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The War Game

For the Doctor Who serial, see The War Games.

The War Game
File:The War Game FilmPoster.jpeg
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Watkins for the BBC's The Wednesday Play anthology series, it caused dismay within the BBC and in government, and was withdrawn before the provisional screening date of Thursday 7 October 1965.[1] The corporation said that "the effect of the film has been judged by the BBC to be too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 1966.[3]

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


Filmed 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 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 the invasion takes place; two US Army divisions attempt to fight their way into Berlin to counter this, but the Russian and East German forces overwhelm them in conventional battle. In order to turn the tide, the US president authorises the NATO commanders to use their tactical nuclear weapons, and they soon do so. An escalating nuclear war results, during which larger Russian strategic IRBMs are launched at Britain. The film remarks that many Soviet missiles were, at the time, believed to be liquid-fuelled and stored above ground, making them vulnerable to attack, and hypothesises that in any nuclear crisis, the USSR would be obliged to fire all of them as early as possible in order to avoid their destruction by counter-attack, hence the rapid progression from tactical to strategic nuclear exchange.

In the chaos just before the attack, towns and cities are evacuated and residents forced to move to the country. The Medway town of Rochester is struck by an off-target missile aimed at RAF Manston, a target which, along with the Maidstone barracks, is mentioned in scenes showing the immediate effects of the attack. The missile's explosion causes instant flash blindness of those nearby, followed by a firestorm caused by the blast wave. Later, society collapses due to overwhelming radiation sickness and the depletion of food and medical supplies. There is widespread psychological damage and consequently a rising occurrence of suicide. The country's infrastructure is destroyed; the British Army burns corpses, while police shoot looters during food riots. The provisional government becomes increasingly disliked due to its rationing of resources and use of lethal force, and anti-authority uprisings begin. Civil disturbance and obstruction of government officers become capital offences; two men are shown being executed by firing squad for such acts. Several traumatised and bewildered orphan children are briefly featured, questioning whether they have any future and desire to be "nothing." The film ends bleakly on the first Christmas Day after the nuclear war, held in a ruined church with a vicar who futilely attempts to provide hope to his traumatised congregation. The closing credits include an instrumental version of Silent Night.


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 plausible occurrences 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 understand the preparations to be made in advance or otherwise failed to make such preparations, and 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 said:[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 recording of a calm lecture by a person resembling Herman Kahn, a renowned RAND strategist, hypothesizing that a counterforce (military) nuclear war would not necessarily immediately escalate into countervalue-targeted (i.e. 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's 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 1966 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 his 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 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

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