The War Game

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The War Game
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 documentary-style drama depicting the effects of nuclear war on Britain. 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Watkins for the BBC's The Wednesday Play anthology series, it caused dismay within the BBC and in government and was withdrawn from television transmission on 6 August 1965 (the twentieth anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing). The Corporation said that "the effect of the film has been judged by the BBC to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting".

Despite this decision, it was publicly screened and shown abroad. It won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1966.[1] But it remained unshown in full on British television until 1985.


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 Gatwick Airport. 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 blinding 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 their 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 would happen during a nuclear war. The narration reminds the viewing audience that the civil defence policies of 1965 have not realistically prepared for such events and that perhaps no adequate preparation is ever possible; it emphasises that the government and the public have wrongly thought of nuclear war as a survivable ordeal like the Blitz, when it is more likely to resemble the devastating firebombing of Japanese and German cities in World War II but on a much larger scale.

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:[2]

... 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?"


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 cited material.

BBC screening[edit]

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.[3] The broadcast was preceded by an introduction from British journalist Ludovic Kennedy.[4]

Awards and recognition[edit]

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.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Crowther, Bosley. "NY Times: The War Game". NY Times. Retrieved 9 November 2008. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ "WarGame_PeterWatkins". 24 September 1965. Retrieved 8 January 2012. 
  4. ^ "wed play season nine". Retrieved 8 January 2012. 
  5. ^ "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[edit]