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The War Game

The War Game
Directed by Peter Watkins
Written by Peter Watkins
Starring Michael Aspel
Peter Graham
Distributed by BBC
Release dates 1 November 1965
Running time 48 min.
Country UK
Language English

The War Game is a 1965 television drama-documentary film depicting a nuclear war. Written, directed, and produced by Peter Watkins for the BBC's The Wednesday Play anthology series, it caused dismay within the BBC and in government, and was withdrawn before the provisional screening date of Thursday 7 October 1965.[1] The Corporation said that "the effect of the film has been judged by the BBC to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting, it will, however, be shown to invited audiences..."[2]

Despite this decision, it was publicly screened and shown abroad, winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1967.[3]

The film was eventually broadcast on 31 July 1985 on the BBC - a day before a repeat screening of Threads - the week before the fortieth anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing.[4]


  • Synopsis 1
  • Style 2
  • Filming 3
  • BBC screening 4
  • Awards and recognition 5
  • Contemporary references 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9


Made in black-and-white with a running time of just under 50 minutes, The War Game depicts the prelude to and the immediate weeks of the aftermath to a Soviet nuclear attack against Britain. A Chinese invasion of South Vietnam starts the war; tensions escalate when the United States authorises tactical nuclear warfare against the Chinese. Although the Soviet and East German forces threaten to invade West Berlin if the US does not withdraw that decision, the US does not acquiesce to Communist demands and occupies West Berlin; two US Army divisions attempt to fight their way into Berlin, but the Russian and East German forces defeat them in battle. The US President launches a pre-emptive, NATO tactical nuclear attack. A limited nuclear war erupts between the West and the East; missiles strike Britain.

The chaos of the prelude to the attack, as city residents are forcibly evacuated to the country, leads to the story's centre in Rochester, which is struck by an off-target missile aimed at RAF Manston. Key targets in Kent are RAF Manston and the Maidstone barracks, which are mentioned in scenes showing immediate effects of the attack. The results of that missile's explosion are the instant flash blindness of those who see the explosion, the resultant firestorm caused by the heat wave, and the blast front; later, the collapse of society occurs because of radiation sickness and exhaustion of medical supplies, psychological damage and consequent escalating suicides, and destroyed infrastructure; the British Army burns corpses, while police shoot looters during food riots. The film ends bleakly on the first Christmas Day after the nuclear war, held in a ruined church with a disheveled vicar who futilely attempts to provide hope to his traumatised and injured congregation and concludes with an instrumental version of the hymn Silent Night playing over the closing credits.


The story is told in the style of a news magazine programme. It features several different strands that alternate throughout, including a documentary-style chronology of the main events, featuring reportage-like images of the war, the nuclear strikes, and their effects on civilians; brief contemporary interviews, in which passers-by are interviewed about what turns out to be their general lack of knowledge of nuclear war issues; optimistic commentary from public figures that clashes with the other images in the film; and fictional interviews with key figures as the war unfolds.

The film also features an out-of-universe voice-over narration that describes the events depicted as things that are plausible during and after a nuclear war. The narration attempts to instill in the viewing audience that the civil defence policies of 1965 have not realistically prepared the public for such events, particularly suggesting that the policies neglected the possibility of panic buying that would occur for building materials to construct improvised fallout shelters.

The public are generally depicted as lacking all understanding of nuclear matters with the exception of the individual with a double barreled shotgun who successfully implemented the contemporary civil defence advice, and heavily sandbagged his home, but the docudrama does not return to this modestly prepared individual; instead for the rest of the drama, it focuses primarily on individuals who did not make, nor understand the preparations to be made in advance, and with that, it follows the pandemonium these individuals go on to experience.

The film contains this quotation from the Stephen Vincent Benét poem "Song for Three Soldiers":

"Oh, where are you coming from, soldier, gaunt soldier,
With weapons beyond any reach of my mind,
With weapons so deadly the world must grow older
And die in its tracks, if it does not turn kind?"

Of his intent, Peter Watkins stated:[5]

... Interwoven among scenes of 'reality' were stylized interviews with a series of 'establishment figures' – an Anglican Bishop, a nuclear strategist, etc. The outrageous statements by some of these people (including the Bishop) – in favour of nuclear weapons, even nuclear war – were actually based on genuine quotations. Other interviews with a doctor, a psychiatrist, etc. were more sober, and gave details of the effects of nuclear weapons on the human body and mind. In this film I was interested in breaking the illusion of media-produced 'reality'. My question was – "Where is 'reality'? ... in the madness of statements by these artificially-lit establishment figures quoting the official doctrine of the day, or in the madness of the staged and fictional scenes from the rest of my film, which presented the consequences of their utterances?"

To this end, the docudrama employs juxtaposition by, for example, quickly cutting from the scenes of horror after an immediate escalation from military to city nuclear attacks to a snippet of a calm lecture recording of a person that resembles Herman Kahn, a renowned RAND strategist, allowing him to hypothesize that a counterforce (military) nuclear war would not necessarily immediately escalate into countervalue (civilian) targeted nuclear war. In an attempt to make Kahn look out of touch with the drama of "reality" just shown by the filmmaker, of an immediate escalation.


The film was shot in the Kent towns of Tonbridge, Gravesend, Chatham and Dover. The cast was almost entirely made up of non-actors, casting having taken place via a series of public meetings several months earlier. Much of the filming of the post-strike devastation was shot at the Grand Shaft Barracks, Dover. The narration was provided by Peter Graham with Michael Aspel reading the quotations from source material.

BBC screening

The War Game itself finally saw television broadcast in the United Kingdom on BBC2 on 31 July 1985, as part of a special season of programming entitled After the Bomb (which was also Watkins' original working title for The War Game). After the Bomb commemorated the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.[6] The broadcast was preceded by an introduction from British journalist Ludovic Kennedy.[7]

Awards and recognition

The film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

In a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, voted for by industry professionals, The War Game was placed 27th. The War Game was also voted 74th in Channel Four's 100 Greatest Scary Moments.[8]

Contemporary references

A number of NATO war games and Civil defence advice pamphlets are disparagingly presented in the drama, without specifically giving their titles or crediting them. One such unnamed report is given the description - A Recent mock NATO battle in Europe using only tactical nuclear weapons...described as a 'limited engagement', this NATO war game remains unknown. Another document heavily referenced but not credited has been identified as the Civil Defence Information Bulletin. The person resembling Herman Kahn, and their lecture, was not specifically credited in the film, instead he is simply described as "an American Nuclear Strategist".

See also


  1. ^ Chapman, James. "The BBC and the Censorship of The War Game", Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 41 No. 1, page 84.
  2. ^ "Parliamentary question asked in the House of Commons by William Hamilton MP about the TV film 'The War Game', December 1965 (CAB 21/5808)". 
  3. ^ Sean O'Sullivan "No Such Thing as Society: Television and the Apocalypse" in Lester D. Friedman Fires Were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism, p,224
  4. ^ Heroes By John Pilger pg 532, ISBN 1407086294,9781407086293
  5. ^ "WarGame_PeterWatkins". 1965-09-24. Retrieved 2014-04-26. 
  6. ^ "WarGame_PeterWatkins". 24 September 1965. Retrieved 8 January 2012. 
  7. ^ "wed play season nine". Retrieved 8 January 2012. 
  8. ^ "100 Greatest Scary Moments: Channel 4 Film". Retrieved 8 January 2012. 
  • Murphy, Patrick. "The War Game—The Controversy". Film International, May 2003. [1]

External links

  • The War Game on YouTube
  • Notes on 'The War Game' from Peter Watkin's website
  • The War Game at the Internet Movie Database
  • The War Game at AllMovie
  • Encyclopedia of Television
  • British Film Institute Screen Online UK only
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