A Movie A Day #188: The War Game (1965, directed by Peter Watkins)


“Do you know what Strontium-90 is and what it does?”

That question is asked as part of a man-on-the-street interview in The War Game.  Despite a pledge by the Home Office to educate the British public on the possible effects of atomic war and nuclear fallout, the man being asked has no idea what Strontium-90 is.  For that matter, I have no idea what Strontium-19 is.  The War Game makes a good case that the only way anyone will ever understand that true horror of atomic conflict is to live through it but, by the point that we have no choice but to know what Strontium-90 is and what it does, it will be too late.

Clocking in at a brisk 50 minutes, The War Game is set up like documentary, though the majority of the film is staged.  (That did not stop The War Game from winning an Oscar for best documentary feature.)  Made at the height of the Cold War, The War Game suggested that not only was Britain not prepared for a possible nuclear attack but that the attack itself would be so devastating that was literally no way that it ever could be prepared.  Opening with interviews with typical Britons expressing both their ignorance about the longterm effects of an atomic war, The War Game proceeds to visualize what would actually happen if the UK ever did find itself attacked. When the bomb falls, most people are nowhere near a shelter.  (“Within this car,” the narrator says, “a family is buring alive.”)  Even for those who get to safety, it turns out that there is no shelter strong enough to protect its inhabitants from both physical and psychological damage.  The film ends with chilling scenes of London bobbies executing looters and British children saying that they never want to grow up.

The War Game was originally made for the BBC, which deemed the program to be to “upsetting,” refused to air it, and subsequently tried to bury it.  This attempt at censorship had the opposite effect, earning The War Game a theatrical release and exposing it to an even larger audience than would have seen it originally.  However, it would be another 20 years before the BBC allowed The War Game to air on television.  Though, especially for media-savvy viewers, the staged nature of this “documentary” is sometimes too obvious, The War Game is still a powerful and bleakly disturbing vision of an all-too possible future.

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