On the 70th anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Eoin Wilson commemorates 50 years of The War Game, the psuedo-documentary about nuclear catastrophe that the BBC banned
“THE showing of the film on television might have a significant effect on public attitudes towards the policy of the nuclear deterrent,” wrote the chairman of the BBC board of governors, Lord Normanbrook, in a secret letter to the cabinet secretary in September 1965.
The film was The War Game by Peter Watkins, a film commissioned, and subsequently banned, by the BBC for its far-too-realistic portrayal of nuclear warfare.
The War Game was commissioned by the BBC to mark the 20th anniversary of the US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945, and therefore on the 70th anniversary of that heinous mass murder, it feels appropriate to remember half a century since The War Game too.
“The War Game was commissioned by the BBC to mark the 20th anniversary of the US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945.”
Journalist John Pilger, in his book Hidden Agenda, gives a fascinating insight into the BBC’s use of various forms of censorship to reinforce an agenda which has marked time with British establishment values from its inception.
Pilger describes the subtle, yet pervasive, expectation of self-censorship amongst aspiring junior journalists, to the fact that, up until the end of the Cold War, MI5 had an officer inside the BBC who vetted and blacklisted potential employees for ‘subversive’ political views.
MI5’s man in the BBC was Brigadier Ronnie Stonham, a former British Army officer. He gained notoriety as the “Christmas Tree man”, for the green triangular stamp which was used to mark the files of unsuccessful BBC applicants.
Pilger dissects the BBC’s claims to ‘neutrality’ and ‘objectivity’ in great detail, but it is the censorship of the War Game which is particularly pertinent today, 6 August; the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, and the 50th anniversary of the banning of Watkins’ The War Game.
“The film starts with a Chinese invasion of South Vietnam, US threats to launch nuclear attacks on China, the defeat of US forces by East German and Soviet troops in a battle for West Berlin, and then the use of tactical nuclear missiles by the US military in Europe.”
Watkins’ pseudo documentary-style films have dealt with the 1745 Jacobite rising and Culloden; the Paris Commune; and a fictional account of the introduction of a brutal state of emergency in Richard Nixon’s United States (Punishment Park), in which “risks to internal security” are hunted through the desert as training for police and soldiers.
It is his 1965 film, The War Game, which is perhaps Watkins’ most famous, and most powerful, piece of work. The film starts with a Chinese invasion of South Vietnam, US threats to launch nuclear attacks on China, the defeat of US forces by East German and Soviet troops in a battle for West Berlin, and then the use of tactical nuclear missiles by the US military in Europe.
The response from the Soviet Union is a series of nuclear attacks on Britain. Watkins chronologically portrays the immediate aftermath of the strikes: blindness from the flash of the explosion and firestorms sweeping through urban areas.
The depiction of the days, weeks, and months after the attacks shows a society in complete collapse. The effects of radiation sickness lead to agonising deaths, while the attack leaves the population psycologically traumatised.
“Throughout the film Watkins weaves footage of the horrors of nuclear warfare with contemporary interviews with members of the public, and fictional interviews with establishment figures and experts.”
The army are used to burn corpses, while the police are ordered to shoot looters. As food riots spread, the government employs increasingly violent and repressive measures to deal with a society imploding in on itself.
Throughout the film Watkins weaves footage of the horrors of nuclear warfare with contemporary interviews with members of the public, and fictional interviews with establishment figures and experts.
The juxtaposition of the public’s general ignorance about the realities of nuclear war, the propagandistic pronouncements of atomic advocates, the clinical descriptions of psychologists and doctors, and the scenes as the horror unfolds; the overall effect is for the viewer to feel a sense of debilatating helplessness as events spiral out of control.
It’s as if watching the unravelling of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, knowing that nuclear anihiliatilion is inevitable.
“The significance of Watkins’ film, and the story of its creation and subsequent censoring, pose further questions about the BBC and its relationship to the British establishment.”
The War Game is not only an important documentation, albeit fictionalised, of a period where nuclear apocalyspe was a very real possibility. The significance of Watkins’ film, and the story of its creation and subsequent censoring, pose further questions about the BBC and its relationship to the British establishment.
The irony of the BBC’s censoring of The War Game lies partly in the scenes where ordinary people are interviewed in the film, and the scarcity of their understanding of the truly catastrophic consequences of nuclear warfare is laid bare.
Had the film been shown in 1965, it is hard to imagine that it would not have had a profound effect on British public opinion, and could have led to a serious and informed debate about the morality and sanity of a policy of mutually assured destruction.
Picture courtesy of John Keogh