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The War Game, a Period Portrait of Nuclear War

In 1964, Harold Wilson was elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom on "promises by him": and his Labour Party to disarm Britain...

by Derek Mead
Aug 5 2011, 8:00pm

August 7 was the 66th anniversary of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima. The atomic bomb dropped at 8:15 AM that day killed 70,000 instantly, with thousands more casualties in the days following, and opened the age of nuclear warfare that produced a decades-long buildup of nuclear arsenals during the Cold War. The bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain the only instances of large-scale nuclear weapons being used in battle. The chaos and horror of those bombings lay the backdrop for The War Game, a 1965 British film about the reality of a nuclear war between Soviet Russia and the U.K.

The memorials in Japan this year have had an added sinister twist in light of ongoing problem with the country’s nuclear power production following the damage to the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant caused by this year’s tsunami. As this week is the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the atom, it seems a prudent time to add to the ongoing nuclear debate. Lest the scenarios in The War Game not seem real enough, remember that in Japan it’s already happened.

The film, recorded from the film’s American debut, a Berkley public access broadcast, begins above at 5:17.

In 1964, Harold Wilson was elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom on promises by him and his Labour Party to disarm Britain. By late 1964, that promise stood broken as Britain continued developing its nuclear weapons program with a large amount of help from the U.S.

The Cold War was near its peak, and yet much of the public didn’t have much knowledge about the horrifying destructive power of increasingly sophisticated nuclear weapons, nor did it fully realize the immediacy of what would happen if the war turned hot. Atomic matters in general were still limited to a Fifties Jetsons-style portrait of a beautiful new future. Compounding the problem, Britain’s press was reluctant to discuss the nation’s growing arsenal.

At that time, British filmmaker Peter Watkins handed in a script to the BBC titled The War Game, outlining a stylized documentary discussing the threats and government plans for nuclear war, with an emphasis on the overwhelming logistics of trying to evacuate a populace from cities rendered radioactive wastelands. The BBC gave Watkins a small budget and set him loose, and by 1965 he finished filming.

The hour long piece is styled like an old newsreel and depicts Britain following a nuclear strike by the Soviet Union. In a style typical of Watkins, the film is filled with interviews with citizens and members of the government and military that, despite being actors, are all stunningly vivid. The War Game focuses on Britain’s defense and evacuation plans, which are inadequate for the task of moving and carrying for the millions affected by full-scale nuclear war, and the complete disintegration of society following the launch of Soviet missles.

The film, to say the least, is chilling.

Upon viewing the film, the BBC apparently panicked, a claim long made by Watkins and supported in recent years by BBC internal documents and released government communications. The BBC has an independence clause in its charters, which requires that the network not be influenced by the British government in choosing programming. The BBC has stated that it would not have asked for governmental opinions on their programming during in which it was fighting for its own independence, although the papers seem to prove otherwise.

The network was so worried by the content of the film that executives allegedly showed it to numerous officials throughout Parliament, the Ministry of Defence and others. The film was subsequently shelved.

In 1983, the film was released in the United States as episode number 179 of Alternative Views, a public access show that ran for two decades by mailing episodes into cable companies. Thanks to the magic of the Internet, we’ve found it on the Internet Archive. Give it a watch. It’s a stunning reminder of what the Cold War could have become.

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