ scenario that we’ll just bounce back from…it’ll be THIS. THIS…is ugly and grim. Bleak. Hopeless. Terrible. ‘The War Game’ definitely succeeds in getting THOSE points for consideration across.

– Eerie use of ‘Silent Night’. The one key piece of music that stood out to me was a haunting rendition of this whimsical Christmas classic…played over the final images and Credits.

-Bleak. This sums it up. Really. As ‘The War Game’ shows it…Nuclear War is fucking bleak. So bleak that the possibility SHOULD be unthinkable, and to make it unthinkable…the population NEEDS to know what’s at stake and what ALL the consequences of a M.A.D.(Mutually Assured Destruction) scenario would truly be, especially where nukes are concerned. And again…that’s where films like this, ‘Threads’ (1984), and ‘The Day After’ (1983) all have their place.

All in all, despite how ugly and depressing this 48 minute long movie was…I’m glad I now own ‘The War Game’. I HIGHLY recommend that everyone make the effort to check this one out (even though I know damn near no one will…it’s not exactly a title you throw on with friends over beers on a Friday night!). Even just on a Technical Achievement level, it’s worth your attention. It’s eerily frank in what it’s trying to say and the documentary-format gives it a certain credibility, false though it may be. But that credibility is what will help keep the core message, that NUCLEAR WAR IS NOT AN OPTION WE, AS A SPECIES AND A PEOPLE, CAN AFFORD, resonating with the audience long after ‘Silent Night’ has finished. And that might just help us all ease off The Trigger just a little bit more.



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