The Fictional Nuke Film That Won the Oscar for Best Documentary
The BBC made ‘The War Game’ then suppressed it for 20 years
This story originally appeared on May 29, 2015.
It’s a little after 2:00 p.m. in Kent — an English county east of London — and the doctor is making an emergency visit. He’s escorted by two Civil Defense volunteers, a man and a woman. He checks in on his patient and goes back to his car. An air raid siren squeals.
It’s 1965. China has invaded South Vietnam and the Soviet Union has sealed off East Berlin. Britain is in a state of emergency. The doctor and the Civil Defense workers rush into the house. The confused family helps the authorities topple furniture to create makeshift shields against the blast.
“This family couldn’t afford to build themselves a refuge,” a dry, British, BBC style narrator explains. “This could be the way the last two minutes of peace in Britain would look.”
Chaos rules the house. The mother screams. One of the Civil Defense volunteers rushes outside to look for the woman’s teenage son.
She finds him in the yard, but it’s too late. White light fills the screen. The black and white inverts and the two people seem to glow. The image clears and they’re both clutching their faces, screaming.
“At this distance, the heatwave is sufficient to cause melting of the upturned eyeball, third degree burning of the skin and the ignition of furniture,” the narrator explains.
Welcome to The War Game.
It was 1964, and filmmaker Peter Watkins was an angry young man. Harold Wilson was Britain’s newest prime minister who’d promised to rid the United Kingdom of its Polaris nuclear missiles, but did the opposite. Her Majesty’s Armed Forces had tested the nuke in 1952 and now it planned to build more.
“There was a marked reluctance by the British TV at the time to discuss the arms race,” Watkins explained on his website. “There was especially silence on the effects of nuclear weapons — about which the large majority of the public had no information.”
Watkins worked at the BBC as a producer, writer and director. He’d won praise the previous year for his surreal cinéma vérité style filming of the Battle of Culloden. He wanted to do the same thing for nuclear war — show Britons what a war fought with nukes would really look like.
Above and at top — the nuke-burned citizens of Kent. BBC captures
The BBC approved his proposal, gave him the money and let him shoot his film. Watkins called it The War Game. It’s a brilliant, short — just shy of 50 minutes — and brutal. The movie is one of the best nuclear war films ever made and an inspiration for movies such as Threads and The Day After.
The BBC saw the completed film in 1965 and hated it. The broadcasters held a small, private screening for the faux nuke doc, then waited 20 years to air it on television.
Despite its never having a full theatrical release and despite it being fiction, The War Game won an Oscar for best documentary film in 1965.
Back in the fictional, nuclear-devastated Kent, the camera leaves the two blinded victims in the yard of the home and rushes inside. The furniture is on fire. Everyone is screaming. The doctor bats at the fire impotently for a moment before rushing into the street.
“Twelve seconds later. The shock cloud arrives,” the narrator says. “The home shakes as a wave of smoke and dust engulfs the doctor. The camera zooms on the bloodied face of a screaming young man.
Cut to black. The narrator reads white text as it scrolls up from the bottom. It’s a quote from two Bishops speaking at a recent meeting at the Vatican.
“The church must tell the faithful that they should learn to live with, though need not love, the nuclear bomb, provided that it is ‘clean’ and of a good family.” Cut to a child clutching his eyes and screaming while air raid sirens wail.
The whole film is like this. It’s black and white, there are no characters and the camera often cuts away to contrast the horror you’re watching with man-on-the street style interviews, fact sheets and statements from authority figures.
It works. There’s something raw and awful about it that’s not present in other nuclear war films. It feels more authoritative.
Some of that is because of the era. Britons in the ’60s were not that far removed from World War II. Many had lived through the Blitz, which killed some 42,000 civilians. Others heard first-hand accounts of the war. All had lived through the harsh economic conditions of the post-war U.K.
Watkins ran into problems with the BBC before he’d finished filming. A shake up at the top levels of the broadcaster meant new people in charge. The man who approved The War Game was no longer in power. The BBC told Watkins to go ahead and work on the film, but not to expect to finish it.
Watkins had contacted the British Home Office — the governmental branch in charge of civilian defense — to research his nuclear war film. He wanted to know how they’d react if a bomb exploded in England. The office contacted the BBC and wanted to know why one of its producers was snooping around. Watkins was on notice.
He traveled to Kent and began casting. He didn’t use any professionals, and instead pulled the cast from the local population. “My purpose,” he explained. “Was to involve ‘ordinary people’ in an extended study of their own history.”
Watkins pulled the facts, quotes and science used in the movie from a variety of sources. His interviews with priests, scientists and officials aren’t real, but they’re based on real interviews.
A clean shaven, square-jawed British priest sits before the camera. “I still believe in a war of the just.” The camera leaps to the street. A car burns while a bobby slams a sledgehammer into the side of it.
“In this car,” the narrator explains. “A family is burning alive.”
Another priest explains that when his government attacks someone, he must accept moral responsibility because he gave them power. He elected them, after all. The camera pans over the irradiated and dying while he equivocates.
“My question was — ‘Where is reality?’ in the madness of statements by these artificially-lit establishment figures quoting the official doctrine of the day,” Watkins explained on his website. “Or in the madness of the staged and fictional scenes from the rest of my film, which presented the consequences of their utterances?”
The BBC freaked out when they saw The War Game the first time. They told him it would never air, and that it was too grotesque and inhumane. Worse, they said it was a complete artistic failure. The “artistic failure” won an Oscar less than a year later.
Bobbies killing wounded Brits. BBC capture
Now, here’s where the history gets hazy and myth mixes with the truth. Watkins claims that the BBC screened The War Game for government officials and those officials told the BBC to censor the movie.
The broadcaster has never admitted this. It claimed it suppressed the film because it was violent and disturbing, not because the government asked it to.
The public reaction to the thought of government censorship was so strong that the BBC issued a letter to the public, detailing the reasons it didn’t want to air The War Game. Parliament held hearings about the issue. The Secretary of State for the Home Department testified that he’d never seen The War Game and that he never asked the BBC to censor it.
The broadcaster held for a year, but broke under public pressure in 1966 and held a week of private screenings. According to Watkins, the guest list comprised British elite, government officials and military journalists. No film critics saw the movie.
“Also not allowed were the public,” Watkins wrote. “Who were denied entry by a phalanx of BBC security guards standing elbow to elbow in a long line in front of the cinema.”
Those who saw the movie wrote about it, but it was a mixed bag. Some called it great, some called it garbage. One writer even said it was brilliant, but must remain banned. It did. The BBC didn’t officially air The War Game until 1985, as part of a special season of nuke related programs that included the classic Threads.
It’s still hard to find the movie. A small, private company holds the DVD rights and sells them for $25. It pops up on YouTube now and then, but the BBC always pulls it down. DailyMotion is hosting a copy of it right now, but it might not last long.
Which is a shame because The War Game is something special and different. Watkins wanted people to think about nuclear war in a time when people were still recovering from World War II and wanted to do anything but think about the consequences of the bomb that helped them win.
His decision to use real people and avoid plot or characters makes The War Game feel like a real documentary, one about the possible instead of the past. That’s its magic … and its horror.