As a teenager my dad let me stay up late to watch Barry Hines' horrific nuclear war drama Threads on TV - a rather silly thing to do to an impressionable 13-year-old boy as it scared the absolute shit out of me and left a deep impression for many years afterwards.
With this in mind, I had heard of Peter Watkins' 1965 BBC documentary The War Game, about a limited nuclear attack on the UK and its effects upon Kent, but I had never managed to find a copy, mainly because it was banned and not shown on UK television until 1985, the BBC steadfastly refusing even to let it be screened overseas.
The government at the time said this was because the film was both 'too horrific' and '.an artistic failure', although both statements were proved wrong when The War Game won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1967. There are some compelling (though unproven, as government documents surrounding the film have been destroyed) reports of political intervention at the BBC to secure the ban because the powers that be didn't want the truth about the effects of a nuclear war revealed to a complacent public, hence the inclusion of Patrick Murphy's The War Game - The Controversy on this DVD.
Whatever the truth about the ban, is The War Game any good?
A quick word about the 'story' first. The War Game is presented in a documentary style, with an informative voice-over and captions as well as vox pops interviews with the general public of the 1960s (who display a frightening ignorance about nuclear weapons). The film follows a brief build-up of tension in the divided Germany of the time that leads to a nuclear attack upon Kent. We see a dramatisation of the 'limited' attack and then the truly dreadful after-effects that follow.
I felt as though I were 13 again when watching The War Game. Despite being in black and white and, for the most part, definitely looking as though it were made in the 'Sixties, The War Game is a shocking, terrifying and heart-breaking piece of film even today. If I were in government at that time I would've wanted this banned too - no question! It's not only the powerful depiction of the effects of the detonating bombs and the awfully realistic-looking wounds that victims suffer, though these will surely make you gasp. There's also the harrowing scene showing the utterly helpless emergency services, the gradual breakdown of any form of order and the debilitating sense of absolute hopelessness suffered by the survivors a few months on from the attack.
It stands up remarkably well to similar, more modern pieces such as Threads (which, presumably in homage to the 'original', replicates almost exactly at least one scene from The War Game) and The Day After. This is not a film to be enjoyed in the traditional sense, but as Kenneth Tynan wrote at the time, 'It may be the most important film ever made'.
Peter Watkins never worked for the BBC again after The War Game, and it was surely their loss.