The War Game (1966)
Updated: Oct 16
This is an odd piece of cinema. A BBC docudrama that was pulled from air for being too frightening, depicting an imagined nuclear war. It’s a what if scenario. A state of national security declared in the face of nuclear threat from Germany. It looks and sounds old now, black and white, prim BBC queens English narration. Shot in 1966 though, it’s a contemporary piece. It’s not exactly entertaining, but it is fascinating. Nuclear war is still a concern, but in the sixties it was a new concern and I imagine that added to the fear. It feels much more than a public information film though. It’s carefully crafted drama, actors, full set piece sequences, there’s a helluva lot of effort been put in. Tons of imagined vox pops with ‘average folk’, battlefield reinactments and dramatised newsreel. It’s bloody effective in delivering its message. Nuclear war is serious, if things escalate between Germany and America, things are going to get very nasty and we need to at least try and prepare. The opening act lays this groundwork well. There’s bombs, there’s threat and there’s political balance that’s teetering. Then the time stamps begin. “9:16am. A single megaton nuclear missile overshoots Manston Airfield in Kent and airbursts”. It’s visceral stuff, kids screaming, holding their eyes as it’s explained their retinas are burning. Cameras shake, screens go white, the film switches to negative. The sound design is staggering. It’s terrifying really. A combination of the visual destruction and the calm descriptive narration. Viciously intercut with proclamations from priests declaring it will be okay and ‘good British people’ calling for retaliation. “Technically we’re living in an atomic age, emotionally we’re in a Stone Age”. People, the masses, are stupid and that perhaps is the real threat. Make no mistake, although it’s fascinating and quite brilliant, it’s very upsetting. Which makes it all the more brilliant. Nuclear weapons are kept by governments as ‘a deterrent’, they’re for defence. There is no defence against a nuclear bomb. Just more death. Followed by chaos and riots, societal breakdown. It’s an incredible docudrama, but decades later it’s grown into an effective horror.